Strongman, one of the most misunderstood sports on the planet, requires more than just brute strength. Mental toughness, explosive power, and the ability to endure REAL time under tension are all must-haves to achieve competition glory.
Many new to the sport falsely assume that the "strongest" competitor has the most brute strength, but whether you're banging out deadlifts for reps or doing an atlas stone series for time, brute strength is only going to go so far. It's become a regular occurrence – strongman competitors with solid strength backgrounds being shot down by smaller,"weaker" competitors backed by superior explosiveness.
ut even if you're not an aspiring strongman, incorporating explosiveness into training is a key element in any sporting endeavor. While I have my own ideas on how to incorporate explosive work into training (I dedicate two training days a week to explosive movements like power snatches, power cleans, and box jumps), I wanted to hear from a few extremely strong people to get their thoughts on explosive training and how it may have helped them.
First, some background information on the athletes interviewed.
Mike Jenkins entered the world of strongman in 2007. After some close losses to guys who are now pro strongmen, he won the Arnold Amateur Strongman World Championships in 2010, earning his pro card and a spot in the 2011 Arnold Classic Pro Strongman competition.
Mike Jenkins doing a 1100-pound frame carry up an incline at the 2011 Arnold Classic.
Matt Dawson earned his pro card in 2009 at California's Strongest Man and then went on to place 8th at America's Strongest Man in 2010. He still holds the amateur North American Strongman axle clean and press record with 365 lbs. in contest and continues to excel as a heavyweight pro strongman.
Matt Dawson doing a 405-pound push press with a 2" axle.
Andy Deck is a professional strongman sponsored by EliteFTS. He's competed in several pro shows, including American Strongman Corporations and America's Strongest Man. He's also studying for his masters in applied physiology with a concentration in strength and conditioning.
Andy Deck doing a 400-pound (in each hand) farmer's walk.
T NATION: Give us an idea of your training philosophy.
Mike Jenkins: Simple, I train smart and hard. I'm open to trying new things that work for other people; I know they may not work for me but I won't know until I try.
I also try not to think too far into training. If I'm seeing gains, then as they say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Matt Dawson: Our training philosophy is centered on making each athlete the best strength athlete they can be. That means not just focusing on getting strong, but getting better conditioned and mentally prepared. Everyone has his or her own set of strengths and weaknesses and we address what each individual is lacking while improving the areas they already excel in. This makes for a more well-rounded competitor.
Andy Deck: My training philosophy focuses on strengthening weaknesses. This has been my focus for about a year and a half now and I've made better gains training this way than any other way before.
I also try to make exercises more difficult without increasing the weight, like using Fat Gripz, chain yoke versus regular yoke, fat handle farmer's walks, shouldering atlas stones instead of just loading them, etc.
T NATION: What sort of explosive exercises do you incorporate into your training?
Mike Jenkins: I got away from Olympic lifts after football. I do, however, perform push jerks from the rack with and without bands for my overhead work.
For my lower body I do banded deads for my pulls, and front and back box squats with bands for speed. I obviously do the axle and log cleans, too.
Matt Dawson: My crew and I incorporate a ton of explosive movements into our training. Box jump variations, power cleans, full cleans, snatches, dumbbell snatches, medicine ball throws, tire flips, dynamic bench press variations, dynamic overhead variations, dynamic squat variations, sprints, prowler sprints, etc. This is often an overlooked part of training for many when it should be a priority!
Andy Deck: I've used accommodating resistance for both overhead pressing and deadlifts with great success. For overhead specifically, doing reverse band split jerks with the log really helped increase my overhead.
I also like to alternate speed work for my moving events with heavy training. This isn't something that guys who are new to strongman need to worry about, but after you've got the technique nailed down and developed a high level of strength through your midsection, foot speed becomes increasingly important.
I also like to do sprints with some type of resistance, usually the Prowler, for conditioning after training sessions, and sometimes on off days.
T NATION: Explosive strength versus brute strength. Your views and how do the two help each other?
Mike Jenkins: You need both. Contests are so varied that you need to be able to pull a max dead one event and be fast in a carry medley the next. You see so many guys in the gym that can "lift" a lot, but when they try a 200-pound log it looks like a monkey fucking a football – no explosive strength.
Andy Deck: Explosive strength, though both have their place in strongman. When I was starting out, I used to think that some of the events had no technique and were just about brute strength. But the more I learned, the more I realized that the events I thought had no technique were the ones that are the most technical, such as atlas stones.
Also, while a certain base level of strength is necessary to be a successful athlete in the world of strongman, the winner of the event or the whole competition is often decided by who moves faster or who is able to do more reps in a shorter time, not by who can move the absolute most weight.
Matt Dawson: I'm known as an "explosive strength" guy, so I'm currently making "brute strength" a priority in my training to round out my game. But if I had to groom an athlete to compete in strongman, I would take an Olympic lifter over a powerlifter every time.
At 285-290 lbs., I'm usually the lightest guy at my contest, but I beat the "brute strength" guys all the time. 2009 California's Strongest Man is a great example of that – at 275 lbs. I was the lightest guy by about 100 lbs. and I still won almost every event.
Most of the guys were probably "stronger" than me in the weight room, but that doesn't matter in a strongman contest. My max deadlift was somewhere in the very low 700's at the time but I won the deadlift medley event by a large margin, beating guys who pull well over 800 lbs. in the weight room. I thank explosive strength for that.
My strict overhead press was probably somewhere in the high 200's, yet I set the NAS Axle clean and press record at 365 lbs. against guys who could strict press weights in the mid to upper 300's. I was nowhere near as "strong," but I won. Again, I thank my explosive strength for that.
T NATION: How can someone incorporate explosive strength into their training regimen?
Mike Jenkins: If you're training for strongman, the explosive stuff should be every third workout or so. It gives your muscles a break from the heavy loads normally used and it activates the fast twitch fibers needed for the total package. Look at the Westside guys, they're doing speed pulls with most peoples' max!
I do a speed press day and a speed squat day. I haven't backed off the speed pulls and I'll be adding cleans and snatches back in soon.
Matt Dawson: Simple. Start every training session with an explosive movement. If you have a lower body day, start with box jumps, cleans, or snatches. These won't tire you out for a big max effort squat; fact is, it will prime your nervous system to be fully ready to handle the heavy weights.
If you're doing upper body, start off with med ball throws. Throw the med ball overhead with both hands, or with one hand, or lie down and do explosive chest presses. Again, keep the reps low, as we're focusing on speed, not endurance or musculature.
Andy Deck: If you're already strong but can't seem to place as high as you think you should in competition, then improving speed and explosiveness is almost certainly your weak point. Assuming most of the guys in a given competition are going to have roughly equivalent strength levels, then the two things that separate the winner from the losers are speed and conditioning.
So if you need to get faster to be better, start using bands and chains. Work with lighter weights to improve foot speed or the number of reps you can get in a minute. Add in some type of explosive speed training, either with or without weight. Bottom line is, figure out what your weaknesses are and train the piss out of them and you will get better.
T NATION: How about giving readers a sample workout incorporating explosive movements?
Mike Jenkins: I do box squats with or without bands, both front and back. I've done more front squats lately; I think they help my press. I do box jumps, steps ups for speed, and Zerchers with only bands. For upper body, the only things I do are push presses with axles and logs.
Here's a sample heavy day and an explosive day.
|1. 18 inch pulls off boxes
|2. Straight Leg Sumo
|3. Reverse Hypers
|315 x 3
405 x 3
495 x 3
555 x 3
615 x 3
705 x 3
735 x 3
765 x 3
785 x 3
805 x 2
|315 x 15
|50 x 15
|1. Speed Deadlift
|2. Log Press (Out of rack, standing, strict)
|365 x 3
365 x 3
365 x 3
415 x 3
|270 x 10
305 x 9
320 x 8
320 x 7
Matt Dawson: Here's a typical dynamic lower body day.
|Box jump variation
|Snatch or clean variation
|Box squat w/bands
|2 @ waves of 50-60% of 1RM
Then we work an event or two.
|Prowler/sled drag medley
|Reverse Band Log Split Jerks
6 (4 sets)
|Blast Strap Pushups/DB Shrugs
|20/ 150 x 20 (3 sets)
|DB Pullovers/DB Reverse Flys
|10 / 12 x 12 (3 sets)
|Prowler + 140
|75 feet - All on low handles
T NATION: Any advice for people getting into strength sports?
Mike Jenkins: Throw your ego out the window. Worry about you; accept that you can't control what anyone else does in a show. Listen to guys that have been in the game. Don't get discouraged. Set realistic goals and track your progress.
Most importantly, don't do this to define your life – do it to enrich it! There are many things more important than strongman and other sports; don't let it ruin the good things you had before you started!
Andy Deck: Find some guys who know their shit and train with them. Ask questions. If you need help on a lift or an event, find someone who is better than you and ask how they got to be so good. Read everything you can about your sport including indirectly related topics like diet, recovery, mobility, etc. Remember, there's no one training modality or style that works for everyone and the more information you have at your disposal, the more successful you will be.
Matt Dawson: Don't be afraid to ask for help. If something you're being told seems wrong, investigate it, ask why. Look on sites such as TNation and eliteFTS.com. Remember, what works for bodybuilders is often NOT what strength athletes need to do – you don't need a whole day dedicated to biceps and calves.
Also, don't be afraid to compete. North American Strongman has contests all over the nation. Pick a date and go for it!
T NATION: Thanks for doing this, guys!