Building the Perfect Strongman (labirab)

. I’d like you to do the same for yourself, you shouldn’t be discouraged in training just from these musings as many great Strongmen wouldn’t make it on a world stage but still are to be admired and emulated and you could count yourself among them one day.

Genetics

The most obvious Strongman attribute at the world level is height. In my analysis there isn’t one true optimum but actually two optimal ranges. Between 6’ and 6’3”, and between 6’7” and 6’9”. There are good reasons in Strongman to not be too tall (less distance to pull a deadlift or press log over, less mass to move on speed dominant events) and to be as tall as possible (the potential for more muscle mass and the potential for more sheer mass in events where weight is an advantage). There are of course outliers, but generally being much shorter than 6’ doesn’t bring a statistically significant advantage and athletes taller than 6’9” will more likely find themselves in the NBA, so who knows. Being in the middle seems to cancel the advantages out more than give a best of both worlds.

Next is frame size, or joint thickness. Larger joints are stronger joints, and they also allow one to add more muscle mass to your frame. There’s not a lot of information out there on this front, but wrist thickness is seen as a good reference for frame size and 7.5” and up is considered “large”.

Life Experiences

Work capacity is a function of nurture, not nature. Looking at all strength athletes you get three general backgrounds for building a good “base” prior to joining the sport (very few athletes set out from youth to be a Strongman). They are a) farmers or laborers who are used to all day physical work; b) youth athletes especially from basketball, football, combat sports or rugby who managed to avoid major injury; and c) converts from other strength sports such as weightlifting, powerlifting or bodybuilding. One can of course raise work capacity once they’ve joined Strongman competition, but years matter here and again few start out as a teenager hoping to one day be a Strongman.

Mentioned before, avoiding injury in youth is a major hurdle. Strongmen tend to be “adrenaline junkies” and who knows how many potential champions we’ve lost to a hard tackle in football or repetitive stress injuries in labor. My own background is military and while I luckily came out fairly unscathed, I think more high level Strongmen would come from this background if not for the high injury rates.

If you were to highlight just one background as the most successful, I think basketball and football come off as the highest level of success and bodybuilders have the highest frequency of success. Basketball and football favor the same body types and genetics that Strongman does, as well as loading adherents with athleticism and becoming inundated to training, so those that were just below the cut off line to excel at the professional level in those sports will find a welcome home in our sport. Bodybuilding trends towards building muscle mass and strength with a very low injury rate, letting converts enter our sport at a relatively high level to their training age and without the nagging aches and pains from years of pushing maximum weights. Their focus on having a big back is attractive to our sport more than others as well.

Diet

This is highly individualized, and I don’t want anyone taking away that they should be eating a certain way simply because a high level competitor does. That said, looking at the diets of top Strongmen and those of other strength athletes two facts stand out: a) they are high in protein and carbs, fats tend to be incidental and b) the higher the athletes level, the looser the “cleanness” of the diet seems to be. That doesn’t mean that a new trainee should eat all the Taco Bell they want, but that they could one day if they eat right now. I also want to add here that the use of exogenous hormones is a given for top level competitors. This is not track and field, take every advantage you can get but keep longevity in mind as it takes a decade or more to truly peak in strength sports.

On the off chance anyone is curious I personally tend to side with the paleo nutrition guys, with the caveat of adding in nutrient dense carb sources to fuel training and not discarding dairy as long as you’re not sensitive to it. Keeping incidental inflammation to a minimum so your body can deal with the stresses of training is great, and making sure every calorie put in your body has a purpose can’t be bad.

Mindset

Strongmen are competitors first and foremost. We are famous among strength sports for supporting other competitors but equally known for shutting that friendship off on the platform. The ability to turn on and off mental intensity to extreme degrees, the ability to recover from a poor performance quickly and the ability to separate training and performance intensities are all traits that show up in champions.

Training

To the meat of the question, how does one train if given unlimited resources? There’s only one strength sport where top athletes are able to treat lifting as a career, Olympic Weightlifting. Added to that is a few bodybuilders and powerlifters who are independently wealthy enough to train full time, so we’ll give them some small weight in this analysis.

Comparing through recent history one Olympic team stands out as being a natural experiment for our dream strongman in that they may as well have not been tested for steroids, had unlimited training time and all the recovery resources they needed and most important had significant success in their sport. That nation is fairly obviously Bulgaria under Ivan Abadjiev. Rather than coming up with an elaborate program for Strongman based on his training it would be more prudent to highlight some key principles that we can carry over to our own training.

  1. High frequency. Training seven days a week in either two a day sessions or one all-day session depending on how you look at it. Comparing that to old school strongmen and early strength athletes this holds up well for developing maximum strength levels and high work capacities. My own ideal would be 5-7 separate mini sessions consisting of training one movement each, with enough time for a meal and some relaxing in between.
  2. Training maxes. To train with that frequency you must base your training on a daily max. This can’t be a Westside style max of grinding efforts or lift failure, especially given that the events we train aren’t exclusively the explosive movements of Olympic Weightlifting. Your daily max should be the most you can lift with good bar speed and without compromising form, or the most you can move with good foot speed and no chance of dropping. From there a few drop sets to get in higher rep work and adding the volume necessary to stress for growth is ideal, but should be adjusted daily based on your ability that day.
  3. Sport specificity. If training ideally you won’t have the capacity left to get a good bicep pump or perfect your waist to shoulder ratio. If a movement either is not a competed event or does not carry over directly to a competed event it should be discarded. This doesn’t include “prehab” or injury preventing measures but one should be careful about what they include and to what amount. Health is paramount, but giving it more credence than necessary is counter-productive.
  4. Full body training. Dan John classifies the five basic human movements as Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat and Loaded Carry. Breaking our daily training down on that level seems to be the most efficient method to me, putting events or balancing work into those categories throughout the day. Adding one or two for events that don’t quite fit those models such as throwing or grip endurance and we achieve our 5-7 daily mini sessions.
  5. Recovery. This is the most neglected portion of most peoples training, but the most vital at this frequency. Myofascial release, massage and mobility work should be a daily concern. Eating should be a mission. Extreme amounts of sleep are absolutely required. Hydration should be constant. Chemical assistance is a given but may not be strictly necessary depending on training age and history. Taking every fourth or fifth week as a deload is necessary as well. I wouldn’t go to the extreme of 40-60% maxes like Wendler recommends, which most people think of as a deload. Instead I’d cut out all movements but push, pull and squat and replace your usual movements with disadvantaged lifts like viper presses, snatch grip deadlifts and zercher squats.

 

  • Striking the iron

Strongman competitions require a huge amount of mental intensity, pain tolerance, and « all-outtedness. » You don’t have 14 workouts to get a good lift, you have 60-90 seconds. Do you lose this mental or physical side of things if train year-round by training max, no psychological enhancement, no stims, and all of the other characteristics necessary for an ultra-high frequency training program? Can SM events even be trained effectively without a certain level of psyching up?

  • Cardio

We do need it, unfortunately. MP used to do karate, run, swim, do all sorts of stuff for 2-3 hours a day. He’s insane, yes, but you can’t argue with the result. He never lost a power stairs and rarely lost a loading or pulling race. Even Big Z, at whatever 400 pounds, can do the mammoth truck pull in China 2013 and stand up straight, not huffing at all, at the end. Even if you don’t buy that we need to condition the aerobic system for 60-90s bouts of exercise, it is highly necessary in recovery between training sessions and events. How does that fit in to the program?

  • Multi-system taxing events

The push/pull/hinge/squat/carry system is nice, but a lot (most) of the strongman events don’t fit cleanly into one of those categories. When Dan John says « loaded carry » he’s talking about Waiter’s Walks, kettlebell front rack walks, and the occasional heavy « out and back » farmers. He trains throwers to throw further, high school kids to get stronger, and gen pop to look better naked, NOT 600-900lb yoke walks and Conan’s Wheels.

I guess that’s a 2-part question, really. 1. How do you categorize movements in our sport such as tire flip, yoke walk, conan’s, arm-over-arm, and truck pulls that take a huge tax on not only the CNS but also multiple body systems? 2. How do you account for a much greater CNS stress with SM implements than any Oly lift or power lift?

Look in to Juoko Ahola and Svend Karlsen’s training. I think those guys trained with probably the highest frequency and event frequency that I’ve seen, and both have videos on youtube detailing it.

I love to train too. I’m just not sure that, in the case of strongman, training all the time is truly the more beneficial path to take. I would love to hear TWL’s take on this, since he’s a big low-frequency advocate at least for his own training. I have been in your situation (all day to train) and talked with him before proposing a similar training idea, although nowhere near as extreme, and these were a few of the things that he mentioned lacked in high-frequency programs.

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