Updated: May 3
The benefits | Training approach | Equipment | Diet & nutrition | Exercise tutorial
Firstly, before we consider the how, we must clarify the why. So, why bother training like a strongman?
For starters strongman-style exercises are typically functional in nature. When executing a barrel lift or tyre flip, say, two staples of the strongman diet, a veritable legion of muscles must work in synchronicity. In addition, because the exercises are compound movements, they transition through multiple joints which improves biomechanical coordination while stimulating neuromuscular adaptations – that is, developing bigger muscles (aka hypertrophy).
It is this multi-muscular attribute of strongman exercises that forges functional physicality – that is, raw power that delivers superior performance. Something traditional gym-based static lifting is woefully inferior at doing.
In addition to augmenting one’s physical robustness, strongman training can also build mental toughness. There’s no getting away from the fact, power cleaning kegs, heaving heavy hammers, tossing tractor tyres and lumping about loadstones (if you happen to possess any), batters and bruises the body. And no one in history ever got through a strongman session without spilling blood – even if it was just a couple of drops. As a consequence of this corporal conditioning you’ll inevitably develop a durable disposition and those once challenging gym sessions will feel like a day out at a spar.
Below are some other benefits of strongman training
Improved body coordination
Functional exercises, unlike their inferior static counterparts, require that we move across unconventional planes. For example, a keg power-clean to over-head toss will engage the body in ways that singularly a clean to press could not. I see static lifting as two dimensional, whereas functional training is three dimensional.
Augmented biomechanical synchronicity
Because functional exercises require that the trainer coordinates their lumbering mass through multiple movements while transitioning three dimensions, out of necessity they will, by dint of necessity, develop mastery over their body. If not they’ll find themselves crushed under that tyre like the Wicked Witch of the West under Dorothy’s house.
Complex, multi-dimensional movements demand continuous conscious engagement. When performing a series of hammer tyre slams, say, you can’t lapse into a daydream – like you can with most all static exercises. The inherent complexity of functional training forces a unification of mind and body which brings about a strengthening of neural pathways: aka proprioception – aka mind body connection.
Re-correcting strength imbalances
The physical strength of the trainer who engages predominantly in static, gym-based exercises tends to represent a set of scales overladen on one side. Yes, they might boast a 220 bench, or 330 dead, or 440 squat, but when they’re required to exert force outside of a two dimensional plane their true strength shows its meek face. Picture the Adonis who, with bulging biceps and an inflated chest, can scarcely perform a single tyre flip without inducing cardiac arrest.
Functional exercises, on the other hand, which are the hallmark of strongman training, develop the body in unison and strength imbalances are quickly exposed. Two logical outcomes follow from this: 1) the trainer gives up and goes back to the gym; 2) the trainer perseveres and in so doing rectifies the imbalances. Picture Atlas, on whose shoulders rests the world.
Strongman kit is relatively cheap and surprisingly easy to procure
Contrary to popular opinion you don’t need to spend a fortune on strongman equipment. For precisely zero pounds I procured a 150kg tyre, 65kg aluminium beer keg (minus the beer) and a decent sled. How? You may well ask. Simple. While out cycling I spotted a disused tractor tyre in a farmyard. I asked the farmer politely if he mind me having it. He didn’t. I cycled straight home, got my better half to drive me back and I subsequently rolled that tyre 3 miles back home. Yeah, I got some right dodgy looks, but you can’t pass-up an opportunity for quality training kit!
The barrel I ‘appropriated’ from a derelict pub and, as for the sled, I got a friend of mine, a plumber by trade, to weld it together from factory offcuts and half-inch thick cast-iron plates.
As well as being cheap – or, if you’re prepared to scavenge, beg, borrow and steal, free – strongman equipment is eminently durable. In a thousand years’ time I’ll be little more than scattered dust, but my strongman kit will be as good as new. Especially my sled, that thing’s invincible!
Benefits of Strength Training
Strength is usually pursued as an end in and of itself. Usually because the strong man (or woman!) receives backslaps, adulation and kudos from fellow gym frequenters and the physically enfeebled. As physical attributes go strength is by far the most coveted. This has been the case for thousands of years. In the Iliad Homer sings the praises of the strong man and it was Hercules’ strength alone that carried his name through the ages.
However, when acquired in this mind-set – to be strong because it carries considerable social coin – strength is almost worthless. Honestly, in the real world when’s Billy Big Arms ever going to called-up to curl 100kees?
But when used to enhance performance in activities – such as a physical discipline like swimming or rowing – augmented strength is highly beneficial. Watson cites a study showing performance gains made by elite level athletes after adopting strength training techniques. A mere ‘four weeks of strength training produced a 19 per cent increase in power which resulted in a 4 per cent improvement in swimming speed.’ For a performance athlete a 4% improvement is enormous.
Purported benefits of strength training include
Increased muscle mass
Stronger tendon and ligaments
Increased metabolic rate
Increased one density
Reduced blood pressure
Reduced blood cholesterol and blood fats
Reduction in injury susceptibility
Improved psychological well-being
(List adapted from Anita Bean’s Strength Training: The Complete Guide To)
Strongman Training Approach
Now that we’ve considered the many benefits associated with strongman exercises, let’s turn our attention to training approaches. However, there’s one crucial point to bear in mind before embarking on a strongman-style training programme; and that is: heavy lifting places greater stress on the body thus, if you fail to execute near flawless form and/or train too often, you are more likely to incur an injury. To reduce injury susceptibility ensure always to:
1) Thoroughly warm-up before engaging in strongman/strength training
2) Progressively increase loads throughout the session
3) Master the lifting techniques on lighter loads first
4) Ensure to rest for 1 to 2 days between strongman sessions
5) Employ the support of a training partner if possible
6) Provide the body with adequate, quality nutrition post training (to aid recover)
7) Implement a post-session rehabilitation routine
8) DO NOT EVER try to lift more than you are physically capable
9) And always value the quality of the lift over the load lifted
To start a strongman training programme you will of course need access to the appropriate equipment. If you haven’t followed in my footsteps, and gone out on the pinch, below the programme I have included number of links to strongman kit that you can buy (see below).
But assuming that you do have access to a range of different training items, below you will find a 4-Week Strongman Training Programme based around that of a professional strongman competitor. For those who have been used to gym training, CrossFit of circuit training, the programme will appear a little parsimonious; that is, it doesn’t contain a great deal of exercises, reps and sets. There’s a reason for this.
The training protocol for improving strength is to reduce sets and repetitions while increasing loads and rest periods between lifts. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that to develop his impressive size and strength he ‘included a lot of heavy’ lifting in his routine and, he tells us, when trying to build strength and size, ‘you need to train according to basic power principals – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding – p.493).
Also, unlike, perhaps, cardiovascular and muscular endurance training, which require considerable volume to make noticeable physical development, significant strength gains can be achieved with surprisingly few weekly sessions.
For example, Anita Bean (2008), in her book The Complete Guide to Strength Training, cites research showing ‘that a basic weight training programme lasting just 25 minutes, three times a week, can increase muscle mass by about 1kg over an eight-week period, while lean mass gains of 20 per cent of your starting body weight are common after the first year of training.’
So, in summary, when transitioning from a more involved training routine to that of one predicated on strength/strongman principals, it is important to curtail volume and focus more on poundage, lifting technique and, of course, rest, recover and nutrition. For as Bean (2008) put it, though often overlooked or underestimated, these all play a ‘crucial part of a strength training programme.’
(Please note: the programme is supposed only to serve as a guide and offer a generic outline of how a strongman regime could be structured.)
It stands to reason that you will encounter an exercise(s) in the 4-week plan that, for whatever reason, you are unable to perform. If this possible eventuality manifests into reality don’t sweat it! Simple substitute the exercise for one which possess comparable characteristics and similarly stimulates the body.
By way of example, let’s say that you don’t have a tyre to flip. Listen, that’s not the end of the world and other exercises can be recruited to fill the void of that tyre. A terrific whole-body strength developer – which is perhaps in some ways superior to tyre flipping – is car pushing. Yep, you read that right: car pushing. A friend of mine used to perform this exercise all the time – and he was super strong (and super strange). He’d ask the ‘missus’ to maintain a steady course and apply the breaks when appropriate, then, up and down his close, he’d push his car. Granted, there are a million and one limitations to this exercise (if it can be called that), but if you live in a quiet neighbourhood and you care not a damn about your street credibility, then this could just be the perfect replacement to tyre flips.
Mirafit M1 Weight Drag Sled and Harness (£79.99)
Product Overview (click image for availability)
Super strong steel construction.
Curved edge on platform ensures plates are well protected.
Suitable for use on most terrains including grass, Astro turf and sand.
Suitable for Olympic weight plates.
Collapsible fold flat post for excellent portability.
Includes adjustable shoulder harness.
Sleds make for excellent training tools. They boast a breadth of exercise applications and are far more versatile than their simplistic design suggests. Consequently, they are one of the most underrated and underused pieces of exercise equipment available. Bit of shame that because they are stellar for developing superior whole-body physicality. And, if you’ve got access to a good stretch of grass, they can build explosive sprint performance. With Mirafit’s exceptionally well-made sled, which looks like a Robot Wars champion, you’ll soon possess the pulling strength of an ox.
Tractor Tyre EVO AGG (£175.00)
Product Overview (click image for availability)
Big, spherical rubber tyre.
Constructed from rubber!
Weighs a lot.
As far as quintessential strongman disciplines go, tyre flipping is perhaps second only to Atlas stones. Strongmen have been flipping tyres since there were tyres to flip. And there’s a perfectly rational reason why aspirant strongmen flip tyres. Reason: because few if any single exercise develops whole-body strength like heaving a recalcitrant spherical lump of rubber from the floor and pushing it over. In performing that single movement, which is actually an assortment of many, the major muscle groups are recruited along with every synergist in the near vicinity. In addition, if you’ve got it in you for a tyre flipping AMRAP, the muscles of the cardio-respiratory system will also receive a ruddy good workout to boot.
Mirafit ‘Hex’ Bar with Quick Release Collars (£119.00)
Product Overview (click image for availability)
Mirafit Standard Chrome Shrug Bar - Includes 2 orange quick release spring collars.
Heavy duty solid steel 16kg bar with chrome finish - Multi-grip knurled handles - for use with standard 1" weights.
Maximum weight capacity 300kg.
Measurements: length: 148cm - Sleeve length: 29cm - Centre length: 60cm - Depth: 59cm.
Hex bars are brilliant for performing deadlifts and Farmer’s walk. Because you can stand inside the hexagonal frame, the lifting position is more natural and thus more comfortable. The same cannot be said for the Olympic bar, which puts you behind the load. Consequently, when executing heavy lifts on an Olympic bar you are forced forwards which inevitably places excessive strain on the lower back. This does not happen when lifting with a hex bar.
Received lost of solid feedback: 5 stars with over 200 reviews
PELLOR Fitness Weights Sandbags (£38.99)
Product Overview (click image for availability)
Fillable inner-bags enables progressive load training
Each bag is equipped with 6 handles to provide a variety of grip options for your workout
The outer shell and filler bags are made from highly durable 1200D Oxford fabric which reduces leakages.
The functional fitness utility of power bags has long been recognised. In addition to being neigh on indestructible, which makes them great value for money (a common characteristic of all strongman kit), power bags can be used to develop strength, functional strength, muscular endurance, core stability and, if you dare do burpees into cleans, they’ll have your heart racing like a horny rabbit’s.
As well as offering a unique and dynamic dimension to your fitness sessions, their unique design affords the trainer multiple exercise options. For example, with a power bag you could perform conventional movements – such as squats and deadlifts – or get down and functional by integrating them into exercises like burpees and (my personal favourite) hanging snatch into over-head throw.
3 Super Strongmen
Height: 1.86 m
Weight: 119 kg
Mariusz Pudzianowski – aka the ‘Dominator’ – is widely regarded as the greatest strongman in history. This accolade is probably attributed to the fact that he has won more World’s Strongest Man titles since the sport started in 1977. In addition, Pudzianowski won two runner-up titles and a plethora of other strongman contests.
Strength Personal Bests
Bench press – 290 kilograms (640 lb)
Squat – 380 kilograms (840 lb)
Deadlift – 415 kilograms (915 lb)
Height: 1.9 m
Weight: 164 kg
Eddie Hall is considered the best British strongman. He won the World’s Strongest Man in 2017 – one of only two Brits to have ever done so – and took multiple titles in the UK’s Strongest Man and England’s Strongest Man. Hall was also the first human ever to pull (deadlift) 500kg (1,102lbs); a record that he famously set in 2016. This is just one of the many world records Hall has set in strong man. See extensive list below.
Strength Personal Bests
Deadlift world record with straps and suit – 500 kilograms (1,102 lb) (former world record)
Axle press – 216 kilograms (476 lb) (world record)
Rogue Elephant Bar Deadlift with straps – 465 kilograms (1,025 lb)
Deadlift with straps – 463 kilograms (1,021 lb)
Log lift – 213 kilograms (470 lb)
CrossFit Grace – 60 kilograms (132 lb) for 30 repetitions in 50 seconds (World Record)
Squat – 405 kilograms (893 lb)
Bench press – 300 kilograms (661 lb) (equipped)
Leg press – 1,000 kilograms (2,205 lb) for 10 reps
Silver dollar deadlift – 536 kilograms (1,182 lb) (former world record)
Height: 2.03 m
Weight: 190–200 kg (419–440 lb)
Brian Shaw is perhaps the most decorated strongman in history. He has won the World’s Strongest Man 4 times while also becoming the first man to win both the Arnold Strongman Classic and World’s Strongest Man contests consecutively in the same year. He has achieved this monumental feat on two speared occasions: in 2011 and 2015. Shaw also holds multiple titles in ‘lesser’ contests: such as the Strongman Super Series (which he won 6 times), World’s Ultimate Strongman and America’s Strongest Man. To add to this impressive string of strongman success, Shaw has set numerous world record titles.
Strength records set in the gym
Squat – 903 lb (410 kg)
Bench press – 525 lb (238 kg) × 2
Deadlift (from blocks) – 1,091 lb (495 kg)
Rack Pull – 1,365 lb (619 kg)
Long Bar Deadlift – 1,031 lb (468 kg)
Log Press – 465 lb (211 kg)
Indoor Rowing – 100 metres in 12.8 seconds (unofficial world record at the time, since beaten by Loren Howard with 12.6)
Grip training records
Little Big Horn Handle – 238 lb (108 kg) – previous record was 236.53 lb (107.29 kg)
Dinnie Stone carry – 11.54 ft (3.52 m) (Dinnie Stones are two heft blocks of granite with iron ring handles. They have a combined weight of 332.49 kg: the larger stone weighing 188.02 kg and the smaller stone weighing 144.47 kg).
Strongman (official Strongman competition)
Deadlift (with straps) – 1,014 lb (460 kg) (World's Strongest Man 2017)
Rogue Elephant Bar Deadlift (with straps) – 1,021 lb (463 kg) (Arnold Strongman Classic 2016 & 2019)
Hummer Tire Strongman Deadlift (with straps) – 1,140 lb (520 kg)
Log Lift – 440 lb (200 kg) × 2
Atlas Stone/Manhood Stone – 560 lb (250 kg)
Keg Toss – 8 kegs in 16.59 seconds (World's Strongest Man 2014)
Keg Toss – 7.25m (World's Strongest Man 2016)
Strongman Diet and Nutrition
To eat like a strongman requires equal, if not more, dedication and commitment than to train like one. In fact, strongmen spend far more time eating than they do lifting. This has led some elite level athletes to liken eating to a full-time occupation or, in the words of Brian Shaw, ‘a daily competition’.
Typically, a top rank strongman competitor will consume in excess of 10,000 calories a day (Shaw boasts a stomach cramping 12,000!), which is nearly five times the number that the average male would consume (as recommended by dietitians and public health officials). This means that not only is each meal substantially bigger, but the number of meals swells significantly seeing the strongman eat every hour or so throughout the day.
Basically, to build the muscles and strength required to compete at an elite level, you must become a walking, talking, living, breathing all-you-can-eat buffet.
But why must the aspiring strongmen eat so much?