Elitefts Roundtable: The 5 Best Barbell or Dumbbell Exercises for Strongman

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Training the specific events for strongman competitors is essential for success.  Although strongman contests are starting to become more standardized when it comes to event categories, each event is very unique in nature. This is one of the reasons why a great number of strongman competitors travel great distances on weekends to train the specific events with the load, time limit, distance, and any other specifications of their next contest. Overall, most competitions will have a clean & press, a deadlift, a carry, atlas stones and some sort of medley.

Clean & Press



Flip or Drag

Atlas Stones


Car or Frame Deadlift

Farmer's or Frame

Tire Flip

Stones over Bar


18” Deadlift

Yoke or Conan’s Wheel

Sled Drag

Stones on Platform

Circus DB

Axle Deadlift

Husafell Stone or Sandbag Carry

 Duck Walk

Sandbag Load

Due to limited access to strongman implements and other training days; the question is what should competitors spend their time doing in the gym when not training events?  That brought me to this question I asked elitefts™ lifters, coaches, and columnists:

What are the best five barbell or dumbbell exercises that correlate to success in strongman?

If you could only do five barbell or dumbbell exercises and without knowing the events, what would you choose?

Overhead Press, Deadlift, Squat; Train these for a total like a powerlifter.

OHP and bench press are swapped.  Most strongman contests will require some sort of overhead movement; you have to be strong here.

Deadlift- You are going to have to be able to pull. Might be a partial dead, car dead, max regular dead or deadlift for reps. "Endurance" for deadlifting in a strongman contest is going to be enhanced by improving limit strength. When Benedict Magnusson pulled 1015, he won the deadlift for reps right after. Orlando Green got 2nd place with a 865 deadlift, and 2nd place in reps. Strength endurance in the strongman-pulling sense is enhanced by deadlift limit strength.  Deadlifts build the posterior chain for any sort of hip extension needed, as well as grip, RFD and overall limit strength.

Squat- Squatting events can make their way into strongman contests, and these are primarily to enhance strength and explosive power.

Bent-Over Row- "Strong back equals strong man" said the strongest man of all time, Kaz.  Besides building a strong, broad backed street soldier, these bad boys are similar  to how you pull up a log or keg. There is some specificity here along with building a strong back

Dips- I know they're not barbell or dumbbell, but their transference to OHP is underrated.

1. Clean & Press: Direct correlation to axle and any pressing event

2. Deadlift: From varying heights using double overhand as long as possible to also work grip. Another direct correlation to variations of deadlift events and also to building a strong posterior chain.

3. Front squats: Has great carryover for the loading events such as stones, kegs, sandbags, etc.

4. Close-Grip Bench: Builds tricep strength that will transfer to lockout on overhead pressing events.

5. Good Mornings: Builds strong lower back and posterior chain which aids in most strongman events.

I love this question because it really does make you think about your programming. I think every movement in a training program has to have a specific purpose. I also feel certain gym lifts have more carryover to events than others. As most people know every strongman contest varies in the events they have and implements used. But with that being said, almost all strongman competitions have: a press, a deadlift event and atlas stones. If you do really well in those three events, you’ll typically do pretty well in a competition. They also typically have at least one carry event. So this really helps narrow down the list to five movements that would/should help prepare someone for a strongman competition without access to the actual implements. They are:

1. Squats – This is simple. The squat builds overall strength. It also has nice carryover to yoke picks, car deadlifts and strengthening the quads for leg drive on the overhead press events.

2. Deadlifts – Same as the squat, the deadlift is a great overall strength builder. There is also almost always a deadlift event in strongman (axle, 18 inch, medley, car deadlift, etc.). This obviously has some carryover to those events, but it also has carryover for atlas stones, farmers walk, yoke walk, tire flip, any odd object (sandbag, keg, Husafell) pick off the ground. To help aid in grip strength, I’d recommend using a double overhand grip as long as possible when working up in weight.

3. Clean & Press – Strongman almost always has a clean and press event. Whether it’s an axle, log, dumbbell or keg – something is picked up from the ground, cleaned to the shoulders and pressed overhead. So the basic barbell clean and press is a great pick for building explosive power and strength for all things overhead. The clean also has carryover to the tire flip.

4. Paused Front Squats – I find these are great for improving atlas stones. Essentially once the stone is picked and lapped you are in a position very similar to that of the bottom of a front squat. And since there is no stretch reflex when coming up from that position while holding the stone I find that the paused front squat to be a great movement with a lot of carryover. This will also aid in strengthening the quads which will in turn carryover to the overhead press events.

5. Zercher Barbell Carry – There is almost always a carry in strongman. I almost went with heavy dumbbell farmers walk for my last choice, but decided against it because dumbbell farmers walk feel much different than using actually farmer implements. That coupled with most dumbbells are way too light, I think that the Zercher carry would give more bang for the buck. A lot of contests have a sandbag, keg or Husafell stone carry. This is a great way to train for those. It would also have some carryover to farmers and yoke from the standpoint of actually moving with the weight instead of being stationary like most barbell and dumbbell lifts require.

Power Clean/Jerk or Push Press- Cleaning and pressing is one of the most common exercises in some form in strongman. Not doing them in your training is a mistake. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a log or an axle, the movements are fairly similar. Work them for 1-3 rep maxes and also for max reps in 60-90 seconds. This will also carry over to tire flipping. Flipping a tire properly is very similar to a clean at a different angle.

Squat-Do I really need to explain why you need to squat?

Deadlift- In contests, you almost always see a deadlift variation. Deads build muscle, endurance, and grip strength. You need  all of these in strongman. I suggest doing these in waves with 1-3 rep maxes, balls out heavy for reps/time, snatch grip and also form a deficit from time to time.  Adding variety in your deadlift training will help you out a lot when it comes to doing a deadlift on some type of contest apparatus. I particularly like snatch grip deads and deficit pulls  because they are HARD and build different strengths. You will need to be able to pull form a wide variety of positions and like powerlifting, I have seen many contest placing around the deadlift event. Work this one hard.

Dumbell overhead press-I chose dumbells as opposed to a  barbell because of the stabilizing muscles required to perform the exercise as well as the fact it helps to eliminate a bilateral deficit. Three is always a press in strongman and you will usually be able to push or jerk it, so adding in STRICT dumbbell presses done heavy for high reps will keep you strong.

Hammer Curls-Biceps love to tear in Strongman. The constant abuse they get form stones, tires, logs and deadllifts beats on your biceps. High rep hammer curls are great for getting your bi’s and attachments strong. Adding in sets of heavy curls for lower reps won’t hurt either.

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