Journal Logo

Article

The Use of Strongman Type Implements and Training to Increase Sport Performance in Collegiate Athletes

Zemke, Brandon MS; Wright, Glenn PhD

Author Information
Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 4 - p 1-7
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182221f96
  • Free

Abstract

INTRODUCTION

There has been a recent increase in the popularity of using strongman implement training to improve sport performance. Traditionally, strength training programs have been based on power lifting and weightlifting exercises and variations. However, many of these exercises, when the proper technique is mastered, require the body or bar to travel through specific bar paths (17,20,24,25), which limits the variation of a training stimulus to some degree. In addition, these exercises require force production primarily in a vertical direction in the sagittal plane, whereas most team sports require horizontal force development and movement in all 3 cardinal planes. To train athletes using the principle of training specificity, other methods of strength training should be explored. Strongman implements can provide a novel training stimulus and be integrated into a strength and conditioning program with the benefits of increased muscular hypertrophy, strength endurance, a possible increase in sport-specific strength, and an increased enjoyment of training. Common strongman implements used in training include tractor tires, sandbags, water-filled kegs, farmers walk, pushing/pulling sleds, and steel logs. By following general weight training safety recommendations, such as lifting with good lifting mechanics and loading using the principle of progressive overload, the use of strongman implements can be performed successfully with low risk with athletes of all ages and strength/skill levels. This article will suggest reasons for including strongman implements in a strength training program and discuss how to implement them into an overall program design. For further description of the implements and instructions for lifting technique, readers are referred to Waller et al. (22).

Although research on this type of training is scarce, recently, a few studies have appeared in the literature examining the physiological and mechanical effects of strongman exercises. Berning et al. (4) found that pushing and pulling a heavy vehicle requires a very high intensity indicated by the average blood lactate levels of approximately 16 mmol/L and heart rate near maximal levels in their subjects. Keogh et al. (14) found that 2 sets of 6 repetition (reps) of heavy tire flips with 3-minute rest between sets also had a heavy physiological response reporting blood lactates averaging greater than 10 mmol/L and the average peak heart rate response of 179 beats per minute. Training adaptations to the metabolic acidosis created by either prescribing long high-intensity work bouts (as many reps as possible in 30-90 seconds) or a set amount of work within a set (high number of reps to complete without a time limit) may cause important adaptations in lactate production and clearance mechanisms and tolerance levels (12) that may lead to an improvement in performance by delaying the consequences of muscle acidosis (e.g., fatigue).

Recently, Keogh et al. (13) performed a kinematic analysis of the heavy sled pull to determine its effectiveness in improving an athlete's ability to sprint. They found that heavy sled pulls shared many kinematic similarities with the acceleration phase of sprinting; however, stride length and stride frequency were shorter and slower, respectively, as might be expected with the heavy resistance. Their results suggest that using the heavy sled pull may be a worthwhile strongman type exercise to improve the acceleration phase of sprinting and to develop pushing or pulling power necessary in many strength/power sports. McGill et al. (18) documented that carrying of heavy implements is assisted by core muscles when hip strength is not great enough to perform the task. They found that when carrying heavy implements where the hip abduction torque requirements were greater than the strength of the hip abductors, the strongmen braced the torso and lifted the pelvis with the lateral torso musculature—the obliques and quadratus lumborum (18). Similar high force needs in sport may take place during a brief single leg support of an offensive lineman in football working against a powerful rushing defensive lineman or a forward in rugby attempting to push the scrum.

Because of the lack of research on strongman training, exercise selection and program design using strongman implements are mostly based on anecdotal evidence. Many of the following suggestions made in this article, although based on current knowledge of scientific strength training principles, are made based on the authors' experiences and have not been tested in a research setting. One of the main attractions of using strongman implements is their unbalanced nature, in contrast to the relatively balanced nature of barbells and dumbbells. When using a sandbag or a water-filled keg for pressing or carrying, an athlete must fight the effects of sand or water shifting to stabilize the object. The athlete will be forced to continually make adjustments in muscular tension and body positioning to fight the effects of the moving object. Hedrick (10) refers to this type of changing force as “dynamic resistance” and encourages the use of water-filled keg carries and lifts to train for these challenges. McGill et al. (18) concluded that carrying exercises challenge different abilities than lifting exercises, particularly in core stabilization. As a result, the dynamic resistance of strongman implements may provide a better training stimulus for the continually changing and unpredictable external forces created by opponents in sports, such as football, wrestling, and rugby.

The use of strongman implements also plays a role in injury prevention. Traditional training with an emphasis on perfectly executed movement and avoiding dangerous situations may actually lessen an athlete's preparedness for potentially harmful situations encountered in the field of play and place them at an increased risk of injury. “Imperfection training” has been cited as a method of training for unexpected and suboptimal conditions that may be encountered in sport (21). The example given of imperfection training was Olympic lifters purposely shifting their hips in the bottom position of a snatch and making postural adjustments to account for the added instability. The dynamic resistance provided by many strongman implements matches the methodology of this type of training and when integrated with the traditional use of barbells and dumbbells may provide a stimulus for performance in suboptimal conditions and unexpected changes in core stabilization better than the conventional weight training alone and may reduce the athlete's risk of injury.

GENERAL PHYSICAL TRAINING

In a periodized training program, physical training is broken down into 2 interdependent parts: general physical training (GPT) and sport-specific physical training (SSPT) (6). Both of these training parts have individual functions in the training program of an athlete during the preparatory phase of training. During the preparatory phase, GPT initiates the training and focuses on building a solid physiological foundation, including strength, speed, flexibility, balance, and increasing work capacity for the intense training to follow (6). The use of strongman implements, along with more traditional strength training equipment, can be used to meet these goals. Some strength and conditioning professionals seem to avoid strongman implement training because of the lack of sport-specific movement patterns seen in athletics (3). It is the contention of the authors that many strongman exercises do have sport-specific movement patterns. Additionally, because the GPT should not focus on sport-specific movements but total body physical training, implementation of these types of exercises into a training program is recommended for many strength/power sports during this phase in the program. Several different sports such as football, wrestling, hockey, rugby, and basketball have reported using strongman implements and are likely to see benefits from their use (2,10).

During the GPT phase, high volumes of training at moderate intensities are typically recommended (6,23). A log clean and press, where the log is cleaned at each rep, is a great tool for increasing strength endurance of the entire body. The nature of carrying events works very well as a means of increasing strength endurance and anaerobic energy system endurance. Carrying farmers walk implements, water-filled kegs, or pushing/pulling sleds are examples of exercises that fit into this category. These exercises are normally done for prescribed distances. Progression is accomplished by increasing the distance the object is carried or the weight of the object and will lead to increases in strength endurance. Variation of rest periods can also be used to increase anaerobic work capacity.

Exercises using strongman implements will also provide a great stimulus for hypertrophy, another purpose of the GPT, because of the large amount of time under tension (5). When performing a carrying exercise, such as a keg carry, the arms, trapezius, and upper back musculature must generate a large amount of tension to maintain positioning of the keg and sustain that tension throughout the exercise. The core musculature is forced to stabilize the body, while the legs produce force to rapidly move with the implement. It has been demonstrated that exercises incorporating large musculature, such as that of strongman exercises, produce the greatest increases in anabolic hormones, leading to increases in muscular hypertrophy (9).

Using strongman implements as a means of increasing maximal strength does have limitations. The small incremental increases in weight necessary to increase maximal strength are difficult to achieve with most implements. Adding weight to implements, such as atlas stones, kegs, or tires, can often prove difficult. Because of this, increasing maximal strength with low reps, such as 1-3 reps, is best left for more common free weight exercises done in a weight room, rather than attempting lifts of maximally loaded strongman implements. Some athletes also may not have the strength necessary to lift heavy implements, such as a 225-kg tire or a 100-kg keg. In cases such as this, coaches can find additional implements of a lighter weight or use partners to lift heavy implements such as a large tire.

The use of strongman implements may be better used when training to increase basic strength, where 4-8 reps of an exercise are performed (23). This allows for a broader range of weight that can be used on an exercise and therefore a better progression for that exercise. For example, when an athlete is able to perform 7-8 reps in an exercise, the weight can then be increased to a load where the athlete will be able to perform 4-5 reps and then work to be able to perform 7-8 reps at the new weight. Gains made in basic strength using this repetition range will also contribute to overall gains made in maximal strength by the athlete.

SPORT-SPECIFIC PHYSICAL TRAINING

The integration of strongman implements also works well in the late off-season when training must become more sport specific. The SSPT is based on the foundation established during the GPT and serves as a transition to the competitive phase of the training year (6). Activities during the SSPT should target the physiological adaptations that are specific to the sport being trained for, including movement specificity and energy system specificity. Changes in the program variables (sets, reps, rest time) can make this form of training more sport specific.

The movements of many different strongman exercises closely replicate movements in sports. Exercises using strongman implements will have the greatest transfer to contact sports, such as football, wrestling, hockey, and rugby. For example, tire flips and loading atlas stones mimic the movements of blocking and tackling in football. Additionally, the sequential extension of the hip, knee, and ankle (known as triple extension) is a movement necessary to be performed explosively for many sport movements and is the key to athletic power (7). Many strongman events, such as loading atlas stones, tire flips, and log clean and jerk, involve the powerful triple extension along with a heavy emphasis on core stability. Objects such as different-sized vehicle tires can also be thrown for explosive torso training in multiple dimensions. Carrying exercises, such as sandbag or keg carries and farmers walk, train the isometric holding strength and endurance that is needed in sports such as wrestling. Grip strength and “bear hug” strength have been found to decrease significantly over the course of a wrestling match (15); therefore training with strongman exercises promoting these requirements would be advantageous over the course of the match. In pressing exercises, the neutral grip handles of a steel log more closely replicate hand positions commonly used in sports, compared with the pronated grip of a barbell. All these exercises can be manipulated to be performed for sport-specific periods or number of reps.

Using strongman implements is a good way of incorporating strength and balance during lateral movement, a quality needed in many sports. Conventional weight training exercises for lateral movement are often times limited to lateral lunge variations and can be difficult to work with a heavy load on these exercises. Lateral walking can be done with a heavy sandbag on one or both shoulders or held overhead, farmers walk implements, kegs, or a bar held in front of the body in the Zercher position. Using strongman implements to train lateral movement increases the number of exercises available for use, increasing the number of different stresses placed on the body and the overall stress because of the greater load being used.

One of the areas that strongman training can have its biggest impact is in conditioning. As mentioned before, training must become more specific to the sport during the SSPT period. Using strongman implements will have the greatest effect on the phosphagen and glycolytic energy systems. Explosive repeated movements that require high levels of power are required by many sports, such as football. Comprehensive training for sport can be accomplished using exercises that develop the prime movers of the movements used in the specific sport, matching the amplitude and direction of the movement, joint angles used, the rate and timing of force production, and the dominant energy systems used. Many times only the dominant energy systems are taken into consideration when designing conditioning programs, with running and agility type drills being the most commonly used methods.

The other factors determining training specificity are then left for strength training exercises. Strongman exercises can be integrated into a conditioning program to make it more complete for the development of sport-specific energy systems while using sport-specific movements simultaneously. Contact sports require numerous repeated movements at different joint angles, with a range of force needs and rates of force production during the course of a game. Not accounting for these factors in an athletes' conditioning regimen can be a missed opportunity for an increased performance.

Using strongman implements will force an athlete to move with a heavy weight, increasing the core stabilization needs as described earlier and may create a more sport-specific strength, by accounting for these factors. In addition, using strongman implements for conditioning purposes in the late off-season will provide a stimulus for hypertrophy at a period in the training program when there typically is an overall reduction in volume and an increase in intensity of resistance training with the primary focus being increasing power and/or speed (8,23).

Previous recommendations have been made of incorporating hypertrophy exercises into periods of low-volume/high-intensity training for sports where losses in lean body mass may have a negative impact on performance (1). The large amount of tension placed on the muscles in many strongman exercises will provide a hypertrophy stimulus in addition to the conditioning effect, still allowing for the main focus of training to be speed and power, thereby increasing training economy.

PERIODIZATION

Strongman exercises are very demanding on the body and use many of the same prime movers as common weight room exercises, so careful planning and periodization is essential for success. With proper planning, strongman exercises can fit into any type of periodization scheme. Many strongman exercises can be manipulated to match the goals of a specific training phase whether it is hypertrophy/strength endurance, strength, or power. Using the log press as an example, a log clean and press for reps can be used in the hypertrophy/strength endurance phase, a strict overhead press with the log in the strength phase, and a log push jerk in the power phase.

Strongman exercises can also be used year round as a stimulus for strength endurance and hypertrophy. This can be done by having a weekly workout with all strongman implements or using one strongman exercise as a “finisher” at the end of a workout. Examples of finishers include tire flips for distance, pushing/pulling sled for distance, or any carrying exercise done for distance. When using strongman exercises in this manner as the primary stimulus for strength endurance, it is important that much of the work performed in the weight room is focused on increasing maximal strength and power. As mentioned previously, many strongman exercises do not work well for maximal strength purposes, so maximal strength training should be done in the weight room with barbell and dumbbell exercises. Power training can be done with strongman implements using light loads performed at a fast tempo. Tire throws, light tire flips, light atlas stone loads, and log clean and presses done in one continuous motion are examples of exercises that can be used specifically for power training. The use of strongman exercises in an overall program design is up to the discretion of the coach as it fits into their training philosophy and the exercises that are seen as beneficial to the athlete and performance in his or her sport.

Recently, we have implemented this form of integrated training with our football linemen and “big skill” players (linebackers, tight ends, fullbacks) in an off-season GPT training program. We integrated the traditional weight room workouts with 1 strongman training day per week. The weight room workout was based on the successful use of an undulating program design characterized by daily fluctuations in training to preferentially stimulate one of the following primary components of muscular fitness: (a) strength endurance and hypertrophy, (b) basic and functional muscular strength, and (c) rate of force development and peak power (POW). In an attempt to reduce the likelihood of overtraining, over fatigue, or training monotony, we also staggered the undulation of the upper-body and lower-body training objectives during the weight room training sessions (19) (Table 1).

Table 1
Table 1:
Example integration of weight room training with strongman type training for football during the general physical training phase

The training days were chosen based on facility availability and to ensure optimal recovery between sessions. The volume of training for each variable can be manipulated within the template. Exercises performed on the strongman day should also be rotated on a regular basis to ensure training variety and reduce monotony of training. The lower-body maximal strength exercises should focus on traditional weight room training using squat and deadlift variations, and the upper-body maximal strength exercises should focus on pressing and rowing and/or pull-up variations. The Wednesday workout is focused on increasing power and movement skills. The phase of training used in the example week demonstrates POW training to focus more on motor skill development than on high intensity, as is appropriate in the GPT phase. Coaches can pick among avariety of different exercises to perform on this day.

Table 2 illustrates a sample strongman workout used in the early GPT phase with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse football team.

Table 2
Table 2:
Sample general physical training football strongman training workout

The log clean and press is used as a total-body conditioning tool with a large emphasis on the hip and leg musculature and the pressing musculature of the shoulder girdle and arms. Tire flips and the med ball toss are used to train triple extension with both a horizontal and a vertical components, with the med ball toss emphasizing the rate of force development. The sandbag carry trains lateral movement strength and hip stability and also requires strong core stabilization when using heavy sandbags. The heavy sled pushes can be done with a pushing sled, car, or any heavy motorized vehicle. According to Keogh et al. (13), heavy sled pulls improve acceleration and may improve a football player's ability to make and break tackles. These exercises best fit the needs of offensive or defensive linemen, and “big skill” players. The workout would optimally be done in groups of 5 or 6 at each exercise with a rotation of each person completing a set and resting while the others in the group complete their sets, which should naturally allow for the approximate rest periods.

Table 3 illustrates a sample workout to be used in the SSPT phase for football. The log clean and jerk will use the same musculature as the log clean and press with a larger emphasis on power. Tire flips done for low reps and shorter rest periods will place a larger emphasis on power endurance. The keg carry serves the same purpose as the lateral sandbag carry in the GPT training program with an additional emphasis on the upper-body musculature. The sled pushes are the same as in the GPT phase with more football-specific distances and rest periods. For the tire flip and sled pushes, the groups should be split into 2, with 3 people in each smaller group. Using the tire flip as an example, the first group would perform 4 sets of 3, with each person alternating every set. When everyone in the first group has completed 4 sets, the second group will do 4 sets of 3 in the same manner.

Table 3
Table 3:
Sample sport-specific physical training football strongman workout

Table 4 illustrates a sample strongman workout designed for sports with a greater dependence on the glycolytic system, such as wrestling (16). The farmers walk and bear hug keg carry train the isometric grip strength and holding strength needed for wrestling. The sandbag clean and press and snatch throw will train ground-based power needed for takedown moves in a fatigued state.

Table 4
Table 4:
Sample wrestling conditioning workout

OUR OBSERVATIONS USING STRONGMAN TRAINING

Several advantages of this type of training have been noticed when our athletes used this integrated form of strength training. One very important observation we made was that attendance in our off-season program was greater than any of the recent off-season programs (>80% attendance with 36% of athletes missing ≥1 training sessions). It is possible that the undulating periodization with a different training objective for the upper body and lower body in the same training session may be a reason for this. Our athletes had been accustomed to using a linear periodization method where the same set × rep scheme was used for 3-5 weeks before changing. In this system, we changed set × rep schemes each time they trained, possibly reducing monotony and increasing training desire. It should be noted that athletes participated in this training program voluntarily, per NCAA rules for Division III athletes. The workouts were also done on Sunday mornings at 9 am because of facility availability and at 6 am during the week.

Many athletes in this training group communicated to the authors and reported that they enjoyed the strongman training sessions because of the challenge of the exercises, the uniqueness of the training efforts, and the competitiveness between teammates during each strongman training session. Has also been mentioned by others who have used this form of training (2,11). Athletes in this training program also indicated that they felt stronger and more powerful at the end of the GPT and that it would help to increase their performance in football.

CONCLUSIONS

Strongman implements are an effective tool to be incorporated into an overall training program to increase the specific parameters of strength, power, and strength endurance to enhance sport performance. Strongman implements also present many unique challenges that cannot be obtained with more common exercises because of their odd shapes and unbalanced nature and are sport specific to contact sports. Strongman implements can be obtained with relatively small efforts of searching, often times at little or no cost. Athletes following such a program enjoy the challenge and variety of such workouts, which may increase the adherence to weight training programs.

REFERENCES

1. Baker D. Applying the in-season periodization of strength and power training to football. Strength Cond J 20: 18-24, 1998.
2. Baker D. Strongman training for large groups of athletes. J Aust Strength Cond 16: 33-34, 2008.
3. Bennett S. Using “strongman” exercises in training. Strength Cond J 30: 42-43, 2008.
4. Berning J, Adams K, Climstein M, and Stamford B. Metabolic demands of “junkyard” training: pushing and pulling a motor vehicle. J Strength Cond Res 21: 853-856, 2007.
5. Bloomer RJ and Ives JC. Varying hypertrophic and neural influences in a strength program. Strength Cond J 22: 30-35, 2000.
6. Bompa TO and Haff GG. Periodization Theory and Methodology of Training (5th ed). Chanpaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2009. pp. 58-60.
7. Frounfelter G. The triple extension: Key to athletic power. Perform Train J 8: 14-15, 2009.
8. Haff G. Roundtable discussion: Periodization of training—Part 1. Strength Cond J 26: 50-69, 2004.
9. Hansen S, Kvorning T, Kjaer M, and Sjogaard G. The effect of short-term strength training on human skeletal muscle: The importance of physiologically elevated hormone levels. Scand J Med Sci Sports 11: 347-354, 2001.
10. Hedrick A. Using uncommon implements in the training programs of athletes. Strength Cond J 25: 18-22, 2003.
11. Hedrick A. Implement Training. NSCA Hot Topic Series. Available at: http://www.nsca-lift.org/HotTopic/download/Implement%20Training.pdf. Accessed: August 9, 2010.
12. Juel C, Klarskov C, Nielsen JJ, Krustrup P, Mohr M, and Bangsbo J. Effect of high-intensity intermittent training on lactate and H + release from human skeletal muscle. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 286: E245-E251, 2004.
13. Keogh JWL, Newlands C, Blewett S, Payne A, and Chun-Er L. A kinematic analysis of a strongman type event: The heavy sprint-style sled pull. J Strength Cond Res 24: 3088-3097, 2010.
14. Keogh JWL, Payne AL, Anderson BB, and Atkins PJ. A brief description of the biomechanics and physiology of a strongman event: The tire flip. J Strength Cond Res 24: 1223-1228, 2010.
15. Kraemer WJ, Fry AC, Rubin MR, Triplett-McBride T, Gordon SE, Koziris LP, Lynch JM, Volek JS, Meuffels DE, Newton RU, and Fleck SJ. Physiological and performance responses to tournament wrestling. Med Sci Sports Exerc 33: 1367-1378, 2001.
16. Kraemer WJ, Vescovi JD, Dixon P. The physiological basis for wrestling: implications for conditioning programs. Strength Cond J 26: 10-15, 2004.
17. Madsen N and McLaughlin T. Kinematic factors influencing performance and injury risk in the bench press exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 16: 376-381, 1984.
18. McGill S, McDermott A, and Fenwick C. Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res 23: 1148-1161, 2009.
19. Peterson MD, Dodd DJ, Alvar BA, Rhea MR, and Favre M. Undulation training for development of hierarchical fitness and improved firefighter job performance. J Strength Cond Res 22: 1683-1695, 2008.
20. Schilling BK, Stone MH, O'Bryant HS, Fry AC, Coglianese RH, and Pierce KC. Snatch technique of collegiate national level weightlifters. J Strength Cond Res 16: 551-555, 2002.
21. Siff M. Supertraining (6th ed.). Denver, CO: Supertraining Institute, 2004. pp. 464-465.
22. Waller M, Piper T, and Townsend R. Strongman events and strength and conditioning programs. Strength Cond J 25: 44-52, 2003.
23. Wathen D, Baechle T, and Earle R. Periodization. In: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed). Baechle T, Earle R, ed. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2008. pp. 507-522.
24. Wilson GJ, Elliot BC, and Kerr GK. Bar path and force profile characteristics for maximal and submaximal loads in the bench press. J Appl Biomech 5: 390-402, 1989.
25. Winchester JB, Erickson TM, Blaak JB, and McBride JM. Changes in bar path kinematics and kinetics after power clean training. J Strength Cond Res 19: 177-183, 2005.
FIGURE
FIGURE:
Caption not available.
Keywords:

strongman; strength training; implement training; injury prevention; sport-specifc training

© 2011 National Strength and Conditioning Association