Transitioning from Powerlifting to Strongman: Tips and Considerations

I wanted to address a fairly well discussed topic in my circle for quite some time now. It is a deeply personal issue that people either embrace as the choice of someone to make on their own, or harass them for going against the grain. Often, the first person an athlete will discuss their decision with is their coach because we know them so well. I’ve had much experience with this so I’ve decided to give you my thoughts on making the transition from powerlifting to strongman.

While both sports focus on whole body strength and have some underlying similarities, they are two deeply different attempts at expression of those abilities. Both rely on the squat and deadlift as training and competition exercises but the implementation of them could not be any more different. In the same vein, they also both feature a press but they couldn’t be more different. Firstly, we will examine where you will most likely do well then by  what you should expect to be difficult and how we can change your game to become who you really are inside.

Where You Will Have Much Success Transitioning

The king of all exercises makes up the base of almost all strongman training. Using a heavy rotation of front and back squats you know you can’t beat the power created here. Don’t count on seeing the squat directly tested in any event you are likely to compete in right away though. It is more of an indirect exercise aiding in the performance aspect of many other events. Chain drags, carries, truck pulls and nearly everything in strongman will require the strongest legs you can muster. Having a great raw squat will give you much of the base new trainees will have to work years to achieve.

It is common to stick with what you are the most comfortable at but don’t be afraid of the new territory here. Learn the front squat and even the Zercher squat. Bringing the squat upfront will work the quads more and bring more balance to your strength. This is great for every movement, especially the press.

Initially you will shine on the deadlift. With the aid of straps and a double belt (you can have a support belt on under your power belt) blowing past your previous PR’s will be a breeze.

Read here for an in depth look at the differences and what you can expect.

Many contests feature a max deadlift, and you should enjoy that very common ground. It shouldn’t even take long to adapt to the side handle or thick bar pulls. Most likely you will adapt to lapping the stone, keg, picking the farmers walks and flipping the tire very quickly. For a Powerlifter, the heavier on these events the better. When you start out don’t over spend your time here on these events. See them as ones that will come more naturally and leave yourself time to focus on your three main weaknesses.

Where You Will Be Challenged in Transition

The first struggle will be overhead. It will likely frustrate you to no end. Getting the weight over your head will be tough without the stabilization of the bench, but the biggest issue that I have seen athletes struggle with is the clean. Getting the weight from the floor to the rack (the position under your chin) takes some very explosive movement and coordination that must be learned. This is where you should seek out a good coach. I would highly recommend finding someone to teach you both the push press and the jerk. 

A bencher will want to rely on their triceps to just push the weight up (and you will crush your lockouts for sure) but getting your body behind the weight will make the numbers pressed much more amazing. In the mid 2000’s contests, would still have an incline log press, very similar to the bench, but I have not personally seen one in a decade now.

You must get very comfortable with being able to clean, press, and then stand under a weight without any outside forces. A key exercise for you to insert in your programming is going to be an overhead squat. If you can master this you will hit huge numbers and not be worried about the weight crashing down on your head. It is also a great full body warm-up and shouldn’t tire out the muscles for the rest of the session. As soon as you are able, get comfortable with these keep them in until you have the strength of a support beam.

Secondly, your muscular endurance will be low. Most powerlifters never do more than five reps, with the bulk of the training being three or less. Strongman training requires muscular endurance as well as high limit strength. Getting used to rep ranges of 10, 15 or even 20 is not uncommon. A weight may be easy for you in a contest but you have to be able to work through all those reps.  Your weekly training sessions must account for this. While it may be similar to bodybuilding you must teach your fibers to be comfortable at working longer and not hitting failure as quickly. A smart coach will program in some rep work for their athletes to keep them used to those increased demands.

The biggest hurdle though (and this means you are going all in) is bringing your anaerobic system up to the demands of the sport. Very few athletes like going at 100 percent for 60 seconds but if you really want to be competitive here you must do this repeatedly to be a champion. I have had promising powerlifters show up do well and a few events like log press and car deadlift but after just a few sets of tire flips or farmers walks they quit and never showed back up. I hate to see this! Just a few weeks of sled work or sprints can make a huge impact on your performance levels in this sport.

Get used to feeling the burn in your chest and accept it as being a more well rounded athlete. The reward of out walking someone with a sandbag or out flipping them on the tire is a great feeling. You have the raw materials already, just some hard work will provide a great shine.

You don’t have to get nuts and remember you can always go back to your old sport if you find that this is not for you. The ultimate test of strength and athleticism is an entirely different world. The best part is you can probably still powerlift on the side. By adding in strongman you will most likely actually add to your total due to the increased core stability and better recovery abilities. Nothing like living between two worlds and being your own athlete.


Editors 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.