The Atlas Stones are often regarded as one of the signature events in the World’s Strongest Man contest. They’re typically the final event of strongman competitions, and this event often determines the winner. Originally, the stones were lifted onto platforms at waist-height, but over the years the event has evolved, and the stones have increased in weight, and the platforms in height.
This event is often considered the staple of strongman and can be seen at almost every contest that’s put on. The stones are also associated with some of the biggest names in World’s Strongest Man history including: Magnus Samuelsson, Magnús ver Magnússon, Žydrūnas Savickas, and Brian Shaw. These athletes have all won the event in the past years, and due to this it helped them obtain their respective “strongest” titles.
Why Athletes Can Benefit From the Atlas Stone
The Atlas Stone is an intimidating lift. This is most likely due to the fact that few training facilities have them for regular use. For those who are lucky enough to have access, the benefits to stone training are immense. First, loading atlas stones closely mimics the movements of blocking and tackling in football as well as many other sports. This is because the 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 (1).
Second, holding the stone builds crushing strength that fighting, wrestling, and contact sports will find beneficial. Third, the torso musculature is highly active in stabilizing the spine during the stone lift and performing the extension that allows the stone to be loaded. Stuart McGill found that the atlas stone generated the lowest compression of the spine compared to the log and tire because the strongman athletes curved their torsos over the stone, so they kept its center of mass closer to their low backs. Along with all of these benefits, muscle activation levels revealed that the largest gluteal activity occurred during the Atlas Stone, as did the quadriceps, the upper erector spinae, and many of the abdominal muscles in comparison to the log and tire (2).
For strength sports, all the above benefits can transfer to the competition lifts. Powerlifters will have the benefit of training the whole body, and increase spinal stability, which will increase power transfer in all three of the competition lifts. It will assist in the deadlift as the stone is essentially pulled from a deficit, then utilizes triple extension needed to finish the lift, so it strengthens locking out pulls. Also, weightlifters can benefit from occasionally doing the stone. When further out from competition, it’s a great way to train the full body specifically the back and abdominal muscles that are necessary for huge snatches and clean & jerks.
Using the stone occasionally to increase athletic performance seems like a no brainer. It’s a full body, multi joint movement that requires an athlete to take an external force and move it through multiple planes. These characteristics will have carryover to the playing field. No matter what your athletic endeavor is, training with stones can help your performance. You can implement them for maximal strength training, power training, and even conditioning.
How I Teach Technique
This special lift requires the arms and hands to wrap the stone while the spine is curled over the stone. Typically, the stone is lifted and “rolled” onto the thighs, the hands change position to over the stone, and the hips extend with the stone “bearhugged.” The lift is finished with spinal extension as the stone is placed into the pedestal or holder.
1. Set your stance by straddling directly over the top of the stone.
2. Reach straight down and pinch the stone between your forearms and elbows, then position your hands as deep as possible to maximize surface area on the stone.
3. Take a deep breath and brace your torso.
4.Lift the stone off the ground using technique similar to an Romanian deadlift, as opposed to a conventional deadlift.
5. Load the stone into your lap by bringing your feet together and sitting back, and rolling it close to your torso.
6. Bring your arms over the top of the stone at 10:00 and 2:00 positions.
7. Hug the stone hard into the body. Let your hips come up first, then dynamically bring them through and extend as the stone is brought to its peak height. Think of the stone “rolling” up your chest.
No matter who I work with, or what lift they’re learning, I always recommend watching videos of the best individuals performing the movement. When it comes to stones, look at athletes like Magnus Samuelsson, Magnús ver Magnússon, Žydrūnas Savickas, Brian Shaw, Eddie Hall, and Hafthor Bjornsson. These are some of the best stone loaders around right now, and in history.
[Still confused on technique? Check out this full guide for using Atlas Stones.]
Different Ways to Program Atlas Stones
Implementation of the atlas stone isn’t that difficult. Typically it will be done at the end of a training session due to the mess tacky tends to make if you use it. Tacky is a sticky substance that is placed on the hands and forearms to provide a stronger grip on the stone and it is extremely messy to clean up. For individuals who do not compete in strongman this is not necessary. Instead they can use tacky towels that are made to increase grip on gloves for tennis and golf or they can use nothing at all and go bare armed.
The great part of stone loading is it’s a great way to bridge the gap between absolute strength and power. Unlike a clean or snatch, an athlete can grind through parts of the stone lift, but if the athlete is not also being explosive through the hips during extension, then stone won’t be going anywhere.
Programming the stone for absolute strength is fairly easy. Typically, I’ll keep athletes in the 1-3 repetition range doing 3-5 sets at the selected weight. When doing these an athlete should load to lower height, around 48”-58”. If a coach or athlete plan to increase the weight as much as possible during one session, then a day should be dedicated for it. If it’s secondary movement, then put it at the end of a deadlift or squat session to accommodate the nervous system.
The focus when training power and the stone lift is much different than absolute strength. Here an athlete needs to focus on executing the movement quickly and explosively. Minimal time should be spent preparing to transition from the hip to full extension. When performing the load of the stone training power, an athlete should almost pop the stone during the movement.
Since an athlete most likely will not have access to small increments in weights between stones, then choose a light stone to start with to get the movement down. Once they’ve adapted to this, go toward using stones of moderate weight. Try to perform this movement for 3-6 sets of 3-5 reps. Again, think speed, and to almost pop the weight off the chest. For the platform height, start around 52” and slowly increase height accordingly, while maintaining stone weight. When an athlete becomes proficient at a set weight, then increase the stone, and start back at 52” while once again slowly increase the height.
The atlas stone can be used as a highly effective conditioning tool as well. The simplest form is to do stone loads for time. Have a weight selected and then load it to either a platform or over a bar for a set amount of time. Typically in a strongman competition it will be repetitions in 60 second bouts. This provides a clear time driven goal for the athlete to aim for. They simply need to add more repetitions in less time.
Make sure when doing conditioning styled stones that the chosen weight isn’t too heavy, so form won’t break down excessively. Safety should be the highest priority for athletes and coaches. Try to keep the amount of sets down around 1-3.
Check out the video below highlighting this conditioning style with strongwoman athlete Amber Remick.
Another typical conditioning modality with the stone is to do a load medley. With this modality you’ll have multiple stones to load to multiple heights. Typically the lightest stone goes to the highest platform,as weight increases height decreases. This conditioning style should be timed. The goal is to make it through the medley as quickly as possible. Go through this medley 3-5 times to achieve a great conditioning session.
The final conditioning tool I recommend is a blend of the previously mentioned modalities, which is stone loads on the minute. It increases work capacity and consistency at heavier weight. For this modality, you will use a moderate weight and perform the lift every minute for a set amount of time. Once you complete the rep, the timer will start and you have a minute of rest before the next rep. An athlete should be set and ready before the minute is up so that the lift off the ground happens right at that minute mark. I like to typically do these for 5-10 minutes.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
1. Frounfelter G. The triple extension: Key to athletic power. Perform Train J 8: 14-15, 2009.
2. McGill, S. M., McDermott, A., & Fenwick, C. M. (2009). Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 23(4), 1148–1161.
Feature image from @savickas_bigz Instagram page.