Strongman as Sports Specific Conditioning
From Total Performance Sports
By: Bob Jodoin
The study of the science of strength and conditioning for sports is a huge endeavor. There are many differing opinions and there are lots of things that work. The key is to find out what works for your athlete based on their individual differences, strengths, weaknesses and, of course, their sport. Here at Total Performance Sports, we specialize in building fast, powerful and injury resistant athletes. We use many different techniques to do this. We have taken our lessons from powerlifting, Olympic lifting, strongman, old-school training, track and field, specialized grip training, kettlebell training, America’s best strength coaches, as well as many iron curtain scientists. There is nothing that we won’t try if it fits into an athlete’s regimen at a given time and if it suits that athlete. We even use bodybuilding, although typically as a cautionary tale
In this article we are going to talk about the how and why of applying strongman training to improve sports performance. If you have the right equipment, strongman training can even be an excellent tool for fitness, as well as athletics.
It has been well established that a sturdy foundation is highly important. There is a time and place within your sports preparation to build up this sort of strength. Core strength, or stability and torsional power in the midsection are also an extremely important aspect of sport, and are industry buzzwords today. It is also understood that you need a high degree of sport skill training and speed training. Proper timing of these elements should be placed accordingly within your training and a good coach will know how to do it.
Throughout our study and experience with strongman training, we find that the events in strongman offer many highly adaptable sport specific benefits in more than one phase of your training schedule when using appropriate loading parameters. Naturally, your athletes won’t use the same weights one would use in a Strongman contest.
The competitive sport of strongman requires limit strength, speed-strength, anaerobic threshold, core stability, strength-endurance, dynamic flexibility, grip strength and also involves the ability to move quickly while bearing tremendous weights. It doesn’t take an in depth analysis to realize that many of these aspects are highly desired in sport, especially those sports of a combative nature.
Many actions in sport require that force, originating in the legs, be delivered to an implement or an opponent. This is one of the reasons that squatting is so important. A coordinated effort of the entire body, where the action begins at the feet and ends with a concerted production of force requires that you learn proper timing, balance and stability to produce the most efficient speed and power. This is where the training of Olympic type lifts comes into play because it is extremely important that you learn to coordinate several parts of the body in order achieve the lifts that you are attempting. Those lifts, however, are quite deliberate in their form and repeatability. This is why we believe that the inclusion of strongman training is very important. Loads and patterns occur in a very dynamic fashion. This teaches you to react and adapt and use the entire body to handle a load with maximal efficiency. This is seen when a 600lb deadlifter is unable to lift and load a 265lb stone or flip a 700lb tire. These implements are not practiced in a completely set pattern. Awkward lifting, once learned, leaves your system better prepared to give and receive the unpredictable and unstable forces involved in combative and dynamic sports. Further proof lies in the fact that the best converts to the sport of strongman are not always gym rats, powerlifters or Olympic lifters. Those involved in construction, labor and farming are often the quickest to adapt to, and become proficient in the sport.
Full body strength, stability, explosiveness, balance and power are the main results of hard strongman training. We are in the wrong business if we think these aren’t qualities desirably seen in a combative athlete.
We’ll start with the tire flip, which is a very taxing and athletic movement. The best application of this event to sport is likely football, and especially those football players that start down and explode off of the line to slam into an opposing player. First and foremost, the tire flip is started from the ground with the hands all the way to the ground, similar to a four-point stance. It is not a lift, but rather a forward drive that permits an athlete to successfully flip a tire. Relentless forward motion against an unstable object closely resembles football in our opinion. You start from the ground, explode forward while coordinating many parts of the body and continue an all out assault on the tire until it is conquered. In strongman, the tire is often flipped for a set number of turns or it is required to cover a set distance in a minimum amount of time. This sort of endurance training is great. For football, however, we believe that it should be trained similar to the way in which the game is played. Our athletes use short aggressive reps, in the 1-3 range followed by a brief rest period and they repeat this for multiple sets. This is reminiscent of coming off the line, making a few hits and then resetting between downs. When we have our athletes train this way, what we call Indian Runs, they are made to flip the tire with all out aggressiveness and utmost application of speed. Fierce aggression is also an important part of tire flipping for sport. Ferocity and aggression should be emulated, as it is on the field and the tire should be attacked with great speed. It should barely have stopped moving when the next flip has begun and each athlete should attack it in turn without any laziness or delay. Knuckles get scraped and heart rates get high but this sort of aggressive toughness is not without its place in sport conditioning. The ability to attack and not relent from forward pressure is also a good thing to practice in the off-season, especially when you lack man-to-man high intensity contact. This plays into the psychological aspect of aggressive sports.
During a tire flip, you are ultimately beginning from the ground and finishing with the fingertips. You apply force through the entire body and you have to use everything to accomplish your goal. Full body conditioning like this is tough to come by in a sterile gym environment. Any combat athlete will benefit from tire flipping drills. Different weight tires, speeds and flip counts should be used for different sports but the above is a good example for football preparation.
Stone lifting is a similar activity in that you start with your knuckles on the ground and finish at triple extension. The loads and leverages are different, however, and this plays well into the concept of dynamic, real world training. Good stone lifting technique emulates the perfect football tackle. A strong wrap is involved combined with an explosive pop of the hips in a coordinated effort. Since football can become quickly and tediously overused in this article, we’ll discuss how stone lifting can benefit a wrestler. Many of the same concepts are at work in the lifting of round concrete or granite balls, as they are in tire flipping so we will not rehash them too much. Just like the tire flip, stone lifting requires a solid union from the lower body, through the core, to the upper. This means that if you don’t have superior core strength, you will when you get through learning how to lift stones. A wrestler is often tasked with applying explosive force to an opponent from very awkward positions. Lifting a 300lb stone, whose center of gravity is far out in front of yours, is an awkward undertaking if ever there was one. Heavy stone lifting often appears slow and has its place in your training. For maximum athletic preparation, high speed, high endurance lifting to varying heights with lighter stones is certainly the way to go. The changing of heights and weights keeps your stone lifting from becoming grooved in an exact pattern. Changing things around will help you to increase your strength in a much more dynamic fashion. This way you do not become strong in only one set groove. The anaerobic threshold benefits are second only to, well, probably nothing. Running through a variable height stone series or performing eccentric/concentric reps will leave your lungs burning and you heart rate extremely high. You will also have plenty of practice giving and receiving off balance forces. Sometimes you will have to fight a stone up onto a platform. This tenacity training is similar to the aggressive attack placed upon the tire. It builds a tendency to refuse to relinquish forward pressure. You have to know when to bail out, however, because a foot is no place to put a stone approaching the earth at 9.8 meters per second, per second. Be aggressive but be smart.
Grip, as well as the ability to wrap around and hold a very heavy load while applying explosive force to it, is also well trained while stone lifting. You just can’t get that any other way outside of wrapping up another human and throwing them into the air. Finding volunteers for this might prove difficult.
The load bearing events, although seldom replicated with exactness in the world of sport outside of competitive strongman, have tremendous benefits for athletes. Teaching the nervous system and the stabilizing muscles to keep joints together while bearing great loads is highly applicable to the athlete. Since walking with weight is very rare in the gym lifts, we believe that the stability in the ankles, knees and torso is increased in an unparalleled way. There are infinite sports benefits to this sort of strength but when we think of strong ankles, knees and torsos, we think of hockey. Realizing that hockey only requires you to carry a lightweight stick we will concede that there is little value in the ability to walk with 700lbs on your back. The benefits to your joint stability however will go a long way to aiding you in injury prevention. Powerful legs and a strong torso also play large rolls in your ability to drive your shots and also benefit you in the refined and civilized art of body checking. Standing with a heavy load, as in a squat or deadlift lockout puts great stress on the torso stabilizing muscles. When you step and walk with heavy loads you are moving out with one leg at a time. This shifts the weight back and forth through both sides of the body. The core stability required to move with extremely heavy weights is above and beyond anything you could possibly encounter doing standard lifts.
It is well known that front squats and Zercher lifts are good for building ab strength because you have to keep upright with a weight that is out in front of your center of gravity. Now imagine walking in a circle with 500-600lbs cradled in your arms while participating in the Conan’s Wheel. Not only do you have to front/Zercher squat the weight up but also now you have to walk and breath with a heavy load held out in front of you. This will harden your midsection to new levels. The same is true from different directions with the other various walking events. The one handed Farmers Walk is a favorite tool of ours. Not only do you get a great oblique/quadratus lumborum workout but you also cause your legs and upper back to work harder in order to walk successfully with an uneven load. Building up a strong gluteus medius/minimus while performing this exercise will help you with knee stability as these outside muscles help support the knee from caving inward (valgus).
Forward, harness or hand-over-hand pulling also offers huge benefits. The forward harness pull can be done as a sprint or you can become an ox and pull very heavy weight. Both are important and should be used, as needed depending on the athlete. Driving forward while being resisted by a heavy weight will also help to build up knee, hip and ankle strength and stability. These elements were already stated to be important in hockey but more so with heavy pulling one learns to get low and drive. This sort of strength would be useful for a hockey player’s checking as well as low pushing power when fighting for pucks in the corners. Backwards pulling is simply a killer of quad muscles. They all take a beating as well as many muscles in the hip joint. The core has to remain solid and the hands have to work hard to hang on to whatever you are pulling. Hockey defenseman often move backwards and although the stepping pattern for pulling is not exact to the “C” cut used in backwards skating, the muscles in the quads and hips are still getting trained while driving the body back against resistance. Hand-over-hand pulling exhausts the grip and is a huge bicep training tool for any sports that require pulling. Rope pulling builds great endurance in the hands as well as having a large anaerobic threshold benefit. All pulling works the heart and lungs to a high degree.
Whether it is the explosive nature of the events or the tremendous demand for grip strength, one need look too far into to the sport of strongman to find something that would benefit athletics. Combat sports, like hockey, football, wrestling or martial arts will receive great benefits by building up full body power. The majority of the lifts attack the posterior chain. Building a strong posterior chain through movements that require every muscle in your body to work together will certainly help an athlete. You will also be shoring up muscle that have often been ignored in a country where bodybuilding science rules the mainstream. Strongman training is not the be-all-end-all. It is simply a tool that offers the solution to many weaknesses. Destroying weaknesses and preventing injury is, or should be, the primary goal of strength training. Watch your athletes. Go to their practices and games and talk to their coaches. Capitalize on their strengths but seek and destroy their weaknesses. There are many tools available and not every program is right for every athlete at a given time. We’ll keep experimenting and searching and when all is said and done we should have some athletes that are stronger, more powerful, faster, and above all, more resistant to injury.
About the author:
Bob Jodoin CFT SPN, is the director of strength and conditioning for Total Performance Sports in Everett, Massachusetts. He is also a trainer with multiple certifications as well as an accomplished powerlifter, strongman competitor/promoter/coach and member of the New York Strength Street Team™.
Total Performance Sports is a private training facility located in Everett, Massachusetts, offering multiple martial arts, kickboxing, personal training and a very unique strength and conditioning training program, no chrome and ferns here. Hard work in an organized program is what dictates our success. We make athletes of all ages and abilities faster, stronger and more resistant to injury. We can also help anyone attain his or her fitness goals. TPS is the only fully equipped Strongman training gyms in Greater Boston. Call (617) 387-5998 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or for more information see our web site at : www.totalperformancesports.com