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Strongman Events and Strength and Conditioning Programs
J St and Cond 25(5) p44-52
Michael Waller, CSCS, *D; NSCA-CPT, *D
Timothy Piper, MS, CSCS
Robert Townsend, MS, CSCS, *D; NSCA-CPT
Key Words: ATP, glycolysis, power, anaerobic, strongman competition
STRONGMAN COMPETITIONS have become very popular and are televised frequently on cable sports channels. Although entertaining, some of these events can be used or modified for strength and conditioning programs. These events not only address strength, but also power, anaerobic endurance, and agility. The purpose of this article is not for the development or training of an individual to compete in a strongman competition, but rather to explain the why and how of integrating strongman events into a strength and conditioning program.
Pressing and Pulling Return to TOC
Overhead pressing is used in strongman competition as a demonstration of upper-body strength and power. Executing overhead presses from a standing position is more functional than a bench press for a construction worker because of the increased need for total body stabilization. These pressing movements are done in competition by either large wooden logs or manufactured steel logs. Regardless of whether a wood or steel log is used, the handles that are attached are placed so the hands are in a neutral position. This grip is different from the traditional barbell press performed prior to the 1972 Olympics.
The large circumference of the implement changes the mechanics of the press because the log cannot be kept as close to the body as a traditional barbell. Therefore, simulation of this event should not be substituted with the standard barbell, but rather a steel log, fat bars, or sand bag tubes should be used. Pressing in competition usually consists of a maximal repetition test with a given weight versus a 1 repetition maximum (1RM). Therefore, strength endurance will be a critical factor for success in this type of event, along with the power required to execute the press. A less expensive alternative to the steel logs would be the use of large sand bags or dumbbell pressing with the palms facing each other. Caution should be taken because of the stresses placed on the shoulder joints during the change of hand position, along with the change in trunk stabilization. The strength and conditioning professional should point out to the individual just starting to train for this type of pressing movement that the starting load will not be the same as its traditional barbell counterpart.
Pulling events performed in strongman competition can be done seated in a traditional row position using the arms and back or done by pulling a load with a harness in a sprint position. Pulling events have used steel blocks, trains, boats, trucks, sleds, and heavy chains in both seated and sprinting positions. These events can be implemented into a conditioning program and executed outside the gym for the majority of the events. An easy way to perform the standing pull event is to use a rope that is 30 or more feet long with an object secured on the end. Tires or a commercial pulling sled can be attached to the rope. Once the individual is standing at the rope's length, he or she should set his or her back in a manner similar to performing a pull or squat lift. Movement should be generated with the legs and hips and finished with a rowing of the arms working hand over hand to move the implement toward the individual.
The seated pull event is performed in a similar manner and with the same equipment, with the exception of an added immovable foot support. Although in a seated position, the majority of the work should be done by the leg and hip musculature, creating a repetitive motion of extension/flexion of the knees, hips, and ankles. Also, the increase of grip strength could be the difference between optimal and inefficient training.
The last event that could be used is sprint pulling for the increase of strength-speed or speed-strength. This event is 1 of the most physically demanding of all the events stressing the leg musculature, torso, and shoulders. A rope along with a harness strong enough to handle the strain of the load should be attached securely to the implement to be pulled. An optional rope could be used as a means to assist with the sprint when pulled with the arms. It is to the individual's advantage to lean forward, keeping his or her body close to horizontal for maximum force production. Like the other events, this is a closed kinetic chain (CKC) exercise that allows the body to create force by pressing the foot against the ground.
The degree of difficulty for pulling events will be determined by a number of factors such as the weight of the object, the irregularity of the object or pulling surface, the elasticity of the rope (nylon versus twine), and the ability to generate momentum in the object to be pulled. This type of exercise should be done over a given distance and a measured period of time in an attempt to increase strength-speed and recorded performance increases. Although the pulling event can be done with motor vehicles or objects with wheels, for safety this method needs a braking system. Regardless of the implement used, there should be an area that is at a minimum of 10 ft from the individual and a safety catch to stop the implement from continuing forward.
Multi-attribute Training Events Return to TOC
To develop a high capacity of anaerobic endurance and total-body strength endurance, the use of implements such as stones, anvils, kegs, barrels, and tires are excellent choices. These simple implements require total body effort that surpasses that required of common gym machines or even free weights. The muscles in the body must all work together for proper execution and safety. Regardless of what exercise one may choose, the muscles will be required to pull, push, lift, and support the objects in an unaccustomed manner. If performed with an emphasis on proper lifting posture/technique, each exercise can develop a great deal of work capacity.
Stones, Anvils, Barrels, and Tires
Lifting big stones or similar odd objects is arguably the oldest form of training known to mankind. These objects require total body strength and power with an especially high degree of back, hip, and torso strength. There is also a great deal of low back and hamstring flexibility required. These lifts have an obvious cross-training effect for sports like collegiate wrestling, Greco-roman wrestling, martial arts, ultimate fighting, rugby, and American football.
The major safety concerns typically deal with the increased chance of low back injury. It is recommended that only asymptomatic individuals take part in this type of training and under the supervision of an experienced strength and conditioning professional. Also, it is important that no one undertake this type of lifting without an extensive training background with deadlifts, squats, rows, weightlifting movements, etc. The crucial factor in lifting these types of implements is to maintain proper back position, never allowing the back to round out or rotate while under a heavy external load.
Lifting stones, anvils, and barrels utilizes back lifting and squat styles. To perform the back-lifting technique, bend over at the waist to grasp the object. While supporting the object with the hands and forearms, perform a good morning action while simultaneously attempting to perform a bent-over rowing action. Once the object is at knee level, roll it onto the thighs and reposition the hands if needed. Once complete control has been gained, try to “roll” or “clean” the object up to the chest and shoulder (Figure 1 ). If possible, an overhead press may be attempted.
The squat style varies from the back-lifting technique because it utilizes more of the hips and back with less emphasis on the rowing action. Squat behind the object and grasp it firmly. If the object is small enough, interlacing the fingers will sometimes provide added support. While squeezing the object to the chest, perform a squat until the object is at knee level. At this point attempt to roll it onto the thighs, reposition the hands as previously described, and attempt to clean and press the object.
There are 2 basic variations to flipping tires: the sumo style and the back-lift style. To execute the sumo style, approach the tire with a narrow sumo stance and try to lift it as if it were a barbell deadlift. This is popular with powerlifters because it is a comfortable and familiar position. Once the tire has been raised to the height of the hips or chest, rotate the hands and perform a forward press action with the arms to flip the tire over.
With a back-lift style of tire flipping, the athlete essentially performs a conventional deadlift with an added forward press. Place the feet at a comfortable hip-width stance, bend at the knees and hips, grab the bottom of the tire, and pull like a typical deadlift. The hands are repositioned and a forward press is performed to flip the tire over (Figure 2a–2c ). More emphasis is placed on the spinal erectors with this style of lift, but the upper body still gets involved once the “flip” has begun.
Although the “best” technique is very much an individual decision, we feel that the sumo style is probably the safest. It involves an efficient use of the hips, back, and legs. Less stress is placed on the extensors in an effort to utilize as many muscle groups as possible. One common fault is the use of a 1-leg support during the initial hand repositioning and pressing. This places a high degree of stress on the supporting leg, and the authors of the present paper feel that this increases the potential for a serious leg injury, even in the highly trained athlete. It is suggested that the entire lifting and pressing be performed with both feet planted firmly. Only after the tire has begun to flip over should the legs be repositioned.
Regardless of which style is chosen, the press action involves the legs, hips, back, chest, and arms. Either style has implications for activities such as the typical block action seen in football or the positions commonly seen in collegiate wrestling.
When seeking development of total-body power, an alternative method is the use of various medicine ball, stone, keg, or weight throws. Throws such as a traditional shot put or 2-hand put will develop hip, chest, and arm power, as most field coaches are aware of. Besides these traditional methods, some more innovative styles of throws can be incorporated. All of the throws will develop power, but each type of throw will emphasize slightly different areas of the body.
Reverse tosses and tosses for height will develop total body power with special emphasis on the hip and back extensors as well as shoulder flexion. To perform the reverse toss, grasp the object with both hands while flexing at the knees, hips, and spine. Allow the arms to hang loose and swing the object between the legs. Using an explosive extension of the knees, hips, and spine with a concomitant shoulder flexion, throw the object overhead and behind as far as possible.
A traditional strongman event is the keg toss for height (Figure 3 ). To perform the keg toss for height, grasp the keg with both hands and follow the same basic procedure as for the reverse toss. The only exception is that the objective is to toss the keg over a wall or standard as high as possible.
Other throws that can be performed include twisting throws for greater core training, underhand throws for emphasis on the spinal erectors, or forward overhead throws for more triceps emphasis. All of the various throwing events have obvious cross-training potential for track and field events, jumping sports, or any sport that requires a high degree of hip and back extension power.
Carrying Events Return to TOC
To develop total body stamina, anaerobic endurance, back-strength endurance, and grip strength, 1 of the best strongman events is the farmer's walk (Figure 4 ). The traditional farmer's walk consists of simply holding a heavy object in each hand and walking for a set distance, time, or until volitional fatigue.
The implements carried can vary from dumbbells, liquid propane tanks or railroad ties with handles attached, sandbags, or even weight plates. The use of logs will require the individual to use his or her back and shoulder muscles to keep the logs away from the body. The use of dumbbells and objects with handles will allow for greater loads to be used and therefore elicit a greater anaerobic endurance and strength-endurance response. Objects such as plates pinched between the fingers and thumb or sandbags will require greater grip strength.
Any activity that requires a high degree of anaerobic endurance, grip strength, and back-strength endurance will benefit from the use of a carrying event. Obvious benefits can be seen for sports such as wrestling and football, but this type of training is also productive for rehabilitation or prevention training for many common labor professions.
Performance Attributes Return to TOC
The objective of any strength and conditioning program is determining how and what exercise is going to be applied. This section of the article will address the components that are trained from the previously mentioned events. Strength and conditioning professionals will need to make the final decision of the program development, but it should be based on what joint movement, motor recruitment, and energy system is being conditioned.
First, the events mentioned above describe what is stressed during that particular event. As exercises are integrated into a program, the specific movements that are used in the sport, occupation, or activities of daily living must be used in the exercise selection. It is important to train for a specific movement and not an individual muscle. Executing a multijoint, complex movement will help establish a neural pathway so all the muscles used in the movement work in synchronism. An example of this would be a football lineman exploding out from a 3-point stance at the start of the play. The lineman primarily goes through knee and hip extension, plantar flexion, shoulder flexion, and elbow extension. This movement would be similar to flipping a tractor tire.
After analyzing what joint movements occur during a training movement, the type of motor recruitment and what muscle fiber types are recruited will be interpreted next. Table 1 lists the categories of performance that may be conditioned by incorporating strongman events into a training program, along with their synonyms. Speed can be defined as the magnitude of the velocity vector without concern for the direction of the displacement (1). Speed-strength is the ability to quickly execute an unloaded movement or a movement against a relatively small external resistance (4). An example of this is the throwing of a discus or shoveling dirt where the loads are not excessive but require a maximal contraction to move the relatively light external load quickly. Strength-speed is the rapid and forceful contraction of muscles against a maximal or submaximal load where velocity is decreasing and the strength needs are increasing.
Strength is the ability to overcome or counteract external resistance by muscular effort (5). Note that in the definition for strength, the variable of time is not mentioned and should aid the strength and conditioning professional in differentiating between what is strength or a strength-speed movement. Squats, deadlifts, and bench presses are traditional strength lifts, but this can be applied to 2 categories: isometric (static) and dynamic. An isometric example in strongman events is the crosshold where the contestant holds an object with shoulders abducted and must remain at a certain level until the arms can no longer hold. Dynamic strength in a strongman event is the deadlifting of a bar with attached containers holding stones.
Not only is the type of muscular recruitment important, but also the energy systems that are predominately utilized. All 3 energy systems are used constantly, but depending on the type and duration of muscular contraction, 1 of the 3 energy systems will predominate. The first is the ATP-PC system (adenosine triphosphate–phosphocreatine), which lasts less than 10 seconds and is often used in strength-speed, speed-strength, and maximal strength movements.
Although the ATP-PC system is the dominant system for most strongman events, there is also the need to condition the anaerobic glycolysis system, which is also referred to as the lactate energy system. Involvement of the lactate energy system increases as maximal effort continues for longer than 10 seconds and continues up to approximately 2 minutes (3). This lactic acid increase can be very noticeable in a tire-flipping event or the “Conan” wheel. The Conan wheel is a strongman event where a competitor lifts a bar in the crook of the elbows. The bar is attached to a pivot point with a loaded basket between it and the competitor. The basket is then carried in a circle pattern as many times as possible in a time limit.
Integration Return to TOC
As the strength and conditioning profession continues to expand, it is up to the professional to develop safe and effective programs. Although some people compete in strongman competitions for the challenge or as a sport, it is important to keep in mind that when applying a strongman training schedule to a client or athlete, there must be a legitimate purpose for it. As mentioned above, the physical attributes required, the activity's movements, and the objective of the program are important to integration.
Integrating strongman events into a program follows the same guidelines as with any other program. Has the activity that the athlete or client is training for been analyzed to address the physiological, movement, and injury-related needs? This analysis is completed by verbal feedback, physical evaluation, and visual assessment. This analysis will assist the strength and conditioning professional with the next step.
Exercise selection is determined by the need to train specifically for a strongman event. The needs analysis determines whether the exercise will be trained to improve power, strength, or movement specificity; prevent injury; or improve the experience of the athlete. This is the time to decide which exercises are going to make up the core of the program and which are going to be the assistance exercises.
After exercise selection, training frequency will be established based on the client or athlete's ability, his or her time availability, the point in the training phase or season, the load, and external and environmental factors. This is where training days, length of sessions, and duration of the cycle will be established in consideration of the conditioning level of the individual.
Exercise order places complex neurological and muscle-taxing activities and multiple-joint movements first and single-joint movements later in the training session (2, 5). For example, the overhead keg toss would not need to be first because of the relatively simple movement. Tire flipping would be early in a program because this is an extremely fatiguing event. Also, the core exercise of the program is executed first followed by the assistance exercises.
Depending on what phase of conditioning a person is at, it should be kept in mind that as intensity increases the repetitions will decrease (2). An event such as a keg toss will have a single repetition per attempt because of maximal effort, but log presses can have multiple repetitions. Also, one should question whether the program will use a percentage of a 1RM or use a another repetition maximum, such as a 90% 1RM intensity or a goal of 3 repetitions maximum for a particular week. Notice that sets are not considered here because they relate to the volume of a conditioning program.
Training volume is the number of sets times the number of repetitions (sets × reps), which can be used to calculate the volume for the exercise, session, week, or the entire program. Volume allows for the strength and conditioning professional to guide the program toward muscular hypertrophy, strength/power, or endurance. Strength/power programs will have a low volume where the repetitions may not go above 5 and the sets are reduced compared with a preparatory phase. Endurance training will have a high volume because of a repetition range between 12 and 15 and sets above more than 2 in order to utilize anaerobic glycolysis.
Finally, rest or recovery will encompass the entire program development. Rest between sets, exercises, and sessions is crucial for optimal performance and adaptation. Power events such as a log push press will warrant a longer rest before the next set to have adequate neuromuscular recuperation. Also, the recovery between sessions aids in injury prevention, energy system recovery, and physiological adaptation. Typically it is recommended that an athlete should rest the fatigued muscle fibers for 48 hours to repair the muscle fibers and replenish energy stores. The exact amount of recovery will ultimately be dictated by the individual and will require communication between the strength professional and client.
Overall Considerations andTangibles Return to TOC
Although this article has discussed program development for alternative training, there are other considerations that also need to be considered before implementing such a training program. First, once the event that is specific to the objective of the program is decided, do modifications need to be made to it? For example, most health and fitness facilities do not have Atlas stones and a 5-tiered platform. However, dumbbells or plates can be substituted for the stones and benches or plyo-boxes can be used as the platforms. Table 2 has a list of the events with their respective substitutions, although the table is just a list of examples; the possibilities are endless.
Second, what are the space requirements of the particular event? Tire flipping requires a large open space for the repetitive movements along with the storage of the tractor tires. However, if these items are going to be used and stored at a facility that is for public use, consider on the aesthetics and perception that it portrays. Finally, the environment where the event will take place not only encompasses the temperature and humidity, but also the traffic flow, flooring, ceiling height if applicable, and the overall mission of the facility.
Table 3 is an outline of a 4-phase conditioning program for a construction worker. This program is hypothetical and is to provide the strength and conditioning professional with an idea of how a strongman event can be integrated into a strength and conditioning program. Improving a client or athlete's performance with strongman events can be a valuable training method and tool as long as the above guidelines are followed.
Conclusion Return to TOC
Strength and conditioning programs use stability balls, exercise tubes, balance boards, plate-loaded equipment, and bumper plates, all of which are valuable training devices when they are implemented correctly and safely. Strongman events can also be integrated into a strength and conditioning program to provide challenging exercise, variety, stimuli, and a potential marketing tool. There are many different training methods, principles, and devices that can be used by a strength and conditioning professional. It is the role of the professional to determine what is safe and what is beneficial to the client or athlete. It is our belief that the use of strongman events can be safely integrated and beneficial to a strength and conditioning program.
References Return to TOC
1. Enoka, R.M. Neuromechanics of Human Movement (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2002.
2. Fleck, S.J., and W.J. Kraemer. Designing Resistance Training Programs (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 1997.
3. Powers, S.K., and E.T. Howley. Exercise Physiology : Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance (4th ed.). New York : McGraw-Hill. 2001.
4. Siff, M.C. Supertraining (4th ed.). Denver, CO: Supertraining Institute. 2000.
5. Zatsiorsky, V.M. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 1995.
Michael Waller is fitness director of Highland Park Hospital Health and Fitness Center and is a graduate student at Concordia University.
Timothy Piper is an assistant professor at Western Illinois University and has hosted and competed in state-level rongman competitions.
Robert Townsend is the assistant program director for Work Conditioning Systems and has competed in a number of strongman competitions.
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