Why Strongman?


When you think of ‘Strongman’ as a sport or training program I bet one of the first things you think of is absolutely huge dudes pulling a truck behind them and passing out when they hit the finish line. Strongman as a sport does not do its self any favors at all when it comes to mass participation or the scaling of movements to increase popularity. In previous times you probably had to seek out a basement in Iceland just to be able to find some stones or a yoke and the only time you would see strongman on the TV is when they were displaying the pinnacle of their athletes, the ones that are the most massive and scary looking. 

This may also be your initial perception of CrossFit from the CrossFit Games at first… but that’s a different story. 

But when a sport called CrossFit came along, it began making Strongman training and many other training elements accessible and scalable to various abilities. I have taught Strongman seminars literally all over the world and there is something special about seeing a 60-year-old woman walk up to an atlas stone and throw it over her shoulder and walk away with a huge smile on her face. That is what strongman can be; it is not always about a 400lb guy pulling cars- it is a way for ordinary people to get fit in different ways. 

As a personal trainer, when a client walks into the gym and tells me they want to lose weight and get fit fast, strongman training is one of the first things I turn too. I seriously believe that these movements can be the absolute fastest way to getting a person on track to feeling fit, strong and healthy.

The learning curve for strongman movements is insanely fast. Someone who has never worked out can easily push sleds, flip tires, and carry weights (farmers carry) without much technique intricacies. This is not only a great way to get new clients moving, it is a rewarding experience for me as a trainer as well. Within our first training session, clients can learn how to do these movements under load and with intensity.

Outside of its simplicity, Strongman movements replicate the way we were designed to move as humans so there really is nothing to learn, we just need to remember how to do them. How long does it take you to get a sedentary person working out with barbell cycling and kipping pull-ups with intensity? A long time. That is why we have such an intense on-ramping program. Even a relatively athletic person (like me and most of the coaches) took quite a long time to be able to do kipping pull-ups in a workout (and don’t even get me started on squat snatch!). 

Let's look into that a little more. An overweight client comes to me who hasn’t worked out in 5 years, what can I actually do with him? I’m sure one of the go-to’s for most coaches would be the squat. He’s pretty stiff from years of inactivity and doesn’t move too great, I certainly can’t add any more load right away. 

    • What I can do is put a sled in front of him and ask him to walk with it. It requires little to zero technique. 
    • I can probably add some load almost right away and if I ask him to walk a little faster.
    • I can get some workout intensity as well. 
    • Now I am not saying that this is a solution to fixing the fact that my client is struggling with a squat, I understand that in time I want this guy to be doing 5x5 loaded back squats, but for now while we are trying to shift those first 10, 20 or 30lbs why am I not looking to the simplest piece of equipment in the gym and getting him moving right away? 

The same thing applies to so many of the strongman movements, they are so natural to us; push, pull, flip, carry, press, drag. All of these movement patterns can be taught very quickly to absolutely anyone, and that is not just a wild claim, I have done this with over 1000 people. 

This is an important step of progress for the coach and the client alike. We understand that it is quite difficult for some people to make the first step to even coming to the gym- it is our goal to help clients get some sort of positive return from their work especially when they first start. Knowing that they’re able to get in good workouts is a great way to continue building confidence and motivation before adding on more complicated movements.

Movements like tire flips and atlas stone cleans, as intimidating as they look, are actually very simple movement patterns and require less mobility or technical cues than a deadlift. Perhaps the most intimidating movement of them all would be the Yoke carry. I can see why carrying around a big steel frame would not look appealing at first, but I have yet to meet someone who didn’t think it was cool to load the yoke up and carry it down the room. Again, this movement allows you to lift so much more weight than you would for the conventional back squat, intact you can probably lift about twice as much as you can squat and it is extremely safe. 

Now it wouldn’t be right for me to go on about how great strongman movements are without also acknowledging some of the downfalls. The main issue is availability and space. To do Strongman you first need all the equipment, which is a sizable investment and you also need adequate space (about 25-50ft) to actually move the equipment around. I’ve heard this argument so many times, that the equipment is expensive or takes up too much room. My response would relate back to one of my very first points, think of the benefits of getting your new client, who is keen and excited to start training, working out under appropriate load and with relative intensity in the first session, I would call that value for money. You could get 2 or 3 sleds for the same price as 1 of your Concept 2 rowers. A set off farmers handles is less than a barbell and once you make the initial investment in to some stone moulds you can create an infinite number of stones for the prices of some concrete mix. 

Learning perfect movement patterns take time and are a constant point of improvement. As a coach, my goal is to improve this but to also get a new client moving in fun and stimulating ways. He or she will leave feeling muscles they never knew they had and excited to get back in the next day! 

Phil Hesketh

Crossfit Alioth Fitness Coach and Personal Trainer