You’re cutting down fat, leaning out and generally wanting to improve your conditioning.
Calorie and macro tracking is going well and you've nailed a daily energy allowance. That's half the battle already.
All that you need now is a time-efficient, high-intensity workout strategy that will shred some fat and boost your fitness.
You’re bored of HIIT, you’ve been there and done that when it comes to steady state cardio. Even your go-to strength program is starting to seem tiresome. It’s time for something new...
...and that's where strongman training comes in.
Here’s why this killer workout style isn’t just for competitive athletes; and will get you fitter and leaner than ever.
What is Strongman Training?
I’ll keep the introduction to the history of strongman training brief; that way there’s more room on the page to explore its practical applications.
The 19th century saw a big shift in the perception of the strong and muscular man. And around that time, people became more and more excited at the thought of watching circus performers show off their phenomenal and sometimes freakish feats of power and brute strength. It was a spectacle to behold.
Not long after that, these amazing feats became more structured, being categorized into various sports such as powerlifting, weightlifting, and of course strongman training. They then carved out their own niche.
Although competitions of strength had been around for some time, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the first official World’s Strongest Man took place. And ever since that first event, the sport has continued to evolve.
The earlier events were very much about maximal strength, with athletes required to lift awkward and extremely heavy items (events ranged from bending a steel bar to the deadlift). Since then, competitive strongman has evolved to offer a range of different events, with a focus not just on maximal strength but also endurance, conditioning, and an emphasis on skill and speed as well.
Whilst no two events are necessarily the same in competition, they do all revolve around similar core patterns - deadlifts, presses, pulls and carries.
The reasons why this evolution has occurred are numerous. It’s likely that media coverage and the need to relate to the ‘everyday person’ has been a factor. People need to be kept interested, so by developing new challenges, people will keep coming back to watch. The introduction of the World’s Strongest Woman in the early 2000’s has influenced event choice too.
Modern Strongman Competitors Look Leaner & More Athletic
If you compare the physique of a modern strongman athlete to those of old, there’s one difference that jumps out - they look a hell of a lot more athletic now. They’re just as muscular and strong but they generally carry far less fat - they’re more mobile and quicker too.
Modern strongman training and competition centers not just around strength, but also strength-endurance, power and speed. All at a high relative percentage of maximal strength.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research1 investigated common practices amongst strongman competitors. The research team wanted to find out why the sport had ‘surged in popularity’ within the previous decade.
After collecting a comprehensive 65-item survey from 167 athletes, the team concluded that current strongman was just as focused on conditioning as it was maximal strength. And they reported that in order to fully prepare for competition, athletes trained the following ways:
- 97% included maximal strength training
- 90% added power training
- Around 60% didn’t just lift heavy, but focused on speed reps with submaximal loads in the squat and deadlift as well
- 54% threw in lower body plyometric training
- 88% performed Olympic lifting
As you can see, strongmen are now using much more varied training methods than had been seen previously, and the main areas of focus are on programs and systems that target a range of outcomes - muscle hypertrophy, strength, conditioning and the development of power.
The sheer intensity and volume of these exercises help strongmen form an athletic look with high muscle levels and a lean body composition. It’s easy to see why these modern athletes have much better body compositions than ever.
Strongman Training Boosts Maximal Fitness, Lean Mass, & Reduces Fat
The intense, dynamic nature of strongman training isn’t just becoming popular with gym goers - it’s also catching the eye of elite athletic coaches and sport scientists too. The number of research papers investigating the effect of this training method has increased exponentially over the last few years.
Not only are pro sports clubs filtering it into their training prep, amateur clubs and individual athletes are too.
One study, released in 2015, found that when compared to a traditional resistance training protocol, strongman training was superior in a number of different ways2.
Set over a 7-week period, 30 well-trained rugby players were asked to take part in one of two training programmes - traditional weight training or strongman training. These programmes were match-loaded to make sure one group didn’t have any advantage over the other. They did this twice per week, so they were at the bottom end of the recommended frequency for resistance training.
Whilst traditional lifting seemed superior for improving horizontal jump and agility, strongman saw a significant improvement in muscle mass, body composition, acceleration performance, 1-repetition maximum and pulling strength.
There have been a number of other studies that show similar results too. For example, one found that heavy tire flips (2 sets of 6 reps with 3-minute recovery intervals) elevated heart rate to over 179 beats per minute and blood lactate levels as high as you’d see in a full-on HIIT training workout3.
Another study (that used the affectionate title ‘junkyard training’ to describe strongman training) reported that heavy pushing and pulling using a motor vehicle (as you do) elevated blood lactate 31% higher than maximal running and heart rate reached 96% of max running resting too4.
The effects of lactate accumulation via anaerobic glycolysis and high cardiovascular output are surefire ways of ramping up conditioning and boosting calorie output, which of course can lead to improved fitness and body composition.
There’s no doubt about it. Strongman training boosts fitness and helps you get leaner.
Strongman Training Isn’t Just For Competitive Athletes
Gyms have changed a lot over the last few years. There’s been a big shift towards box style warehouse gyms, emphasis on strength training over cardio and a general embracing of lifting culture.
Strongman isn’t some esoteric sport with strange, mythical equipment any more. Most of it you'll find in your gym; and the stuff you don’t find in commercial gyms can be found in the ever-increasing number of strongman specific gyms up and down the country.
Traditional strength programmes delivered to athletes have always focused on key exercises that promote strength adaptations and promote conditioning. They are often generic lifts such as squats, pulls and presses, with variety added on a sport-by-sport basis.
But more and more, coaches have noticed the fantastic results that strongman training provides and are incorporating its ethos and exercises into their sports programs.
Even without specialized equipment, it’s quite easy to modify traditional strength training so that it fits the principles of strongman too. Remember, pulls, carries and presses don’t have to be done using cars, planes or whatever freakishly heavy items they decide to use - you can adapt to suit your own capabilities.
The Best Strongman Lifts to Boost Conditioning
Although strongman training presents itself with a near endless variety of challenges and exercises, there are a small number of core lifts that you can incorporate into your training to get the most bang for your buck. Just remember, this is strongman so the emphasis here is on heavy load.
This one is surprisingly technical. Although it’s not too far removed from a deadlift, the load is awkward and placed in front of the body, changing loading and leverage. A brilliant exercise for posterior chain when done properly.
Loaded Carries / Farmers Walk / Yoke
The simplicity of these is brutal. Pick up something heavy - kettlebells, a hex bar, a Yoke. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s heavy. And then carry it repeatedly as far as you can. Loaded carries are great for overall conditioning, grip strength and resilience.
There’s a variety of ways you can do this. You can pull a loaded sled towards you using a hand-over-hand technique to torch your forearms, or you can harness up and sprint out with the sled behind you. Either way, this is a tough one.
Pushing the sled allows you to get into a position that is mechanically very similar as the acceleration phase of a sprint (although most likely with a smaller stride length). And as such allows you to train for maximal explosiveness and speed, as well as conditioning.
Axel Bar Clean and Press
There’s nothing better than thick bar training to challenge grip and arm strength, as well as shoulder strength. It’s awkward, it’s heavy, it’s difficult. But this cousin of the Olympic clean will definitely get your strength up.
- Winwood, PW et al. The strength and conditioning practices of strongman competitors. J Strength Cond Res. 2011; 25(11): 3118-28
- Winwood, PW et al. Strongman vs. traditional resistance training effects on muscular function and performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2015; 29(2): 429-39
- Keogh, JWL et al. A brief description of the biomechanics and physiology of a strongman event: The tire flip. J Strength Cond Res. 2010. 24: 1223–1228
- Berning,JM et al. Metabolic demands of “junkyard” training: pushing and pulling a motor vehicle. J Strength Cond Res. 2007; 21(3): 853-6