Setting Up a Strongman Program


I'm training strongman now and I want to improve at the different events—axle press, Atlas stones, and so on. But I don't want to lose progress on classic gym lifts like the bench press and squat. How should I program to improve in both areas of training?


This is exactly what I presented on at the 2012 LTT Seminar at elitefts™
Here's an excerpt from my notes on the presentation. However, remember that this is only one option...

Program set up:

Setting up a strongman program is no different than any other type of program. Periods of high intensity must be balanced with lower intensity to prevent overtraining (GAS principle). For strongman competitors, program design needs to be based on access to implements and knowledge of events in your upcoming contest. If you know what events are in the next contest, focus on those.

For those with limited access to implements, a solid barbell-based program is needed with one event day. Stick with squats, overhead press (OHP), deadlift, cleans, rows, etc. Do one day of event training if you have limited access. Don’t kill it on the event day. Treat it like any other training day. Pick two to four events and work the ones you suck at the hardest. Find your weakness and eliminate it.

It is a good idea to know what events are in your next contest. For example, if you have a max log, it doesn’t do much good to train the axle for max reps. Try and tailor your routine to the next contest, especially if you only compete once or twice a year.

For those that compete regularly, stick with bread and butter events like tire, farmer's walk, yoke, stones and log/thick bar. Vary your reps because you need to mix in high reps with max weight. This can be done in a block-fashion or a modified block. I'm a big fan of the modified block. We frequently use a wave of one month on a modified block. So, we use one week of 12’s, week of 8’s week of 5’s week of 3’s.

For squats, presses, pulls, etc., we use modified blocks a lot. On the high rep week, we typically use 5 sets of 12, 5 sets of 10 or 8, and then go to sets of three working sets for the remaining weeks. Intensity is low on the high rep weeks, but tonnage is high, and the reverse is true for the heavy weeks. For events that require walking and don’t use reps, go for longer distances with lighter weight in the initial weeks of a program to build GPP. Then, wave in heavy, shorter walks, like a max weight for 25 or 50 feet.

You can also follow a Westside-based strongman workout. I have an article on the site on this that was written years ago, but it still holds up. I am currently training a pro and a high-level amateur using the same basic template. (Print and distribute) Using this style of template is not for beginners and is grueling. It does keep you in contest shape all year, though. We mix in all different types of sets/reps in the Westside template. Remember, it is Westside-based, not true Westside.

The main similarity is that it addresses your weak points, not your training partners. You need to figure out where you need improvement, and this is where the individuality comes in. Choose assistance work based on what you need brought up. For the events and main lifts, your entire crew can train together, but when it comes time for assistance, you need to work on your own, unless you all have the same issues. This has NEVER been the case in my experience and can be the downfall of a successful program.

A lot of guys want to do all the same exercises when they train together. This is not the best choice. Let’s use powerlifting as an example. Speed is not my problem, but one of my training partners is strong, but slow. I’m fast, but not strong. I need less work on DE day than she does. I need more work on ME day. I also need to do more assistance to bring up my own weaknesses, such as the bottom end of the bench. When choosing assistance, one of my partners likes to do exactly what I do and sometimes gets upset when I say “don’t do what I do, do what you need to do.” Your workout is yours. Do what you need to do. Listen to your training partners when they tell you that you did this or that. They can see your form breakdowns. Use that feedback to choose your assistance work wisely. This goes for events and barbell lifts.

Barbell lifts need to be the base of your program, regardless of what style of program you follow.

Strongman is first and foremost about being STRONG. Basic lifts get you stronger than anything else.

Set up your program around the squat, deadlift and OHP. You will need to also do cleans, rows, pull-ups, dips, and I hate to say it, but curls. Strongman has a high injury rate, especially with the biceps. Get them strong, just don’t devote a day to arms training. Hammer curls, barbell curls, and band curls done fast for high reps work well at the end of the workout.

A great way to add volume to your program is to do as JW suggests, and do a set of pull-ups, or band pull-ups between sets of presses. You won’t get too taxed, and will get much stronger form doing it this way.

When choosing sets/reps for the basic lifts, I'm a believer in addressing your weaknesses first. If you weight 275 and can’t squat at least 500 perfectly, you suck at squats and need to get better at them. Devise a plan to improve your limit strength on the squat. This goes for the other lifts, as well, and the reverse is true, too. If you can squat 600 pounds once but can’t do 315 five times, you need to work on endurance.

Try my 12/15/20 squat wave for about nine weeks. You get balls-strong on it and high rep sets are a joke at the end. All of your lifts will get better. High rep/heavy weight squats are ideal for strongman.

The biggest challenge with designing a strongman program is balancing high rep work with limit strength. It’s easy for powerlifting because you never do high reps in a meet. In strongman, you never know what could be coming at you. There might be an event for max weight or a 1RM's where the programming becomes tricky. I'm going to use the NFL combine as an example. They bench 225 pounds for reps. Why? I don’t know, but they do. The best way to get someone to bench 225 pounds for a ton of reps is to raise their 1RM through the stratosphere. A guy that benches 455 raw, can always bench 225 more times than a guy who does 315 for his max.

This is similar to strongman because you need a very high-level of limit strength on your basic lifts. The problem is that you also need a high lactate threshold and LME. Lactate threshold can be raised in many ways, but LME can’t and must be increased specifically. This is where high reps sets done usually for time with a weight close to or at contest levels become appropriate. This is most frequently seen in the press and a deadlift variation. On the press, it is not the most taxing thing in the world, sure it’s hard, but you can recover from it. On the deadlift, it is very taxing and takes a long time to recover from a few sets of 15 with 600 pounds.

When doing high reps with a max weight, it is important to limit the amount of assistance work that you do. Think about it, if you dump your nut on three sets of high reps on the deadlift, what else do you really need to do that day that will get you stronger and not burn you out? Consider your overall volume/tonnage and choose assistance work wisely. This is mostly true for beginners who tend to do too much.

Program design

Try this for a basic plan with limited access to events:

Day 1

  • Squat
  • Assistance 1
  • Assistance 2
  • Abs
  • Grip

Choose a squat variation, either high bar or front of low bar, then choose an assistance exercise done heavy for sets of 5-8. Some examples of these are good mornings, zercher squats, or something for your weak points, ass, or quads. A very heavy Prowler® push for 25-50 feet is also a great exercise.

Day 2

  • OHP
  • Assistance 1
  • Assistance 2
  • Assistance 3
  • Abs

Pick an OHP variation, and then choose a supine press for your second exercise. For example, if you did axle OH for a RM, pick high a rep dumbbell bench or weighted dip for your second and then something for your back for the third exercise.

Day 3

  • Deadlift
  • Assistance 1
  • Assistance 2
  • Grip

I suggest pulling frequently for strongman. The second exercise can be cleans, high pulls, or snatches. And the third can be upper back or posterior chain.

Day 4

  • Events

When choosing what to do do for the first exercise, pick one of the ways I listed, modified block, 1-3-5RM, or max reps for time. Choose three or four events and choose one that you want to PR at. Do maintenance for the others.

This is just one way to set up a program. The Westside plan is explained in the handouts.

Let me know if this helps.