Something interesting that I’ve noticed over the past four years coaching strength athletes is the complete lack of competitive strongman athletes using the Olympic lifts. Every once in a while you’ll get an athlete who uses them sporadically, but for the most part the strongman community has largely written off these movements.
As a USAW National Level Coach, I’ve been lucky enough to train some amazing weightlifters, and every time one of them decides to give strongman a try just for fun, they always seem to do astonishingly well. My rationale for this is that these athletes already have fairly high levels of static strength, that in some cases, rival strongman athletes, especially in the lower weight classes. Additionally, weightlifters have tremendous capability when it comes to power production due to the explosive nature of their sport.
On top of all that, weightlifters have great body awareness, which stems from learning how to move their bodies around the bar. Not to mention, they’re also extremely efficient when it comes to using their strength and power in conjunction. I’m not suggesting every strongman athlete begin weightlifting full-time, but some training can hold benefits.
\Weightlifting Benefits for Strongman Athletes
Overhead Strength and Stability
In the sport of weightlifting, both the snatch and the clean & jerk are lifts that end with a barbell being stabilized overhead. Through years of training, weightlifters develop strong upper backs and shoulders from holding weight overhead. When it comes to winning a competition, a missed rep due to an unsteady lockout is a strongman athlete’s worst nightmare.
The snatch and jerk enforce strong overhead stability and increased lockout strength, particularly when using the push press or jerk variation as a means to move a weight overhead. For the pressing movement in strongman, one of the most common errors for missed reps is the upper back giving out. When this happens, the movement becomes more difficult, and there’s also an increased risk of injury.
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Through extra jerk training, a strongman athlete can develop upper back strength that allows their back to remain stable. In addition to increasing the amount of force they can transfer into an implement (log, axle, etc), which can lead to an increase in max weight moved as well as improve their efficiency of the movement.
The act of triple extension (extension of the ankle, knee, and hip) is needed in many of the events in strongman such as loading events, events where the implement needs to be brought to the shoulder, keg tosses, tire flips, and even the fingal fingers. All of these movements are well known to use hip extension.
With use of the Olympic lifts (and variations), athletes can increase their power production with the use of strong triple extension. The scientific community has ample evidence that suggests triple extension is a means for athletes to increase power production. This is why many strength and conditioning programs for the past decades have included training triple extension specifically or close variations for power development.
Developing the strength to have a strong and effective pull with lifts like the snatch and clean & jerk has been shown to be extremely useful with top level strongman competitors like Bruce Wilhelm (WSM 77’/78’), Ken Paterna (3rd at WSM 77’), Mark Henry (Arnold Strongman Classic inaugural Champion), and Mikhael Koklyaev (WSM Finalist, Multiple Arnold Classic top 3 finisher).
Along with the above reasons, the use of weightlifting movements in a strongman’s training can help increase overall athleticism. This can come in the form of increased lean body mass, increased flexibility and mobility, increase in sprint speed and jumping height, and overall body coordination. All of these factors can be extremely important to the performance of elite level strongman competitors.
Having the ability to move fast and effectively can dictate whether an athlete loses an event or edges out their competition (think: stone medley). Some times you will see amazingly strong athletes not perform to their fullest in events that require better conditioning (heavier athletes often have the most trouble). By using the weightlifting movements, a strongman athlete can increase their speed and power while maintaining strength without having to gain extra unneeded weight.
In addition to the above point, Olympic lifts are nervous system intensive. They will help develop motor performance as well as increase firing rates of muscle fibers, which will help not only with power, but also absolute strength. By training the nervous system, athletes will be able to more effectively handle different training stimuli. This is very helpful for strongman athletes, as the different events have a huge impact on the nervous system. Thus, the more stimuli it can handle, the better.
Inclusion in Your Program
Now after seeing the benefits, how does someone include weightlifting in their own strongman program? Luckily, the Olympic lifts have a very low eccentric component to them and the amount of weight you will use is often much less than the lifts that are dictated by absolute strength. This is one of the reasons that Olympic weightlifters can handle such high training volumes compared to strongman athletes and powerlifters.
In my personal experience, I like to include the snatch, clean, or their pull variations as warm-ups and activation drills prior to performing things like deadlift training. My rationale is this will activate the nervous system as well as warm-up the body for heavy pulling. It also can make athletes use their hips better during the pull, which can help increase lock out capabilities.
The jerk and snatch can be used prior to an athletes overhead pressing day. This is also useful as a way to activate the musculature, along with priming the body to get used to holding weight overhead. My advice, try to keep reps low in the range of 1-3 per set, as these lifts are technical and precision is important. I’ll typically have athletes train with 70-80% for 2 or 3 reps, and then 80-90% for singles.
Editor’s 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.
Feature image screenshot from @worlds_strongest_gay Instagram page.