By Chris Dellasega, MS, CSCS, PICP 2, BioSig 1

Many football teams’ strength training programs revolve around conventional powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting exercises. While these movements are essential to improving athletic performance, they do have some limitations. Strongman training for football players is a great adjunct to traditional training methods for developing the strongest and fastest athletes on the field.

Traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises require the bar, or body, to move through specific pathways. This limited bar path somewhat limits the transferability of strength in these lifts to the field.

Conventional strength training exercises require the body to be static (stable) when executing a lift while the body part being trained moves the implement (a barbell or dumbbell, for example) through space. In the Back Squat, for example, you stay in the same place while squatting up and down. In the Bench Press, the torso and lower body stay static while the arms move the bar.

On field conditions, however, require an athlete to both produce and resist force in multiple planes simultaneously. Think of an offensive lineman blocking, i.e. “pressing” with the arms while simultaneously “driving” the opponent back with his legs.

The body moves in three distinct planes of motion: the sagittal, transverse, and frontal. Traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises require force production primarily in one plane of motion: the sagittal plane (such as a Bench Press or Squat).

The different movements required in football – such as running, twisting, jumping, throwing, catching, kicking, pushing, and pulling – require force to be generated in multiple planes of motion at the same time, something we refer to as “dynamic resistance”.

Strongman Training: Picking Up Where Traditional Strength Training Leaves Off

When implemented correctly, modified strongman training can be beneficial for athletes because the exercises used mimic movements that are similar to those seen in football. Put another way, strongman training uses exercises that train the body using movements that are similar to how the sport is played.

Common strongman lifts that are used include flipping tractor tires, similar to a lineman coming off the line and blocking; pushing weighted sleds, is similar to a running back accelerating and breaking tackles; pulling sleds, mimic a linebacker maintaining a grip and making a tackle; carrying kegs or Atlas stones, simulate wrapping up on a tackle, etc.

When strongman training is combined with traditional strength training, it develops strength in a way different than a conventional approach by using dynamic resistance, which challenges the body’s stabilization and linkage systems, i.e. “the core” differently than traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises.

What makes strongman training so effective is the unbalanced nature of the training implements. Unlike barbells and dumbbells, the unbalanced nature of strongman implements forces an athlete to constantly make adjustments in body position and muscular tension in order to stabilize the object, i.e. dynamic resistance.

What the Research Says

In the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research a study was published entitled, “Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness.” Led by Dr. Stuart McGill, the leading expert in spinal biomechanics.

This study observed the farmer’s walk, super yoke, Atlas stone lift, suitcase carry, keg walk, tire flip, and log lift. The researchers found, “Strongman events clearly challenge the strength of the body linkage, together with the stabilizing system, in a different way than traditional approaches.”

The study directed by Dr. McGill concluded that, “The carrying events challenged different abilities than the lifting events, suggesting that loaded carrying would enhance traditional lifting-based strength programs.”

In another study published in the November 2010 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research entitled, “A kinematic analysis of a strongman-type event: the heavy sprint-style sled pull”, researchers found that there are many similarities between heavy sled pulls and the acceleration phase of a sprint.

The results of this study suggest that the heavy sled pull may enhance the acceleration phase of sprinting and may also increase an athlete’s ability to break and make tackles.

There is mounting evidence to suggest that properly implemented strongman training picks up where traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises leave off. Together with traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises modified strongman training has been shown to produce better strength gains than when conventional barbell and dumbbell methods are used alone.