Getting Started in Strongman
By: Matt Moore, SSC
Coach Matt Moore covers the basics of getting started with strongman competitions:
“There are many types of Strongman and Strongwoman events. You don’t need to be seven feet tall and 400 lb. to get started. Local level competitions have weight classes, men’s/women’s divisions, even Novice and Masters level classes. Shoot, at the National level there’s a disabled division where folks who are missing limbs or have disabilities have a chance to compete. Strongman is for everyone!”
Getting Started in Strongman
After college, I started a new job where there was a pretty well-equipped gym on site I could use. I was burnt out on the typical “bro split” routine I had been doing, but it was familiar, so I kept up with it. My training was stagnant because I didn’t have a goal to work towards or anyone to keep me consistent. I was deeply craving some kind of competitive outlet. I soon made friends with one of the guys in the gym who was constantly egging me on to sign up for a strongman competition. I had never touched any of the strongman implements and didn’t know much about the sport, aside from what I knew from watching the world’s strongest man on ESPN whenever it came on. When I found out there was a novice division at local meets and I could test the waters, I finally gave in and signed up for my first meet. I started training exclusively for strength, and never looked back. The strongman bug bit me hard, and I was hooked.
There may come a time in your lifting career where you start to get the itch to seek out a competitive outlet where you can apply your strength. Powerlifting, Strengthlifting, and Weightlifting are the obvious choices. But what if you’re craving a little more excitement than that? Don’t get me wrong, there’s something exhilarating about squatting a new 1RM in front of a crowd of like-minded lifters, but 12-16 weeks of prep for 9 attempts (6 if it’s a weightlifting meet) can be kind of a letdown, and 6 of those attempts don’t really count since you’re probably looking for PRs on the 3rd attempt. You wait forever to get to the bar, the rules can be overbearing, meet coordinators often require silence before the lift is executed, and everyone claps upon successful completion of the lift. It’s the golf equivalent of strength sports. And that’s totally fine, but if you want a little more excitement, to compete more frequently, and to have a guarantee that no two competitions will be the same; then you might just be interested in Strongman. But how do you get started?
We’ve all seen the mammoths on ESPN accomplishing tremendous feats of strength like pulling tanks and airplanes, pressing motorcycles overhead, carrying 300 lb. sandbags through knee-deep water, pulling 1000 lb. deadlifts on a bar that’s flopping around like a wet noodle, loading 500 lb. stone boulders over a bar, carrying 1500 lb. yokes where it’s common to see these behemoths stumble on as blood flows down from the capillaries bursting in their nose. If this is your view of Strongman competitions, then you are probably concurrently amazed, intimidated, and a little turned off by the idea of trying it yourself.
This is what the sport of Strongman looks like at the most elite levels, superhuman feats that are out of reach for most of us mortals. There are many types of Strongman and Strongwoman events. You don’t need to be seven feet tall and 400 lb. to get started. Local level competitions have weight classes, men’s/women’s divisions, even Novice and Masters level classes. Shoot, at the National level there’s a disabled division where folks who are missing limbs or have disabilities have a chance to compete. Strongman is for everyone!
What is Strongman?
Strongman is a sport that is an expression of strength using non-standard equipment. You’ll rarely find Olympic barbells and calibrated plates at a competition. Instead, you are more likely to find odd shaped implements: axle bars, logs, stones, sandbags, chains, and farmer carry handles. These implements are more difficult to manage due to their size and awkward nature, and you don’t just lift them. Athletes move them for reps, distance, and speed. You don’t need access to these implements to train with at first, but if you take to the sport, it’s very easy and relatively inexpensive to start acquiring your own equipment. Some playground sand, contractor bags, and a military duffle bag can make a budget sandbag. A length of 1.5″ ID schedule 40 black pipe and some 1-15/16″ shaft collars can make a strong axle, and if you know your way around a welder, the sky’s the limit on what equipment you can make.
Strongman is a unique strength sport in that maximal force production is tested alongside work capacity and agility in competition. One of the main differences between Strongman and other strength sports is the time domain of the events. While there are a few maximum effort lifts, more often athletes are moving heavy things as fast as they can or for as many repetitions as possible in a specific, short amount of time. These aren’t endurance events, but they aren’t purely strength events either. If they resemble anything in training, it is probably high-intensity interval training. If you’ve ever pushed a sled all-out with a very heavy weight for about 30 seconds, you have an idea of what this type of work feels like. This doesn’t require as many programming adjustments as you might think—at least not for your first competition—this is still a strength sport, and if you are training your main lifts, you will have the best foundation to jump into the sport of Strongman.
Getting Started: Finding Your First Competition
Much like Powerlifting, it all starts with finding a local competition, signing up for a membership with the federation hosting the competition, and getting the proverbial check in the mail. There are two major strongman federations in the US: United States Strongman (USS) and Strongman Corporation (Also known as North American Strongman or NAS). I can’t speak to the federations abroad, so if you’re anywhere but North America you may have to do a little googling. Both federations have a website that shows what events are scheduled for the next few months. Location is going to be the biggest factor, so, don’t worry about choosing a federation. Just pick the event closest to you that is about 3 months out. The differences between the two federations are small, and you’ll really only notice them if you compete a lot or eventually become competitive on a national scale. USS has a cheaper membership, but it is only good for the calendar year you buy it while NAS is a bit more expensive but lasts a full 12 months. USS and NAS tend to have regional hotspots, so I advise just going with the federation that has the most events in your area.
In my first competition as a heavyweight Novice, I had to press a 200lb yoke for an AMRAP in 60 seconds, flip a series of tires ranging from 400-600 lbs for time, had 3 attempts at throwing a 42 lb. weight over a bar at increasing heights, complete a medley of Fingal finger and duck walk a 385 lb. implement 50 feet for time, and finally load a series of atlas stones ranging from 225-375 lb. for split time (nobody in the novice class got past the 350 lb. stone!). This was pretty heavy for a novice competition, but I learned a ton and never looked back. I’ve competed several times since then and look forward to all of my future competitions.
When you’re just getting started, it’s important to go for the experience and make as few changes to your training as possible. For your first competition, don’t do anything special leading into the competition. Don’t worry about having the right equipment or having enough street cred. Just go. Depending on your level of training advancement, it might be worthwhile to get familiar with a few of the implements or events, but it is certainly not required. You’ll meet some of the friendliest giants at your first meet, and the community as a whole is super supportive. Make some friends, let them know it’s your first competition and the more experienced guys will show you the ropes.
Programming Considerations for Strongman
“Just get started!” is easy advice to give, but I know some of you out there may want to nerd out a little on the contest prep or perhaps you’ve already played around with some implements or went to your first competition and want to know how to lay out your programming to prepare yourself for your next show. Maybe none of those are true, and you just want to have a little fun in your training and mix up your conditioning and/or exercise selection from time to time. The first (and most important) step is to get strong. It’s in the name of the sport. Don’t worry about achieving a threshold level of “strong enough” or else you’ll never compete. You’ll never be “strong enough,” just start! You don’t need to be a competitive strongman to do fun strongman stuff!
A typical strongman competition will have 4 or 5 events. Events can be a combination of some or all of the following: An overhead press variant (log press, Viking press, axle clean and press, etc.), a pulling event (deadlift, truck pull, or sled drag), a carrying event (farmers walk, sandbag carry, odd objects, etc.), and loading events (atlas stones, sandbag to platform, odd object to platform, etc.). You may also see a throwing event (weight over bar, keg toss, etc.). This is a cursory overview at best, but with so many variations of events to prepare for, it can be a little overwhelming to figure out where to start. The first (and most important) step is to get strong. It’s in the name of the sport.
Each competition is unique in how you need to prepare for the events. For example, the deadlift event might very well be a max deadlift on a barbell from the floor. It’s not super common, but it can happen. Usually, you’ll see a deadlift from an odd height (like 13 or 18 inches). It might be on an axle, it may have tires or wagon wheels on the bar, it may be for max weight or for max reps. Or you might just be deadlifting a car parked on a frame. The details of the event are specific to that event and what the promoter of the show wants to see. When you look at the event page you will see a brief description of the events for that competition (e.g., “Max Log, Last Man Standing Deadlift, Yoke Carry, Keg/Sandbag Medley, Max Stone of Steel”).
The event description will help you with your prep. If, for example, the deadlift event is a 1RM event, the programming may look very similar to a typical powerlifting taper. But if the event is a 60-second AMRAP with a selected weight, then you’ll have to have a bit of glycolytic conditioning work supplementing your regular strength training, and it might be a good idea to perform AMRAPs of that event in your training from time to time. No matter what, it’s unusual to have an event last longer than 60 seconds unless it’s a carry of some kind for max distance. So in addition to being strong, contrary to popular belief you’ll need to have some level of conditioning and athleticism to do well at a local strongman competition.
Like any other programming consideration, the first step is to identify where you are in your training advancement. If you are a Novice and you’re finishing out your first linear progression, there’s really nothing you can or should change about your programming (more on that later). The further along you are on the training advancement curve, the more specific your training might have to look to your upcoming event. The most important thing is that you don’t go “full strongman” and start doing anything you feel like in the gym that day under the guise of “event training.”
It’s important to understand what lifts or events can be trained and what events can only be practiced. Don’t be the guy or gal trying to LP your yoke walk or sandbag carry. You should have a steady diet of squats, deadlifts, presses, and benches with a barbell since it best fulfills the exercise selection criteria for effective strength training. However, the further down the training advancement curve you are, the more you’ll need to expose yourself to different variations, implements, and movements that similarly mimic what you might see at the event. As a general rule, if it looks like a bar and you can load it with plates, you can easily count sets/reps, and you AREN’T MOVING with it, it can be trainable and can be substituted for one of your main lift variations. I’ll give some detailed examples in the sections to follow.
Programming for the late novice
Let’s say the bug bites you early. You want strongman, and you want it NOW. If you are a novice who’s particularly excited about prepping for their first show, the light pulling slot is my go-to for exposing a lifter to a new movement or implement. About 4 weeks out from the competition, you can start substituting your light pull (barbell row or power clean) for something you would see in competition. In the case of the power clean, the light pull is meant to keep the expression of power on pace with the gain in strength, but it’s also there to help in recovery between hard DL sessions. So it’s reasonable to substitute this slot with something that isn’t overly stressful but can help to practice something you’ll see in competition. Sandbag movements or farmers walks are ideal here. If your competition has an axle, this is a great place to try it out on some light deadlifts or axle cleans. If your gym has atlas stones, this would be an appropriate spot to try out your first loading session. This is NOT the slot to put an AMRAP Deadlift at competition weight though. Try to match an event with an odd object or one of the carrying/loading movements from your upcoming competition.
|Squat – 3×5||Squat – 2×5 80% of Monday||Squat – 3×5|
|Press – 3×5||Bench – 3×5||Press – 3×5|
|Deadlift – 1×5||*Atlas stone load – 5×3||Deadlift – 2×5 90% of Monday|
*4 weeks or less out from competition
Programming for the Intermediate
This is where it starts to get fun. Depending on your stage of intermediate training, you can really get some good preparation in before a contest without sacrificing your basic strength training too much. An early intermediate may not need any variations of the main lifts in their training or an actual conditioning slot, but they will still likely have a light pull they can substitute with strongman event prep or implements. Late intermediates may have a day or two of conditioning and will likely have variations of the main lifts in their program—these slots are ideal for throwing in some strongman stuff. For intermediates, it’s more valuable to keep training focused on strength, using barbell movements until about 4-6 weeks out from competition to allow for the greatest amount of productive training. Then, you still have a period of familiarization with the events you will see on game day.
Most intermediate programs are some flavor of HLM, whether they want to admit it or not. The main driver of progress for any well-constructed program will be the primary volume stimulus (usually something like a 5×5) for the squat, bench and/or press, so leave those alone! The light slot for any movement is great to start experimenting with at first. The light press is a great place to start trying out stuff like log press, axle presses, etc. Light pulls are still great for any of the loading and throwing events, but the intermediate lifter won’t want to solely substitute their light pulls with this stuff. Just make it extra on the end of your light pulling session. The “medium” slots are perfect for mimicking the events you’ll see in competition as long as they can be incrementally loaded and trained. This is where you would put events that are limited in range of motion or load, by virtue of the implement. An axle deadlift, for example, is perfect since your grip is a limiting factor—they can only be pushed so hard. On the other end of the spectrum, a rack pull at competition height is a natural fit here as well. The loads used can be higher, but the range of motion isn’t as long, making it a good fit for a “medium” slot. I’ll touch on conditioning a little bit more in the advanced section.
Late Intermediate 4 Day Upper/Lower Split Example
|Press- 5×5||Squat -5×5||Bench Press – 5×5||Squat – 3×5|
|Bench – 3×5||Deadlift – 2×3||Axle Push Press – 3×5||18” Rack pull – 4×3|
|Atlas Stone Load|
Programming for Advanced Lifters
For advanced lifters, regular exposure to an assortment of events that you are most likely to see in competition is beneficial. This isn’t a license to go “full strongman” and only train your events, but this recognizes that by the time you get to this stage, you’re likely competing 5 or more times throughout the year, and might not have the luxury of knowing exactly what events you’ll need to be prepared for. It’s only to your benefit to have a broad exposure to different movements to be ready for any event that may come your way. You are also competitive enough now that having better technique or being more familiar with one implement or another might be the difference between a spot at nationals and a spot in the bleachers. The “heavy” (or high stress, as I like to think of them) slots in your programming should still be the meat-and-potatoes barbell movements. But instead of waiting 4-6 weeks out to add in an implement, it may be a good idea to be using specialty bars and implements for both light and medium slots throughout the whole block. Event-specific lifts or training might take the place of assistance work in your program; where assistance work usually helps train weaknesses in your main lifts, strongman training would help eliminate weaknesses from your competition. The selection of these implements should be close to what you will see in your next contest, however.
Conditioning can either be given its own day or put at the end of a workout. I’ve found that it works best after volume squats or heavy deadlifts. This way, you can use the conditioning to add in a little lower body volume, but it’s also the place where it will affect your lifts the least. If you do max effort prowler pushes the day before volume squats, you’re going to have a bad time. If you decide to set aside a specific day for conditioning, it should immediately precede a really heavy or high volume lower body day. This is why a lot of strongman competitors arrange a practice day (an “event day”) on Saturday, usually consisting of heavy deadlifts and a bunch of other events from their next show. It’s a good way to train the deadlift and fit in a bunch of glycolytic conditioning work in the form of strongman events. I find it best to split up conditioning into 2 days: One high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session and one that’s more glycolytic. A prowler or air bike is a natural fit for the high-intensity slot, but the glycolytic spot is the place to get creative. If your competition has a carry medley, this is the place to put it. Because the weights are usually pretty heavy, it’s not likely you’ll be able to push the carry medley as hard as you could with something like a prowler or assault bike. So take advantage of that and set up a carry circuit with sandbags, farmers handles, natural stones, or whatever else you can get your hands on. If you have access to a yoke, throwing in some longer runs (100 feet or more) with the yoke is a great option for some glycolytic work. You can also make the yoke slightly heavier and go for shorter distances (25 or 50 feet) if you’re limited on space. The trick with a yoke for glycolytic conditioning work is to make it light enough where you can still focus on footwork, but not so heavy that you look like a baby giraffe learning to walk for the first time. The yoke can actually be quite stressful with less weight than you’d think; it deserves your respect!
Advanced Lifter Contest Prep Using an ‘Event Day’
|Press – 5×5||Squat 5×5||2ct Pause Squat -4×3||*13” Deadlift- 60s AMRAP, then 3×5|
|Incline Log press – 3×5||Deadlift – 4×3||HIIT Prowler Pushes||Axle Clean and press – 2x 60s AMRAP||Rest||*Log Clean and press – 5×3|
|Rolling DB extension – 3×8||Atlas Stone Practice||RDL – 3×8||*Yoke walk – 8x 100ft|
*The event day should match closely with the closest upcoming competition
Using the above guiding principles, you can easily tweak your current programming to simply get more variety in your training to spice it up a bit or organize some productive prep into your next competition!