Organizing Training Blocks for Strongman

Mark Clevenger

There are a lot of different ways to create training blocks for Strongman. Most people use the traditional ‘event day’ model where they train traditional barbell methods throughout the week and then meet with a crew on the weekend to train implements they have coming up in a show. While this method works for many very good strongman competitors I prefer to view Strongman implements not as a separate tool of training for a specific show but as a daily integrated piece of equipment meant to supplement my strength and conditioning program. This is easiest done using a conjugate model of training so that is how I will explain it here.

In order to understand how I’m organizing training blocks you need to be familiar with some terminology. I use a 3 week conjugate wave to organize my training with one maximal effort lower body and upper body day programmed, as well as one dynamic effort lower body and upper body day programmed. Maximal effort work is defined as working up to max lift on a variation of the main lift you are trying to strengthen. So for overhead days that is a variation of the overhead press. Dynamic effort work uses the competition lift itself at lighter loads to work on speed of movement and technique. Special exercises are those extra exercises in your training day meant to strengthen a perceived weakness in your main lift; i.e. upper back, lower back, hamstrings, ect… General physical preparedness (GPP) is the conditioning you use at the end of your training session. An example of this template is provided below for you to get an idea of where we are starting from.

Week 1
Max Effort Lower Max Effort Upper Dynamic Effort Lower Dynamic Effort Upper
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP GPP GPP GPP
Week 2
Max Effort Lower Max Effort Upper Dynamic Effort Lower Dynamic Effort Upper
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP GPP GPP GPP
Week 3
Max Effort Lower Max Effort Upper Dynamic Effort Lower Dynamic Effort Upper
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP GPP GPP GPP

For overhead events, the meat and potatoes of Strongman are the axle and log press. These events, and their alternate power variations, are trained every week with the use of other barbell/dumbbell press work used as a supplement to training to these two lifts. There are other Strongman lifts we see in competitions that must be integrated into training when you know those events are coming up, but if you’re strong in the axle/log strict press, push press, and push/split jerk you will be strong in those other lifts such as well (i.e. Viking press, circus dumbbell, ect..). This means you’ll just need technique refreshers for those various pressing events leading up to a show. Ideas of integrating these more odd events are provided a little later.

Press cycles should be organized so that you alternate between the axle and log for dynamic effort work which is performed as 12 sets of 2 reps for week 1, 10 sets of 2 reps for week 2, and then 8 sets of two reps for week 3. The relative percentages with accommodating resistance (AR, bands and chains) are 55/15%, 60/15%, 65/15% respectively. For those of you without access to AR simply use 70/75/80%  of straight weight for your working sets. For the push and power variations you should train those like Olympic lifts and perform them before your max effort work. I use straight weight for these at 7 sets of 2 reps weeks 1 and 2, with 5 sets of 2 reps in week 3. The relative percentages for this work is 75/80/85% respectively. To keep these max effort workouts from being too long use 90 second rest intervals between sets and cut out 10 minutes of GPP from the end of the workout day. To prevent accommodation rotate the power variations on the max effort day and rotate them into the dynamic effort work with AR from cycle to cycle. Below are several sample templates of these rotations.

Sample Table 1

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Clean and Split Jerk 7X2 @75% Axle Press 12X2 @55+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Clean and Split Jerk 7X2 @80% Axle Press 10X2 @60+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Clean and Split Jerk 5X2 @85% Axle Press 8X2 @65+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

Sample Table 2

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Axle Clean and Split Jerk 7X2 @75% Log Press 12X2 @55+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Axle Clean and Split Jerk 7X2 @80% Log Press 10X2 @60+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Axle Clean and Split Jerk 5X2 @85% Log Press 8X2 @65+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

Sample Table 3

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Push Press 7X2 @75% Axle Press 12X2 @55+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Push Press 7X2 @80% Axle Press 10X2 @60+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Log Push Press 5X2 @85% Axle Press 8X2 @65+15%
Max Effort Press Accessory Lift
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

You can see with each various cycle the log and axle lifts are rotated to prevent accommodation and the power variations are treated as Olympic lifts on max effort days, with the log and axle strict press rotated every 3 week wave for dynamic work. Now, if you had an overhead event coming up in a contest that wasn’t a log or axle you would simply replace a max effort lift with that specific event to get an idea of where you’re at with it and then let it be a special exercise you train on your dynamic day. You shouldn’t need any more than a single 3 week block of work to adequately prepare you for an upcoming competition.

Programming the different Strongman deadlift variations into training is probably the easiest lift to integrate into a 3 week conjugate training block. With so many different types of deadlifts used in the sport rotating all of them in on max effort days gives the athlete a good idea of where they are at with each lift year round. I then use the dynamic days to train the traditional deadlift since the higher that number goes the higher all the other deadlift variations will go. I don’t think it can get any simpler than this. An example is listed below.

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
13” Deadlift Max Deadlift 12X2 @55+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Axle Bar 18” Deadlift Max Deadlift 12X2 @60+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Frame Deadlift Max Deadlift 10X2 @65+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

To this point everything seems very standard and I’m sure you’re asking yourself where all the other random Strongman events go? The easiest to place to start, on the coattails of deadlift/squat programming, is the yoke runs, farmers runs, and atlas stone loads. In order to use these pieces of equipment for specific strength and conditioning purposes we have to understand what parts/systems of the body we are using them for.

When we use the yoke properly, arms pressing out or wrapped around pulling in, we are engaging our upper and mid backs to stabilize the load so our legs can move efficiently. This load itself in conjunction with the moving weight challenges our core dynamically as we walk (quickly) from one point to another. So if you find your upper back, mid back, or midline stability are issues in your deadlift or squat with heavy working sets you can implement heavy yoke walks on max effort days in place of a special exercise. These runs should be shorter in distance and higher in intensity. If you find that these issues only arise with higher repetition sets after fatigue starts to set in then implement lighter yoke runs for a longer distance on dynamic effort days by substituting these runs for one of the special exercises. These runs should be longer in distance and of a lower intensity. An example of each is provided below.

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 12X2 @55+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Yoke Run 5X100′ @60%
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 12X2 @60+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Yoke Run 5X100′ @65%
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 10X2 @65+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Special Exercise 1 Yoke Run 5X100′ @70%
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

 

Week 1
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 12X2 @55+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Yoke Run 3X50′ @80% Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 2
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 12X2 @60+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Yoke Run 3X50′ @85% Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min
Week 3
Max Effort Day Dynamic Effort Day
Deadlift Variation Max Deadlift 10X2 @65+15%
Squat Variation Squat Variation
Yoke Run 2X50′ @90% Special Exercise 1
Special Exercise 2 Special Exercise 2
GPP 10 min GPP 20 min

Much like the yoke walks, farmers runs are great tools to strengthen your upper back, mid back, midline stabilizers, and grip. These too can be substituted as the yoke is on max effort and dynamic effort days as shown above using the same distances and intensities. Lastly, atlas stones when performed with an emphasis on the ‘high pull’ from the upper back become a great tool for strengthening your dynamic hugger muscles (chest, biceps, and internal rotators), hips, mid and upper back. For general strength and conditioning purposes, not competition specific purposes, you can use these on lower body dynamic effort days with lighter weights for volume. Substitute these as a special exercise and perform 3 sets of 8-12 reps with only one pickup from the floor per set and resetting in the lap between repetitions. This will minimize the stress on the bicep while maximizing the strengthening effect on the hips, chest, mid and upper back.

In terms of implementing other random event training (tire flip, husafel carries, sandbag runs, sled work, keg carries, ect…) into your general strength training routine, use these implements as part of your GPP at the end of workouts. Rotate the implements carried, alternate distances traveled, use different timed sets, and add other various forms of external resistance to these carries (sled drag from the waist while carrying a sandbag, sled pulls with a weight vest, ect…). By rotating these implements into your GPP blocks you constantly work the technique of the implements, increase your speed with the implements, raising your general work capacity with the implements, as well as increasing your specific strength with each implement. Many of these different implements can cause a lot of wear and tear on the body or excessively strain on certain muscle groups so I always recommend working with light to moderate weights of each implement relative to the athletes strength to prevent excessive wear and tear. When you start prepping for specific items in an upcoming competition you can start to go heavy with these tools.

Some closing notes about organizing training blocks for Strongman. Strongman implements are not a separate piece of training equipment only to be used when you have a contest coming up, they are integral pieces of equipment meant to strengthen lagging areas of your body in order to lift more weight. Implementing these tools as I’ve outlined not only allows you strengthen weak points but also helps you become proficient at the individual implements themselves. This way when you do become contest specific in your training you’ve already established a broad base of strength to build your competitive performance from. Enjoy the process of experimentation with the plug and play framework provided until you find the right programming balance that works for you.

Accommodation vs Specificity: Battle of the Training Concepts

Mark Clevenger

As an athlete and competitor in the strength sports you may have heard a lot about specificity and accommodation. At a glance these two concepts could not be farther apart from each other. At one end of the spectrum we have specificity telling us that the things we do most often are the things we will become best at. On the other end, there’s accommodation telling us that the things we do most often become stale to us and will eventually make us weaker. Now I’ve taken some liberties and paraphrased a bit on these concepts for simplicity’s sake, but they seem to be as different as Marvel and DC comics in the exercise science universe. While they may seem like polar opposites these theories are actually both correct, it’s only a matter of when and how you apply them to your training that makes them both right.

Accommodation: A Vegas buffet

Think of accommodation as the base of your sporting performance pyramid. We want this base to be as wide as possible since the wider the base, the taller the peak. In the strength sports, this base consists of pure strength but how can you quantify ‘pure strength?’ Is it a strong deadlift or squat since those are total body lifts? Is it a strong overhead press since that is the king of upper body lifts? A strong yoke run since it’s a more dynamic movement? A strong machine bicep curl… just kidding. The correct answer is, all of them. Being strong across a broad spectrum of static and dynamic lifts is not only the definition of a wide strength base, but a solid one too. This is the definition of accommodation, building strength that is not specific to one or two movements but built across multiple physical and movement facets through varied training means and conditions.

Specificity: That friend that only wants to eat at Chipotle

If accommodation is the base of our pyramid then specificity is the peak. It’s true that the things we do most often are the things we become best at… to an extent. This specificity can only take us as high as our base is wide. So if I’m not very strong and I specialize in the bench press for example, I will see great gains in a short amount of time if all I did was work on my bench press. However, it wouldn’t take long for my strength gains to slow, stall, and then reverse because my peak was only as high as the base I built under it. Now if I’m a very strong individual I will also see great gains in strength from specializing in a given lift but my peak will be much higher because I’m starting with a larger base compared to the hypothetical weaker version of me (the real version of me is pretty weak too, just sayin’).

Your Point?

The takeaway from all this is patience. Play the long game in your strength sport and take the time to build a large solid base by preventing your body from accommodating to your training through training many different physical strengths and movement facets with varied training means and conditions. You will sacrifice a few podium finishes early in your sporting career for numerous podium finishes in the middle and later phases.

Preventing Accommodation

If accommodation is the state where our bodies get used to something, then variety is the krypton to accommodation. I believe a conjugate system of training is best suited to facilitate this type of concurrent training variety. The best definition I’ve come across for the conjugate method comes from Managing the Training of Weightlifters, “The conjugate method consists of momentary influences on the key motor quality to the interconnections corresponding to the specific activity, while preserving the structure of the sport exercise1.” This is essentially is saying that training sessions should utilize a variety of special exercises and special developmental exercises to strengthen a specific competitive lift, in a specific training session, where the competitive lift itself is not necessarily trained. An example of this would be when a powerlifter uses floor presses as their main lift on their ‘bench press’ training day, or an Olympic lifter that performs cleans from elevated blocks as the main lift on their ‘clean’ training day. These exercises must be varied within the context of a concurrent training schedule, employing a combination of the maximal effort method, repetition method, variable method, interval method, or dynamic methods while keeping some aspects of the form and function of the competitive lift in mind1,2. This is what is called the principle of dynamic correspondence, the further removed we get from the form, function, and energy system used in the competitive lift the less transfer of training we get from these exercises2. No need to channel your inner college art student here, sometimes the smallest exercise variations can deliver the best results.

It is important to understand that this movement variety is not specific to just exercise selection but also the type of strength expressed in the selected exercises (speed-strength, strength-speed, explosive strength, ect…) This means the type of strengths required for the competitive lift must also be trained in variety using dynamic correspondence.

This training variability designed to prevent accommodation must also be applied to the accessory work performed in a training session. These exercises are designed to attack weaknesses in the competitive main lift on that training day. Using our bench press example, let’s say they struggle with their lockout, which indicates weak triceps. This lifters accessory work should be varied and selected around strengthening this weakness. For these accessory lifts don’t set out to create ‘A Clockwork Orange’ Picasso-ish masterpiece because at the end of the day the transferred training effect will be so low that it won’t make your competition lift any stronger… and then you’re just wasting your time.

Detailed programming to prevent accommodation is outside the scope of this article but you can find specific information about programming to prevent accommodation in my article ‘Programming Economy.’ Here you’ll find an outline of exercise organization and volume for each training block leading up to a competition.

Implementing Specificity

The specifics about implementing specificity into your training can also be found in ‘Programming Economy.’ A general rule of thumb for intermediate lifters (no need to advise the top guys, something tells me they already have this stuff figured out) is to test their competition lifts four weeks out to see where they’re at, then spend the next two weeks focusing only on becoming as proficient with their competition lifts as needed in order to determine realistic goals for their lifts on game day. The last week should act as a deload where they perform active recovery workouts the first few days of the week and then rest until the competition. For this intermediate level strength athlete who competes three times a year this comes out to three calendar months of specificity training, which in the grand scheme of strength training still allows them to spend the bulk of their training time building their strength base.

For the novice lifter the rule is to test their competition lifts three weeks out to see where they stand and then spend the next week focusing on proficiency to give them an idea of an attainable goal to shoot for. They would then deload in the last week just like the intermediate lifter. This novice athlete needs to gain competition experience, so I suggest competing four times a year. This gives the novice lifter three calendar months of specificity training, leaving plenty of time to continue getting stronger while still giving enough opportunities to gain invaluable competition experience.

The biggest problem I see in the strength sports is when athletes specialize too far in advance of a competition. Initially they will see great results, thinking they have it all figured out, and then accommodation creeps in and their numbers drop or injuries start to occur. More often than naught they compete and hit numbers far below what they should have if they had not specialized so quickly. Most of these athletes then believe they didn’t work hard enough and come back for their next competition specializing even farther out with higher training volumes and intensities which only makes the cycle repeat itself to a greater degree. Use these time frames I’ve listed above for optimal sporting performance. If you choose to specify outside of those time frames, you’re asking for the accommodation ninja to roundhouse kick you in the face for the KO.

In The End

Accommodation and specificity are yin and yang to each other in the strength world. Both concepts can serve every strength athlete depending on how they are used in everyday and overall training. As with anything in this world, too much of one thing is not a good thing. By taking these concepts and applying them to your training you’ll set yourself on a path of sporting achievements and longevity. In the end, that’s what competing is all about right? Lifting at the highest level possible for the longest time possible. So become the Benjamin Button of your sport by using accommodation and specificity correctly and when you retire you’ll leave your competitors wondering how you were so good for so long.

References:

  1. Laputin N.P. Oleshko V.G. Managing the Training of Weightlifters. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press; 1982.
  2. Verkhoshansky Y.V. Fundamentals of Special Strength Training in Sport. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press; 1986

Active Lifting vs Passive Lifting: The Key to Training Longevity

Mark Clevenger

There are two types of lifters in this world, those who primarily lift with active structures and those who lift primarily with passive structures. In order to understand what type of lifter you are we need to give some definitions to these concepts. I define active structures as contractile tissues, or skeletal muscle. This tissue is the driving force of all biomechanical motions in lifting. Passive structures I define as connective tissues that help facilitate the movement produced by the active structures. I’ve chosen to grossly oversimplify each tissue type for the sake of keeping this article form being too nerdy or technical. I want the bigger picture painted with broad strokes in order to make the concepts easy to understand and apply. So hang on to your seats as we discuss the concepts of active and passive lifting, determine what type of lifter you are, and how becoming one type of lifter over the other will increase your lifting lifespan.

The idea that the body lifts, or moves, an object with great form and technique we will call active lifting. This is where joints are stabilized and moved through active structures in order to execute a given lift. In this scenario, the active structures are the pure driving force of motion with the support of passive structures helping them do their job. I equate the active structures to someone driving a car from one destination to another while the passive structures are Google maps telling the driver where to turn step by step on the journey. Google maps aren’t driving the car, you are. You are in control from point A to point B, Google maps is just telling you how to get there.

“…there’s essentially a right, and wrong, way of lifting.”

The idea that the body lifts, or moves, an object with bad form and technique we will call passive lifting. This is essentially where some point in the kinetic chain is inactive while contractile components around this snow birding segment are creating an area through the inactive segment where motion is primarily being facilitated by passive structures. A good example of this the Ninja Turtle rounded back in a deadlift. The spinal erectors and lats have turned off and now the leg muscles are generating pull through the passive structures of the lower to mid back while your arm muscles and traps are holding onto the bar for dear life. Here Google maps in the lower to mid back is driving the car with you in it… and we all know apps can’t drive cars, Google maps is not Skynet and Terminators haven’t time-traveled to stop a robot induced apocalypse… yet.

So why does our body assume the passive structure posture in certain lifts? The answer can be as simple as a muscle weakness. The muscle giving out is not strong enough to hold the position or perform the task it’s asked to perform while a given weight is being moved. The correction for this should be obvious, strengthen the weak muscle (or group of muscles). Sometimes the answer is a matter of mobility, the athlete is not physically capable of assuming the position it’s being asked to assume so the muscles required to prevent passive lifting are never active to begin with. Maybe the problem isn’t one or the other but a combination of both.

“A good coach has eyes for both gross motor function and muscle activation.”

The mobility scenario is more often than not a cop-out for many athletes and coaches who are not skilled enough to coach complex movements or adapt movement patterns to allow a lift to be performed with active structures over passive structures. While true examples of this scenario are less common, when they do occur it’s usually due to postural changes that have occurred over long periods of time (protracted shoulders, shortened hip flexors/hamstrings, ect…) or are purely anatomical in nature (excessive anteversion of the femur). In the case of postural mobility restrictions, start doing soft tissue work and exercises to correct the defective posture. For the anatomical problem, get creative and find a pain-free way to perform a given lift. An example of creativity would be having an athlete with anteversion perform sumo deadlifts from low blocks which clears the hip of impingement in most anteversion scenarios.

So how do you know what type of lifter you are since there are so many different lifts and endless strength deficits or mobility scenarios that can apply to all of these lifts? My best advice is to find an experienced coach to work with. A good coach has eyes for both gross motor function and muscle activation. I know everyone cannot afford a quality coach so for these athletes simply set your fancy smartphone up and record the lifts, record them from different angles, then watch for both gross motor function and muscle activation. The internet is full of great sources to teach us how to perform almost any lift imaginable and what muscles are doing what at each phase of these lifts. Watch the video and ask yourself, am I using the muscles I’m supposed to be using to move this weight? Do I look like a Ninja Turtle when I deadlift? Do I do the chicken wing when I bench? Coach yourself through intrinsic (I feel something) and extrinsic (I see something) feedback into a perfect movement pattern. When finding a weakness this tells you what muscles need more attention in training. When you find yourself unable to get into positions, figure out why and address that mobility problem when applicable. If the problem is suspected to be anatomical in nature get it checked out from a medical professional then get creative and find ways to keep lifting pain-free.

“…passive structures are like a fully loaded AK-47. You only have so many bullets to use before you’re empty.”

By becoming an active lifter you’re improving your quality of movement and increasing the shelf life of your passive structures. I tell people all the time that passive structures are like a fully loaded AK-47. You only have so many bullets to use before you’re empty. If you waste all of your bullets before you’re thirty, you’re going to get to the performance battleground of your 30’s without any ammo and will hurt yourself. These passive structure injuries take a long time to heal which will keep you from training/competing, and what fun is that? No one want’s to dish out copays, visit Dr’s, and go through surgeries that will leave you on your rear end for weeks or months… Plus that whole time you’re out of the gym the weights will miss you. So train to become an active lifter and keep the weights company so they never forget who you are.

Over the course of this short article, I’ve tried to simplify a complicated subject to make a point that there’s essentially a right, and wrong, way of lifting. One way is the long game which leads to a lifetime of training and all of the health benefits that come from it… like looking good with your shirt off. The other way is a sprint where short-term gains are sacrificed for lifting longevity which keeps you from a full life of the health benefits of lifting. I think we can all agree which of these two scenarios is ideal. So go forth and lift with your active structures carrying that full magazine of passive structure ammo with you throughout life, never having to worry about whether or not you have enough ammo to make it through a training session or competition.

My Top 5 Strongman Training Prerequisites

Mark Clevenger

My Top 5 Strongman Training Prerequisites

Having trained many different clients from various backgrounds into the sport of Strongman I’ve noticed some common strengths that many athletes have been lacking for the safe execution of Strongman training. Now this doesn’t mean these clients aren’t ready to train with Strongman implements, it just means they have certain training needs that must be addressed at the beginning of their Strongman journey in order to keep them safe and maximize the amount of weight they can move. The following is a list of my top 5 Strongman training prerequisites and are the most common areas of strength that must be addressed for the safe and effective execution of Strongman training.

  1. Wake up da butt: The amount of people with underdeveloped and underutilized glutes that lift weights astounds me. The glutes are primarily hip extensors and abductors which are motions you will be doing a lot in Strongman. We use these motions to pick up odd objects from the floor, speed walk with odd objects, violently put odd objects above our heads, the list goes on. So make training your rear a priority and you will make your significant other smile while increasing the amount of weight you can move in the gym.
  2. Hammies!: If the glutes are Batman in the DC universe of weightlifting than the hamstrings are Robin. These are also powerful concentric hip extensors and eccentric knee extensors, both strengths are necessary to stand up with any type of heavy weight, which is something we do a lot of in Strongman. These muscles may not be as ‘sexy’ or fun to train, because they’re not, but they are an absolute necessity for success and longevity in Strongman.
  3. The power belly: The anterolateral (AL) abdominal musculature assists in the static and dynamic stabilization of the pelvis and spine. This is just a fancy way of saying the muscles of the ‘core’ are responsible for helping keep the spine and pelvis from moving while we lift something from the ground, put something over our head, or carry something in random positions on our bodies from one point to another. The stronger these muscles are the safer your back is and the more weight you can handle. Now this doesn’t mean you should do endless amounts of crunches, the muscles of the AL core are very dynamic in their individual function and must be trained as such. For more information about this see my article titled ‘Bringing Balance to your Force: An Argument for Focused Anterolateral Core Training in Strongman’ to learn how to optimally train these important muscles.
  4. Strongman = Strong back: To protect the back and keep it healthy we must strengthen the muscles that share the load with it in static and dynamic movement (the anterolateral core muscles, glutes, and hammies) as well as the main bearers of the load themselves, the actual muscles of the back. Careful application of a loaded spine, a loaded spine in motion, and the direction of applied force on the spine, all warrant special considerations and must be approached with caution. The best advice I can give within the scope of this article would be to locate a certified strength coach or sports physical therapist to educate you on this topic and teach, or coach, you through strengthening your back in preparation for Strongman.
  5. Welcome to the grind: The last type of strength I’ve noticed in my converts to strongman has been the mental game. A lot of athletes don’t know how to safely struggle with heavy weight. They either tension hunt when it gets heavy and force themselves into compromising and dangerous positions under load, or if it doesn’t go up easy they bail the lift. Both show a lack of mental focus on their bodies and the lift itself when the weight gets heavy. The first scenario shows an athlete who is disconnected from the way their body is moving and is only concerned with finishing the repetition without regard to how it’s finished, which is dangerous. The second scenario shows an athlete who is afraid to, or physically doesn’t know how to, struggle with heavy weight. By learning how to struggle with weight, or becoming aware of tension hunting under loads (which is usually indicative of a weakness in the chain, hint-hint, wink-wink), athletes will drastically reduce their chance of injury while drastically increasing their strength gains.

This is by no means an exhaustive list that considers all athletes from every different background imaginable, but it does include what my experience with transitioning athletes into Strongman has been. Most athletes think they have strong posterior chains (bullets 1-4) until you ask them to do a good morning, or GHR, or stability plank in the TRX. So before engaging in the sport of strongman, regardless of your background, put yourself through a gamut of test and measures to assess the strength of your posterior chain and core before putting a heavy yoke on your back or doing heavy atlas stones. By taking the time to assess the strength of these areas before throwing yourself under Strongman implements you’re going to ensure a solid base to build your sporting performance from while protecting yourself from injuries that can derail your participation or prevent you from competing in Strongman all together.

Bigger is Not Always Stronger: Fallacies of Muscle Hypertrophy for Strength Athletes

Mark Clevenger

Today’s diet and fitness industry preys on the insecurities of the masses. We live in a world where mass-marketing movements of companies, coaches, and trainers aim to exploit these myths on unsuspecting athletes at every available turn. From the notions that juice cleanses will result in immediate weight loss to the idea that the only (and best) way to lose fat is through endless amounts of cardio, the fitness industry is in no short supply of unsubstantiated BS. So hang through some technical terms as I establish an argument against one of these particular misconceptions- the fallacy that working out to make your “muscles bigger” will make you stronger, faster, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Hypertrophy is generally defined as the growth of a tissue or organ as a result of increased size of individual cells1. For sporting performance there has been a quest for skeletal muscle hypertrophy since it was established that a muscle with a larger cross sectional area produces greater force than a muscle with a smaller muscle cross sectional area (a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle)1,2,3,4,5. Unfortunately, strength athletes are so pre-occupied with getting those ‘gains’ or getting ‘big’ that they find themselves believing, and trying, every stupid broscience tip that comes down the fitness fallacy pipeline to increase their muscle mass in the hopes that they will become their strongest selves.

There are primarily two different types of hypertrophy:

  1. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy- The growth of the structures supporting and surrounding the contractile elements of the muscle fibers such as the sarcoplasmic reticulum and sarcoplasm2. This type of hypertrophy is the result of body building style training regimens.
  2. Sarcomere hypertrophy- Growth of the contractile components of muscle fibers2. This type of hypertrophy is the result of strength speed and speed strength training, aka powerlifting and Olympic lifting style training regimens.

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The problem with sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is that there isn’t much growth in the parts of the muscle fibers that actually cause a muscle contraction. This can limit how strong of a contraction you can get. Since sarcomere hypertrophy has a greater proportion of contact area of the contractile elements which results in a stronger muscle contraction, sarcomere hypertrophy should be the goal of all strength based athletes. It’s important to point out that there are no distinct lines that can be drawn between these two types of hypertrophy in training, meaning while training in a bodybuilding style which produces more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy this does not mean that there is no concurrent sarcomere hypertrophy happening and vice versa. The training styles just mean that a greater proportion of one is happening over the other.

Now here is where the butthurt comes in for those coaches who prescribe inadequate, ill-advised, and malformed hypertrophy ‘templates’ aimed at exploiting strength athlete’s misinterpretation of the “muscle size equals strength”  fact. The biggest problem with this ‘fact’ is that it’s taken out of context. It completely ignores the neurological contribution to force production (strength) as well as the appropriateness of hypertrophy for the athlete given their training history2,6. In motor control and force production, the nervous system is responsible for the number of fibers active at any given instant (number coding), the rate at which fibers are firing (rate coding), and the sequence of fiber recruitment (pattern coding)2. A big muscle is no good if the neurological components I’ve outlined have not been sufficiently trained for all the different types of sporting strength an athlete requires (speed strength, strength speed, explosive strength, acceleration strength, ect…).

What this means is that every athlete has a training period of 6-8 years (6 for lightweight athletes and 8 for heavier athletes) that their body maximizes strength gains via neuromuscular coordination and development in the absence of significant muscle hypertrophy6. Essentially, it takes our nervous system 6-8 years to maximize the muscle mass we already have, so why would someone want to take concentrated training time away from strength and skill development for muscle mass to get ‘stronger’ if they haven’t finished maximizing their current muscle mass for strength? How much in strength gains are you leaving on the table by taking this concentrated time away from strength and skill? Yes, in time the increase in muscle mass will make you stronger but in the meantime you could compete in higher weight classes when you haven’t fully developed your current strength potential.  Hypertrophy training (and most techniques associated with it) will make you stronger, but not nearly as strong as you would be if your primary focus was purely on developing your sport specific strength and technique in your main lifts. This is the equivalent of an Olympic lifter concentrating on hypertrophy to get stronger before they’ve ever completely mastered the snatch or clean and jerk. This isn’t to say hypertrophy of muscle and connective tissues during those 6-8 training years doesn’t occur, it’s just not the significant contributor to the observed strength gains from training.

Deciding if hypertrophy training is beneficial or just a time-suck involves thinking through the needs of the individual athlete in their specific sport. Is mass a requirement in order to be competitive or to compete at higher levels of your sport? For a high school senior defensive tackle coming into their freshman year of college football, they will need to put on weight in order to compete at their position. Hypertrophy training for a strength athlete in this position would be appropriate. For the powerlifter who is naturally incredibly strong and wants to compete in higher weight classes for increased competition and notoriety associated with competing at that level, hypertrophy training would be appropriate. So, while the general rule for the strength athlete is that those who have less than 6-8 training experience should focus solely on strength and worry about hypertrophy after that, there are some special circumstances that must be considered from athlete to athlete.

So where have the feathers been ruffled? Wait for it… Wait for it… Right… Here. With all of these facts we can conclude that the mass produced hypertrophy templates from internet ‘coaches’ are useless for the majority of strength athletes. Almost all of them are rooted in the traditional sarcoplasmic hypertrophy style of training (body building concepts) that we all formally associated with muscle building to make us stronger… until we were further educated… like through this article. As strength athletes, this style of training and specific type of hypertrophic adaptation, does us little good and can even be detrimental to our specific sporting strength. These athletes (with the exception of those outlined above) would yield more benefit from continued strength training geared toward their sport.

Understanding that hypertrophy is not necessary for strength athletes with less than 6-8 years of training and doesn’t require special training regimens or templates is a concept that many online coaches and generally ignorant coaches alike will rebuff. These coaches make their living perpetuating the broscience falsehoods of hypertrophy training (via bodybuilding style workouts) and preying on your fear that you have to get bigger to get stronger. The proof is in the pudding and the pudding is the field of exercise science. If you’re a strength athlete within 6-8 years of training (with the exception of certain athletes defined earlier) just train for strength. Don’t get lost in the fallacy that hypertrophy is your only path to getting stronger. Motor control and force production (muscle strength), at its core is a complimentary neuro and muscular system that should be trained as such. I hope this article has clarified some of the myths associated with hypertrophy for strength athletes and will save some of you time (and money) from broscience coaches who would love to steal both from you if you hadn’t educated yourself on your sport specific training needs.

References:

  1. Macinstosh B.R. Gardiner P.F. McComas A.J. Skeletal Muscle: Form and Function. Second Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2006.
  2. Siff M.C. Facts and Fallacies of Fitness. Sixth Edition. Denver, CO; 2003.
  3. Baechle T.R. Earle R.W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Third Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2008.
  4. Verkhoshansky Y. Siff M. Supertraining. Sixth Edition. Ultimate Athlete Concepts; 2009.
  5. McArdle W.D. Katch F.I. Katch V.L. Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Eighth Edition. Baltimore, MD: Wolters Kluwer Health; 2015.
  6. Medvedyev A.S. A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting. Livonia, MI: Sportivny Press; 1989.
  7. Ogborn D. Schoenfeld B.J. The Role of Fiber Types in Muscle Hypertrophy: Implications for Loading Strategies. Strength and Conditioning Journal. April, 2014; 36(2): 20-25

Top 6 Competition Day Philosophies for the Strength Athlete

Mark Clevenger

Last week I wrote a short article about my Top 6 Training Philosophies for Strength Athletes. This week I want to follow up with my Top 6 Competition Day Philosophies for these same athletes. These philosophies are rooted in the concept I call ‘controlling the controllables.’ Exercising control over these variables will ensure no matter how the event plays out you walk away within the framework of success that you construct for yourself.

  1. Set yourself up for success: Going into a competition define your success beforehand with goals that are within your physical abilities. Don’t set the mark outside of your reach (I’m going to deadlift 1,000lbs!) because you’re only going to get discouraged and upset with yourself when you don’t reach it.
  2. Stick to the plan: If you’ve trained a certain way with certain equipment for certain events, compete in that manor. Comp day is not the time to change the way you do anything. Don’t allow some unknown variable into any of your lifts that could lead to a decrease in performance, even if you believe the change has huge upside to increase your projected performance. Always take the safe bet rather than the risk everything you’ve worked for bet.
  3. Savor the moment: You’ve worked your tail off to be on the platform with all eyes on you, that moment is yours. With that in mind don’t let it be bigger than the task at hand, you still have to execute the plan regardless of how the competition is playing out. In the end the moment is yours but isn’t bigger than what you’ve come to do.
  4. Throw the book out the window and take the test : To this point you’ve been thinking about everything from your goal, to your training, and everything in between. Competition day is what all that thinking has led to but is not the place for any further thought. You’re beyond prepared because everything is second nature to you at this point. Just go pass the test.
  5. Celebrate your successes: Be happy with your PR’s and goals that were met. Go out and have a drink, eat a good meal, and spend time with those who supported you throughout the process, after all you earned it. Don’t let the honeymoon period of success last longer than 1 week. Enjoy the victory then set a new goal and start the process over again. Keep the things in your training that made you successful and apply them to future goals.
  6. Own your failures: Your failures are yours and no one else’s, just like your successes. Take ownership of what you did wrong and make it a positive. Dwelling on failures does you no good and never learning from them makes you destined to repeat the same mistakes. Make it a positive learning experience and move on.

Many of you probably use most of these concepts in competition already. For those of you who don’t, write these things down, commit them to memory, and apply them on game day. I promise exercising control over these 6 variables will yield you a >95% success rate within the framework of success as you’ve defined it. This success will keep you positively engaged and competing in the sport you obviously love.

Top 6 Training Philosophies for the Strength Athlete

Mark Clevenger

It took many years for me to figure out my own personal set of training philosophies. I learned through much trial and error how to set myself up for success no matter my circumstance. At the heart of my 6 training philosophies is the concept I call ‘controlling the controllables.’ When you learn to exercise control over these 6 variables you will find how much better the quality of your training becomes as well as the outcomes from it.

  1. Have a defined training goal… one of them… and make it realistic: The problem most people have is they want to do everything, run marathons, deadlift 600lbs, yada, yada, yada. Unfortunately the human body doesn’t work that way. The theory of specificity states the things we do most often are the things we get best at. If you never get around to something enough to elicit an adaptation because you’re too busy doing twenty different and contradictory things, you’ll never get really good at any of it. Make one goal and go get it.
  2. Make a plan to achieve that goal… and make it realistic: Be smart with your programming and structure it with the end in product in mind. Everything you do should be geared towards completing the objective. There are a lot of paths to get to the same destination but some are shorter and more efficient than others.
  3. Respect the process: If your goal and plan are both realistic then the path before you is laid out with the destination in sight. If you try to take short cuts and deviate from the path you will inevitably get lost. This just adds to the amount of time it takes you to get to your destination and more often than not leads to injuries. Respect the process and the process will respect you.
  4. Write everything down: Record every imaginable aspect of your training in a log so you can chart your progress. This data will also allow you monitor what’s working in your training and what isn’t, which leads to more efficient training and goal objectives that are met much sooner.
  5. Save your bullets: Training is not the time or place to use garbage form. Your repetitions should be pretty, all of them. Bad form I essentially define as moving weights with passive structures (connective tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and fascia) instead of active structures (muscles). These passive structures are like loaded magazines for your AK-47 of performance. If you waste all your bullets in training you’re going get to the battlefield with an empty clip. Empty clips = injury, injury = no training, no training = no goals.
  6. Eat, sleep, recover: If your goal has any significant meaning to you than you’re training hard for it. Give your body what it needs to recover and then some. Don’t let these little things create a big thing like failing to reach your goal.

Some of you probably already use these ideas in your training. For those of you who don’t, write these things down, commit them to memory, and apply them to your everyday training. You’ll quickly become the Superman/woman of goal achievement and have everybody asking how you did it.