Fill the gaps in your program — functional strength, grip and conditioning — with a dose of strongman training.
We interrupt your regularly scheduled lifting program with an urgent message: It’s time to start incorporating strongman training into your routine.
Don’t worry. This isn’t a major overhaul of your current training protocol. We’re simply swapping out a handful of typical mass-building exercises with movements that are considerably better at developing functional strength, cardiovascular conditioning, and speed—while still building appreciable muscle mass.
Think about the awesome events performed by the behemoth athletes in the World’s Strongest Man and other strongman competitions you see on ESPN2 at 3 a.m. Heavy-weighted carries, truck pulls, log presses—activities that demand not only brute strength and power but also superior leverage, balance, core stability, a Herculean grip, and even a set of iron lungs.
“Every bodybuilder and powerlifter I train with strongman lifts has poor lifting endurance when I start with them,” says Hans Pirman, an elite master’s-level strongman competitor, trainer, and owner of Global Strongman Gym in Brooklyn, NY. “Strongman training will increase your cardiovascular capacity instantly. It also greatly improves core strength. Strongman training connects all the dots in your body and exposes all your weaknesses. If you’re doing log presses and you have a weak lower back, upper abs, and hips, they show up. If you do a keg run and your spinal erectors and abs give out, they tell you right away. If you’re doing a one-arm press and your grip strength is poor, it goes right out the window. Strongman is lifting heavy weights really fast—it’s strength plus conditioning.”
Intrigued yet? Reaping the benefits of strongman training doesn’t mean abandoning your entire routine as you know it. All it takes is the addition of some or all of the following exercises recommended by Pirman and demonstrated by the reigning World’s Strongest Man—6’8″, 434-pound American strongman Brian Shaw. Pirman offers gym-friendly alternatives for each exercise in addition to prescribing when and how to work the lifts into your current training split.
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MONSTER DUMBBELL PRESS
BENEFITS: Core, shoulder, and grip strength; balance, mobility, and power development; lats and biceps strength (lifting the DB from the floor to the shoulder).
Get the heavy, thick-handled “monster” dumbbell from the floor up to your shoulder. Swing it up with only the working arm using momentum, or use the off hand/arm to help lift it up.
From the shoulder, point the front of the dumbbell upward and perform a push press to drive the weight overhead to full-arm extension, leaning back as you do so (particularly if the dumbbell is heavy). Keep a solid base throughout with your feet around shoulder-width apart on the floor, and counterbalance with your nonworking arm up to the side.
Let the dumbbell fall back down to your shoulder, then to the floor.
Use a heavy dumbbell with a Fat Gripz to mimic the thick handle of a monster dumbbell.
IMPLEMENT IT: Any upper-body pressing workout. “If you’re training for strongman, do it before bench press,” advises Pirman. “If you’re a bodybuilder or training for hypertrophy, do it after you bench.”
SETS: 3* REPS: 8 per arm *Or 3 sets of as many reps as possible in 60 secs
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BENEFITS: Core and full-body strength; conditioning.
Fill a keg with sand, water, a combination of the two, or cement.
Grab the top of the keg with your strong hand and the bottom of it with the opposite hand. Pull it off the ground up to your chest, over your hips, and lean back with it against your chest and stomach.
Run as fast as you can while holding the keg, maintaining a leaned-back torso throughout, for time or distance. “The hips always stay forward of the shoulders,” says Pirman. “What happens is, your spinal erectors get really tired, and then you lean over and you’re done.”
GYM MODIFICATION: Use any type of sandbag (homemade or otherwise) or a detached boxing heavy bag if you don’t have a keg.
IMPLEMENT IT: On leg day after squats and other compound exercises, or in any full-body conditioning routine.
SETS: 6* REPS: 50 ft *Or 1 set for maximum distance until failure (dropping the weight)
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THICK-BAR LAT PULLDOWN
BENEFITS: Strength in the upper back, biceps, and brachialis; grip strength. “This exercise carries over to overhead presses—when you press from your chest, you need a strong upper torso to support that weight,” says Pirman.
Take a wide grip on a thick lat pulldown bar, and lean back slightly at the torso.
Use a heavy weight and begin with your arms extended upward.
Pull the bar to your upper chest, using a slight “jerk” if needed. Return to the arms-extended position.
GYM MODIFICATION: If a thick bar isn’t available, use Fat Gripz or wrap a towel around a lat bar. Pirman also suggests regularly swapping in a neutral-grip pulldown bar to better mimic exercises like log presses in which the palms are in a neutral position (facing in).
IMPLEMENT IT: On back day, or as an accessory move in a deadlifting routine.
SETS: 4 REPS: 8-10
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BENEFITS: Core, shoulder, triceps, and lats strength; power development.
With the log on the floor, grip the handles.
Pull the log up and into your hips, and bring your chest to the log. Squeeze with the lats and hip thrust to lift the log as high as you can on your chest with your elbows high. Push-jerk with the legs to drive the log overhead to full extension.
Reverse the motion to lower the log back to the floor.
GYM MODIFICATION: Use a neutral grip and press two heavy dumbbells overhead. Leg or back issues? Pull from the rack, not the floor.
IMPLEMENT IT: In any upper-body pressing workout.
SETS: 1 light warmup set + 3 REPS: 2-6 (for strength/power) or as many as possible in 60 sec (for hypertrophy emphasis)
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GRENADE BALL LYING TRICEPS EXTENSION
BENEFITS: Triceps; lockout strength for presses; grip strength.
Secure a Grenade Ball attachment to a chain lying on the floor next to a bench.
Lie back on the bench, grab the Grenade Ball in one hand, palm facing in (neutral) and arm extended perpendicular to the floor.
Bend your arm until your elbow reaches 90 degrees, then extend your arm back to the start position. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.
GYM MODIFICATION: Move a bench to a cable station and do extensions from the lowest pulley setting using the ends of a rope attachment; or use a dumbbell with Fat Gripz.
IMPLEMENT IT: As a finisher in a pressing workout or any time you train triceps.
SETS: 4 REPS: 10
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ONE-ARM CABLE ROW
BENEFITS: Back, biceps, and brachialis strength. “There’s a direct carryover to a strongman boat or truck pull because those events are often seated,” says Pirman.
At a seated cable-row station, start with both feet up on the platforms, lean forward, and grab a handle attachment with one hand.
Beginning in the fully stretched position leaning forward, pull the handle back with your elbow tucked in at your side and squeeze your lat muscle, letting your torso extend past perpendicular with the floor by rep’s end.
Return to the start position. Repeat for reps and switch arms.
GYM MODIFICATION: Most gyms have this equipment available. An alternative: one-arm DB rows.
IMPLEMENT IT: As a finisher on back day or in a deadlifting workout.
SETS: 3 REPS: 8-10
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SAFETY SQUAT BAR SQUAT
BENEFITS: Lower-body strength and power; core strength. “This is fantastic for people with bad shoulders, and it doesn’t stress the arms or neck, either,” says Pirman. “It works as a front squat because the center of gravity is right over the shoulders and hips.”
Let the rear pad rest on your upper traps, hold onto the handles in front, and unrack the bar.
Take a wide stance and keep your back flat as you lower your hips to the floor.
When your thighs reach at least parallel with the floor, return to the start position. Lock your glutes at the top.
GYM MODIFICATION: Use two dumbbells resting on your shoulders to execute the move. Zercher squats or cambered bar squats are also options.
IMPLEMENT IT: On leg day early in the workout.
SETS: 4* REPS: 3-5 *Perform 1 light warmup set of 10 reps.
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BENEFITS: Grip strength.
Set a dumbbell on its side on the floor. (Shaw is holding a broken DB.) Lean over and grasp the end of the dumbbell in one hand with outstretched fingers. Pirman recommends a hex-shaped DB, since a standard one might be too wide to hold.
With a firm grip on the dumbbell and the hand and palm on top of the DB, lift it a couple feet off the floor and hold for as long as possible.
GYM MODIFICATION: If your gym doesn’t have hex-shaped dumbbells, do “plate pinches”—i.e., hold two plates (25s) together vertically in your fingers for time.
IMPLEMENT IT: At the end of a workout. Do them early on and you’ll tire out your grip and negatively impact other lifts.