The posterior chain is a fancy name for the the muscles on the back of the body. Your Traps, Rear Deltoids, Lats, Spinal Erectors, Glutes, and Hamstrings are the engine that drive your athletic movement. A better understanding of how they are used in strongman competitions can help you increase explosiveness and endurance, become less prone to injury, and fix multiple technique issues. Let us begin with an examination of how these muscles are used in a contest.
Endurance: Endurance is the muscle’s ability to work under stress over time. This can be examined in both the short term (during a specific exercise that tires these muscles) and the long term (over the entire contest). While many athletes understand the importance of getting as many reps as possible during an event, they often forget to keep their full day endurance high.
Power: This a measurement of the of ability of your muscle to generate force as quickly as possible. Someone with a high vertical jump exhibits a good ability to generate power. A secondary term you will often see here is explosiveness.
Strength: This is where we measure the ability to exert force against a load where speed does not matter. An example of this is a one rep max bench press that takes many seconds to complete.
The well rounded strongman athlete needs to be great at all the above uses of the Posterior Chain. The issue is, they can’t all reach their maximum limits at the same time.
Imagine that the average athlete has the ability to achieve a perfect ten in either power, endurance, or strength. They can achieve their maximum level in any group they chose.
This would lead us to the conclusion that if you score 10 points for each ability you would need 30 points. What happens in reality is that when one ability reaches 10 the others are compensated downward. To understand this, let us look at two different athletes; a marathon runner and a powerlifter.
A marathon runner is by definition an endurance athlete. They have worked to get as much long term production from their muscles as possible. They become lightweight and while they run quickly they often have little strength and power. There are not many (any) pro marathon runners with a 315 bench.
The powerlifter is by definition a strength athlete. They typically can’t run marathons and often think of doing even 10 reps of a strength exercise as a waste of energy. A powerlifter who focuses solely on the one rep max will most likely lose a deadlift for reps contest versus a strongman with a slightly lower max. This is due to a having a ton of strength and a good amount of power but low endurance.
The hybrid athlete that is the strongman must train in a way that makes a Posterior Chain that is strong, powerful, and has plenty of endurance; no small feat. A program that focuses solely on strength will have you lifting plenty of poundages but will not hold up for carries or leave you too tired to perform at your best during the end of a contest. If you neglect the power aspect of training, every lift you complete will be slow and only add to the endurance conundrum.
Rep ranges, poundages and exercise selection are the key factors in shaping a well rounded Posterior Chain. Frequency of the following choices and recovery periods are also important to consider when designing a program. A definition of what does what is our best place to start:
Power: Two or three reps with 80% of max weight while moving the weight dynamically (quickly) will help you see increases in your power. Some primary exercises here are:
- Clean, jerk, snatch
- Speed deadlifts or tire flip
- One motion stone or sandbag to shoulder
- Speed squats
- Plyometric jumps
Strength: Three to five reps with 85 to 90% of your one rep max is what is what will add to your strength. The speed of the rep is expected to be slower here especially toward the end of the set.
- Strict overhead press
- Box Squats
- Good mornings
Endurance: Anything over ten reps will start building higher levels of endurance in your muscles. Additionally, doing sets for time (i.e.: 60 seconds for max reps) will build endurance.
- Kettlebell swing
- Keg carries
- High rep squats on limited rest
- Car deadlift for time
After seeing how these exercises can provide different benefits to a training program we can then begin to assemble them into a great attack plan for a strong and diverse Posterior Chain.
Making the right exercise choices combined with rep scheme and timing can really enhance your strongman game and reduce your chance for gassing out of an event. We examined the difference between power, strength and endurance previously and now we take a look at how to use the information we gained at different points in the season. To begin we will start in the time before you begin directly training for a contest commonly referred to as the off-season (I personally dislike that term as there really is no time for the strength athlete to be off, but I digress.).
The time to build your strength and power is when you are not focused on a particular contest. A smart trainee will make the Posterior Chain the prime target. There are three primary outcomes one would expect during a 12 to 16 week training cycle.
- An increase in the one rep maximum of the squat. Strength
- An increase in the one rep maximum of the deadlift and all other picks from the floor. Strength
- An increase in the one rep maximum of the overhead (preferably some sort of jerk). Power
When setting up your training cycle for this period you should work approximately in the 65% range on strength, 25% on power and 10% endurance. Gradually increase the volume of sets and reps over the weeks. Allow a week of every month for a back down cycle to aid in recovery. What exercises should we primarily program here?
- The Squat. The king of exercises should be worked three days for strength and one day for power. Use variants of the deep squat, box squat, parallel squat and even the front squat in the strength range. Power exercises here would be explosive box squats and weighted squat jump. Hitting three sets a week of 10 to 20 squats will keep up your overall endurance for all events.
- Deadlifts from varying height and grips. Two days of rack pulls, frame pulls, and the occasional pull from the floor or lower increase the strength. Speed deadlifts and tire flips can increase power.
- Overheads. If you are a strict presser work your strength almost all the time. Those that Jerk or Push Press should split their time evenly between power and strength. Never neglect your clean! That should always be dynamic!!
- Bent over rows (and their cousins). The bent over position is one that strongman athletes should become very comfortable with. Pendlay rows, sandbag picks and pulls, One arm rows three days a week to increase strength. Power emphasis can be done with barbell or dumbbell snatch.
- Good mornings and pullups. The weight and speed will determine if you are working in the power zone here.
- Kettlebell swing and pull through. These are your endurance basics here that you would do in this part of the season to prevent low back burn out in contests. The direct load on the back and the use of 10 plus reps one day a week of these exercises is a must.
Use your event training day to work on your technique on the specific tests of strength you have coming up. Train those movements as heavy as possible during this phase. It is always better if you can be prepared to lift heavier than expected of you at the contest. As we ease into the 6 weeks prior to your contest I recommend these switches to your training.
- Switch the focus of your squats to power versus strength. Lighten up ten percent for 80% of your squatting and keep the focus on speed. Don’t neglect heavy reps but try to maintain your strength here and refine it. You want the weight you move here to be athletic; less grind more shine.
- Keep the same idea going when you deadlift. Get more and more explosive with your movements over the coming weeks. Speed off the floor can determine the success in many events.
- Start working directly for the event six weeks out. If it’s an endurance press, work reps. If it is a max focus solely on doubles and triples.
- Leave the rowing motions on the heavy side. This will help you with the grind of heavy stones.
- Take out the good mornings and pulls up and replace them with sprints or plyometric jumps. This will afford those muscles some additional recovery and up your endurance.
- Leave the swings and pull throughs in the program. They provide year long endurance and injury prevention.
Your event days should start to simulate the contest events at this point. Do not make the mistake of replicating the contest week in and week out though. This is a surefire way to burn out and kill your peak. Instead, become lightning fast on your cleans, flawlessly receive the keg in your lap every rep and become machine like in your rhythm for the circus dumbbell. I personally would only run a full simulation for the contest twice. Three and two weeks out, with the week before the event being done at 75% effort and focused on and technique issues that need cleaning up. Additionally, keep in mind the following lifestyle techniques for your Posterior Chain to be at its best:
- Sitting is rough on the lower back and hamstrings and can weaken the muscles you are trying to build. Break up extended periods of sitting by standing and taking a walk every 45 minutes.
- Walk more. Walking is natural human movement that helps the muscles of the Posterior Chain stay healthy. It will also help to increase your level of fitness and make you more prepared for a full day contest.
- Keep your body mass as lean as possible. Extra weight around the midsection will strain the Posterior Chain and throw off your mechanics. A lean, fit athlete will become a more efficient machine.
The muscles that you use on every single movement have such diverse functions that you must do your best to protect and strengthen them to their maximum. By planning the rest of your training around the powerhouse of the Posterior Chain you will see huge increases in your personal bests and be better prepared for any unusual strength tests that await.
Images: Michele Wozniak
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.