Is Strongman Training the Cure to America’s “Muscle” Problem?

It’s held back fitness for years. I’ve heard it from men, women, and kids. It’s the silliest statement made to a coach or trainer but every beginner in the weight room feels the absolute need to inform us:

“I don’t want to get too big.”

I know this. Every coach, trainer, gym sales rep, and person who works the front counter knows the average person doesn’t want to get too big. This creed of the untrained human illustrates the common perception that training with weights turns everyone into a giant bodybuilding freak that can’t fit through the door. This simply couldn’t be further from the truth. No one, in the entire history of humankind, has ever gotten “too big” without purposely setting out to get “too big.”

It’s like sitting down for your first guitar lesson and saying, “I don’t want to play like Van Halen.”

It’s like signing up for a martial arts lesson and saying, “I don’t want to be as good as Bruce Lee.”

It’s like getting your driver’s license and saying, “I don’t want to drive like Jr.”

Strongman Keg

Image: Strongman Corporation

These things take time, a focused effort, and some physical gifts. But the perception that weights only exist to produce huge muscles and make everyone Mr. Olympia has damaged the greatest fitness tool of all time. Strength training and muscle building are for everyone and have payback that “cardio-only”athletes cannot comprehend.

Hurricane Matthew. The threat of what could be the biggest storm to hit Florida (possibly ever) sent us scrambling to protect our homes and businesses. Who was called on to carry yard equipment, grills, furniture, sandbags and every other conceivable item to a safe haven?

The strong.

All the drags, weighted carries, and deadlifts came in handy as several of us strong guys and girls in the neighborhood got everything in order to minimize the damage. Then after, we were called upon to put it all back in order.

From helping to move stuck cars to loading people’s luggage, and moving a couch, those of us who lift in the gym turn that strength into actual, practical work. This should be evidence that health practitioners across the country should be focused on; we don’t have a cardiovascular capacity problem — we have a strength problem.

For decades, the doctor’s advice was to go running, or take up swimming or cycling. As the evidence mounts, strength training has proven to cover the cardio bases and provide additional and practical benefits that aerobic activity alone cannot. Why has the medical industry shied away from using the powerful tool of resistance training?

Fear: the fear of the hulking meathead in the corner and the misgiving that 57 year old Aunt Betty will look and act like him after a few short weeks in the gym.

Let us abandon this worry and share our love for weights with the masses.

But how?

Through Strongman training, that’s how.

The toughest strength sport on the planet that breeds the biggest bodies in sports is also the most practical cure to the United States’ lack of muscle problem. Now this may sound counterintuitive, but Strongman replicates real life activities and solves the additional issue of gym boredom. Three sets of 15 can become monotonous to many the regular gym goer, thereby increasing dropout rates.

Curiosity about tire flipping, sled dragging, farmer’s carries, and even stone loading eventually gets the best of all my clients, and events slowly become incorporated into their training. It doesn’t matter the age or background of the individual, people understand real physical work with tools that have a physical size correlation to objects they understand. To most people, weight stacks, dumbbells, or plates on the bar “seem” the same. The numbers spouted off don’t draw a correlation to real life. But they see a rock and understand that it’s heavy. A tire makes a visual impact. Pushing a car is something they have done and understand the difficulty. It’s natural movement. A bench press is not.

Break up your client’s routine and change their perception of what the gym is supposed to do. It’s easy enough if you own a set of equipment that can be plate loaded and you take it slow with them. Almost everyone I trained, regardless of age, did some form of Strongman training, and the paybacks were numerous for both the client and my gym. With an emphasis on a mix of strength and muscle building movements, you can assist a client in raising their metabolic rate and becoming the strongest they have ever been. Your retention rate will be through the roof and you will have the strongest “average” clients in town.

What exercises have the best pay off for the average Joe? With proper scaling the following movements will improve their daily lives and make their training more fun:

Stone Loading

1. Frame deadlift and/or carry: A side handle grip helps places less stress on the lower back but still works the leg and posterior chain muscles. If you add in a carry, the time under tension will increase the work on forearms and help reverse loss of hand strength.

2. Sandbag or stone load: Getting things off the floor to a reasonable height is a major challenge as people age. An object that has difficulty being grabbed and can shift when picked up simulates real life (how often is anything ever balanced; like a bag of dog food?). Learning to lift something that represents a real life object is a huge part of becoming stronger.

3. Arm Over Arm Pull: A thick rope and a sled can help your client work the power in their entire upper body. We would do this exercise standing to build overall body strength and quickly raise the heart rate.

4. One Arm or Alternating Dumbbell Press: Putting things over your head is a fairly common task, but they often aren’t heavy. Having your shoulders strong and stable is a key to remaining safe and being effective on a an airplane with your roller bag. By doing one arm at a time you can increase the body’s ability to balance your challenge and not drop your weight on yourself (a very real concern with any overhead press).

As great as Strongman is, there are a few movements I would typically avoid with people who were at a greater risk for injury:

1. Log Press: The base weight of the object often can make it difficult for many clients to even pick up and the rack position has a higher amount of low back stress than bar. Additionally I have seen a number of people pass out due to the stress of the log in the rack position on the upper chest.

2. Yoke walk: While a great exercise for athletes, the yoke puts a large amount of spinal compression on the client. Add in movement and far too many things can go wrong.

3. Axel Deadlift or Press: The fat bar can really help your grip, but… When lifting a load from the ground it increases the stress on the back due to the difficulty in keeping close to the center of gravity. If a hand is placed on the bar in the supine position the load on the biceps tendon is greatly increased leading to risk of tear. Furthermore, the thickness makes cleaning the bar to the rack extremely difficult and the last thing we need are more sketchy continental cleans. A great event, but skip it as an exercise.

With a greater knowledge of proper form and technique we can help the general population love the challenge of odd object training. If done safely people will become stronger in a way that will help them in their daily lives. Always keep in mind your client’s abilities and  goals before loading up the apparatus!

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: Strongman Corporation

About the author

Michael Gill

Mike Gill is a retired 105kg professional strongman and currently a broadcaster for Strongman Corporation. He has a background in all weight disciplines and has competed in Bodybuilding, Powerlifting and Weightlifting with a lifetime best 252 kg total. He can be reached for coaching at Michaelgill100 [at], @prostrongman on Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and on Facebook.