Srongman Exercises, Strongman Injuries
How to train like Magnus, How not to lift a tire
by Thomas Incledon
A few weeks ago, we posted an article called From Lab Geek to Strongman by Thomas Incledon. In it, Tom outlined his preparation for his first big strongman contest including his diet, supplementation and training regimen. He fared pretty well for a rookie, coming in 15th out of 27 competitors.
Since he greatly increased his strength and added several pounds of muscle, many of you asked for some explanations about the oddball exercises he used to prepare for his competition. In the first half of this article, Tom hooks us up with the details. So if you've ever wanted to learn how to do wall marches or clean holds, read on.
In the second half, Tom takes us through every athlete's worst nightmare: a career threatening injury.
Those Crazy Exercises
In my lifting career, I've trained as a powerlifter, an Olympic weightlifter, and a bodybuilder. Training as a strongman, however, provided its own unique set of challenges. I had to prepare for events that were tough to simulate in the gym. These were "real world" tests of strength and I had to build as much functional strength as possible to tackle them.
Even though I used these exercises to prepare for strongman contests, I feel anyone can benefit from them, especially if you're an athlete who must perform in an unpredictable environment, e.g. wrestling, football, etc. Even if your only goal is to look good, I challenge you to throw a few of these exercises into your usual routine for the sake of variety and novelty.
Here are a few of the more unusual exercises and a couple of tips:
Use a cable attached to a weight stack at chest height. (Note: you can also use tubing secured to a stationary object.) Stand next to the weight stack and line your shoulders up to it. This puts your face at a right angle to the stack. Grasp the cable handle and step arms length away. With legs shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, extend your arms in front of you and rotate your torso. Really use your abdominal muscles to work against the resistance. Work from left to right for a given rep count and then do the same number of reps from right to left, meaning you'll need to face the opposite direction.
To give you a better idea of the movement pattern, simply stand with your arms out in front of you and rotate all the way to your left. Now rotate back towards your right. Your hands moving through space will form a semi-circle. You can also do these using only one hand.
Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press
Start by pressing both dumbbells up. Lower the right one and leave the left on "hold" in the air. Press the right dumbbell back up. Now, lower the left with the right still holding and press the left. This will feel awkward at first, so start out lighter than regular dumbbell benches. You can also do inclines and declines using this same protocol.
Alternating Dumbbell Upright Rows
This is done similar to the above. Grab two dumbbells and let them hang in front of you. Pull one up to your shoulder and hold. Pull the other up, hold and lower the first. If you are prone to getting shoulder impingement, avoid this until you strengthen your scapular muscles.
Barbell Row Variations
I use three styles for barbell rows. The first is a simple, traditional movement where I get the bar into position and then bend at the waist until I'm parallel to the ground. From here I just use my upper back and arms to pull the bar up. I try not to use any lower body.
The second type, which occurs later in my training cycle, is just like the above except that I use my legs and lower back to help drive the weight up. Think of it as a slight cheat, but remember, I have to use all my muscles in competition in a coordinated fashion and this helps me prepare for that.
The third type of row is what I'd call a power row. I set up like a clean pull and I then explode off the ground and finish in the top position of a barbell row. This is a very explosive movement and great for helping me to lift competition stones.
Set up like a deadlift, except use an overhand grip (instead of a mixed grip) and keep your hips lower. Pull the bar past your knees and at the lower third of the thigh move your knees and hips forward. Extend explosively into a top shrug position.
Work on using your legs, hips, and lower back to help curl a heavy barbell. This mimics many of the movement patterns in a strongman events. I often use a triceps bar (parallel grip) to simulate the logs used in competition.
As an early preparatory exercise for Farmer's Walks, I used this to increase my grip strength. Holding something in front of your thighs is harder than when your hands are at your sides, so grab a barbell using a regular grip. Deadlift it from a rack or the floor, lock out, and hold for 60 seconds. Do this in front of a mirror and count how many shades of red your face turns! This is also a great forearm exercise and can help you ditch your lifting straps by strengthening your grip.
Explosive Good Mornings
Unrack a barbell like you're going to do a high bar back squat. Arch your back and bend forward. You can do these with a close stance or a wide stance. Likewise, you can keep your legs straight or bend your knees. These factors will influence how heavy you can go, so use your head and start out light. Bend forward until parallel with the ground or slightly below. Explode to the starting position.
I use these to work my weak links as well, so for me a straight legged, wide stance movement helps quite a bit. I can't handle any heavy weights this way, but remember it's to help me strengthen my weak links so when I lift a 330-pound stone, I have the strength where it counts.
Grasp a heavy object in each hand and walk — that's it. Since the grip width, implement diameter, and weight vary from competition to competition, I practice with a wide variety of equipment. Heavy dumbbells, however, should work well for you if you've never tried these. I like to walk a 100-foot course and then come back.
Early in my training I focused on increasing the weight. My next goal is to work up to 400 pounds in each hand. As I get closer to the competition, I focus on speed for the actual distance. Tips: Start with your wrists flexed. As you lift the weights off the ground, they'll straighten your wrists out. Also, make sure you're balanced before trying to walk fast with the weight.
One Arm Rear Reaches
Use either tubing or a weight stack and cable setup. Face the base, extend your arm overhead, and pull the tubing or handle behind you. Emphasize your shoulder blade pulling and the arm just going along for the ride.
It's a short range of motion if you perform it right. This can be done with one or both arms.
One-Legged Anterior Reaches
This is an abdominal movement. Face away from some tubing or a weight stack. Grab the tubing/handle and extend your arms overhead, then balance yourself on one leg. With your arms extended overhead, use your abdominal muscles to flex your trunk forward. Keep your arms in the same plane as your torso and don't allow your shoulders and arms to do all the work.
This is great for training the abdominals in a very explosive fashion. After you flex forward, return back to the starting position by using your abs to slow you down. Be careful that you don't come back too fast.
Rope Pull Ups
These bad boys not only work your arms and back like normal pull ups, they also help you make rapid gains in grip strength. We do these with thick jute rope you can get at a boating supply store.
Set up like you're going to do standing barbell presses. Let the bar rest on your clavicles. Bend your knees slightly and extend them explosively while pushing the bar overhead. Use the momentum from your legs to drive the bar to lockout.
Set up like you're going to back squat. Step up to a platform with your right leg. Step down from the platform with the opposite leg (so your left leg will touch the ground first on the way down). Repeat using the opposite leg (left up, right down). I use all kinds of heights and movement speeds. I generally use a height of about 20 inches, but this can change depending on my specific needs.
This will get some stares from people in the gym. Walk over to a wall and just start pushing on that sucker like you're trying to push your pick-up out of the mud. If you're on a low carb diet, pretend there's a big carrot cake waiting for you on the other side. I do this for 30 seconds, but every five seconds my training partner yells out and I switch my front and back feet. This really helps the start of the truck push in competition.
Set up in between two pulley stacks like you're going to do cable crossovers. Grab a handle from only one side with both hands. With the arms overhead, move diagonally across your body to the opposite foot.
You'll be simulating chopping wood, hence the name. Switch and do the other side after each set. You should feel this in muscles all across your midsection.
Keep in mind I used a lot of good old-fashioned strength and mass builders like front and back squats, chin-ups, regular bench presses, and military presses as well as the above exercises. I also used several explosive movements like power cleans, clean and jerks, and snatches. (Since these are very technical lifts and require a lot of explanation, they were beyond the scope of this article.)
I also trained specifically for many of the events like the tire flip, the keg run and the truck push and pull by simply going out and doing them. (Damned near killed the neighbor's cat with a 700 pound tire once, too.) All of these are great ways to build up your practical strength and absolutely essential if want to stand a chance in a strongman competition.
When Bad Things Happen to Good Legs
Now that you know a little more about how to train for a strongman contest, you may be thinking of giving one a try. In my first strongman article, I told you about placing 15th in the Tawas City Strongman 2000 and learning some valuable lessons. I wanted to test my new techniques and now there was no turning back. I'd been bitten by the competition bug and was hooked. One week later I was headed to the Central USA Strongman Competition in Indiana.
I had to compete because I knew I was better than 15th and wanted to prove it by kicking some ass. I practiced some new techniques, bought some cleats, and I was ready. In Indiana I met Magnus ver Magnusson. If you don't know who Magnus is, you're a poor excuse for a man (or a woman.) Just in case you've been locked in a cave for the past six years or your wife won't relinquish control of the remote, Magnus is a four time World's Strongest Man winner. The man is so strong that I felt a little stronger just by sitting next to him! Must be pheromones or something. With experience, cleats, and fired up motivation, I was in the groove and ready to rock!
Hey, Buddy, Could You Hand Me My Leg?
The first two events went off pretty well. In the Keg Run and Tire Drag, the competitors each picked up a 200 pounds keg and ran 100 feet with it. Without stopping, we then had to drag a 365 pound tire 100 feet. We had a 90 second time limit to do both. Only a handful of guys out of a field of 50 would even finish the event. Although it was a real bitch, I finished third in the middleweight division.
The next event was the Farmer's Walk. Two 220-pound cylinders are carried for 200 feet. I made it to about 150 feet and then the cylinders fell out of my hands due to the flesh ripping off my palms. I waited five seconds, then picked up the cylinders and rushed for the finish line. My time was about 46 seconds. This was much better than last time, but still a long way from the 19-20 seconds I needed to win. After this event I was tied for 3rd place.
The next event was the Tire Flip. A 700 pound tire is flipped end-over-end for 100 feet. This is my favorite event and I was anxious to get started. When my turn came, I knew nothing would stop me. Well, almost nothing. The whistle blew and I pushed the tire forward. Immediately as it landed, I moved in for the kill and ripped it off the ground, driving it over again. I ran forward to flip it a second time.
As I again ripped it off the ground, I heard a loud popping noise and felt myself falling to my right. I shifted my weight to my left leg and pushed the tire over using my arms. I went to attack it again, but my right leg wouldn't move. I looked down and then it hit me, my right tibia was dislocated from the knee joint.
At first there was no pain, but slowly, as the adrenaline-high wore off and the realization of what happened set in, the pain started to come. I was carried off the field and people started clapping. "That's nice," I thought to myself, "my leg is ripped off and they're clapping. I feel so much better now."
Back at the triage area under a tent, a chiropractor started to work on my knee. It freaked me out. "Who are you, what are your credentials, and what are you doing?" I blurted out. He calmly stated he was a chiropractor and that he was going to adjust my dislocated tibia. "How do you know it's dislocated?" I asked. "What do you think?" he responded. I looked at my lower leg. It was about 45 degrees to the right, relative to my knee joint. In case you're not up on your anatomy, it's not normal to have your lower leg stick out from your knee joint like that.
He tried valiantly to reduce my dislocation, or in other words, pop my tibia back into place. After the third try I was going to say to just forget it; the pain was becoming unbearable. I guess four is my lucky number because he got it back into place on that next try. I iced my knee and kept it elevated. That took care of the swelling, but it didn't do shit for the pain. I stayed around, cheered on my friends, went back the next day to watch the pros, and swore that next year I'd redeem myself.
The accident was on a Saturday and it wasn't until the following Monday that I was able to get X-rays and an MRI. I had a severe buckethandle tear of the medial meniscus and a grade-II medial collateral ligament sprain (MCL). Most people only tear the posterior (back) section of the meniscus, but I managed to rip my entire medial meniscus off of my tibia and then flip it upside down!
With this type of injury, the options are to not do anything at all and let nature take its course, remove the meniscus, or repair the meniscus. In my case, things could definitely not be left where they were. I didn't have normal range of motion because the torn meniscus was blocking my extension and flexion. And don't forget that I wanted to compete again.
The best possible scenario was that my orthopedic surgeon, Robert Baylis, MD, could repair the meniscus. Dr. Baylis wanted my surgery performed ASAP if he had any chance of repairing my meniscus. The longer that it was buckled up in there, the more likely it was to shred. I needed the surgery done soon because I was scheduled to leave for Las Vegas to speak at a conference and then on to San Francisco to hold a seminar. However, it was still very swollen and I had virtually no muscle strength.
My therapist girlfriend (always handy to have one of those!) told me that the best thing to do was to wait until there was no swelling and get some strength and range of motion back before I get the surgery. She used ultrasound, ice, electrical stimulation, and massage to decrease the swelling and heal the MCL. I did some light range of motion and strength exercises and had surgery on a Thursday, twelve days after the mishap.
Luckily, Dr. Baylis was able to repair the meniscus by using three resorpable tacks in the back and three mulberry knots in the front. What that means to us idiots, is that it was a hell of a repair job! To protect the repair when weight bearing for the next six weeks, my knee wasn't allowed to bend. So when walking, I had to wear a brace locked at zero degrees of extension. I walked like a crooked Frankenstein.
I recuperated and did therapy before I had to fly to Vegas. Luckily, we were moved into first class in the first row to accommodate my leg. I was only allowed to bend it to 90o when sitting, but I couldn't even make 20o yet. Even in first class, though, the plane ride was tough.
Since everything in Vegas is so spread out, my girlfriend pushed me around in a wheelchair a lot. But I did walk short distances and I did my exercises in the hotel room. I even got some good weight bearing on it when I had to speak for an hour and then endure another hour standing and answering questions. I was never so happy to sit after that!
The first three days after the surgery, I lost an inch off of my thigh and calf circumferences. By four weeks post-surgery, my left leg looked great from carrying all of my weight around, but my right leg looked like a toothpick with fat all around it. I had to watch in horror as my leg lost muscle and grew fatter at the same time, not something any of us ever wants to see. But I do rehab daily or my girlfriend withholds sex. My rehab consists of isometric contractions of my quadriceps, balance training, hip strengthening, pool therapy, and range of motion work.
Of course, I'm still training upper body in the gym. At the end of six weeks I can take the brace off and start walking and training like a real man. By December, my therapist and I expect me to be back in full shape. And yes, I will be competing again, hopefully in April 2001!
Update: Since this was written, Tom has been able to remove his brace and is already doing the Farmer's Walk with over 400 pounds in each hand, snatching 135 one-handed using a seven foot bar, and scaring small children and aerobics instructors. In other words, he's almost back to normal.
About the Author
Tom has been involved in scientific research, lecturing, and writing about performance enhancement for over ten years. He regularly speaks at national conferences and conducts seminars across the country, sometimes standing on one leg, which is quite amusing. For private seminars/consultation, he can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Human Performance Specialists, Inc. at 954-577-0689.
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