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Training For Strongman Events Part Three!

In the weightroom, lifts that can help you include the Olympic lifts and their derivatives. The Snatch and Clean And Jerk help with the crucial extension of the lower body.

By: Corey St. Clair

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This next article will explain how to succeed in even more strongman events.

Crucifix - Muscles used- shoulders, back, trunk, some biceps.

This is an interesting event. It is a static hold of objects (TVs, Axes, Baskets, etc…) weighing anywhere from 15-55lbs per side. Like all of the events, the best way to improve your performance is to practice it. However, the athlete should find out what kind of object will be used and how much it will weigh. This is imperative for two reasons: 1-you will know what kind of object it is so that you can possibly build/have made something like it; 2-you will know how much weight to use for practicing. When a hanging object or large object like an axe (3 feet long w/most of its weight towards the top) you will know where the center of gravity is for the object and can train accordingly. This brings up a strange point. With this event and others like the Farmer's Carry, just using a dumbbell will not give the same feel/weight distribution as the actual object. A dumbbell is very dense and all of it's weight is in an object the size of a large shoe box. However, Farmer's Carry implements, Crucifix Hold implements and others are quite large and their weight is spread over a large area. For example, pick up a 45lb dumbbell, then pick up a full duffle bag or suitcase weighing the same amount. It will feel different as the weight distribution is different. This may not seem like that big a deal, and it really isn't, but to really prepare for the event to do the best you can you must train as specific as possible. Ok, that being said, you now have something resembling the implement you'll be using in competition. Unlike many of the other events, this cannot really be broken down into different phases or parts to train.

You simply stand with your back to a post/pillar/wall and hold the object at arms length to your sides (forming a "T") for as long as possible. Now, finding your maximum time is like "maxing out" at a normal lift (squat, bench, etc…) that way you know where you are and if you improve. From here, you can do timed sets or use it as a first exercise in a superset. Let's say your best time with the weight you'll be using is 40 seconds. Your workouts may be doing a "T" hold for 20-25 seconds, then drop the implements and go to a DB shoulder press or front plate raise to really smoke your shoulders. You could repeat this 2-5 times depending on how you feel, then go on to other exercises in your workout. The following workout (7-9 days later) you could do 1-4 sets of "T" holds for 24-30 seconds and again a shoulder/biceps exercise immediately after. After 2-4 weeks, try testing again to see if your time has improved. This can all be done with dumbbells if you cannot get your hands on an object similar to the competition's implement. (Easy ways to make your own implements may be getting 2 cheap tennis racquets then strapping weights to the top end, getting two broom handles and attaching a brick/weight to the end of each, again use your imagination!) Other exercises that can be done to assist this event include hammer curls, front/side DB raises, external rotator work, and some lat/trap work never hurts. One of the few "secrets" or tricks that I've picked up on to help with the performance at this event is to lock the elbow so there's very little biceps fatigue, when the arms are out to the sides, externally rotate the arm so that the palm is facing forward and you can "relax" in a way and you're in a more comfortable position. Since this is a static hold event, and no movement is occurring, holding lighter dumbbells and pushing them up against a stationary object (pins in a squat rack) can help to improve your strength at that point in the range of motion.

Here, World's Strongest Man in 1997 and 1999 Jouko Ahola performs the crucifix hold with two sacks. As you can tell by his posture, he simply relaxes with an elbow-straight, shoulder's back position that allows him to "relax" and postpone fatigue for a better time.

Another picture of a competitor performing the Crucifix hold for time. Notice his hands are open and partially relaxed to conserve energy.

Keg Toss -Muscles Used-> Hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, entire back, front deltoids, forearms.

This is a great example of an event that doesn't require brute strength as much as it requires explosiveness, timing and technique. It's pretty self explanatory-toss a keg (or a stone/block) over a given wall/bar for maximum height. In most competitions, you have 3 or 4 chances to go and usually 3 attempts at each height. So, if the starting height is 12 feet you can go with that height as your first chance. If you get it, you then have credit for 12 feet. You can then skip to 14, 15, 16 or wherever you feel you can complete next. The hard part is if you skipped 13 and 14 but then tried 15ft and missed it after 3 attempts, you're stuck with 12 feet. So, there is some strategy to this event. For your first competition, you may just choose to start at the opening height (12 ft in the example) and just progress by 1 foot, with your final-and hopefully successful height being 14 or 15ft. Many competitors with experience in this event will hit an opening height to get on the board and then skip multiple heights so they don't waste chances with heights they know they could hit.

To practice for this event, getting a keg and tossing it over your head to practice your technique is the easiest and best way to go. Increasing it's weight slightly higher to that seen in competition will help you on competition day to have an easier time, as you're used to something a little harder. The action of the body is with feet wide apart, the keg starts just above the ground and by swinging it back between your legs and up in front of you to gain momentum you then extend the ankles, knees, and hips (triple extension) like you would in a powerclean and then keep it going with the arms in a front raise to a final release point just before it's above your head. It sounds like a lot, and it is but it happens so fast that practice-and that's good, quality practice-is essential. You can get a keg for fairly cheap from most beer distributors in your area.

In the weightroom, lifts that can help you include the Olympic lifts and their derivatives. The Snatch and Clean & Jerk help with the crucial extension of the lower body. Things like the hang snatch, RDL, DB snatch, Clean High Pull, DB Shrug Pull, front barbell raise with different grips, and lots of standing calf raises with a wide stance can all be used in a variety of ways to enhance your performance.

These two pictures are great for showing the extended position the athlete strives for to get the highest toss. You'll notice both athletes are on their toes, their hips are extended and they're about to release the block. (The athletes shown are Janne Virtanen of Finland, WSM champ in 2000 on the left. Right is Odd Haugen, USA is a great competitor and a great guy too.)

Conan's Wheel/Cask or Stone Circle -Muscles Used->Entire body (legs, back, arms, shoulders).

Like most strongman events, this event can vary tremendously. The bar that is held in the arms of the competitor can be weighted by a car, a huge basket of stones, a pair of huge wooden kegs, stacks of weights as well as anything else your imagination can think of. Training for this event can be difficult as the implement used really takes up a lot of room and can be expensive to build. Therefore, hitting the right exercises in the gym is essential. There is an exercise that really mimics the movement of the event. It's called the Zercher Squat and is similar to a front squat. You use a barbell and have it loaded in a squat rack about waist high. Holding the bar while doing the Zercher squat is the difference. You wrap your forearm under the bar so that the bar sits in the crease of the elbow and at the base of your biceps. The bar or pipe used in competition is often thicker than a standard Olympic bar so wrapping it to make it thicker will more closely resemble event conditions. Once you have the bar sitting in your arms, squatting with the weight in this position will feel very different than any other squat you've done. It's different front the standard back squat as well as a front squat when the weight is by the collar bones. The key to the Zercher squat is to sit straight down and keep your chest and chin up. Keeping your weight on your heels will help you from tipping forward and putting too much stress on the low back. Other exercises that will help include heavy hammer curls and holding each rep at the top of the range of motion, front delt work, as well as back extensions to ensure your back is ready for heavy loads.

Here, you see Heinz Ollesch from Germany doing the conan's wheel in competition. Notice the thickness of the pipe used, his arms wrapped around the pipe and hands clasped together. The objective of this event is to walk around the circle (the pipe is attached at the opposite end of where you lift it) as many times as possible. So, you can break this event down into phases. First lift it, then walk quickly and efficiently so you can go as long as possible. When practicing, try to lift heavier than the weight you plan on seeing so that you'll be ready for a lighter weight. Also practice breathing with the huge mass on your torso. It will constrict your rib movement and cause you to take shorter, quicker breaths.

Viking Press -Muscles Used-> Shoulders, Triceps, Back, legs.

This event is pretty straight forward with very little variation. The objective is to get as many reps as possible in the given time (60-90 sec) on this shoulder press looking apparatus. Like the conan's wheel, it is attached at one end and you lift the other end from shoulder height to a lockout position with elbows locked above you head. Here, a taller athlete will have some advantage as there will be more weight supported by the apparatus due to the angle of the weighted portion at lockout, however their long arms will still require more range of motion from shoulder to lockout. One of the best exercises to help with this event is the barbell push press. Like the log press, the bar is at the collar bones and by dipping the legs and pressing the weight up with the shoulders and triceps until the weight is pressed to the top. Also like the log press, exercises like the seated and standing DB press, front DB and plate raises, narrow grip incline bench as well as any other pressing movement over the head will help.

In the pictures above, you see two athletes at the start and finish of the movement. On the left, Brian Neese (USA) is just dipping the legs and preparing to punch the weight towards the sky. Phil Pfister (USA) on the right shows a perfect lockout position and prepares to lower the apparatus for another rep. You can see Brian wears wrist wraps, elbow sleeves as well as a good belt for support while Phil goes with nothing but a belt and brawn. Both of these athletes are accomplished strongmen and both have competed in the WSM.

Deadlift -Muscles Used->Hamstrings, back, forearms (grip).

This event is pretty self explanatory as to training and improving. After you've found out exactly how the event will be preformed, you can then start on training for it. Heavy deadlifting does require some technique work-not because you can't do it with bad technique, but you'll get severely injured if you do. The main difference in deadlifting in a powerlifting meet and in a strongman competition is starting bar height. In powerlifting like in the gym, the athlete must lift the bar from the height it sits at when there are Olympic standard plates on it-this is usually mid-shin level depending on the height of the athlete. However in strongman, the bar/implement to be lifted is often higher off the ground. This is so that more weight can be used (and the event is more impressive for money paying people to watch and so that it's easier to lift the implement as the athlete then has to hold it for time).

Here, you see Gerrit Badenhorst from South Africa deadlifting a massive amount of weight and as you can see, it's not with standard weights. The stones on the bar are manufactured to be the same so that the bar weight is even. However, the bar is higher than it would be if it had plates on it. He is showing great deadlift technique. His hips started down with the knees bent and the chest and chin up. The arms don't bend as they're acting as virtual hooks and don't really have much strength in comparison to the well developed hamstrings and low back. This lift can be broken into phases and by training the whole deadlift as well as different phases, you can improve in minimal time. The ability to get into the starting position is important and requires strong hips and flexible ankles. The first pull, pulling the bar from the ground, should be fast and forceful. You must think of pushing you feet into the ground and not pulling the bar off the ground. The feet should be narrow, around shoulder width apart when performing the conventional deadlift that is usually done in strongman events. Once you've past knee level, you can angle the chin up and start pulling towards the sky. Pushing the hips forward and keeping the shoulders back will finish out a big pull.

So to work the phases of the first pull, midway pull and lockout, we can look at some different exercises. For the initial pull, pause squats that are heavy and deep will help. It will help with starting strength as you're accelerating out of the bottom position and will teach your body to get up fast and with force. There's another exercise that helps strengthen the low back, hips and hamstrings called "Pull Throughs". To get it set up, you need a low cable like one you'd see people doing curls or upright rows with. You get that V-grip handle used for close grip lat pull downs and low pulley rows and attach it to this low pulley. Then, put the pin so that there's a medium amount of weight ready to be hoisted. You then straddle the handle with your back to the weight stack. Then, bending the knees and at the hips, reach down and grab the handles and get ready by sitting back, sticking your chest out and getting that chin up. Pushing through the heels, straighten the knees and hips together so that the finished position looks like you standing holding a handle at arms length between your thighs. It takes some getting used to and you will feel as though you're going to fall back at first. However, if done properly you'll really feel it in the hams, hips, low back and maybe some forearm. To work the upper ½ of the deadlift movement, getting in that squat rack with the pins in it and pulling heavy will be the best for you. Set the pins up so that the bar is mid thigh level and lift as heavy as you can for a single. The following week, take the pins down a notch and pull as heavy as possible at that slightly lower height. Repeat this until the bar is below the knee cap and then start over at the top height again. By keeping good records, you can see if you've improved from 3-4 weeks ago.

In the photo below, you see Richard Sorin of Sorinex doing a 1331 lbs rack pull with no straps! This is a great example of intensity, great grip and back training as well as great training partners right there and ready to help.

Now if the event you'll be doing does not require the starting height to be very low and your initial pulling position will be somewhere on the thigh, then training the event will be slightly different. In many of the past strongman competitions and even some today, the implement is not a bar with round weighted objects on each end, but rather a box full of rocks, coins, etc... In the past, the athlete performed what was called a "Silver Dollar Deadlift" as one of the events. Not only was it a great way to test strength, but the winner of the event often won all the money they successfully lifted.

In the above photo, Bill Kazmaier (USA), probably the greatest strongman to ever live and now with Met-Rx lifts over 1000lbs in the Silver Dollar Deadlift. The greatest part of this certain event, was that some of the other competitors were complaining to the officials that "The Kaz" was not locking out the previous weights. So, The Kaz hit this winning weight once, set it down and hit it again to make sure everyone saw that he could do it. A feat of strength unmatched as he performed his own instant replay and showed everyone that he was the man. As you can see, to take the grip variable out of the event and put the true test on the hamstrings and back of the competitors they allow straps when the lift's starting height is around thigh level. When it comes to footwear, you can see that Bill either has little mini deadlift slippers or just socks on. Every centimeter of added distance you have to pull the weight just adds to the range of motion the athlete as to pull. Check with the promoter to see what requirements there are for footwear. When training for this event, lifting a massive weight out of the rack and holding it for time will help you mentally and physically prepare holding big weight. Also, have 2 partners help you lift the bar to the lockout position. Then, have them slowly release the bar so that you're holding all the weight. Hold it at the top and slowly lower it to the pins. This is the negative of the movement and just like someone who can't do pull ups, you help them up and they slowly lower themselves working on the negative of the movement. Doing this with the deadlift will really make you sore and you shouldn't do it every deadlift workout. Try it every 2-3 deadlift workouts to keep from overtraining and let me know how it goes for you.

(Here is just a great pic of Magnus Ver Magnusson (Iceland) lifting huge tires at an exhibition he did. Look at the bar bend!)

Truck Pulling - Muscle Used-> Forearms, biceps, lats, traps, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, calves

The truck pull event can be set up two different ways. Either the athlete pulls the truck in a seated, arm-over-arm pull almost like a tug-o-war or the athlete pulls the truck behind them like a draft horse using a harness and rope to pull on. I will talk about the second of the two as that style I am more experienced with. Many people often ask if pulling a large truck is hard. This question seems harder than pulling the truck can be. I always relate it to push starting a car. It's pretty tough at first, but once you get it going it gets easier.

There are a few key things to really concentrate on when pulling a truck. First of all, you're leaning forward, away from the truck with a harness over your shoulders and around your waste. You also have a large rope in your hands in front of you that is anchored to an immovable object at the other end. This rope is for you to pull on, allowing you to use your arms and back to pull while using the legs and hips to push. As described, the lean that you have is crucial. In my first attempt at a truck pull in Missoula, Montana, I stood up way to far and lost valuable force by pushing down instead of back. I practiced for this event with a sled that was too light and didn't allow me to lean enough. Leaning as far as possible forward and driving the knees through as if your shoulders were actually pushing something is the proper posture that will allow you to generate maximum force in the direction you desire. To get the truck moving, an initial pull with the arms and push with the legs and hips is critical. You must have enough strength to get it going. One it's moving, it's all about maintaining your footing and accelerating with each step. Where the hands are is another important trick that may help. Often times, a competitor will keep the arms too far out reaching for that end line. Keeping the arms closer to the head and coordinating the hands and feet so that you get a good rhythm will allow you to focus on footing and balance while you just accelerate faster and faster.

Getting good footing can be difficult. When watching or looking at some of the WSM competitors, I noticed that they were wearing rock climbing shoes. Why would these massive, strong guys where little slipper-like footwear? Well my friends, it's all about traction. And when you missed a 1st or 2nd place because you slipped once or twice because you're wearing old basketball shoes-you go spend $100 at REI and buy some yourself! I got a pair and they've made a difference. How much? I'm not sure but if they help 1%, that's just that much better and faster I'll pull that next truck! In the gym, training all the parts mentioned above will help. However, nothing is the same as training the event itself. When doing low pulley rows in the gym, do them with one of those triceps push down ropes so that you're pulling on rope and get used to the feel. It's a little closer to the real thing. Lots of calf training will help too, as after a few truck pulls your calves are pretty pumped and burnt.

Stone Event -Muscles Used-> Hamstrings, Glutes, Complete Back (low, mid, upper), Biceps, Forearms, Pecs

This event is one of the coolest, most traditional events in strongman history. Lifting large, round stones onto platforms for time is the basic concept of this event. The stones themselves often have history all their own. There are the Atlas Stones, McGlashen Stones, Mavrocks, Samson Stones, etc... Basically, these round stones started as milled stones that varied in weight and size. The larger the stone, the more it weighed. However, these days may people have casts for stones and can make stones that are all the same size yet very in weight by putting different things in them. I was at a competition and all the stones were virtually the same size however ranged in weight from 240lbs to 290-300lbs. The secret was in the filling :)! The guy who made them, poured some concrete in the mold, then some lead, then more concrete. The more lead, the more it weighed. The hard part was that when the concrete was still wet, the lead settled to the bottom of the ball and one side weighed more than the other. Therefore, it was almost like lifting an egg. My point is this, even when training for a stone event, know what kind of stones are going to be seen is an important bit of information. Now, lifting the stones is a feat in itself. I've seen 600lb deadlifters not lift a 275lb stone. While the muscles may be the same technique and timing make the difference. This is another event that can be broken up into different phases. The initial lift breaking the stone from the ground, the lifting of the stone to stomach/chest level for carrying, and the putting of the stone onto the platform.

The first phase requires the athlete to be bent over, back rounded and in a position that every chiropractors cringes at. There are a few techniques that an athlete can use to get their stone(s) off the ground. (heehee) Straddle the stone and slightly bend the knees. Then place a hand on the ground, on each side of where the stone sits on the ground. Then roll the stone over and onto one hand. While it's off the ground and resting on that hand, place the other hand under it. You now have the stone in your hands and forearms. Phil Pfister and Jouko Ahola use a slightly different technique of the initial lift. They "flick" the stone off the ground by cupping the stone and lifting it with both hands at the same time then quickly get both hands under it. It's a very fast movement and requires tremendously strong forearms. Once it's off the ground, lifting it farther becomes even tougher. By getting it in your hands, then rowing it so it's tight on your chest, then squatting under it so it sits on your thighs allows you to adjust the hands and arms so that you can then stand up with it to a carrying position.

Here Ken Brown of the USA has lifted the stone from the ground and prepares to lift it to chest level and onto it's final resting place.

Once you've stood up with the stone, it is sitting on your belly/chest like your hugging it and you are then ready to place it onto the platform. The transition from the bottom position (like the photo shows) and the standing position is much like a front squat (hint).

Here, a competitor carries a huge stone to a platform. As you can see, he's using his chest and arms to squeeze the stone while the back and legs quickly move the weight to the platform.

The final lift of the stone from chest to platform involves that previously mentioned triple extension (extension of the ankle, knee, and hip). By extending the low back as well as the ankles, knees and hips you'll be just that much taller to place that stone onto the platform. This is when problems and weaknesses can occur. Often times the athletes' hip strength isn't enough to get the stone high enough or their just out of "steam" and cannot finish the event. Training for the event is important and will differentiate the first and last place competitors.

As the picture shows, Jouko has the hips, knees and ankles all extended and he is just about to place this stone onto the barrel. This particular stone is the largest Atlas stone weighing 474lbs!

Other gym lifts that can help include heavy pec deck movements (increasing that hugging strength), front and hack squats that are very deep, heavy DB rows as well as deadlifts with all different foot positions.

Tire Flip - Muscles Used-> Hamstrings, complete back, Biceps, Triceps, Forearms (Grip), Anterior Delts, Calves, Psoas (Hip Flexors)

This event is one of my favorite and is very simple to do but can be improved upon by looking at the different parts of the movement. It's also my favorite because the equipment used to practice is free! So the basic goal for this event is to flip a large tire over and over for a certain distance as fast as possible. Usually the tire starts standing up in front of you and the first thing you do is push it over. You then get a good grip, lift it like a deadlift then keep it moving with the knee and arms so that it's standing again. Repeat over and over. Sounds easy huh? The problem is that most of the good competitions you go to have tires weighing over 700lbs! In the WSM competition the tire can weigh 900+lbs which is not only tough, but dangerous and a true test of might. Practicing this event is again, very important so that you can get your timing and technique perfected as many people do it different ways.

How can you flip a tire different ways you ask? Well let me tell you. Let's start from the ground up. How do you stand and where do your feet go? First of all, if the event is on grass, wearing cleats will help you really dig into the ground. I use Adidas baseball cleats because they have long, metal spikes that really dig into the grass. So, when practicing the tire will be lying down. The foot stance to have is halfway between the sumo and conventional stance when deadlifting. Joe Kenn (Football Strength & Conditioning, ASU) calls this medium-wide stance the frog stance. Feet are slightly wider than shoulder width. Toes and knees are both pointing slightly out to allow you to get the benefit of the hamstrings, hips and low back. The hands can either go under the edge of the tire or you can grab the knobby traction grooves in the tire. Most go under the tire, but sometimes the tire is too heavy and large, now allowing you to get your hands under it. As you lift it, leaning into it and lifting it slightly away from you will allow you to keep it moving in its own direction. As you lift it, "boosting" it up with one of your knees helps to give you a quick transition to get under it so you can finish by pressing it to the standing position.

The photo shows Wayne Price (South Africa) flipping a large tire. As you can see, he's curling, shrugging, and leaning into the tire as he lifts it.

That's about 3/4 of the flip. Variations of this include wider hands, more curling with the biceps, more shrugging with the traps, etc... Now when it's standing up, you have the opportunity to gain valuable distance with each flip by really giving it a big push. When you really punch it (one of the few times in strongman when benching may help) you get an extra few inches of bounce. This may not seem like much, but if you're going 100feet, that's about 12 flips. 12 flips with an extra 3 inches per flip, gives you 3 extra feet by the end! That may be the difference in 1st and 4th place!

Here Chad Coy (USA) gives the tire a huge push. His legs are pushing too and are prepared for it to drop and for another flip. Looking at his body position, he looks as though he's doing a narrow grip incline press (hint).

So, lifts that help the tire flip are pretty easy to figure out. Deadlifting with varied stances to work the back, hips and hamstrings at different angles are great. Heavy Shrugs with a supinated grip (under hand like you're curling) as well as narrow grip presses on a flat or incline bench will help you to get the big push at the top. However, the best way to practice for this event is to get a tire from your local tire shop and flip it in your back yard. They should give it to you for free, you just have to go pick it up. *Be careful though-Make sure there are no metal pieces sticking out from the steel belts they put in the sides like car tires!

Keep up all the hard training and start putting some of the implement training into your routine for variety and athleticism. You think you're strong until you flip a tire 8 or 10 times. Your neighbors with really wonder when you go up and down the street with all your buddies flipping a huge tire.

One thing that really sets apart strongman competitors and strength athtletes from other sports is their mind. Getting into the mind set that you're not a human, but a moving machine is often a way strength athletes think prior to an event. Focusing on only the task at hand is important for performance and safety. Often times, I won't even hear the crowd of people yelling because I'm concentrating so much. As you can see in the photo below, Bruce Tessier (USA) is getting ready for the tire flip event in a 2001 contest. He is completely focused and mentally ready. Getting psyched up and preparing to give 100%, all his body can give, is important and has helped him perform well at a number of competitions. This should be the same during your training. Focusing on the weight and not the chick next to you in the fanny-floss will help you get a better workout and prepare for that defining moment-your next competition!

E-mail me with your comments and questions! I look forward to getting e-mail from you.

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Training For Strongman Events Part Three!
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