Strongman is the ULTIMATE strength sport. No other competition tests so many facets of strength at the same time. Whether you are a novice competitor or just want to train like a strongman, the good news is you can emulate your strongman heroes in a commercial gym.
If you have ever marveled at the feats of strength demonstrated by the competitors of World’s Strongest Man, you will probably have thought, “Man, I’d LOVE to try some of that!”
However, unless you have access to atlas stones, a super yoke, and a truck to pull, you’ve also probably come to realize that training like a strongman might not be all that practical.
While strongman competitions DO use some exotic and unusual implements, you can still train like a strongman in an average gym.
The thing to understand is that your muscles have no idea whether you are deadlifting a car or deadlifting a barbell; they just know tension and work. Once you get your head around that particular idea, strongman-style training becomes a lot more straightforward. You can use common strength training exercises to replicate many of the events in strongman competitions.
There are several common disciples across all strongman events, and once you break these events down and identify their gym-based equivalents, strongman training is far more accessible.
If you are serious about strongman, you should train in a gym with all the necessary equipment. However, if you are a novice preparing for your first event, or just fancy trying strongman-style training for yourself, there is nothing to stop you from working out in a commercial gym.
The deadlift is a classic strongman event. They are done with maximum weights for single reps or submaximal weights for time. Deadlifts are sometimes done with a standard barbell but may also involve things like car deadlifts, thick bars, and lifting from a range of different heights.
However, while the load and the object lifted can vary enormously, a deadlift is a deadlift, so it’s something you can train in most gyms.
Strongman deadlifting is usually done with a double overhand grip using straps or a parallel grip, again using straps. However, if you have no intention of competing in strongman, use a mixed grip if that is your preference.
Examples of gym-based strongman deadlift workouts include:
- Ramp up to your 5, 3, or 1 repetition maximum in any style of deadlift.
- Ramp up in progressively heavier single reps.
- Maximum reps for time with a set weight, e.g., 300lbs.
- Deadlift medley – 5 reps each of barbell deadlift, trap bar deadlift, sumo deadlift
The deadlift is a key exercise in the sport of strongman, so work it hard and often to develop a strong posterior chain and grip that will help you in almost all of the other events. Keep your deadlift workouts varied by including conventional, sumo, rack pulls, deficit deadlifts, fat bar deadlifts, and trap bar deadlifts.
Squats are the king of lower body exercises. If you want strong, powerful legs, squats should be part of your workouts. That goes for bodybuilders, general exercisers, athletes, and especially strongman competitors.
Like deadlifts, strongman events involve lots of different types of squats, so you should mirror that variation in your training. That means you should do back squats, front squats, Zercher squats, bottoms-up squats, paused squats, goblet squats, and even Smith machine in your workouts.
Try these strongman-inspired gym-based squat workouts:
- Ramp up to your 5, 3, or 1 repetition maximum in any style of squat.
- Ramp up in progressively heavier single reps.
- Maximum reps for time with a set weight, e.g., 225lbs.
- Squat medley – 5 reps of each of goblet squats, front squats, back squats.
3. Overhead Presses
Pressing a weight overhead is a real test of upper body strength – much more so than the bench press. When you bench press, the bench supports your body. When you do overhead presses, your body IS the bench, and you’ll need to use your legs and core to maintain stability.
In strongman, all manner of heavy objects are hoisted overhead, including logs, barbells, and dumbbells, so you should do the same in the gym.
Good overhead pressing workouts include:
- Strict barbell overhead press for max weight or reps
- Barbell push press for max weight or reps
- Barbell clean to overhead press for max weight or reps
- Single-arm dumbbell press
- Pressing medley – barbell, dumbbell, and kettlebell
A lot of strongman pressing events also include a power clean, to lift the weight from the floor to your shoulders. Make sure you also include barbell and dumbbell cleans in your pressing workouts.
4. Loaded Carries
Lifting and then carrying heavy loads is one of the more dynamic events in strongman. This discipline develops and tests whole-body strength and cardiovascular fitness. They’re a little harder to replicate in a gym, so you may need to head out into the parking lot to train for weighted carries.
Good examples include:
- Farmer’s walk – a dumbbell in each hand, arms by your sides
- Waiter’s walk – a dumbbell in each hand or barbell held overhead
- Zercher walk – a barbell held in the crook of your arms
- Trap bar walk
- Squat walk – bar held across your upper back
- Bear hug walk – hug and hold a 25kg plate or two to your chest
Make weighted carries harder by walking up a hill or stairs and by using Fat Gripz or a thick bar bar/dumbbells for anything where you have to hold the weight in your hand.
5. Pushing & Pulling
Things get a little trickier when you try to replicate pushing or pulling cars, trucks, trains, and planes in the gym, so, again, you’ll need to head outside into the parking lot for this one.
The most obvious way to do pushing/pulling exercises is to use a car – your own or your training partners. Find somewhere flat and traffic-free, and then get to work!
Make sure that one of you is in the car to steer and operate the brakes. This might seem like redundant advice, but you’d be surprised how many people have tried and failed to do car pushing on their own!
Weighted sleds are also ideal for pushing and pulling workouts. But, if you don’t have one, you can make a sled from a large truck tire, some ring-eye bolts, and a towing strap. Although you won’t be able to push it, you will be able to load it up with weight plates and drag it. You can also flip your tire, which is another popular strongman event.
Mix your weights and distances to keep your workouts fresh and develop both brute strength and cardiovascular endurance.
6. Static Holds
While not the most exciting events for strongman spectators, a lot of events feature static holds. In this discipline, competitors simply lift and then hold a heavy object for as long as possible. Some static holds are a test of grip strength, while others are more shoulder and core dominant.
With all static hold events, you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Lactic acid levels soon rise, and your muscles will burn and shake. Static hold events are often won or lost according to how much pain you can tolerate; they’re a test of physical AND mental strength.
Gym-based static hold workouts include:
- Deadlift hold – lift and then hold a heavy barbell for as long as possible
- Iron cross – hold dumbbells up and out to the side for as long as possible
- Front hold – hold a weight plate out in front of you for as long as possible
- Dead hang – hang from a pull-up bar for as long as possible
A medley is a series of exercises done back to back in the form of a race. Medleys usually involve some running, so, as well as testing strength, they test speed and fitness too. Create your own strongman medleys by choosing 3-5 different exercises and doing them as quickly as you can.
Here’s an example of a gym-based strongman medley:
- Single-arm dumbbell clean and press x 5 reps per arm
- Trap bar deadlifts x 10 reps
- Zercher squats x 10 reps
- Farmer’s walk x 20 yards
The weights should be heavy, but you should be able to do all the prescribed reps, albeit only just. Move as fast as you can between exercises, but also pace yourself so that you don’t run out of energy before reaching the end.
8. Loading Events
Loading events are probably the hardest thing to train for in a commercial gym. Deadlifts and weighted carries will go a long way to preparing you for the demands of lifting and loading things like anvils and atlas stones, but they’re not perfect.
If you can, use a heavy sandbag to replicate the demands of lifting and loading heavy objects. Sandbags are awkward because the sand shifts as you lift them. This builds grip and stabilizing strength. Also, if you drop a sandbag, it won’t damage the gym floor like an atlas stone will. Sandbags are easy to make, and you can also buy premade sandbags.
If you want to do some real-world loading training, head outside and grab a heavy rock or log. Get used to lifting it from the floor to chest and waist height to replicate putting it on a platform.
While you could just slot some strongman-style exercises into your current strength training program, you’ll get better results from a more dedicated approach. Here is a full-body strongman-style workout to try.
Remember to warm up before starting any workout. Do 5-10 minutes of light cardio followed by dynamic mobility and flexibility exercises for all your major muscles and joints. Finish up with a few light sets of the exercises you are about to do.
|1||Rack pulls||5||3*||3 minutes|
|2||Push press||3||AMRAP** 60 seconds||3 minutes|
|3||3-second pause squats***||3||5||3 minutes|
|4||Farmer’s walk||3||20 yards||2 minutes|
|5||Front hold||3||As long as possible||2 minutes|
|6||Pendlay rows||3||8||2 minutes|
|7||Car push or sled drag||4||20 yards||2 minutes|
* Increase weight set by set.
** AMRAP = As Many Reps As Possible with a fixed weight, e.g., 135lbs.
*** Pause at the bottom of each rep for three seconds.
Powerlifting and weightlifting produce very strong athletes, but the greatest strength all-rounders are the strongman competitors because their events and training are so varied. Mix up your workouts to include a range of sets, reps, and weights to more closely replicate the demands of this exciting sport.
For example, work up to heavy triples in the deadlift one week and then do max reps in 60-seconds with 70-80% of your 1RM the next. Also, vary the implements you use in your training.
You might never grace the podium at World’s Strongest Man, but if you adopt some gym-based strongman training, you’ll build functional size and strength and have lots of fun doing it!