November 09, 2020 11 min read

We’ve all seen him. We’ve all wanted to be him. A man with some chains and an airplane, dragging across the tarmac. A bar with so much weight that it’s screaming for mercy being flung into the air. Dump truck tires tossing and turning surrounded by scrutinizing judges and audiences paralyzed in awe of one man’s raw strength. 

How are you ever going to do that? What does it take to be up on stage with some of the world’s strongest men? Get ready to train your endurance, speed, strength, and skill, you’re going to need to dial in your diet and learn how to turn mass into movement. Training for a strongman competition isn’t easy, but it’s straightforward, and if you’re dedicated, careful, and smart you’ll be on your way to impressive feats that you can feel proud of. 

What is a Strongman Competition?

Strongman competitions are a modern marriage of three different origins. We can look at powerlifting, circus strongmen, and the Scottish Highland Games. These three events all have competition, showmanship, and frightening feats of strength in common. After hundreds of years, and finally meeting in the American melting pot, they’ve simmered into the beautiful stew of the modern Strongman Competition. 

The Sottish Highland games are said to have started during the time of King Malcom III when he summoned his men to race each other up Creag Choinnich, a hill outside of Braemar. Today the crest of that hill gives you a beautiful look at some of Scottland’s topography. The hill may not be especially tall, but it’s steep and the topology isn’t uniform or particularly simple to traverse.

This early challenge was said to have been between the king’s strongest men, a document from1703 hints that it might not have only been about raw strength as it claims that competitors were encouraged to bring their swords and firearms. It sounds like music, combat, and feats of speed and strength were celebrated during this time.

The Olympics began in ancient Greece. They took place in a city called Olympia as a festival celebrating Zeus. During the heyday of the Olympics, a truce was imposed so athletes could travel from all over to participate, and winning a wreath would bring home political clout for your city-states. The Olympics used to be a way for places to claim and exert political power in the Greek city-states. The ancient Greek Olympic games were also deeply tied to their religious practice. Needless to say that competing in these games was an honor, and incredibly prestigious.

Finally, the circus strongman might not sound very glamorous today, but these people in the nineteenth century were powerful showmen. They would do flashy exercises like the bent press, which entailed a lot of contortion, power, and balance, they would snap chains with their bare hands, and bend steel. Seeing a strongman when the circus was a primary form of opulent and unique entertainment was like seeing Superman fall from the sky. There was nothing else like these men. They were rare and powerful and well trained.

That all brings us to today. Competing in a strongman competition is like participating in the history of the world. The prestige of the Olympics, the showmanship of the nineteenth-century circus, and the pride of the king’s strongest men all pumps through the modern strongman competition. When you train for this, you’re training to become something more powerful than your forefathers could have ever dreamed up, and you’re taking part in some of the most time-honored traditions.

There’s no standard format for a strongman competition. No two competitions are going to be exactly the same, and that sounds like it would be impossible to prepare for one, right? But if you understand what they’re all trying to judge, then all you need to do is figure out a training routine that will sculpt your body into a strongman competing machine. 

A man in a strongman competition.

Common Strongman Events

Let’s look at the things that strongman competitions tend to have in common, and from there it’ll be pretty easy to see where you should focus your efforts.

  • Atlas Stone:This one, if you know anything about Greek mythology, is a pretty direct reference to the Olympic origins of strongman competition. Atlas was one of the titans, he was condemned to hold up the heavens forever. Atlas is commonly depicted with the world on his back, the weight of it all is constantly threatening to break him. Atlas stones are just as insurmountable. In strongman competitions, you’ll often be tasked with lifting several heavy stones (think three to four hundred pounds) up onto a platform that’s between waist and chest height. If you find yourself taking this challenge on, imagine yourself being the titan holding up the stars themselves.
  • Farmer’s Walk: This event is one of the most iconic events at The World’s Strongest Man. It’s all about hauling two massive weights by your side a set distance in a certain amount of time. You’re going to need to channel inhuman endurance and speed to take this one on because the weights tend to be about three hundred pounds each.
  • Húsafell Stone:The Húsafell stone is another event you can trace back through history. It’s basically a huge rock that you have to lift and carry as far as you can. In Iceland, if you could only lift this big sheep pen rock up to your knees you’d be a “lazybones.” It’s an excellent event for strongmen competitors. Only men that could get the four hundred pound stone up to their chests and walk the perimeter of the sheep pen it was found near could call themselves a “full-strong.” 
  • Yoke Carry:The yoke carry gets its name from, well, yokes. A yoke is a beam used to connect a pair of animals together so you can combine their strength to pull a load a person wouldn’t have been able to pull on their own. In a strongman competition, the yoke is only going on one animal, you. This yoke is a large metal frame with a crossbar. That crossbar is going on your back, and competitors will lift the yoke with a huge amount of weight on it, and walk it either a set distance or as far as they can in a set amount of time. During the yoke carry you’ll be putting an ox to shame with the amount of weight you’re looking to carry. 

What Should You Train?

If no two strongman competitions are the same, and the events you’ll be taking part in are so different from anything you’ll be encountering in the gym, then what should you even be training? Not everyone looking to take part in these will have access to a yoke, or a ball massive enough to make the titans weak in the knees.

Looking over common strongman events will give us the answer. These events don’t ask you to isolate a muscle group, and they’re not looking to test the limits of a single aspect of your strength. Strongman competitions are trying to tease out every single ounce of power in your body. You’ll need to focus on your entire body, build on all of your muscles,  and master your endurance.

What Exercises Should You Focus On?

Your body is a machine that’s constantly combining several different muscles in a myriad of ways to pull off all manners of motion. If you train yourself in a way that focuses on your entire body, then when it comes time to really strut your stuff, you’ll have no problem tackling anything thrown in your direction. That means simple exercises are going to be just as good as anything fancy. When it comes to building your base strength. 

Novice

Anybody can start training for a strongman competition. Getting started means you need a starting point, and you might as well start at the beginning, right? 

  • Squats: Squats are an excellent way to start training. They’re amazing for your lower body and target a lot of the muscles you’re going to be engaging during your first strongman competition. 
  • Bench Press: Where the benchpress is a great way to target your lower body, bench presses are basically the counterpart for your upper body. Bench Presses are also a great way to prepare for events that require your upper body’s ability to control heavy weight like the tire flip. 
  • Kettlebells: Kettlebells are great for targeting the areas you may have missed. Bench Presses are excellent for your chest, but you may not be hitting your triceps like you meant to. They’re a basic weightlifting tool, and they’re great for targeting something you might have otherwise missed.
  • Dumbbells: Dumbbells and kettlebells tend to be used for the same sorts of exercise, but switching between the two will serve as a reminder of what you’re working on by compartmentalizing and allowing for different grips. Bicep curls just don’t feel the same when you’re subbing in a kettlebell. 

Intermediate 

As your training becomes a little more intense, you should look into these exercises to split more intense focus on your upper and lower body. If you can blast these muscles even more than your beginner loads, you’ll find yourself excelling at strongman events. 

  • Rack pulls: Rack pulls are similar to deadlifts, but the variable height will allow you to focus more on your lower back and upper thighs. The earlier you can start strengthening and limbering up your lower back, the better off you’ll be when you start becoming a more serious lifter.
  • Deadlifts: You’re going to want to start incorporating deadlifts into your routine sooner or later. This barbell exercise is a great place to get in some of your most intense strength training. Deadlifting also has the benefit of appearing in nearly every single strongman. Strongman competitors that don’t have a good deadlift event under their belt are going to have a tough time getting through the day with their pride intact. 

Advanced

As you start entering the advanced events, you might want to look at a Crossfit gym or some other place you can get access to the equipment you’ve grown accustomed to seeing at your events. Eventually, you’re going to want to grow intimately familiar with the different grips and combinations of efforts that strongman competitions demand from you.

  • Keg Runs: Keg runs are great for getting your endurance up. The keg run really is exactly what it sounds like. Get yourself a keg and fill it with either sand or water. If you can’t get a hold of a keg, then a sandbag will do. Grab it by the top with your dominant hand and support it with your opposite. Pull it up off of the ground and support it against your chest, leaning back slightly. Run as fast as you can while holding the keg, making sure you stay leaned back the entire time. You don’t want to tap out just because your spinal erectors got tired before your arms
  • Yoke Walks: You’ve probably seen a decent number of yoke walks by now.You’re going to need a yoke for this one. Support the weight across your shoulders, and make sure you brace yourself the same way you would if you were maxing out on competition day. Practice how you play, and you’ll always get the results you want.If you’re training do a few reps, getting the weight off of the ground and walking a set distance. 
  • Axle Push Press: The axle push press is a test of your overall strength, and as a part of an advanced training routine, it’ll hit a lot of the areas you need to me tuning for things like the log press, and other events in the higher weight classes.

Strongman Diets

You’ve probably heard more than once that mass moves mass. This is absolutely true. If you’re going to be manhandling this kind of weight and trotting around the field, then you better have to muscle to do it. 

That muscle doesn’t come from nowhere. This is elementary, you hear it all the time, right? “ You are what you eat.” If you’re going to train for a strongman competition, and you’re not eating then you’re wasting your time. Your muscles grow almost out of spite. You hit the gym and push them past their limits, and during your recovery days, your body is rebuilding torn tissue, literally taking your nutrients and turning into muscle that you use to throw around even more weight.

Brain Shaw has several World’s Strongest Man wins under his sizable lifting belt. His diet is probably around 12,000 calories a day, and he’s burning those and using them all for more muscle. If Brian can eat all of that, then you can probably stand to beef up your diet too.

Eat eat eat. You want lean proteins, low glycaemic carbs, vegetables, and a touch of fat. Make sure to hydrate your body, you’re basically made out of water and protein, and without water, you’re going to be in intense discomfort, especially after a hard workout. When you start training for strongman competitions, you’ll see that your hunger will spike almost immediately. That’s your body begging you for nutrients. Get yourself a meal plan so you aren’t accidentally skipping crucial parts of your diet, and you’ll be packing on muscle almost as fast as you break it down.

Two men competing in a strongman competition.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Strongman competitions, by their very nature, are pretty extreme. They all ask you to push yourself past the limits of what most people will be achieving. If you’ve trained yourself evenly, and your form is up to snuff, then you’ll be coming out of the other side of your first competition unscathed. If you’re serious about this, then you need to know the common injuries, and what you can do to avoid them. 

  • Training is a long term process. You are never going to see results overnight, and if you’re participating in the sport of strongman, then you want to train yourself consistently and methodically.
  • Be honest about what you can and can’t do. Competitions are about pushing yourself to your limits and conquering the obstacles in front of you, but if you hurt yourself in pursuit of a new record, then you’re just going to leave embarrassed and set your progress back by weeks, if not months.
  • Don’t neglect your lower back. The way the human body is built puts a great deal of natural stress on your lower back throughout your daily life. Strongman training is no exception. Your lower back isn’t going to look as glamorous as a rolling hill of biceps or bristling lats, but if your lower back gives out in the middle of a yoke carry, then you’re not going to look very strong anyway. 
  • Don’t focus too much on one area. If you’re focused on your biceps, then remember to strengthen your triceps as well. Every single movement in your body is executed in pairs. Every flexor has an extensor, and if one half of the equation is overdeveloped you’re going to run a higher risk of injury.
  • Don’t neglect the opportunity to pick up a coach. You may be responsible for lifting the weights yourself, but a coach will be there for motivation, correcting your form, and they’ll have the professional knowledge you need to get the most out of your training. 
  • On game day be sure to bring plenty of food with you. You may end up there for around eight hours, and these events are high intensity and demanding. Your body needs fuel, and if you want to do your best, you need a full tank all day long.
  • Never ever forget to warm up, cool down, and stretch. When you work your muscles this hard and pack on this much muscle, your body is bound to get tight. If you don’t limber up and take the time to recover, you’re just ratcheting up your joints for disaster.

Knowledge is Power

Strongman competitions have an incredible history or pride, and mind bending athleticism. These people throughout history have been the strongest and the best at what they do. There aren’t many places in the modern world where you will be called to prove how strong you are, but if you find them, then you’re sure to be participating in something incredible. Your max reps on contest day are a testament to the bodybuilding you’ve poured hours and hours into.

Records are set and broken all over the place in this world and adding supplements to your diet will help you achieve yours.. Strongmen are men that take pride in their bodies and spend a great deal of time carefully crafting a lifestyle that will allow them to break past the limits of what we once thought was possible. The ancient Greeks would tremble in the presence of a modern strongman competition, and by training yourself to take part in one, you’ll be cementing yourself in history as a person more powerful than most that have ever lived. 


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