Modified Strongman Training: Taking Your Training Routine to the Next Level
Modified strongman training is the perfect blend of resistance training and what most people would consider “cardio”. Forget distance running, unless that’s your thing, but even then you could benefit 100% from including modified strongman training to your workout. It will improve strength and endurance in a way not seen with any other style of training.
Modified strongman develops strength in a way traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises don’t.
Traditionally, athletic strength training programs have revolved around conventional strength-training exercises, like the squat and bench press, and Olympic lifts and their variations. While these movements are essential for athletic development, including modified strongman training can further the effectiveness of traditional training methods building an even more athlete and/or physique.
Conventional barbell and dumbbell exercises require the bar (or body) to move through a specific pathway when executing the lift. However, few athletes in team sports encounter opponents in this way. In order for a muscle to be as strong as possible it must be trained in different planes of motion.
With conventional strength training exercises the training implement (e.g. barbell or dumbbell) is “static” and generally moves in one plane of motion. Yet in playing conditions the resistance an athlete encounters (e.g. engaging an opponent) is “dynamic” in that force must be produced/resisted at multiple angles at the same instant. This “dynamic resistance” requires the body to react to the forces imposed on it differently than traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises.
The body moves in three distinct planes of motion: the sagittal plane, transverse plane, and frontal plane. However, traditional strength training exercises generally require force production primarily in one plane of motion.
Compare that with the different movements performed in athletics: running, twisting, jumping, throwing, catching, kicking, pushing, pulling, etc. These activities frequently require movement in multiple planes of motion at the same time. Modified strongman training may be considered functional strength training and is beneficial to athletes because it requires force production in multiple planes of motion simultaneously.
Functional strength training is best described as the execution of lifts that closely resemble movement patterns required for a particular sport with the intent of improving athletic performance.
Modified strongman training develops functional strength and picks up where conventional barbell and dumbbell exercises leave off by requiring the largest muscle groups in the body to co-contract. When implemented properly, modified strongman training can increase strength and performance gains by developing the body’s linkage and stabilizing systems differently than traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises alone.
What makes strongman training so effective is the unbalanced nature of the training implements, which is further compounded by having to move them through space. Unlike the specific pathways of conventional barbell and dumbbell exercises, the act of moving (pushing, pulling, carrying, etc.) an unbalanced strongman implement requires the body to stabilize itself differently than with traditional exercises.
Strongman lifts that are commonly used include pushing & pulling sleds or cars; flipping or dragging tractor tires; carrying or lifting sand bags, Atlas stones, water-filled kegs, farmer’s walk implements, and super-yokes; lifting steel logs; and rope climbing.
What the Research Says
There is a growing body of research that suggests incorporating strongman training you’re your training routine will undoubtedly improve body composition, muscular function, and performance.
A study by Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, looked at how the body responds to strongman training (1).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 carrying events challenged different abilities than the lifting events, suggesting that loaded carrying would enhance traditional lifting-based strength programs.”
Put another way, modified strongman training can make you stronger in the weight-room, but traditional strength training doesn’t necessarily have as high of a degree of transferability to strongman lifts.
This is primarily due to the “dynamic resistance” offered by modified strongman training. This type of training requires repeated movements at different joint angles, with a variety of force development and rates of force production, which better simulates how people move in everyday life.
The dynamic resistance that strongman implements provide offers a different training stimulus than barbell and dumbbell exercises alone. For example, doing a Farmer’s Walk challenges the body differently than a Deadlift. Getting proficient at Farmer’s Walks can improve your Deadlift, but improving your Deadlift won’t necessarily provide as much carryover to the Farmer’s Walk.
The biggest difference between the two lifts is the Deadlift is “static” and the Farmer’s Walk is “dynamic”. Put another way, with a Deadlift you are not walking, with a Farmer’s Walk you are.
In another study (2) 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 improve first step quickness and enhance the acceleration phase of sprinting. Heavy sled pulls may also increase an athlete’s ability to break and make tackles.
Implementing Modified Strongman Training
The use of modified strongman training is better suited for increasing functional hypertrophy, which is an increase in muscular size that correlates with an increase in performance; there’s no sense in adding size to an athlete unless that size translates to better athletic performance.
For strongman exercises like sled pushes & drags, keg carries, farmer’s walks and super-yoke walks predetermined distances work best. Sled training, farmer’s walk, and other carrying variations are recommended to those new to strongman training.
As a general rule of thumb, when programming modified strongman lifts follow the axiom of lift, carry, then drag. That is, program lifts that involve lifting, such as Tire Flip or the Log Press first, followed by a carrying exercise, such as the Farmer’s Walk or Keg Carry, and finish with a Sled Push or Drag.
This progression, while brutal, helps accommodate proper form on all of the movements so that the most technique specific lifts are done first when the nervous system is fresh after the rest period and the least technical last.
When using these strongman exercises to increase functional hypertrophy they can be done with moderately heavy loads for short distances, such as 20-40 yards, with rest intervals of 3-5 minutes between sets. Modified strongman training is also a great tool for improving conditioning, especially alactic and lactic power and capacity.
When using these exercises to improve conditioning the distances can be extended to 40-100 yards. The loads should be relatively moderate with rest intervals anywhere from 2-3 minutes. The fact that strongman lifts involve so much muscle mass also makes them great for improving body composition.
An example of a modified strongman workout for conditioning could be choosing five exercises that alternate between lower and upper body and performing them circuit style. Perform each exercise for 1-2 minutes with 1-minute rest between lifts for a total of 5 rounds. (Note: choose a load that enables proper form for the full 1-minute.)
Strongman training can be used as part of a strength program year round and fit into any phase of training. It can be used by performing a workout once a week with only strongman implements or by choosing one strongman lift and placing it at the end of a traditional workout as a “finisher”.
Limitations of Modified Strongman Training
While modified strongman training works very well as an adjunct to traditional strength-training programs, it does have some limitations.
For example, when developing maximal strength minor increases in loads are needed: adding 5 pounds to a max in a lift can take weeks, if not months of planned training. Adding small increments to implements such as tractor tires or Atlas stones can be very difficult and is not advised.
It is well established that the use of multiple sets of 1-3 reps with heavy loads is optimal for developing maximal strength. This rep bracket is best left for traditional barbell exercises in the weight-room. It is generally not advised to attempt to lift maximally loaded strongman implements.
Strongman training picks up where traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises leave off and have been shown to produce greater strength gains than the use of traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises alone. So, get the most out of your training and get closer to reaching your athletic potential by incorporating modified strongman training into your training regimen.
- McGill SM, McDermott A, Fenwick CM. Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness.J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jul;23(4):1148-61. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318198f8f7. PubMed PMID: 19528856.
- Keogh JW, Newlands C, Blewett S, Payne A, Chun-Er L. A kinematic analysis of a strongman-type event: the heavy sprint-style sled pull.J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Nov;24(11):3088-97. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b62c2f. PubMed PMID: 19996774.
- Winwood PW, Cronin JB, Posthumus LR, Finlayson SJ, Gill ND, Keogh JW.Strongman vs. traditional resistance training effects on muscular function and performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Feb;29(2):429-39. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000629. PubMed PMID: 25627449.