The lifts performed by the world’s strongest men are demanding full-body movements that — when executed over a period of time — can result in a dramatic increase in overall strength, not to mention a crushing grip and a high anaerobic capacity. Even if you’re not training for an actual strongman competition (which we assume most of you aren’t), occasionally working such lifts into your routine will add another dimension to your training and help you build more muscle.
Only one problem: Where are the enormous tires, Atlas stones and harness-rigged semitrucks when you need them? Safe to say, your gym doesn’t supply such training devices.
No worries, because you can mimic these lifts with nothing more than the barbells, dumbbells and benches at your local gym. To help modify the tire flip, truck pull, Hercules hold and a number of other traditional strongman events, we sought advice from Mark Philippi, renowned American strongman competitor, trainer, and owner and director of Philippi Sports Institute (Las Vegas). Philippi incorporates many of the strongman lifts into his training using traditional exercise equipment. The following movements are some of his favorites.
STRONGMAN EQUIVALENT: Atlas Stones
MOVEMENT TYPE: Pull
PHILIPPI’S TAKE: “Learning to get position on a stone is one of those things that takes practice, and there’s no substitute for a perfectly spherical object that wants to roll out of your arms. This modified version is a full-body movement and is designed to help with the pulling portion of the lift.”
EXECUTION: Start with a stack of 45-pound plates (you determine the weight you want to lift, but at least three plates are required for this exercise to mimic the real thing). Place the stack of 45s on a 10-pound plate so your fingers can get underneath. Straddle the stack with your feet just outside the plates and your toes in line with the plate holes. With your knees slightly bent, grasp the stack with your fingers underneath and your palms against the sides. Pull the plates to your chest as if you were doing a bent-over row.
VOLUME: Perform 4—5 sets of six reps with as much weight as you can handle.
STRONGMAN EQUIVALENT: Keg Toss
MOVEMENT TYPE: Whole body
PHILIPPI’S TAKE: “There are several different throwing events in strongman (keg toss, caber toss, etc.). If the event involves starting with a weight between the legs followed by an overhead thrust, doing heavy dumbbell or kettlebell swings is your best bet. If you can release the object, use a heavy weighted medicine ball. But for overall hip power, which is needed for all throwing movements, the snatch is the perfect gym exercise.”
EXECUTION: Grasp a barbell on the floor with your hands well outside shoulder width, placing your feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Bend your hips and knees; start with your head and chest up and your arms fully extended. Initiate the lift as explosively as possible by extending your hips and knees while pulling the bar off the floor. As the bar reaches chest height, squat down and continue pressing the bar upward until it’s completely overhead and your arms are fully extended. Stand up the rest of the way to complete the lift, then return the weight to the floor.
VOLUME: Do 4—5 sets of 4—6 reps.
STRONGMAN EQUIVALENT: Grip Events
MOVEMENT TYPE: Grip/forearms (affects pulling exercises)
PHILIPPI’S TAKE: “Many strongman events require superior grip strength, but for some, grip is the determining factor. There are several ways to improve grip strength; the Olympic bar hold is a favorite because controlling the bar in your hands is half the battle.”
EXECUTION: This can be done with one or two bars simultaneously. Start by standing with a loaded Olympic bar on a rack at your side (or on the floor if no rack is available); ideally, position the bar just past arm’s length when standing straight up. Grasp the exact middle of the bar and unrack it (or stand straight up with it if you’re starting from the floor). Let the bar hang at your side with your arm extended as long as you can. The bar will twist and teeter back and forth due to its length, making this a very tough exercise. If you’re doing the two-arm version, simply hold a barbell in each hand.
VOLUME: For each arm, do 3—4 sets, where one set consists of holding the bar for as long as possible (to failure).
STRONGMAN EQUIVALENT: Crucifix
MOVEMENT TYPE: Angle
PHILIPPI’S TAKE: “This is another tough event that requires discipline and willpower, and it’s an easy one to replicate in the gym. It’s really nothing more than an isometric lateral raise, but it requires a lot of grip and shoulder strength as well as muscular endurance. The Crucifix can entail holding an object in excess of 30—40 pounds palms up or palms down, so your training needs to address this.”
EXECUTION: Start with your feet about shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, holding a pair of moderately weighted dumbbells at your sides with your palms forward. Lift the dumbbells out to your sides — as when doing lateral raises — until your arms are fully extended and about parallel to the floor. Hold this position for as long as you can (to failure); that’s one set. Alternate between a palms-up and palms-in grip.
VOLUME: Do 4—5 sets to failure.
STRONGMAN EQUIVALENT: Truck Pull (Hand Over Hand)
MOVEMENT TYPE: Pull
PHILIPPI’S TAKE: “Maybe the most impressive of all strongman lifts is the pulling of objects in excess of 15 tons (for example, a semitruck). Depending on the event, you’d do either a whole-body pull using a harness or a hand-over-hand pull, where your body is fixed and your arms and torso do the bulk of the work. For a whole-body pull, the squat is a great gym exercise. But for true strength, strongmen train with hand-over-hand pulling exercises like this one.”
EXECUTION: Stand facing a cable stack with a rope attachment (at chest level for standing, low if seated). Stand firm with your chest and head up and your feet wider than shoulder width. Grasp the rope in one hand, arm fully extended; place the other hand at your waist in the ready position. Pull the rope hard and fast toward your midsection, rotating your body slightly to that side while also getting your back and hips into the movement. (While your form needs to be good, don’t be afraid to get help from the rest of your body.) Pause at the top, then return to the start position. Pace is important in a pulling event, so keep an even, fast and deliberate lifting pattern. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.
VOLUME: Do three sets of 15 reps per arm.
STRONGMAN EQUIVALENT: Tire Flip
MOVEMENT TYPE: Press/pull
Philippi’s Take: “There are two parts to the tire flip: the initial pull to the knee to lift the tire off the ground, and then the combined motion to flip it over. This is a hard lift to duplicate without the actual tire, but since the toughest part is the pull, this modified deadlift will help.”
EXECUTION: Stand with your feet about twice as wide as shoulder width with a barbell on the floor in front of your shins (a “fat bar” is ideal). Grasp the bar with both palms facing forward. Drop your hips, lift your head and pull your shoulders back to help extend your arms. (“The key here is to keep your elbows straight at the beginning of the lift to transfer your strength without losing force,” Philippi says.) Pull hard on the bar and press through the floor with your legs to lift it past your waist as you go up on your toes. Carefully return the bar to the floor.
VOLUME: Perform 4—5 sets of five reps.
STRONGMAN EQUIVALENT: Log Press
MOVEMENT TYPE: Pull/push
PHILIPPI’S TAKE: “You need a tight core and a good base of support to make this lift work. For strongmen, the object is to get as much weight up as possible (or to do as many reps as possible with a given weight), so you’ll want to get your whole body into this one.”
EXECUTION: Start with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width and a barbell on the floor in front of your shins. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip just outside your legs. Drop your hips, extend your arms and begin the pull. Clean the weight by extending your hips powerfully while pulling on the bar until it reaches chest level, then drop underneath the bar so it ends up resting along your clavicles and front delts. Stand up with the weight, then dip your legs rapidly and press the weight up and over your head. You can either do the full clean and press on every rep, or clean the weight on the first rep and do overhead presses only for the rest of the set.
VOLUME: Start with a heavy weight and do 3—5 reps per set. Continue to increase the number of reps, working up to 10 before increasing the weight. Do 4—5 sets.
STRONGMAN EQUIVALENT: Farmer’s Walk
MOVEMENT TYPE: Whole body
PHILIPPI’S TAKE: “It’s one of the easiest lifts to duplicate in the gym, but the farmer’s walk [where competitors carry a 200-plus-pound object in each hand and walk for distance] is arguably one of the toughest events in strongman. It tests grip, balance and overall strength.”
EXECUTION: For this exercise, you need some room to walk. Start with a pair of the heaviest dumbbells you can find on the floor at your sides. Take a firm grip, stand up with the dumbbells at your sides and begin to walk forward. Pick up your pace as fast as you can, but always make sure your stepping pattern is even. If you run out of real estate and must turn, step with the outside foot first instead of rotating on the inside foot. When you can no longer hold on, safely drop the dumbbells off to your sides.
VOLUME: Do 2—3 sets, walking for maximal distance in each.
STRONGMAN EQUIVALENT: Conan’s Wheel
MOVEMENT TYPE: Whole body, press/pull
PHILIPPI’S TAKE: “Another great exercise for lifting stones is the Zercher squat. Because the bar is supported in an awkward way, you train the arms and shoulders to withstand the pressure of holding a large object.”
EXECUTION: With your feet about twice as wide as shoulder width, stand with a barbell (a “fat bar” if possible) on the floor in front of your shins. Bend your knees and hips and position your arms at 90 degrees under the bar so it rests in the pit of your elbows. (The bar remains in this position.) Reset your feet and body to a relatively comfortable position. In one motion, stand up by driving your feet into the floor and extending your hips and knees until you’re standing upright. Lean back as you stand up to help counterbalance the weight. Lower the bar rapidly but under control to the floor and repeat.
VOLUME: Use a light weight initially to establish comfort and form, then increase the weight and perform four sets of 3—5 reps