Incorporating Stongman Training Into Football Lifting Cycles by Daniel Kindel

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There exists a multitude of components to consider when incorporating Strongman training into a standard lifting cycle. My intent is to offer insight into a few of these components and, if nothing else, provide a starting point for a discussion.

Triple extension: Tire flips are often regarded as a Strongman substitute for the implementation of Olympic lifts into a program. However, tire flips as a triple extension exercise adhere to the law of diminishing marginal returns. Once you reach a certain weight, the movement turns into a deadlift with whatever is necessary to complete the actual flip of the tire. This is beneficial for building competition and mental strength but doesn’t accomplish the goal of triple extension. The axle or log clean can also serve as substitutes for the conventional exercise. The axle clean requires significantly less technical mastery and shoulder mobility because the catch phase is different. However, with the axle, grip soon becomes a limiting factor unless you are going to teach your athletes how to continental an axle clean. The log clean can be broken down into two movement patterns—an initial pull to the lap position and a triple extension movement finishing in the catch phase. Again, significantly less technical mastery and shoulder mobility is required, but triple extension is still accomplished.

Press: A significant number of lifters have reported that when using thick bar implements for pressing movements, the amount of pain they experience is reduced. Several reasons have been proposed as to why this occurs—changes in the recruitment patterns of the muscle, reduced range of motion, and reduction in pressure per unit of area due to the thicker bar. Regardless of the mechanism, the result has been reduced elbow and shoulder pain over time. The log press is significantly more difficult due to the displacement of the weight forward. However, the shoulders are neutral and the range of motion is reduced. The risk to benefit ratio must be analyzed like all other strength exercises.

Deadlift: I’m a firm believer in the benefit of the hex bar when deadlifting. Because the weight isn’t displaced forward, the athlete can more easily keep the shoulders retracted, the low back arched, and drive through the heels. These same benefits apply to utilizing the farmers’ walk implements. Also, with farmers’ walk implements, the range of motion is reduced, which can be beneficial for athletes with limited hip mobility.

Grip: Keep in mind, virtually any conventional barbell or dumbbell exercise can be converted into a grip exercise by utilizing a thick bar or axle. This is especially true if you decide to purchase commercial grip products that can be placed on any barbell or dumbbell. This can also serve as a valuable deload exercise, where the limiting factor becomes grip strength instead of the conventional muscle groups targeted. In addition, one of the best exercises I have found to build mental strength is static grip holds for time.

Budgeting: Commercial grip products are available to convert standard barbells into thick bar implements. Hollow thick bar implements are available for certain athletes that may not be able to double overhand grip a standard thick bar. Hex bars can be utilized as rickshaws for farmers’ walks. Tires are free if you have the capability to haul them, but that is essentially where the free line stops. As a strength coach, you ultimately have to decide where you will invest your budget based on what will benefit your athletes most. Commercial grip products are the most economically sound place to start, and the Strongman equipment purchasing can expand from there.

Logistics: Is your goal to implement Strongman exercises daily or on a completely separate training day? Is it practical to expect to be able to get an entire team of athletes in and out of the weight room in a reasonable time block when a limited number of Strongman implements are available? I personally believe Strongman exercises are best implemented through competition in the off-season. This training template is from coach Mark Watts, director of strength and conditioning at Denison University.

Here the Strongman exercises are utilized on a single training day during the week and set up in a competition format. Each team will complete one or two events per week with a running total for each weight class. Obviously, the athlete with the most points at the end of the off-season training cycle wins the overall competition and may receive a small prize such as a T-shirt. The competition format is also nice because it effectively highlights an athletes’ weak points. For example, an athlete who is good at deadlifting may be terrible at tire flipping, requiring additional triple extension work. An athlete who can clean without any issues but can’t press requires additional overhead work.

The above template can be manipulated so that the Strongman exercises are no longer competition based but are instead incorporated throughout the week as replacements for traditional exercises.

Safety: While the value of spotting in the weight room can’t be overstated enough, I believe there isn’t any Strongman exercise that can be adequately spotted. With the exception of a back spotter for clean and press exercises (whose effectiveness is debatable), no Strongman exercise can be safely and effectively spotted. This is especially concerning in an atmosphere of competition. If performing deadlifts for maximum repetitions, form will inevitably break down and the strain on the lower back will steadily increase. The rack position of the log press in between repetitions will naturally increase the kyphotic curvature of the thoracic spine. If carrying an implement, I strongly recommend that athletes go in a straight line only. There are too many variables with making a turn that could easily lead to muscle and ligament ruptures. In addition, there is a strong possibility the athlete will lose the weight forward and potentially fall onto the implement he was previously carrying. This being said, the place for Strongman exercises is the off-season. Strength training is inherently dangerous, but we need not increase the risk of injury during the season through unfamiliar movement patterns with unconventional implements.

Culture and competition: This is a concept I first learned from coach Mark Watts. All strength coaches battle the idea that the individuals they are coaching are athletes first and lifters second. It is therefore required that the culture in the weight room is one that athletes will feel motivated in and the philosophy is one they can believe in. With that, how will Strongman exercises fit into your philosophy? Any Strongman exercise that is implemented must be justifiable to your athletes. As you can see with the above templates, the variation can easily get excessive. Therefore, each exercise must be individually evaluated for its strength benefits and logistical practicality.

I believe motivation is best accomplished through competition. Competition can also establish an accountability system in the weight room. During any Strongman event, only a few athletes of any given team will be able to compete at the same time. Therefore, the teammates can be direct witnesses to the amount of effort said athlete is putting into the Strongman event. How do you think a team will react if the athlete attempts one repetition and immediately gives up? How do you think a team will react if the athlete is putting everything he has into a Strongman event and pushes himself past his limits? How will you as a strength coach react to these situations? Ultimately, the answers to these questions will be different for every athlete and every situation. If nothing else, Strongman exercises and implements can be used to break the monotony and introduce an additional style of fun into the weight room.

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About the Author

Daniel Kindell, CSCS, graduated from Denison University with a bachelor's degree in physical education/athletic training. He currently works as a firefighter/paramedic and is taking classes full time to fulfill the prerequisites necessary to attend medical school. He is a North American Strongman Inc. competition promoter and has had moderate success as a Strongman and powerlifting competitor.

Submitted by DMorgan on Sun, 06/19/2011 - 8:56pm.

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