Strongman training is not for the faint of heart. Often, strongmen (and strongwomen) need to showcase unparalleled strength, muscular endurance, and anaerobic capacities while pushing, pulling, dragging, throwing, and carrying a wide array of objects.
Strongman training incorporates a wide array of foundational movements, ones that nearly every athlete can benefit from. Each strongman event and movement requires a certain amount of strength, skill, and a tenacious spirit that applies to other power, strength, and fitness sports. To the beginner, strongman-style training can be daunting. However, regardless of fitness level, most athletes can benefit from incorporating these seven movements into their current training routine.
Strongman Lifts For Beginners
- Zercher Squat
- Farmer’s Walks
- One-Arm Snatch
- Fat Bar Clean & Press
- Drags, Pulls, & Pushes
- Stone Lift
- Yoke Walk
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Why Train Strongman?
Movement under loads, maximal strength, and work capacity in various applications (pushing, pulling, lifting, throwing, dragging, etc.) can increase overall strength, athleticism, and fitness. Novice athletes and fitness goers can learn basic movement patterning while developing fundamental strength and fitness, especially when combining these exercises into strength sets or conditioning circuits.
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1. Zercher Squat
The Zercher squat is a foundational movement that nearly every type of athlete can benefit from. It is a front-loaded squat that develops core stability, increases leg strength, and improves posture. The Zelcher squat setup is a fairly simple adjustment from a front squat. Rather than supporting the barbell in the front rack position, the barbell is held in the crooks of the elbows (use pads or an axle bar to prevent discomfort that the barbell could cause against the skin or pressure to the tendons).
From there, the movement is the same as a squat. This is an excellent movement to improve quad strength and reinforce postural integrity. Additionally, it can help isolate more nuanced weaknesses in squat form. For aspiring strongman competitors, having a strong squat and good posture is essential for the squat and related movements like the heavy dumbbell or Viking press that heavily utilize the legs.
2. Farmer’s Walks
Farmer’s walks or carries and other loaded carries develop leg, back, and core strength. The simplicity of the exercise and its functional roots allow for increased loading with relatively low risks, which can stimulate serious strength and postural development. Additionally, they are excellent for improving grip strength — a staple for any competitive strongman — and bracing.
An underrated benefit of the farmer’s walk is how flexible of an exercise it is. The volume, weight, speed, intensity, and frequency are all variables that can be adjusted to match training needs. Are you weak in loading medleys due to endurance issues? The farmer’s walk can help. Not quite able to sustain the Hercules hold as long as you’d like because your grip gives out? The farmer’s walk can help.
Elite strongman competitions almost always feature a farmer’s walk or variation of it. Whether it be a literal farmer’s walk with an object in each hand or a functional farmer’s walk in the form of a frame or timber carry, no top-tier strongman got to that level with a weak farmer’s walk.
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3. One-Arm Snatch
The benefits of unilateral snatch training are plentiful. It is a great way to improve explosiveness and develop athleticism without focusing on formal Olympic lifts like the snatch and clean & jerk, which aren’t as directly translated to strongman competition.
Of course, the snatch and clean & jerk mechanics are abundant for cleans and overhead movements like the log lift and axle press. However, focusing on the one-arm snatch can greatly improve work capacity for the heavy dumbbell event, which is often max reps in an allotted time frame. The one-arm snatch can involve either a dumbbell, barbell, or kettlebell. For strongman contests, a dumbbell is certainly the most common.
Particularly for strongman athletes who can lift heavy dumbbells but lack the capacity to perform a series of heavy dumbbells speedily, one-arm snatches can be a difference-maker in the gym. If you are focusing on increasing work capacity, it is likely best to keep the weight on the lighter side to ensure your form is not compromised.
4. Fat Bar Clean & Press
If you have access to a log bar or fat grips, try performing this highly functional movement. The clean & press — essentially a log lift — is a great exercise for beginners to learn the basics of power development and fluidity of motion that also comes into play for events like the Atlas Stones. While similar to formal clean & jerks, this movement often is performed with slower speeds, which can help in the early phases of training to develop sound movement patterning.
This style of clean & press is different from the formal Olympic lift. However, both can play a large role in overall athletic development. While a clean & jerk involves an explosive deadlift to the rack position, this clean involves lapping the log before rolling it up to the rack position. Additionally, strongman athletes will even rest the bar on their stomachs or belts for movements like the axle press before lifting it to the rack position.
Generally speaking, a properly performed clean & press consists of a fluid path of the bar from the ground to the front rack position and then pressed overhead using the legs, hips, and upper body while keeping a stable spine. If the spine’s position is compromised (often from bending too far back), it can disrupt proper blood flow to the brain, which can lead to fainting. This happened to Bobby Thompson at the 2021 World’s Strongest Man log lift event. If the spine has to compensate for the weight, drop the weight.
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5. Drags, Pulls, & Pushes
Dragging (seated, standing, or crawling, etc.) a weighted sled, chain, car, plane, truck, or other large implement improves leg strength, stamina, mental fortitude, and work capacity. Athletes can drag heavy or light loads for time, distance, or head-to-head races, each offering improvements in strength, cardiovascular fitness, and muscular hypertrophy. In strongman competition, most plane or truck pulls are performed in solo heats for time. However, sled drags are often done as head-to-head races.
Drags focus heavily on grip, shoulder, and back strength and function similarly to a seated row. The caveat being that they are overhand pulls using rope rather than a single grip on a bar or cable attachment and often involve leg drive against a base. Having proper technique when performing a drag, pull, or push is vital. With the larger vehicles, momentum is everything. Establishing momentum and using the proper drive to sustain it through to the end of the course is what sets apart the fastest times from those unable to move the implements at all.
6. Stone Lift
Whether these are done with a round stone, weighted ball, or odd object, lifting something from the ground to the shoulder is highly applicable in strongman competition. Improved hip extension, back strength, and grip are just a few of the benefits of lifting heavy and sometimes oddly shaped objects. Like the log lift, a stone lift involves lifting a stone from the floor to your lap. That position should be one of rest that can allow you to reset your grip if needed or catch your breath.
From there, the hips drive the stone forward as you guide the lift with your arms and back to load the stone onto a platform, pedestal, or over a bar. Stone lifts or Atlas Stones are arguably the most recognizable event in the sport of strongman and are nearly always part of any strongman competition’s program. The important takeaway with the stone lift is that it focuses on the hip extension, an often-overlooked mechanic that can significantly improve explosiveness.
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7. Yoke Walk
Yoke walks or super yokes fall in the category of loaded carries. However, unlike the Farmer’s walk, which is very taxing on the grip, yoke walks demand powerful bracing, a strong core, and sufficient stability to move forward while the yoke rests on the athlete’s traps. Like the drags and walks, this exercise can be done for loading, time, distance, or a combination of those to meet the needs and goals of the program. In terms of competition, a yoke is almost always part of the program at a strongman contest, either as a standalone event or as part of a medley.
Whether training for a strongman contest or simply wanting to acquire the strength benefits of strongman movements, these seven exercises and their variations are sure to take your fitness and training to the next level. The ancillary benefits of improved grip strength, stability, bracing, and core strength all translate to Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, or functional fitness.
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.
Featured Image: Shutterstock/criben