Is strongman dangerous?
So the first question would be: Is strongman dangerous? Many powerlifters (at least the ones I met) believe that strongman exercises are not worth their time due to the high risk-to-reward ratio but is it really the case?
Strongman exercises can be trained in a safe manner, similarly to the powerlifting exercises. It depends on the athlete themselves if they want to build up their base and general conditioning or keep pushing through the pain because they aspire to become the next World’s Strongest Man. Some exercises such as the Atlas Stone can be dangerous but so are the powerlifting exercises. If you have a good coach, know your technique and plan your strategy, they can’t be any more dangerous than your regular routine.
Strongman exercises can, in some cases, decrease the risk of injury by building a more stable base, improving your coordination, decreasing your reaction time, helping you develop mental toughness and teaching you humbleness. As these exercises are new for most of us, we will be forced to start lighter and get proficient with the technique first before we start adding more and more weight. Such an approach builds patience and is often overlooked as strength athletes have a tendency to trying speed things up if you know what I mean ;).
General Physical Preparation
Regardless if you want to be the strongest man in the gym or not, you will need a strong base and every certified strength and conditioning specialist will tell you that. Exercises such as yoke, farmer’s walk, atlas stone or loaded carries can overload the core muscles that play a major role in the squat and deadlift. As it goes for the bench press, you can use Log Press, Viking Press or other functional, strongman exercise variations. In the long run, it will help you squat, bench press and deadlift more weight because building upon them will be like building a pyramid, the wider the base, the harder it is to push it over.
A strong base is not only important in sports like strongman or powerlifting but in pretty much every professional sport. Legendary coaches such as Josh Bryant, Boris Sheiko or Louie Simmons often highlight that GPP is the base and SPP (Special Physical Preparation) comes afterwards so if you want to acquire gargantuan muscle, tremendous strength and great stamina, you better focus on building that base. I am pretty sure that every World’s Strongest Man or Arnold Strongman Classic competitor will agree with me. This is one of the basic principles of strength and conditioning.
Size, strength, power and conditioning
Strongman exercises can not only help you build muscle or strength but also power and conditioning. They can speed up your recovery time between the sets (and every strong lifter will admit that exercises such as squat and deadlift are a pain in the ass in terms of the amount of rest they need to take to recover between the sets) which can increase the workout density and result in more gains by performing the same amount of work in less time (or more work in the same time). This can be spotted in bodybuilding, where elite bodybuilders shorten their rest periods to tire their muscles quicker so they can elicit the same hypertrophic adaptations while spending less time in the gym.
Remember, you don’t have to compete in the World’s Strongest Man or Arnold Strongman Classic to successfully utilise strongman exercises and build your conditioning. A strong base is useful in any sport, not just strongman or powerlifting.
Modern strongman athletes
Strongman is changing just as powerlifting is. In the previous decades, strongman was more about conditioning, agility, and stamina. It included prolonged exercises executed under load. Although in the past, it was more balanced, nowadays it’s more about brute strength. The athletes are trying to lift heavier and heavier weights and it has much more common with powerlifting than you might have previously thought. Some powerlifters are even transferring to strongman and vice versa.
Modern strongman athletes often lift much heavier weights than those used in powerlifting as they are allowed to use special equipment such as lifting straps, suits, etc. It’s similar to the equipped powerlifting where athletes also use suits to overload their muscles and CNS with heavier weights. Such a manoeuvre can help you feel what it’s like to lift supramaximal weights so you’re ready for them in the future as your body will remember the strain it was placed upon.
Useful strongman exercises
There are many strongman exercises that are useful for powerlifting and I’m not going to go through all of them in a single article but list the ones that I found the most useful. Treat this part as a general guideline on what exercises can be utilised during your off-season period.
- Viking Press will help you build strong shoulders that are useful for Bench Press
- Log Press will help you build strong shoulders and even core along with the upper back
- The Strongman Dumbbell Press will strengthen your shoulders, improve your coordination and stability
- Frame Carry and Farmer’s Walk will overload your core muscles, improve your coordination and overload your CNS with a shit ton of weight
- Loaded Carry will strengthen your legs, core, upper back and improve your conditioning
- Atlas Stone will benefit you in a similar way to Loaded Carry but if you really want to improve your conditioning, you will have to load a couple of stones in a row
- Power Stairs will build your grip, legs and lower back
- Yoke Walk will strengthen your whole body and teach you how to brace like a motherfucker
- Fingal’s Fingers are great for overloading the core along with the quads and shoulders
- Hercules Hold will help you build monstrous grip strength
- Keg Toss will develop a powerful hip extension pattern and deadlifting power
The list is obviously not exhaustive and some exercises can’t be performed in commercial gyms due to lack of equipment so you might have to experiment a little bit and find some substitutes.
Your path to greatness
Not everybody keeps strongman equipment at home and not every gym has such equipment available. Even if it’s a designated powerlifting gym, strongman stuff might be hard to find and even if the equipment is present, the options are usually limited. In order to make your life easier, I have prepared a list of substitute exercises that derive from strongman and can be used to boost your powerlifting performance.
Getting a heavy slam ball and doing some Slam Ball Carries is one of the easiest ways to imitate Shield Carry as well as the Atlas Stone. Slam balls don’t bounce and they absorb shock which makes them safe to drop on the floor. You can also train with them in your garden, on your balcony or even outside your house so unless it’s raining, you don’t even need a gym. The exercises that I typically prescribe with them are “Stone” to Shoulder, Slam Ball Carry, Atlas “Stone” Load or even “Pseudo Deadlift” where you grab it off the floor, lift it up to hip height and drop back down.
Heavy kettlebells are a great tool that allows you to strengthen your hip extension pattern through KB Swings but if you think creatively, there are a couple more things you can do with them. Single-Arm KB Swings will hit your core and lats like a fucking bulldozer, while Duck Walk allows you to properly train your glutes, especially if you follow them with a Vertical Jump, Broad Jump or even throw in a KB Swing every couple of steps. Those exercises develop power and explosive strength which is very useful not only in strongman but also in powerlifting. Pretty much every certified strength & conditioning specialist will agree with me here even if the goal is not to compete in the World’s Strongest Man or Arnold Strongman Classic.
Trap bars allow you to imitate Farmer’s Walk or perhaps should I say Frame Carries. They will train your grip and core, overload your central nervous system, teach you how to handle heavier weights and, depending on the technique you choose, either strengthen your quads by dipping in more with your knees before the takeoff (which is great for people who struggle with the push phase in the deadlift) or work on your posterior chain if you stick your bum out enough. The technique changes everything here. Another idea on how to use the trap bar to aid you in powerlifting is to do Loaded Trap Bar Jumps. This will help you build tremendous leg power and speed off the ground. If by any chance, you want to overload your grip, you can simply deadlift the trap bar off the floor and hold it without straps for 10-20 seconds or so. As this position is more natural, it will allow for more weight to be lifted which will serve as a wonderful grip-strength overload.
Using swinging maces and hammers positively influences your shoulder girdle mobility, grip strength and stamina and can even give you decent upper pecs and shoulder pump. Swinging though is not the only thing you can do with them. Grab the mace by one end and put it over your head. Let it hang down along your spine and just stay like this for half a minute or so. It stretches your lats like a motherfucker. Now, in this position, start simply straightening your elbows and voila! Here we have legit Triceps Extensions with redistributed weight! Another thing you can do with it is to grab it by the heavier end, dip in with your knees slightly and imitate a Strongman Dumbbell Press. This will not build a lot of strength as the mace or hammer will probably be too light but it can serve as a great warm-up tool, stability and coordination drill or you can push press it up and slowly drop it down stabilising it with just one arm which can be used as an eccentric triceps overload (the movement occurs only in the elbow joint).
A weighted vest is an excellent choice if you want to work on your conditioning. Apart from walking or sprinting with it, you can use it for exercises such as Horse Stance, Walking Lunges, Weighted Push Ups, Weighted Crunches, Weighted Superman, Lateral Lunges, Bulgarian Split Squats or even Vertical Jump or Broad Jump to really work that triple extension! They’re not really strongman exercises but the effort is similar plus it can teach you how to last under tension for longer and this could be a crucial GPP element during the off-season for powerlifters who lack stamina which is often the case.
First of all, if you’re not doing so already, I would recommend introducing mental conditioning practice to your routine. You can practice in your spare time to improve your concentration and focus, develop mental edge, build mental toughness, and improve your cognitive skills. It will help you build mind-body awareness and become a better athlete.
Well, you can’t really be doing just functional exercises and beat world records in powerlifting so let me give you a piece of useful advice before you start randomly throwing strongman or other functional movements into your routine. Following these practical tips will ensure that you get the carryover to your squat, bench and deadlift.
Lifting, loading and carrying the slam ball overloads your core and upper back mostly. It’s beneficial for people who hunch during the deadlift. Lifting it off the floor really trains your forearm muscles along with your fingers. It’s also hard to breathe under the load (assuming the ball is heavy enough) so your breathing muscles might also expect some development which might come in handy during max effort lifts later.
KB Swings are a great exercise if you know how to even the weight out so the tension stays on your legs. If you manage to do so by lowering your hips to the appropriate depth and picking the right stance width, you can expect some squat carryover from just swinging your bells. If you combine it with other leg exercises such as Lunges (protip: taking short steps will help you focus on your VMOs and knee extension pattern) or Horse Stance, the gains will be much more noticeable. This strategy allowed me to add around 20kg to my squat in a matter of 2 months when I was squatting only once a month. Seems like GPP is not as bad as it sounds, huh?
Weighted Push Ups carry over to the Bench Press much better than other, fancy variations so if you want to spice up your pressing routine, put that weighted vest on and start blasting out some reps. Incomplete recovery training such as the rest-pause method will allow you to continue progressing as you become more proficient at this exercise but remember that you can always add resistance bands or move on to Plyo Push Ups which can be performed in a fast-response or long-response manner depending on your goals.
Walking with the trap bar carries over to the deadlift much better than just lifting it off the floor. As you walk, the stability demands increase and your core and grip have to work much harder. It’s also useful to hold it at the end of your last set for a couple more seconds and do some Cheat Shrugs with it. This will build your traps and overload your entire body. The strength carryover is usually greater when the muscles are changing their length during the exercise and grip or traps are no exception, remember that.
Mace swinging shall serve you mostly as a prehab strategy and maybe some hypertrophy work. They’re not heavy enough to expect a drastic pressing strength increase from just swinging the mace but, if implemented correctly, can really loosen those tight shoulders, improve stability, mobility and general strength of your shoulder girdle. I’m not saying it’s not worth your time but bear in mind that it will not transition straight away. Use it in addition to other exercises.
Vertical Jumps and Broad Jumps, especially when weighted, can make a real difference in terms of getting out of the bottom of the squat or initiating the pull from the floor in your deadlift. They are often overlooked but they’re really good exercises to develop power and explosive strength. Performed in larger volumes, can also improve your work capacity.
Strongman and functional training can be useful for powerlifting when implemented in the right way, at the right time. Using it as a substitute isn’t essential to reach your peak performance, however, adding a couple of exercises here and there during your off-season or replacing some simple accessories with their more functional variation can indeed help you reach the next level.
Bear in mind that every exercise has its purpose so instead of throwing in random exercises just because they look cool, spend some time analysing what movement patterns and which muscle groups they engage, think about how could they potentially transfer to the main lifts and help you improve your performance in powerlifting as well as ask yourself one simple question: Do I really need this exercise at this moment?
P.S. If you want to take your training to the next level, I recommend checking out my coaching program.