Strongman training is hands down one of the best ways to help you reach your fitness goals. Not only will it save you training time because it produces multiple adaptations in the body at once (goodbye excess body fat, hello muscle), strongman training gives you a mental vacation from traditional gym workouts.
This may come as a surprise, since for most of us, the typical image of strongman athletes is huge overweight guys lifting refrigerators and pushing trucks up a hill. In fact, strongman training has evolved significantly and can be used for multiple purposes, from improving body composition to getting athletes ready for competition.
Because the most popular exercises actually mimic traditional weight training lifts, strongman exercises have large carryover to both daily life and sport activities, while targeting equal or greater musculature.
For example, a recent study of rugby players showed that strongman exercises are just as good as traditional lifts for building muscle and boosting performance. Researchers compared the effect of a 7-week traditional weight training program that included the clean and jerk, deadlift, military press, back squat and one-arm row with strongman exercises that were biomechanically similar: Log lift, farmers’ walk, axle press, heavy sled pull, and arm-over-arm prowler pull.
Results showed that the strongman group gained slightly more muscle and had similar increases in strength, speed, and power as the traditional training group. Of interest, the strongman group improved significantly more in the bent-over row (13.6 percent) compared to the traditional group (4.3 percent), whereas the traditional group had superior outcomes in the squat and deadlift strength tests.
This suggests that you can get the best of both worlds by combining traditional and strongman exercises into the same program. This article will give you six key points for doing so.
#1: Strongman Exercises Give You a Superior Bang For Your Buck
Strongman exercises tend to have equal or greater carryover to activities in sports and everyday life than traditional weight training exercises. For example, the farmer’s walk mimics picking up two piles of loaded grocery bags and carrying them in from the car.
The overhead log press trains you to pick up heavy boxes or other objects and put them on a shelf overhead. Or the sled drag trains you to accelerate for a quicker first step and faster maximal speed.
In addition to being truly “functional,” these exercises require powerful co-contractions of the largest muscle groups in the body. That is, they hit both the lower and upper body musculature to a large degree, while requiring core stabilization to keep the lower back safe and protected.
This makes strongman exercises super bang for your buck lifts that will build strength, muscle, and overload the body metabolically, stimulating reductions in body fat.
#2: Train Strongman to Put On Muscle
Gains in muscle are known to be the result of a large time under tension (literally, a long time spent lifting the weight) and moderately heavy training loads—strongman exercises achieve both. For example, hypertrophy workouts typically use sets lasting 25 to 40 seconds and strongman events are comparable, generally ranging from 30 to 60 seconds.
In addition, strongman exercises apply substantial overload with heavy weights so as to achieve a large post-workout hormone response. Although some exercises don’t allow for precise loading in the generally accepted hypertrophy-range of 70 to 85 percent of the 1RM (tire flips, car pushes), many modified strongman exercises do.
A recent study tested the effect of a sled-training workout using a load of 75 percent of body weight on post-workout release of metabolites and hormone levels. Results showed large elevations in blood lactate and testosterone in the immediate post-workout period Testosterone was also elevated at the 24-hour recovery mark, which researchers believe indicates a rebound effect that aids in recovery.
Researchers recommend the use of exercises that are easily loaded like sled drag and farmer’s walk with each set lasting 30 to 45 seconds for 3 to 4 sets. Loads that do not allow for at least 30 seconds of the exercise to be completed prior to failure are too heavy. Rest periods of 90 to 120 seconds should be used.
#3: Use Strongman For Fat Loss Training
Research shows that conditioning workouts that are anaerobic in nature are more effective for producing fat loss than traditional aerobic exercise. For example, in a series of experiments, researchers have found that in less than half the training time (20 to 25 minutes for anaerobic compared to 45 to 50 minutes for aerobic), anaerobic training has resulted in 10 to 20 percent more fat loss than aerobic exercise.
Strongman training fits the bill, being largely anaerobic and resulting in a large accumulation of lactate in the body. Lactate is a byproduct of exercise that is very metabolically stressful.
This type of training burns a large amount of calories during training but also produces a significant and lasting “afterburn” in which you burn energy at an accelerated rate during recovery. An added bonus is that high lactate levels correlate with a large growth hormone release, which in turn stimulates fat burning.
For example, following a trial in which athletes pushed a car for 400 meters, they averaged blood lactate levels of 15.06 mmol/L, which was 31 percent higher than observed following a maximal treadmill test. Of course, this was an “exhausting event” that also resulted in dizziness and nausea, and isn’t recommended as a staple in your program.
Rather, sled sprint repeats of 20 to 30 meters with rest in between intervals will produce favorable metabolic responses and avoid the extreme fatigue produced in the car push event. For example, a sled drag study (5 sets of 2 X 20 meters loaded with 75 percent of body mass) produced lactate levels of 12 mmol/L, whereas a tire flip study (2 sets of 6 flips with a 232-kg tire) resulted in lactate buildup of 10.2 mmol/L.
Researchers recommend metabolic workouts to be designed around tire flip, sled drag, battle ropes, or sled pulls with intervals lasting a minimum of 30 seconds. If longer intervals are used, try alternating between exercises that target the upper versus lower body because metabolic conditioning is exclusive to active muscle groups.
#4: Avoid DOMS Muscle Soreness With Strongman
One reason strength coaches who work with competitive athletes favor strongman training is that it produces very little muscle soreness. Compared to traditional weight training, most strongman exercises don’t cause significant muscle damage because they are primarily concentric in nature and don’t use the stretch shortening cycle.
For example, in the sled drag study mentioned above, there was no increase in creatine kinase, a key marker of muscle damage. Researchers attribute this to the fact that it is the lengthening, eccentric muscle motion that damages tissue, which is absent in sled training,
This is important because you can get a similar metabolic disturbance with high lactate and fat burning hormone levels but without the killer DOMS muscle soreness that inhibits a high training frequency and interferes with sports practice.
#5: Kill Two Birds With One Stone: Train Conditioning & Strength in The Same Workout
Besides the novelty of strongman exercises and the fact that it can often be done outside away from the weight room, a huge draw is the fact that you can train strength and conditioning in the same workout. No need to wake up early to get a separate sprint workout in aside from your lifting session.
Additionally, because strongman is hypertrophic in nature, it can help athletes maintain muscle mass during the season when they are typically catabolic and losing muscle rapidly.
Researchers recommend circuit training, with work sets lasting 1 to 2 minutes and the total workout lasting 20 to 30 minutes. An example of this is 5 different exercises performed for 1 minute each for 5 rounds with 1-minute rest in between. Take care to use loads that allow you to perform the exercise with proper form for the full minute.
#6: A Few Points of Caution
Recovery plays a principal role in any successful anaerobic training program and it’s all the more important with strongman due to both the heavy loads trained and the large metabolic component. Hydration, post-workout nutrition, and adequate sleep should be prioritized and accounted for in programming.
Ensure high levels of core stability prior to starting strongman training. Because strongman exercises target the entire body with heavy loads, there is a risk of injury of the lower back. Therefore, trainees should master technique and achieve high levels of strength in the squat, deadlift, and overhead press prior to training strongman.
Strongman athletes are about 2 times as likely to sustain an injury compared to traditional weight training. Therefore, it’s critical that athletes learn and master conventional weight training exercises first and then progress to modified strongman exercises. Sled training, farmer’s walk, and other heavy carries are recommended as “beginner” exercises.
Take note that the horizontal nature of many strongman exercises such as sled pushes means there’s an added level of friction force as implements are pushed along the ground. This adds to the prescribed load and should be accounted for when designing workouts.