In a previous article, I proposed the challenge that the principle of specificity poses for strongman athletes. To be the best strongman you can be, you must work very hard on as many skills as you can handle simultaneously. However, the number of skills you can simultaneously make progress in will be small relatively to the number you need to make progress in. One solution to this problem is to perform exercises that have a high similarity to as many strongman skills as possible. For example, the log clean and press skill has aspects that help with deadlifts, axle clean and press, stone loads and tire flips in terms of body positioning and force patterns. Therefore, pressing the log becomes a strongman skill with high utility. But what if you don’t have a log, or an axle, or stones or any strongman equipment at all?
Not to worry. Just be a Barbell Strongman. There are many exercises that you can do with barbells that will not only develop your overall strength but have a high carry-over to strongman skills. In fact, a few others have weighed in on this issue. Mark Watts, Zach Gallman, Colton Leonard and Chet Morjaria have all proposed foundational barbell exercises to aid with strongman training. I would also like to join this conversation. The focus of this text is to propose my top 5 barbell exercises that I believe will help you start to become a Barbell Strongman. For each of these exercises, I discuss why they are important and which strongman events that will benefit from their performance.
The deadlift is a classic strongman movement. In competition, deadlifts are tested from a variety of heights ranging from the standard 9” barbell height (45lb plates) up to the 18” silver dollar deadlift or similar event. Using boxes or a rack with safety pins, the height of the barbell can be increased to meet the deadlift height you will face in competition. Changing the height of the barbell can be used to target and strengthen sticking points in your pull as well.
Grip training can be accomplished effectively using deadlifts. I would suggest using a double over-hand grip (palms towards you) during your deadlift warm-ups or any sets where you can maintain this grip. Holding the barbell at the top of the deadlift with this grip is another way to use this exercise to build your grip. Eventually, your hands will fatigue and you will be forced to switch to a mixed grip. Slow tempo deadlifts or high repetition deadlifts will also provide your grip with suitable work.
The conventional-stance barbell deadlift (sumo is not allowed in modern strongman competition) will help you build leg, back, grip and core strength. The leg and back power will help you during events such as tire flips, arm-over-arm pulls and stone loads. The grip strength will help with cleans, carrying events and is invaluable in the sport of strongman. If you cannot pick up an implement, it cannot be moved. The core stability required from deadlifts is similar to ‘the pick’ on events like farmers walk and can make a huge difference when used effectively. Not only is the deadlift a standard strongman event, it is a great general strength builder.
Clean and Press
Picking something up and putting it above your head is one of the best full body power builders. This can be done very effectively with just a barbell. Although each implement has different dynamic properties, the barbell clean and press will bring your overhead press strength from twigs to timbers. The clean motion, specifically the power clean, can help other explosive hip extension motions like deadlifts, tire flips, the beginning of a heavy truck pull or stone loading. Pressing any object above your head will help you press other objects above your head and it is also a great way to train torso stability. When you become fatigued from the clean motions but want to keep pushing weight into the sky, some overloading can be done by taking the barbell out of a rack or off of blocks. Just remember if you plan to compete: if you can’t clean it, you can’t press it.
The clean and press is tested through a variety of implements and efforts types in strongman. The most common implements include the log, the axle and the circus dumbbell. Sometimes, implements like fire hydrants or stones end up going overhead as well. The clean and press can challenge a competitor using maximum, repetition or medley effort. When completed for repetitions or as part of a medley, the clean and press can be completed in one of two fashions: clean each repetition or clean and press away. The clean each repetition style forces the athlete to lower the implement to the ground after each press, while the clean and press away version requires only one clean motion before pressing until you are just shy of passing out and dropping the implement on your head. To mimic an overhead press medley, you can use a few barbells with various weights or have your friends load more weight onto the barbell after each press.
Squats are essential for developing overall body power. If you are exercising proper form and activation when squatting, you will know that this becomes a full body movement in terms of stabilization. Squatting provides a great stimulus for promoting mental toughness as well. If you can convince yourself to push through when the bar is about to staple you to floor, your confidence will grow in situations where the weight isn’t on your back.
There are a few exercise variations for the squat that can be modified to help with a particular event or weakness. The front squat is particularly useful for loading and carrying events as well as practicing the front rack position for overhead pressing. Widening your stance or lowering the barbell on your back will place a higher emphasis on hip power while doing the opposite emphasizes the use of your quadriceps. Split squats are great for identifying and curing any imbalances between the strength of each leg.
The squat is not tested that often in strongman competitions, at least in Ontario, but the extra leg strength from squatting is going to help you in many of the other events. The vehicle pull, arm-over-arm pull, yoke walk, farmers walk and tire flip will all be positively influenced by an increase in your ability to produce force with your legs and stabilize your torso. Variations of the squat that occur in contest are based on a touch-and-go motion scheme. The athlete must touch the apparatus to either a platform or the ground before completing the concentric portion of the lift. A good variation to assist with strongman squat event is the pin squat. Just be sure to touch both pins evenly or it might look like you’re going to go for a cartwheel with the barbell on your back.
The Zercher squat has to be one of the most difficult exercises I have done to date. It is included separately from the squat in this list because the barbell is held in with the arms instead of held over the shoulders. The weight of the barbell out front of your body is constantly pitching you forward, your arm are straining to keep the barbell from sliding down and you are battling for every breath. This exercise is a full body workout. Typically, this movement is done with a slightly wider stance such that your arms can fit between your knees when you squat down. As a result, this exercise really targets growth of your hips and back.
There are few great variations of this exercise that have a good carryover to strongman implements. Zercher carries are one of the few ways to simulate carrying events using a barbell. The Conan’s wheel event is essentially a Zercher carry in a circle for maximum distance. Although it is not recommended to carry implements with your arms directly underneath them unless required, the position of the barbell in the Zercher carry is as close to the stone or sandbag carry that you can get with a barbell. Due to this barbell position, be cautious of the length of time and weight used on Zercher carries as an immense amount of pressure is placed near the tendinous regions of your elbow flexors. If you don’t have room in your gym to carry the barbell, you can do Zercher holds. Essentially, you stand with the barbell in your arms and try to breath for timed sets. These can be very effective and are a bit safer than the carry as the weight is not shifting on the arms. Lastly, I would suggest trying Zercher pin squats. For these, you place the barbell on the safety pins of a rack or on top of blocks, get your arms under the barbell and only complete the concentric portion of the squat. You can setup the Zercher pin squat and your stance such that you can simulate the bottom portion of loading a stone from your lap.
A big back is crucial if you want to be a successful strongman. One way to build a big back is with barbell rows. The stronger you can make your upper back, the more force you can transfer from your upper-limbs and torso down to your legs and vice versa. For example, being able to keep your back locked into position during a deadlift is going to ensure maximal force transfer from your legs to the barbell while reducing the risk of injury.
The goal with this exercise is to pull the barbell towards your body from a hanging position using the back and arm muscles. However, it is common and, at some points, worthwhile to row some heavier weights without as strict of form in order to overload these muscle groups. The main variants of the barbell row are the torso angle and the shoulder angle. Typically, the lifter changes the forward lean of the torso and attempts to pull the barbell towards their abdomen. However, at any torso angle, you change the rowing angle by trying to pull towards a higher or lower position on the torso. The more extreme variants in terms of torso lean are the upright barbell row and the Pendlay barbell row.
Rowing and back strength play an important role in many of the strongman skills. In competition, the rowing motion is displayed through arm-over-arm pulling events like the truck or sled pull. Whether the athlete is stationary or moving during these events, the goal is to push the implement with the legs and row with the arms. Other events such as the log clean, atlas stone load and continental axle clean also requires a strong back in order to pull the object up towards your shoulders or the loading platform. Even pressing objects overhead is going to require a lot of stabilizing strength to be present in your back. If you are unable to stabilize the press with your upper back, the duty will be placed on to the lower back which is not desirable. If you’re still not convinced you need a big back, just check out the back size of strongman competitors.
Just the Beginning
The five exercises that have been discussed are just the beginning. You can build your foundation from them but will need a lot of other tools in order to build the floors, walls and roof. Take a look at the articles linked in the introduction to discover some more of these tools. I know how boring the barbell work may seem when you are immersed in the world of strongman. Boring, but effective. It helps if you start with the right mindset and decide to get strong regardless of the tools you have. Once you do, you can look at a barbell and see the value, not the excuse.
These exercises and variations are the foundations of the Barbell Strongman and have served me well. Use them as a place to start, but don’t forget to explore. It is important to learn what exercises work well for your body. Just remember that as your body evolves, the exercises and variations will have to evolve as well to maximize progress.
By Tyler Desplenter
Tyler is the founder of Norther Warrior. He competes as an amateur strongman and powerlifter in Ontario, Canada. He is working towards his PhD in robotics and control systems including the study of biomechanical modelling of human motion and control of wearable assistive devices. @strongbear89