Here's the setting: It's about 6AM on a Saturday morning on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio. A line of cars begins to pile into a small parking lot outside of a warehouse that's accessible only through a backcountry road.
The people start to filter inside the warehouse, and peppered in-between the moans and groans usually associated with being up that early are laughs and stories about the previous week.
Most are in high spirits as they set up the equipment and once the clock strikes 6:30, Team B.O.S.S. (Brothers of Stone and Steel) gets down to business.
Depending on who's manning the radio, death metal or rap starts to blare (and occasionally, "The Lost Boys" soundtrack), the smell of liniment and chalk strikes the nostrils, and heavy ass weight starts to get thrown around. Tearing calluses, getting close to passing out, and lifting things that should be impossible to lift are just the norm.
This is the scenario I go through every week. This is strongman.
The Mental Game
Incorporating strongman into your training routine will, without a doubt, add solid gains in not only muscle, but also endurance, power, static strength, and that all-important X factor, mental toughness.
The best tip I can offer you, and this tip can be used for any endeavor in your life, is to find training partners who are not only stronger than you, but are willing to challenge you to push yourself past your limits. Pushing yourself past your own set limits is the essence of strength sports. I firmly believe that most training plateaus are the result of mental barriers rather than physical limitations.
In the Army, we called it "intestinal fortitude." In the regular world, we call it "having a pair of balls." If you tell yourself you can't do something, guess what? You can't do it. It's a pretty simple concept to learn, but many people don't take the time to really grasp it.
If it doesn't come natural, surrounding yourself with people who have a pair of balls can go a long way in fortifying yours.
I know what you're thinking: when is this schmuck going to get to the training program? I'll get there, but the point is if your head isn't in the game, then I don't care how good of a training program you have – you're going to fail.
Unfortunately, not everyone has access to strongman equipment. What do I suggest? Well, personally, I'd tell you to quit your gym, buy a power rack, a couple Olympic bars, some weights and some implements, but I realize this isn't a viable option for everybody. So, despite my own yearning for everyone to be able to have access to some hardcore equipment, I've developed a program you can use in the average commercial gym.
This bad boy is designed to do a few things:
- Increase your pain threshold
- Get you stronger
- Give you a break from the mundane
It's going to be a lot of volume, a lot of weight, and a lot of torture, but when you're done, you're going to wish it was time to do it again. I would do this once a weekwith a group of people who like to train as hard as you do, and at a time when the gym isn't crowded...unless you're like me and you like the looks of horror you're sure to get.
If you don't happen to have a group of people to train with, then you're going to need something to time yourself with and, more importantly, you're going to need to be self-motivated – this kind of training is the reason God made training partners. But if you have a stopwatch and a belly full of desire, you should be able to get by on your own.
1 – Barbell Clean and Press
If you're lucky enough to be in a gym with a 2-inch, otherwise known as a fat bar, then use that. I find the fat bars are easier on the forearms and wrists, plus you'll build up an awesome grip. A barbell still works well, as it should allow you to full clean a bit more weight.
You don't have to go all out on this, but you should be aiming to work up to a weight where you can clean and press the weight for 5 hard reps. Every set, from warm-up set to final set, should be 5 reps; clean and press each rep. This will get your blood pumping, warm up your muscles, and get your CNS ready for the events to follow.
Remember, when you get the bar to your shoulders, it doesn't matter how you get it over your head. You can push-press, jerk it, split jerk it, whatever – just make sure you're pressing! You should be really tired after this – seeing spots just means you're doing it right!
I'd also like to add snatches every so often. If you know how to snatch correctly, they're a great replacement for clean and presses.
2 – Deadlifts
Deadlifts are a staple in strongman. Whether we're deadlifting a bar, a car, an axle, or a frame, there's more often than not a deadlift event in any given contest. The thing is, we must be able to not only lift a lot of weight, but we must also have the endurance to lift a lot of weight a lot of times.
Five hundred pounds for as many reps as possible in 60 seconds, on an axle with no straps? Yup, just another day at the office. Fortunately, we have our unorthodox ways to train for this. Here are two options we use:
- The Round Robin Approach – Everyone will warm up and work up to an agreed upon weight, usually about 80 percent of the average 1RM in the group. So once you've all gotten in a few sets and the agreed upon weight has been reached, you all go through and lift the bar for a single and then make way for the next guy while you go to the end of the line. Repeat 10 times.
No straps, just grip and rip. This keeps momentum going, keeps rest to a minimal, and keeps you motivated (as you know you have people behind you waiting for you to get your ass out of the way).
If you're by yourself, just do 10 reps. I don't care how long it takes you, but do 10 reps with as little rest in between each one as possible.
- >High reps, heavy weight – I know what you're thinking, "High reps for heavy weight?! Doesn't he know that you're not supposed to do that?!" To which I'd reply, "Says who?"
Go watch any training videos of the top deadlifters and strongmen in the world; most of them will do high reps with heavy weight. I'm not saying that you should be repping out with 90 percent of your 1RM, but going for an all out set at 75-80 percent is more than feasible.
Shoot for 10 reps. If you're feeling antsy, use a platform to add a deficit of 3-4 inches. A couple 45-pound plates can be used for a great makeshift box.
3 – Trap Bar Carry
Your gym should have a trap bar. If it doesn't, then you should seriously reconsider finding one that does. Load that sucker up with a few plates on each side and take it for a walk.
Again, the weight depends on your own experience level, but I'd shoot for at least 90 percent or higher of your deadlift max. You'll be lifting the implement for a shorter range of motion. Make sure you're keeping your back tight and driving with your hips on the lift. It's important that you're using more legs and hips, since this isn't a conventional deadlift. Shoot for 50 feet.
Remember, NO STRAPS! Sneak some chalk into your gym if you have to. This will build up core strength, grip strength, and your legs – not to mention adding some serious mass to your traps and forearms.
4 – Timed Holds
Timed holds are great for a few reasons: They'll not only build strength, but they'll also help you reach new barriers in pain tolerance.
The reason is because you'll be doing them with the timer clicking forward rather than backward. When you have a set time, it gives you the knowledge that it'll be over soon, but when your goal is to see who can go the longest, your ego kicks in and you have to tell yourself to keep going.
Here are a few different timed holds you can do. I suggest doing at least two.
- Timed hold with a set of dumbbells – Hopefully, your gym has some dumbbells that are heavy enough for this to work. If you're holding for more than a minute, it's time to go heavier. Fat Gripz are an easy and cheap addition to your gym bag that will help keep things challenging. Sure, you can pick up a 100-pound dumbbell with no problem, but add another inch and a half to the diameter and things start to get a little tricky.
- Timed front hold – This is easy. Take a weight and hold it out in front of your body. Hold for as long as possible. You can also do it out to the side with dumbbells. Try to beat your time every week, but most of all, try to beat all of your buddies' times, too.
- Finger tip holds – Take a dumbbell and put it on its end. Palm the top of the weight so that only your fingertips are holding onto the outside of the weight. Then lift and hold. You can do it with both hands or with one, just make sure you're beating your time each weak.
5 – Optional Exercises Based on Availability
- Tire flips – Big tractor tires are extremely easy to find and best of all, they're free. That's right, it costs more for tractor supply companies and dumps to dispose of them than it does to pass them off to you for free. Once you've attained a tire and a piece of land to flip it on, then you'll need to know how to flip it properly and safely.
First, you're not going to curl the tire; that won't get you anything but a torn biceps. What you want to do is get as low as possible on the tire with your shoulders pushing into the sides. Your grip can go as wide or narrow as you want; just make sure you have a good grip and your arms are close to straight.
Now you're going to drive your shoulders and body into the tire with your legs, like you're pushing a football sled. Once the tire begins to rise, keep driving and use your knee and the momentum you've created on the initial push to set it upright. Push it over and repeat.
The best ways to do this are to either flip it for distance or flip it back and forth. Another great idea is to do a round robin-type of approach.
- Keg carry/hold – Don't tell me you can't find a keg. I give you permission to round up a few friends and empty one. The next morning, after the taste of shame and regret has left your mouth, open that sucker up and fill it with sand, water, whatever. Make it a reasonable weight – about 200 pounds is good – and start training.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out, but a few of the ways we train with the keg are to pick it up off the ground in either a regular carry style, with one hand on the handle and another on the bottom, or else we bear hug it. Bear hugging the keg is a great way to hold the keg for timed holds.
- Odd object carry/load – This is kind of self-explanatory. Find something that's misshapen and heavy, pick it up, and carry it! You could do an engine block, stones in your back yard, logs, or fat chicks! Let your imagination run wild with this.
The following workout is a sample routine that I would do on a Saturday using what I could find in a gym (don't attempt these exact weights just yet)!
- Axle clean and press: warm up with bar, 130x5, 170x5, 220x5, 250x5, 270x5, 300x5
- Deadlifts from a 3-inch box: 225x5, 315x5, 405x5, and 500 for as many reps as possible in 60 seconds.
- Trap bar carry: 510 for 50 ft., 600 for 50 ft., 700 for 50 ft.
- Finger tip holds: 25-pound dumbbell in each hand for as long as possible
- Tire flip: As many flips as possible in 60 seconds
- If you don't have access to a tire, you can add a different multi-joint gym lift like pull-ups or heavy one-armed rows.
Time to get it started!
Training for strongman is simple: Lift heavy, odd objects either further, faster, or more times than the guy next to you, but it sure as hell isn't easy! This workout should take you a little longer than your usual workout, which is why I'd only suggest you do it once a week.
If done correctly, it will take you to a new level of training. You'll learn how to deal with pain and start busting through plateaus like never before!