Over the last decade, athletes and coaches have ventured away from the standard barbell to mix up the way they load their nervous system, to alter the biomechanics of a movement, and to simply add variety. One popular method that has come to the forefront of strength and conditioning communities is the tire flip.
There is a lot to be said about variety. The sequence of muscular activation will change in comparison to the conventional deadlift. Variety can break a standstill in a lifter’s progress, and allow further strength development and hypertrophy. When you utilize tire flips in your training protocol, you may see improvements in your deadlifts.
My favorite aspect of tire flips is the distribution of the load. Unlike a conventional squat or hinge pattern, tire flips involve pulling, then pushing the load away from the body. I feel that this mimics acceleration nicely, if it is done at a high speed.
The Dangers and Prerequisites of Tire Flips
You can find almost any type of athlete flipping tires these days, from the elite athlete who wishes to dominate their sport to the middle-aged mother who just wants to lose a few pounds. But should everyone be doing them? My answer is no.
No exercise is perfect, and tire flips are no exception. Consider that, unlike deadlifts and squats, we are not lifting the tire vertically, also displacing the load forwards. This places our lower back into a much more vulnerable position.
During tire flips, fatigue is highly possible. Tire flips are gross compound exercises that require loaded, full range of motion in the ankles, knees, hips, and thoracic spine. Abuse this exercise and push your body to exhaustion at your own risk. This may very well result in loss of technique, and therefore injury.
Before performing tire flips, you should be able to perform primary movement patterns correctly, especially the squat. Tire flips provide variety, but they are an advanced pattern of the squat and deadlift that are risky if fundamental mechanics in the basic versions of those movements are flawed. Can you squat without your heels elevating off the floor? Can you squat to full depth without the dreaded “butt wink?”
The tire flip does not require good deep squatting capabilities. It requires outstanding deep squatting capabilities. To embed your body in the correct position around a tire, you must have great glute activation and brilliant flexibility around the groin. Without these prerequisites, an athlete will not be able to place himself into a position of great biomechanical advantage to perform the exercise.
Know Your Tire Flipping Grips
I’m sure you’re aware that tires come in all shapes and sizes. There are two distinct grips that I teach athletes when flipping tires. These grips do not just involve the hands, and are designed to take pressure away from the biceps tendon.
Grip #1: For Lower Tires
A shorter tire that doesn’t come up as high as your elbow as you grip it does not require the mobility that a taller tire does. The setup is as follows:
- With your arms shoulder width apart, spread your fingers wide and wrap them under the tire.
- From a deep squat position, lean forward and place the top of your forearms against the top corner of the tire.
- Flex your lats, shoulders, and glutes to lock into position. Also tense your biceps and forearm to tighten the grip you have around the tire.
- You should now feel the tire wedged between your finger tips and the top of your forearm. This is a strong starting position.
Grip #2: For Higher Tires
When an athlete earns the right to flip heavier, taller tires, the technical demands are different. The setup requires wedging the tire between the fingertips and the chest.
- As with Grip #1, set up with your arms shoulder width apart, spread your fingers wide, and wrap them under the tire.
- Assume a tall posture of the spine as you flex your hips to meet your chest to the tire. This will require more elbow flexion, which means that the biceps are going to flex. But don’t confuse this with a biceps curl exercise; treat the tensed position as you would a barbell row.
- Engage your glutes, squeeze those shoulder blades together, and tense those lats.
- The tire will now be firmly wedged between your fingertips and your chest. You are now ready to move a mammoth of a tire.
Up and Over
Now you’re ready for action. Do not lift straight up. Biomechanically, this is weak. Drive forward as if you’re tackling. Your hips will extend and the pivot between the tire and the floor will help you to stand tall.
Maintain your posture from the very beginning to the very end of the movement. Under no circumstances should you bend or over round your back. Once the tire the up, push it over the top with a powerful chest pressing motion. If it is a particularly heavy tire, you may wish to do this rapidly to prevent it from swaying in the wrong direction. Be forceful.
Technical failure is the stopping point for tire flips, not pure physical failure. Tire flipping past good technique can substantially damage your back. Avoid bad technique at all costs. Tires are resilient. If you feel your technique failing, let it go immediately. It may make a loud bang as it crashes to the ground, but it won’t get hurt. You will, if you try to stay under a failed tire flip.
Programming Tire Flips
I’m a big fan of Dan John’s “power of 10” when it comes to rep ranges for tire flips. In a workout with a heavy tire, only 10 repetitions should be used, in sets like 2×5, 3×3, 3×5-3-2, or 5×2. The maximum number of repetitions is always 10. This rule usually applies to drastically heavy loads, mainly above 80% of max. Of course, this is hard to calculate with tires as it’s rare to find tires with consistent, incrementing loads. So I recommend using intuition. Rate the exhaustion on a repetition on a scale of 1-10. If the difficulty of lifting a tire is a solid 8 out of 10, you know that you found the right tire for you. Just so you have an idea of what an 8 out of 10 feels like, here’s a few quick markers to follow:
- You will certainly not be able to perform more than five repetitions in one go.
- You will need to heavily engage your muscles prior to moving the tire.
- You will feel tension on the lift from the very beginning to the very end.
- You will need to take long recovery periods between sets.
This method can be used to help select a lighter tire for faster flips, as well.
Large bilateral movements like tire flips are best positioned early in a workout. The more exhausting exercise should fit closer to beginning, before fatigue has an opportunity to set in. To reinforce good mechanics, I like to add tire flips after squats. I also use plyometrics as a warm up exercise for the squats, so a tire flip would often be the third exercise in a training session. Below is a brief overview of a leg workout that features tire flips.
- Warm Up: Ankle mobility, hip mobility, T-spine mobility and glute activation
- Front Squat: 5 x 5 at 75% of 1- rep max
- Tire Flip: 3 x 5-3-2
- Lateral Lunges: 3 x 8
- Farmers Walk: 3 x 30m
- Post Workout: 4min recovery walk, foam rolling on two tight spots, and a full hip complex
Notice that I end with unilateral work to avoid muscular imbalances. The human body tends to favor the dominant side, so single leg work is crucial for avoiding injuries and asymmetries. The taxing routine will require a well-structured post workout ritual. This will limit delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), prevent injury in a later training program, and increase recovery rate.
Have a Reason and the Skills First
When you choose to add a new piece of equipment, exercise, or method to your training, always be analytical and always have the end goal in mind. Many people may have no reason to perform the tire flip and some will not have the right to until they have mastered the squat. It’s good to be critically minded in exercise.