Transitioning From Novice to Open Class Strongman Competitor

TAGS: Yoke Walks, open class, Medleys, Circus DB Clean & Press, axle, log, Frame Carry, Car Deadlift, farmer's walk, CrossFit, novice, Chase Karnes, tire flip, atlas stones, strongman

Strongman is growing at a faster rate than ever. There are two reasons for this. Part of the growth is thanks to CrossFit. A lot of strongman competitors were introduced to the sport and its movements first through CrossFit. The second cause for the recent Strongman growth is word of mouth, especially through the Internet. This growth is great for the sport, and with the surge of new competitors that comes with it, I’ve seen an interesting trend: The novice class weights are getting lighter and lighter.

I do see why this is happening, as it is helping pull more people into the sport. New competitors are introduced to competing with “doable” weights that aren’t as intimidating. There’s a problem with this, though. A lot of these new competitors are decently strong compared to the average gym goer, but they don’t have a great base of strength when compared to an open-level competitor. This is fine for most competitors in the novice level, but those who win in the novice division are forced to bump up to the open class — some after their first competition. (This is mostly dependent on the level of competition, but once a novice competitor wins or places top 2 or 3, they are forced to move up a class. They “graduate” and can no longer compete in the novice division).

For the new competitor who early in his career wins a novice competition, moving up to the open class is a problem. They aren’t ready for the heavier weights of the open class, but don’t have a choice but to compete with them. And the weights in the open class keep getting heavier all the time. As with any sport, the athletes are constantly raising the bar by stepping up their performance and moving heavier weights. For those who are stepping up, this is great. However, for the former novice guy who is just entering the open class, it isn’t so good.

StrongmanChampionsLeague U90kg

Do we need a new class between the novice and open classes? No, we don’t. The novice guys just need to get stronger. Strongman isn’t for everyone; it is for strong men and women. It is a strength sport. You have to have a large base of strength before you start worrying about your foot speed, keg carry technique, or transition times on a press medley. Some guys forget this part. They forget about strength. Or maybe, influenced by their history in CrossFit with the sole purpose of training many fitness qualities at once, they try chasing multiple goals at once and don’t improve any of them. There is no place for a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, in strongman. There are specific qualities that need trained, and trying to increase your squat, deadlift, bench press, overheard press, log press, back squat, front squat, famer’s walk, yoke walk, tire flip, stone load, etc., etc., etc. all at once will not work. If your weak point is general weakness, you need to take a dedicated step back from the strongman events and work on your strength base. If you’re lacking muscle mass, then you need hypertrophy work and more food. There is a point where static strength from gym lifts is not what is needed to improve a competitor’s weakness, but for a competitor that simply cannot handle the weights of the open class, more strength is the first step. You can worry about improving specific events later.

I came to strongman as a former football player who had competed in bodybuilding and dabbled in powerlifting. I still lacked the strength that I needed to compete in the mid to top open level. I figured this out and took some time off from events to dedicate my training to get stronger on the lifts that had the best carryover to strongman. After months of training with the sole purpose of increasing my deadlift, front squat, incline bench, and strict overhead press, I went back to work on the events. My very first session back with the events I could tell a huge difference in my performance. Implements felt lighter because I was stronger. Everything felt easier, and once my technique came back after a few short weeks of event work, I was able to perform much better. This worked so well that I actually took another phase off from events after a year or so of competing. During each of these strength phases I made sure to eat big and not worry about a little fat gain.

Here are the lifts that I feel have the most carryover to the most common events:


Yoke Walks

  • Back Squats
  • Front Squats
  • Good Mornings
  • RDLs
  • Lunges
  • Suitcase Carries
  • Rollouts
  • Hanging Leg Raises

Farmers Walk/Frame Carry

  • Support Grip Work
  • Deadlift
  • Lunges
  • Good Mornings
  • RDLs
  • Suitcase Carries
  • Rollouts
  • Hanging Leg Raises

Tire Flip

  • Deadlift
  • Power Clean
  • Box Jumps
  • Front Squats
  • Back Squats
  • GHRs

Log/Axle/Circus DB Clean & Press

  • Strict Overhead Press
  • Push Press
  • Push Jerk
  • Bench Press
  • Incline Bench Press
  • Cleans
  • Strict DB Overhead Press
  • Box Jumps
  • Front Squats

Car Deadlift/18 inch Deadlift/Axle Deadlift

  • Deadlift
  • Block Pulls
  • Rack Pulls
  • Front Squats
  • Trap Bar Deadlift

Atlas Stones

  • Deadlift
  • Front Squats
  • GHRs
  • Rows
  • RDLs
  • Good Mornings
  • Back Squats
  • Cleans

Medleys (Carry/Drag)

  • Back Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Rows
  • GHRs
  • RDLs
  • Good Mornings
  • Lunges
  • Rows
  • Conditioning

You might have noticed that some lifts appear on the list multiple times. Guess what? Those need to be the focus of your programming. Don’t try to train everything at once. Compare your lifts and determine which ones are weakest in relation to one another. For example, compare the front and back squat. If you can back squat 450 but front squat 225, you need to bring up your front squat. Dedicate time to that lift and work on it. The same goes for your press variations. If you’re a great bench presser but lack power in the incline press, it’s time to bring it up. At the end of the day, you need to know which lifts have the most carryover and focus on getting as strong as possible on those lifts.

Take time off from events for at least 12 weeks. Most truly weak competitors will need even longer. If you must train events, or just really enjoy event training and refuse to give it up, continue to train your best event and your worst two events. Train them with lower intensity and lower volume. Even if you go this route, your main focus during this phase should be on improving your strength on gym lifts. I highly recommend not training the events at all. Don’t freak out, remember that you’re training for something bigger than today. You are building a base that will make the events easier once you return to them. You’ll be stronger, and the technical aspects will come back. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience.

Photo courtesy of NGS/MirrorBoxStudios

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