The Benefits of Strongman Training

Lift a stone. Toss a keg. Flip a tire. Strongman training can do wonders for the CrossFitter by enhancing functional strength as well as WOD performance.
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Lift a stone. Toss a keg. Flip a tire. Strongman training can do wonders for the CrossFitter by enhancing functional strength as well as WOD performance.
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If you’re a late-night–ESPN2 junkie, you’ve probably noticed that the Reebok CrossFit Games and World’s Strongest Man competitions showcase two very different-looking athletes. Consider the vitals of the reigning champions in both sports:

Ben Smith, Games winner, 5’11”, 192 pounds

Zydrunas Savickas, 2014 World’s Strongest Man, 6’3”, 375 pounds

It’s almost like comparing an NFL defensive back and offensive lineman or a grown man and his infant son — only there’s a greater weight difference between Smith and Savickas.

But the CrossFitter and the strongman aren’t nearly as disparate as their physical statures would suggest. Both athletes have an insatiable desire for functional strength: CrossFitters have to be ready to haul their bodies up a rope or flip some crazily shaped piece of metal across a field, and strongman athletes have to lift other awkwardly shaped objects like heavy Atlas stones and huge tires and carry them a certain distance. Doing this requires not only raw strength in the lower body, lower back, shoulders and arms but also an incredible amount of grip strength.

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“There’s nothing more functional than picking up an awkward object,” says Craig Hysell, owner of CrossFit Hilton Head in South Carolina, where he regularly programs strongman training for his competitive CrossFitters. “That’s what you run into in life 95 percent of the time. Most of the time, it’s not a well-balanced, evenly weighted barbell sitting in front of you. Think about what kind of grip strength you need to pick up a heavy stone. Want to work on your grip? Pick up stones or do heavy farmer’s carries.”

And while strongman training often incorporates awkward objects, the implement doesn’t necessarily have to be clumsy or asymmetrical to fall under the umbrella; deadlifts and one-arm dumbbell presses, after all, are common strongman lifts. The main requirement for strongman training is going heavy. If you’re lifting an awkward object but it’s light (like, say, a 15-pound rock) and you can easily perform the exercise for more than 90 to 120 seconds, that’s not strongman. “Strongman training, to me, is really heavy weights at short durations,” Hysell says. “It’s using 80 to 85 percent or more of your one-rep-max weight for low reps or short time intervals.”

For CrossFitters, the key word here is carry-over. A competitive strongman probably won’t get much out of CrossFit programming, at least not where his sport is concerned, but a CrossFitter will certainly benefit from strongman training. Pull-ups, toes-to-bars, cleans and deadlifts are but a few exercises Hysell cites that are greatly enhanced in direct proportion with grip strength.

And grip strength isn’t the only carry-over to CrossFit. Not even close. Proper GPP (general physical preparedness) programming includes regular strength workouts — WODs like “CrossFit Total” and those composed of one-, three- and five-rep sets — and strongman sessions naturally fall into this category; the major difference being the use of various real-world implements, which actually adds an element of fun to a workout. Let’s be honest, sometimes doing a clean-and-press with a beer keg sounds more exciting than doing it with a barbell and bumper plates yet again. There’s something to be said for breaking training monotony.

“CrossFit is built on the idea that we need to move large loads over long distances, quickly,” says former Games top-20 finisher Rob Orlando, who’s currently leading the charge for integrating CrossFit and strongman training via his company Hybrid Athletics and accompanying site StrongmanWOD.com. “Strongman dovetails with that principle perfectly. Strongman is full of simple, scalable movements that allow a person to move relatively large loads quickly.”

Where conditioning is concerned, strongman training is great for hammering the first two metabolic pathways: phosphagen, which takes the body to around 30 seconds, and glycolytic, with intervals that max out somewhere in the one- to two-minute range. Training the oxidative pathway (anything more than around two minutes) will require lighter weights, but strongman work can still help in that area, if indirectly.

“From a physiological standpoint, picking up heavy stuff makes the lighter stuff you’ll use in other workouts that much easier to handle,” Hysell says. “The stronger, more powerful you get, the faster you’ll be able to move the lighter weights for a longer duration. There’s a definite carry-over and a confidence level that goes with being able to take a really heavy, awkward object and then going and standing in front of a bar to deadlift or clean it. Will it carry over into more aerobic-based CrossFit-style workouts? In the first two to three minutes, it will.”

Strongman How-Tos

Once you’re sold on strongman training as a means of augmenting your CrossFit program, the next step is figuring out how to implement it. Doing so haphazardly is a great way to get injured and defeat the whole purpose of functional strength training. “Be smart about it,” Hysell advises. “You need to have a plan when incorporating strongman into your program.” That said, follow these guidelines to reap the benefits of strongman while staying off the disabled list.

• Keep time intervals short and rest periods generous. Heavy strongman exercises should be done as strength workouts, not lung-bursting met-cons. “It’s not the classic 21-15-9, three rounds for time or AMRAPs you should be doing with strongman moves,” Hysell says. “You want to integrate more of an interval-based style, in my opinion, to keep the athlete safe. Longer rest periods aren’t bad when you’re training strongman. You don’t want to be picking up heavy weights when you’re breathing so heavy you can’t move. You want to keep the domains short and let athletes recover to minimize the risk of injury. I would never put strongman lifts in a longer WOD or high-rep or high-time-domain workout. It’s just not smart.”

• Program wisely around strongman sessions. If you know you’re going to be doing strongman training on Saturday, don’t do a heavy workout on Friday — or Sunday for that matter. Program a light workout the day before so you’re ready to move heavy weights with proper technique. And the day after a strongman workout is a good day to rest or do a low-intensity activity for active recovery.

• When reps fall off, the workout’s over. The longer rest periods are there to ensure that strength levels stay high and fatigue doesn’t undermine how much weight you can move. Once it does, call it a workout. “Say you do three rounds of 60 seconds of work, pressing a heavy weight overhead as many times as possible, with three to five minutes between rounds,” Hysell says. “You get 10 reps the first round, the second round you get eight, and then on the third, you only get four — you’re done. We’ve lost intensity. Now you’re just grinding.”