Physique athletes are some of the most sought-after people in the fitness industry. Their chiseled abs, capped shoulders, strong backs, and tight glutes leave many striving to look just like them. But did you know many bodybuilders are not so strong as they look? I say this as a physique athlete now exploring the world of strongman: Man, was I weak when I first started!
Physique training programs are built around aesthetics and hypertrophy, but often lack relative strength. Big muscles do not always equal a strong body. The strength gap between strongman and bodybuilding is a relatively recent development. The original physique athletes were also many of the first strongmen! Eugen Sandow, “the father of modern bodybuilding” and the model for the Mr. Olympia statue, was a strongman, but became known for his carved physique. He made the switch into bodybuilding and even started the very first bodybuilding competition.
Strongmen and strongwomen are exactly what their sport says: strong. Every part of their training involves picking up heavy (often odd) objects and then putting them down or carrying them around. Physique athletes use a lot of reps, a lot of sets, and a lot of dumbbell and barbell work. A prowler (sled) is added in here and there, but that is typically about as crazy as it gets in the weight room.
Every athlete, bodybuilder, and person could benefit from incorporating some form of strongman training in their routine. Why? It engages your entire body’s muscularity, focuses on strength production by the entire body as one unit, and adds a load to your core, making it work harder. The desired outcome? Becoming stronger and a release favorable hormones.
Strongman implements such as kegs, logs, and atlas stones give a better stimulus for the body than traditional implements. They make your body work harder because they hit muscles you did not even know you had, especially in your core.
Why press with strongman objects such as logs, axles, kegs, sandbags, and all the other fun and awkward objects? Lifting a crazy object over your head increases activation of large and small stabilizer muscles will make you a believer.
These are popular among all athletes, work your entire body, and do a number on your grip strength. To change things up and make your deadlifts stronger and more interesting, why not try out a fat bar? The width of these bars make it more difficult to pull big weight, but the more you pull and work the stronger your grip becomes. Or you could try a car deadlift. The stance is closer to a hack squat and the grip is like a trap bar, with handles on the sides. Why in the world do I want to deadlift a car? Well, for one it is badass, and two you are moving your body differently than in a regular deadlift and hitting muscles differently.
There are a variety of carries that you can incorporate into your lifts:
- Farmer carries: These are a common exercise used in strongman training. The usual piece of equipment is a long bar with handles in the middle, and weight is distributed in the front and back. Kettlebells can work just as well for general fitness strength. Once you have successfully picked the weight up (picking it up is half the battle), you can carry for time or for distance.
- Sandbag carries: Instead of the weight being at your sides, you want to hold the sandbag high on your chest and lean back slightly, so the weight is distributed on your core. Sandbags can seem to have a mind of their own, and will really challenge your total body strength.
- Keg carries: Kegs are a fun and unique object to pick up and carry. They are typically lifted similarly to a deadlift, and then carrying high on your hips. Great for the core, and boy will your glutes and hamstrings be on fire!
Push, Pull or Drag
You can drag an object for distance, or you can do it for time.
- Chain or sled drags: To set up you will face the chain. Once you have it in your hands you want to drag the implement by leaning back to pull the chain.
- Truck pull: If you want to build those quads, pull a truck! You face away from the implement and have a harness around you connected to truck or car. Again, you can go for distance or time. Not everyone has a harness for a vehicle, but forward sled drags or pushes will provide a similar training effect.
Strongman for Conditioning
Strongman is not always all about strength; it can also be used for conditioning. Include one day in your training week as an event day, and use it as your “cardio” day. Choose a weight that is a bit light and move with it for 30-60 second intervals. If there is one thing that can get your heart rate up, strongman conditioning is it.
For example, complete six rounds of the following exercises, with 30 seconds working per exercise and 30 seconds of rest:
- Keg over bar
- Seated arm over-arm pull
- Prowler push
- Chain drags
This is a rough circuit, but if you want a great physique, sometimes you need to step outside of traditional training and work your muscles a differently.
Strongman Training for Physique
Below is a sample of a 4-day training week from a 10-week program. This is part of my current training program for my next strongman competition, and was written for me by Coach Jerry Handley of Viking Performance Training. The days are split into upper and lower body days, with some accessory work as well.
Want to get into strongman training at home?
Must-Have Equipment for Strongman Training