Editor’s Note: This article was updated on December 5th to reflect changes made in regard to the World’s Strongest Man air dates and Strongwoman on the main stage at the Arnold Classic.
I think it’s fair to say that strongman is arguably the most well-known of the strength sports outside of the fitness community. Bodybuilding and CrossFit aren’t strictly strength sports, at least not in my opinion; and while Olympic weightlifting gets some television coverage every four years, the World’s Strongest Man has become a staple on television every year, and Hafthor Bjornsson’s recent success has captured even more interest thanks to his role on Game of Thrones. But how does it stack up from a strength athlete’s perspective?
As usual, a disclaimer: As a powerlifter, I can’t approach this topic without bringing my own biases into the discussion. In this case, though, I think those biases are pretty minimal, because I trained and competed in strongman myself, for quite a while. I don’t have the genetic gifts (read: height) required to excel in the sport at the highest levels, which is why I gravitated towards powerlifting. But I don’t believe that has undermined my appreciation of strongman one bit — if anything, it’s just given me more respect for the athletes who do participate!
So, with that out of the way, let’s get on with our now-standard history lesson.
A Very, Very Brief History of Strongman
Strongman is arguably the oldest of the strength sports. Scholars have traced its roots to so many different ancient cultures, and so many different tests of strength: from Milo of Croton lifting his bull to Apollon lifting his wagon wheels. Now, I don’t think the designation of “oldest” means all that much in and of itself, but understanding the roots of the sport can help you understand some of its modern charm.
Now, in my mind, the origins of modern strongman began with vaudeville acts that grew in popularity throughout the 1800s. These weren’t anything like contests today – in fact, with only a few exceptions, they generally featured just one man or woman (yes, there were strongwomen then) demonstrating feats that spoke as much of their ability as entertainers as their actual strength.
Because vaudeville involved so many frequent performances, the early strongmen couldn’t just max out every time they got on stage. Instead, they had to devise events that looked incredibly impressive, and that were just difficult enough (without practice) for an audience member to not duplicate, but not so difficult that they left the performer totally exhausted. That’s one reason you see so many unconventional strength contests in strongman today, like pulling cars or trucks (instead of horses) or performing partial lifts!
But there’s obviously something to be said with man’s inherent interest in strength, too. There’s something primal, raw, and undeniably impressive about lifting heavy stones and raising logs over one’s head. Many of those events find even more ancient origins — and whether you’re a historian or a lifter, you’ll probably enjoy learning more about them.
My Experience with Strongman
I was actually introduced to strongman through CrossFit (yes, I tried CrossFit once)! My local affiliate had a corner of their gym where they let a group of lifters keep some equipment there, and use the gym space to train on Sunday afternoons. Not totally sold on CrossFit, I decided to try it out — and was instantly hooked.
The Ultimate Strength Sport
Strongman, in my mind, is the ultimate strength sport, because unlike in powerlifting, weightlifting, and even the Highland Games, in my opinion, technique matters much less than just brute strength and willpower. Don’t get me wrong! Lifting stones, putting huge weights overhead, and even seemingly stupid-simple events like the Conan’s Wheel do take a lot of technique and practice to master — but not nearly as much as a snatch.
And the nature of strongman competitions dissuades one from over-relying on technique in the first place, but that is subjective to my opinion. Oftentimes, it won’t be possible to train with the exact equipment used in a contest; or the events will change at the last minute, and so if you’re not strong enough to adjust on the fly, you’re going to underperform.
The Most Fun and Varied
I also think it’s the most fun! Powerlifting and Olympic lifting are attractive in their routine: you practice the same lifts, day in and day out, and you get great at them. But at the same time, practicing the same lifts day in and day out can get a little boring sometimes. I’m one who doesn’t shy away from boredom — I think it’s actually a good thing oftentimes — but there’s no denying the fact that strongman has a lot more variety.
The nearly infinite number of different events, combined with the very different kinds of strength and athleticism needed to excel at them, means that strongman training is often more intricate, less repetitive, and arguably more demanding than other strength sports.
Then there’s the excitement of the competition. Because many strongman events are a race against the clock, they’re naturally a little more engaging for spectators. And many competitions are designed for competitors to participate head-to-head, adding an element of rivalry.
Now, I’ll be real: as a competitor, a strongman comp can feel like a real slog. They often stretch all day long; there’s lots and lots of downtime due to all the behind-the-scenes logistics required to set up and organize equipment; and despite all that, they can still be frustratingly unpredictable. But to be fair, the same could be said of many powerlifting and weightlifting meets, too.
Is Strongman Right for You?
I think it’s pretty clear that I’m a big fan of strongman! That said, if you’re thinking about getting into the sport, you need to be aware of some of the more unpleasant aspects, too.
First: the injuries. My god, the injuries. The varied nature and brute strength of strongman is incredibly unforgiving on the body. On a good day, you’ll come home covered in sweat, scratches, dirt, and blood from spending hours wrestling with rocks and tractor tires or using your body as a lever on axle and log cleans. On a bad day, you’ll get seriously injured from the sheer strain of those events — and bad days like these are, in my experience, far more common than in other strength sports, but that is highly subjective to my experience. In practicing strongman, my own worst injury came from attempting to flip a 1000-pound tire; I tore my distal biceps tendon, and full recovery took nearly a year, but again, that is highly variable to my experience. And again, these types of traumas can happen in powerlifting and weightlifting, too, but I think they’re less common.
It can also be pretty difficult to find a place to train for strongman. Despite being relatively well-known, it’s still very much a niche sport even in the fitness community, and relatively few gyms have the equipment necessary to practice events. Many strongmen and women will spend hours traveling to an appropriate gym on the weekends just to get in some quality training.
And last but not least, I think it’s fair to highlight the gender discrepancies in strongman, but it is worth noting that the sport is improving very quickly. While powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting have recently made huge strides in this area, strongman lags slightly behind. By no means should that discourage you from getting into the sport if you want to participate, but I do think it needs to be acknowledged.
No matter what strength sport you choose, you can be sure you’re going to see a lot of benefits from participating — and not just physical benefits. The sense of empowerment, personal growth, and satisfaction from getting stronger can’t be understated. But I hope this series has helped you to choose which is right for you, or encouraged you to try something new!
What’s your strength sport of choice? Share your answer in the comments.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.