Like many others, I started weight training in high school. I found out I liked lifting when a new neighbour moved in and showed us his older brother’s sand-filled weight set — that’s how long ago high school was for me.
I kept it up through college, making my workout the center of my day. I loved it so much I changed my major from Mathematics to Exercise Science, and 40 plus years and multiple degrees later, I’ve kept it up.
But five years ago, I hit a rut. “Oh sh*t, it’s legs day, what do you want to do,” I’d say. “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” my training partner would answer. We needed a change.
Luckily, I met a trainer named Art Boss at a National Strength Conditioning Association (NSCA) state clinic in New Jersey, where he was giving a presentation on Strongman training. Art was soft-spoken yet engaging, and invited his audience to try some of the maneuver he was describing on a huge tractor tire, among other unusual implements.
After watching the participants try to walk with farmer’s walk implements, flip the tire, and lift an Atlas Stone — the signature event in strongman competitions — I needed to try it myself. Art invited any participant to train with him on any Saturday afternoon at Boss Strength and Conditioning (which is mostly in his backyard).
A friend of mine and fellow attendee at the clinic agreed to give it a go with Art. We tried pressing an axle loaded with large truck tires, pulling a sled down the asphalt driveway, and more. The workout was fatiguing and exhilarating all at the same time. I was hooked.
After the workout, I felt physically drained — but not in an “I lifted too much and I can’t get up” kind of way. It was more of an “I just trained my body like it has never been trained before” kind of way. And I was not particularly good at it. Actually, I sucked.
“The big misconception with Strongman training is that you have to possess world-class strength — not so!” Art explains. “Just like traditional gym exercises, Strongman events can be tailored to accommodate all ages and physical abilities. Whether your goal is to increase sports performance or just maintain an independent and injury-free lifestyle, Strongman can make your program both fun and functional.”
That versatility is what really kept me interested. I was pretty strong for any age with lifts in the gym — but this was different. The practice challenged me like I had never been challenged by anything ever in my life. I kept at it faithfully practically every Saturday, working with Art and a diverse group of people to get better.
Taking Strongman to the Next Level
I started watching The World’s Strongest Man competition with purpose. How did these super-strong men do it?
One important thing I noticed was that there is no standard technique for each event — but there is a slight variation in technique that might be more effective for each person. For example, when flipping a tire, some lifters bring the tire to the knee and then get under it to flip the tire. Others try to generate enough power to flip it all in one motion. Both techniques are acceptable.
Soon after I caught the Strongman bug and attended an organized contest, I entered one myself. I was impressed at how lifters supported and cheered for other lifters, openly shared tips and tricks, and genuinely wanted everyone to do their best.
Art helped me find the next contest, which was sanctioned by the Strongman Corporation (contests are sanctioned for consistency, meeting a standard, and to count for moving on to Nationals) and organized by TeamBix Strength. I performed poorly, zeroing out (not getting any points in the event) in most of the disciplines.
Although I did not perform as well as I had hoped in that event, I was encouraged by all participants and by the event host and kept at it — something I haven’t always found in a weight room setting. I have continued my training, and I have actually won my category in a Strongman contest not just once, but twice now. That will keep me going for another 40 years.
How Strongman Can Help You
Even though there are a litany of articles proclaiming that you should avoid certain types of exercises if you’re over or under a certain age or body type, we know that building a foundation with fundamental movements gives lifters the freedom to select other exercises and activities. Hinging, squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, bracing, and rotating are essential movements; Strongman events incorporate many of these, often together.
“The biggest bang for the buck Strongman exercises are farmers walks, sandbag carries, and sandbag extensions,” says Kalle Beck, founder of Starting Strongman. “Farmers walks can add slabs of muscle to your upper back while working your grip, forearms, and core. If you don’t have access to Strongman-style farmers walk implements, you can simply carry some dumbbells.” Beck suggests starting with 4 to 10 sets of carries of 50 to 100 feet (15m to 30m), working up to carrying your bodyweight in each hand.
Beck is also a big fan of the front carry, since it’s a common, everyday movement. “Adding front carries into your training using implements like sandbags can be a fun challenge that builds thick spinal erectors and even works the chest,” he says. “If you don’t have a sandbag, you can stack a couple bumper plates together as shown in this video:”
Beck suggests beginners start with 2 to 4 sets of carries for 50 to 200 feet (15m to 60m). “Another good move is to do sandbag or other front loaded implement extensions,” he says. Check out the video below for the form, then start with 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 10 reps.
You can also cycle in these movements to a more traditional strength training routine. If you really get hooked, consider dedicating one day a week Strongman and then balance your weekly training with more traditional exercises.
Just remember to start slow, and if possible find someone to help you along your way — you’re not going to be the World’s Strongest Man right off the bat. “Be coachable,” Teambix Strength Founder Kyle Bixler says. “Listen to someone who has been in the sport for 15 years, not someone who got a Strongman ‘certification.’ Remember Strongman is a journey not a sprint.”
Once you have enough time under your belt to feel confident performing the events in a supportive, collegial atmosphere, give a Strongman contest a try. I’d love to see you at an event and hear your story.
By Rick Howard M.ED., C.S.C.S., *D