When you think of strongmen, you think of massive specimens like Englishmen Eddie Hall, who can deadlift more than 1,100 pounds, legend Magnus Ver Magnusson or that behemoth Hafpor Julius Bjornsson, better known as The Mountain from Game of Thrones – the dude that literally crushed a guy’s head with his bare hands.
These are dudes that pull giant trucks, yoke carry two refrigerators and hoist enormous atlas stones, as heavy as 350 pounds, onto tall platforms. These are freakishly, famous strong men. And I’m not one of them. But sometimes it’s nice to feel like one. So I walked into Strongman training class.
This wasn’t your typical strongman. There were no 6-foot-something, 400-pound dudes hulking around. This class, at CrossFit Dutch Kills in New York, was stalked with average men and women looking to lift something other than a dumbbell.
“I think the sport of Strongman was very exclusive, just by the nature of what it was,” said Dom Fortino, owner and head coach of CrossFit Dutch Kills and City Strongman. “It’s always heavy weights, weight classes that start at 200-plus pounds and the apparatuses are a big thing too. Even when I was messing around with this as a kid, there were yokes that started at 400 pounds when they were empty.”
Fortino credited Rob Orlando, the owner and head coach at Hybrid Athletics and equipment company Rogue for fusing CrossFit and Strongman and making equipment accessible to the everyday athlete.
The first thing I learned about strongman training is that it’s accessible to everyone. “Heavy” is relative to the lifer. And, on this day, we did lift heavy. City Strongman is a program that fuses strongman training with CrossFit principles. Workouts are still for time, or for as-many-rounds-as-possible. The biggest difference is that workouts are likely to include an odd shaped object. It’s not all barbells. Students are likely to see a yoke carry, or a version of a clean and jerk using a keg. There may be a heavy sandbag carry or huge tire flips.
The benefits of strongman training aren’t much different than CrossFit or other styles of weight training. Both focus on functional strength; movement patterns that carry over into your everyday life. Because if you think about it, every day, you pick things up and put them back down and some of those things can be fairly hefty. For CrossFitters or Olympic lifters in particular, lifting awkward objects, improve things like grip strength or explosive hip extension, which carry-over into more traditional lifts and help with confidence is picking up heavier loads.
Traditional Strongman resembles powerlifting training, with heavy loads and event-specific training with sufficient rest.
“If you’re goal is fitness, why does the form in which you get fitness matter?,” he said. “I’m not sure that it’s accessible to everyone because you can’t find it everywhere but I think it’s a lot more applicable, it’s naturally adaptive. I think that’s what is so great about it.”
The workout we completed could be done in any gym, as long as you can find the room and an object for a loaded carry. Instead of all-out work for time, the workout focused on movement quality with no time limit and went as follows:
8 Rounds For Quality
8 Bench Press (225 pounds for men/155 for women)
1 Sandbag Load (bodyweight)
3 Deadlifts (365 pounds for men/235 for women)
You can see everything was heavy. Really heavy. And if you think there’s no cardio involved in strongman training, try doing three deadlifts at twice your bodyweight and then walking immediately over to complete eight unbroken reps of a heavy bench press. For the record, I did not complete the workouts with the weights as prescribed, as I didn’t intend on dropped a barbell on my chest. (For those keeping score, I went with 185 pounds for the bench press, 220 for the sandbag load and 335 for the deadlift.)
“There’s also the fun part of this,” Fortino said. “ It’s great when you can nail that squat clean and jerk but there’s something special about picking up that atlas stone on the first day. It’s just fun.”
The elements of Strongman all stem from basic movements: pull, push, carry. The variations come in the amount of load and the apparatus or equipment used. Here’s how you can add Strongman into your training, even at your local gym:
One of the foundational moves of any lifting program, including Strongman, include the deadlift. The key is mixing things up instead of simply going for a certain number of reps and sets and progressively increasing weight each week.
Instead, mix in lift for 1-rep max, or deficit deadlifts from different highs or max reps in a given time frame. Fortino likes to have athletes use fat grips or deadlifts with an axle bar (essentially a barbell with a thicker bar) to challenge grip strength.
In traditional Strongman you might see overhead presses with a fat bar, kegs or circus dumbbells
Barbell, axel, fat bar grip, log, kegs, or circus dumbbells, which offer a widened handle and much better weights at each head, all of which City Strongman offers. The advantage with a bigger piece of equipment is recruiting more muscles to lift them overhead. Doing so, will directly transfer over to overhead presses with the barbell.
If this equipment isn’t available at your local gym you can substitute with loading a heavier barbell for overhead carries. You drop your rep scheme for single-arm dumbbell presses and grab a heavy dumbbell for single-arm push presses, push jerks or overhead carries for distance. The key is selecting a weight that you can manage and keep under control with one arm.
Push – Moving events
Many CrossFit boxes and boutique fitness facilities are increasingly offering things like tire flips and yoke carries to members, making what used to be a traditional Strongman activity, a fun change of pace for the everyday gym rat. Fortino likes to mix up yoke carries by having athletes hold the cross bar in the front rack position as opposed to sitting the crossbar on their back, to force increased responsibly to the core muscles to keep the equipment stable.
If your gym isn’t equipment with tires, yokes or sleds for heavy pushes, Fortino suggests opting for a heavy farmers carry using kettlebells or dumbbells and working heavy bench pressing into your routine.
One of the more fun elements of Strongman is picking up and tosses large, heavy and awkwardly-shaped objects. Sandbags, yokes and atlas stones are all super taxing on your grip and require your entire body to deadlift these objects off the ground and demands coordination and strength move them to an elevated platform to toss over a barrier.
The sandbag load, for example required deadlifting the bag to waist level and hoisting into your lap while you reset yourself in a squat position, then explosively opening your hips to toss the sandbag over a bar, not until lifting a giant bag of melting salt or dog food.
Today we lifted all the heavy things. Tomorrow my body will remember all of it. Weekends aren't weak ends. The aches, the pains, the groans, the curse words — they're all reminders that I won today. But anyway, this was the most fun part of the day. Seriously. Failing over and over and trying to do something I didn't think I could and getting sooo close. You fail. You get knocked down. You get up. You fail again. You learn. Game on. I'll be back. Huge shouts to @crossfit_dutchkills for hosting me and @dom14o who is a smart, patient, dynamic coach who made time for all my Strongman questions. And to @jaybourdeau for the encouragement.