Strongman training has always been considered circus sideshow-ish. It has included a big man, a weird looking something, and the something being lifted in a weird way. It’s an amazing spectacle, an ooh and an ahh, and the end of the sideshow. The most mainstream of all Strongman exposures takes place on the entertainment and sports programming network or its younger brother, usually in marathon blocks on a sleepy Sunday afternoon or during the holiday season to fill a void because the network didn’t want to pay tens of millions of dollars to carry the mom and pop bowl sponsored by the local carnival barker featuring two, six-win teams that had to play a football championship subdivision school 16 weeks prior just to become eligible. And piled on top of that, half-popped, half-crazy Uncle Ralph, who at this point has his belt undone and his fly open, claims that he can do “that” without a problem but back in his day it was heavier.

At its very core, Strongman (as it will be referred to from this point) is an incredibly underused, undervalued, and under appreciated means of developing athletes. This may raise screams from the rafters because so many strength coaches, performance coaches, and anyone who trains athletes will lay claim to “doing” Strongman. They do it, they have always done it, they did it first, and they have the best secrets. Yada, yada, yada.

Strongman is the most primal of all training paradigms. It’s based off the Highland games and Viking and other cultural agrarian lifestyles. People had to manually labor to live. They had to work, and they had to produce. They carried big, odd, heavy objects (sometimes livestock) whatever distance necessary. Strongman, because of chaos, neural stimulation, and total kinetic chain activation is a great way to prepare as an athlete. It epitomizes “functional.”—not functional in the sense of doing a single leg squat on a Bosu ball while balancing an Airex pad on the head or performing an isolateral row standing on one leg while statically stretching the piriformis of the up leg all while having the eyes closed. Strongman is functional at least in the world of PANKO because it trains movements and doesn't isolate muscles. Depending on the event, modality, or exercise, it can use 360 degrees of proprioception and three planes of movement.

Pizza is a good metaphor for Strongman. There are limitless toppings and limitless ways to go about putting together the perfect pie. For the sake of sanity, coaches need to focus on a select set of movements. The baseline movements that need to be incorporated are as follows—log clean and press, yoke walk (run), farmer’s walk (run), loading, and tire flipping. Tire flipping has already been bastardized in the mainstream, but it needs to be included because athletes should be flipping tires and coaches should be putting it in programs. There are a myriad of variations, progressions, and spin offs that can also be done. This also doesn't include medleys, which will come another time and another day.

Strongman has been improperly implemented or not implemented at all for a number of reasons.

  1. Coaches claim they “don't have the equipment,” which is weird because the whole reason for Strongman was because people didn't have any equipment.
  2. They don't know how to teach the techniques.
  3. They isolate Strongman on its own training day and/or always put it at the end as the “finisher” because they are ignorant as to how it should be incorporated.

Even world class strength athletes separate a gym day and an event day, which is questionable. Just combine the two, be more efficient, and make better gains. Use a Strongman movement to become stronger (by performing the movement) and use a power/dynamic/ballistic/sport-specific movement (any variation of a max effort jump, sprint, or explosive movement) to teach the body how to use the strength movement. It's a hybridized version of transfer training.

Before jumping into how Strongman can be implemented into the program, which will take care of points one and two, point three needs to be addressed. In regards to middle school, high school, and collegiate athletes, Strongman can be so taxing on the nervous system that isolating it for its own day or putting it at the end of the workout won't allow the athlete to fully reap the benefits. When Strongman gets isolated, there is a tendency to focus on favorites and backload difficult or less favorable movements. Strengths are usually in the spotlight and weaknesses are usually placed on the back burner. When it’s put at the end, tired athletes dragging through tire flipping for conditioning at the end of the session aren't going to get the same neural stimulation, force production, or power output than an athlete flipping violent doubles as part of a strength and power superset will get. Football players will get more benefit from a heavy yoke/speed sled push complex than the down and back aspect of the normal yoke walk.

The log clean and press or log press from the rack is the ultimate upper body press. Because of the nature of the movement, it is really a total body exercise, but because most failed attempts on a log come during the press phase, the deltoids and triceps are the two weak links on this movement. A variation of the log press can be substituted for any vertical or horizontal press in any program. Athletes can press overhead, push press, jerk or press from the feet, bench, or incline. Coaches and athletes shouldn't be intimidated by incorporating this into their program. A log clean is exponentially less technical than a traditional power or hang clean, and because the log is constantly in contact with the body during the clean, the center of gravity is drawn back closer to the body’s midline, increasing the degree of success for newbies.

The nature of the contact makes the clean more about strength of the posterior chain than the triple flexion/extension, timing, and force productivity of Olympic movements, which can be difficult and rob a coach of precious time. (This is in no way a condemnation of the Olympic movements. They are very technical and unfortunately are taught by coaches too unskilled to teach the proper execution.) Logs are great because the neutral grip will take pressure off the shoulder joint. Neutral grips are a great way to work around shoulder pain, especially for athletes who use a pronated or traditional overhand grip.

The log should be rowed to the lap. Once the log is lapped, the athlete needs to keep the log in contact with the base of the sternum and roll the lats under the bar to get it in the rack position. Once in the rack position, the athlete should activate the lats, drive the elbows together, and prepare for either an overhead press (no leg drive), a push press (leg drive), or a jerk (split the legs) for overhead extension. The nervous system will receive the most stimulation with a push press or a jerk. If coaches don't have logs, any odd object such as a sandbag, field stone, or keg can be used.

The yoke walk (run) is a great way to strengthen the posterior chain; build rock solid, unstoppable quads; and, because it's an extreme external overload on the athlete, elicit an incredible physical response. It's a two-part movement—the lift and the walk (run). The range of motion for the lift is short, but once the yoke is locked out, athletes take short, high frequency steps with the intent to move as fast as possible with the heaviest weight possible, which is of great benefit to the nervous system as well. The yoke is a great substitute or insert for squats in any conjugated program. There isn't an eccentric/concentric action like there is on free squats, but having to “come out of the hole” by breaking the yoke off the ground can simulate an athlete coming out of the hole on a box squat. The yoke is also an incredible movement for building the most powerful hips from the walk (run) portion and a thick, dense, strong back (from the static hold of the yoke across the back). A weight, most times in excess of double the athlete’s max effort squat, is on the athlete’s back and it is being moved by the athlete while the hips are in full extension. Athletes will know they yoked the day before.

The key to a good yoke walk is keeping the upper back loaded by pulling the side bars in toward the athlete’s body. The athlete needs to find the sweet spot across the “yoke” of the back (traps and rear delts) upon which the yoke will sit. Athletes need to keep their eyes up and focused on a fixed spot for the duration of the run. Remember—run the yoke and move as fast as possible. Not all coaches have access to yokes. In 2005, promoters for the "Stronger Than All" contest in Connecticut decided to do a chain yoke. They chained weights to a standard power bar and yoked. It was a good poor man’s yoke and added another degree of difficulty due to the weights swinging around.

The farmer’s walk (run) is best suited to go in place of the deadlift or any other major pulling movement during a training week. Another two-part movement (first the pick and then the walk (run)), it’s a great way to build the entire posterior chain and the most effective way, as far as gross motor movements are concerned, of strengthening the hands and lower arms. There is also a great deal of neural activation because the athletes need to have the intent to move as fast as possible (run). In addition to strengthening the entire posterior chain, the farmer’s walk will give athletes stronger, more fluid hips.

Another overlooked aspect of the farmer’s walk is that unlike the deadlift, the implements are separate, increasing the need for the athlete to up his motor unit recruitment to stabilize the implements so he doesn't swing out of control. The implements should be approached just like a deadlift. Athletes need to set their feet, keep their eyes up, set their upper back by retracting the scapula and keeping the shoulder blades tight, and set the hands directly over the handles. Then keeping the eyes up, athletes need to inhale, sit back, grab the handles, drive through their heels, push their hips through, and activate their glutes. Coaches need to teach two cues—pick and run. When the athlete has locked out the pick, they need to find an object straight ahead and focus on it. They should keep the shoulder blades retracted and cover as much ground as possible. Dumbbells and kettlebells can be substituted for implements, although sometimes that cuts down on the external resistance, which isn't always good. A 130-lb wrestler who can farmer walk 225 lbs per hand has a distinct advantage over a wrestler using 90-lb dumbbells.

Incorporating loading into a program is somewhat controversial due to perceived excessive spinal compression by individuals, who are overeducated and undertrained. That happens with objects that are too heavy and when athletes use poor technique. When loading is done properly, it's a great way to build the posterior chain, and in most instances, the “chaos” factor (unpredictability) of what is being loaded aids in building strength. Loading is very similar to the log clean—row it, lap it, keep it close to the body (the athlete will have no choice), and place it, keeping the transverse abdominus and lats loaded and activated. Atlas stones and fancy platforms aren't necessary. Measure some 4 X 4 lumber and lay it across the safety spots of a rack. Taped up sandbags, kegs filled with sand or water, field stones, and old tires filled with concrete all do the job. Putting a load in place of a deadlift or Zercher squat is the best way to work it into the program. It's a total body movement, and due to the lack of time under tension most athletes experience with loading, it’s a great mix up for a coach to throw in every now and then.

Check out and read "A Can’t Miss How To on Tire Flipping" for everything any athlete or coach needs to know on tire flipping. Tire flips are best inserted into a program on a day where pulling movements or horizontal linear movements are used. Pulling movements mean deadlifts and any and all variations as well as Olympic movements. Horizontal linear movements mean sprints, bench presses, sled pushes, sled drags (facing the sled), sled pulls (back to the sled), or broad jumps. The former may seem natural. The latter may leave a coach wondering why. During the initial lift on a tire flip, the athlete will drive through the tire, forward and up, into a 45-degree body lean with the hips forward (the optimal angle for acceleration). The final push is driving the tire over horizontally. Most athletes aren't properly taught the final push on a tire flip. Instead of daintily pushing the tire over, they should drive it over violently to achieve as much force and distance as possible. A tire flip has to be violent and explosive or the tire won't budge. In terms of recruitment and activation, it is along the same lines as a log clean and press. Athletes will develop stronger, bigger, more explosive backs and legs from flipping. Coaches who don't have any tires should be ashamed. Industrial tire yards will give them away so they don't have to pay to recycle them.

These five movements are the best starting point for coaches or athletes to incorporate Strongman into any training program. When a new movement that is a little more complex gets incorporated into a program, neural stimulation will increase in the athlete. Bigger, more complex, multi-joint movements will cause the brain to send more signals to the muscles to increase motor unit recruitment. Motor unit recruitment is the progressive activation of a muscle by increasing the number of muscle fibers used to sprint, train, lift, or compete. Train heavy, complex, multi-joint movements and the strongest and biggest muscle fibers will contract. When athletes train with the proper power, those fibers contract faster. The one thing all the movements have in common is that they are just that—movements. They take total body motor unit recruitment and maximum neural stimulation to perform effectively, just like sports.