Looking for a fun alternative to hours under a barbell? One that has half the learning curve of complex olympic lifts, but with all of the physical benefits and arguably even more ‘real world’ carryover? Then you might be looking for ‘modified strongman’.
Andrew Tracey explains -
Deadlifting fish tanks full of silver coins, carrying cars and flipping tyres the size of picnic benches may all seem like the stuff of fantasy, but watching the world’s strongest men compete, slumped on your sofa after an overindulgent Christmas, isn’t as far removed from the work you’re already putting in on the gym floor as you might think.
'Strongman’ as a sport has always had a reputation for being a true spectacle of strength; watching modern day giants break world records is always going to be eye catching for the average gym goer. But really and truly, these immense, sometimes novel looking movements often have more in common with the daily labours life throws at you than any movement you can execute with a well polished, 7ft olympic barbell.
Lifting obtuse objects off of the ground, carrying awkward implements by your side or pushing heavy weights across a distance are tasks endured in most people’s everyday life; movements we’re literally BUILT to do, with little to no practice necessary. And, although these movements may be simple to perform, the results yielded can have a huge carryover into your everyday life, strengthening a plethora of muscles often overlooked by more ‘ergonomic’ training tools that are designed for lifting and forging a body that’s ready for anything- no matter the shape or size.
Nearly all strongman movements have infinite scalability, but because of their grandiose, larger than life nature, when programmed into a workout they can bring a huge sense of accomplishment.
‘Modified’ strongman, is about borrowing the best, most ‘bang for your buck’ movements from the sport itself, and integrating them into your own training, using a variety of fun, accessible ‘toys’.
In no particular order, let’s take a look at some of the best tools for the job and how you can incorporate them into your own training.
One of my first picks is definitely the strongman log.
Ranging from absolute Goliaths of roughly hewn wood that leave you looking like you’ve uprooted a tree and started repping out, to more compact, manageable and sleek alternatives- the ‘strongman log’ is not only a staple in strongman competition and training, but could be a seriously beneficial alternative to traditional barbell pressing; it may sound counterintuitive, but this becomes especially true if you’ve ever suffered from any shoulder injuries or niggles.
With their medium width, neutral grip handles logs don’t just create a novel stimulus versus a barbell, but a possibly much more shoulder friendly one. A neutral (palms facing) grip requires much less external rotation of the shoulders, which can be an absolute game changer if you ever find yourself having to work around injuries.
Potential longevity benefits aside- the log clean and press is a low learning curve alternative to it’s olympic cousin, which allows you or your clients to quickly get to grips with lifting and shifting weight from the ground, to overhead in a controlled manner. In an environment where coaching time may be limited and you want to get a lot of bang for your buck, logs are the perfect hack for getting in not just overhead work, but bringing along with it a gassy, full body stimulus.
The sheer size and diameter of most logs provides it’s own benefits. The strength and ‘grunt work’ required to perform high rep sets from the ground to the ceiling (in a lung crushingly uncomfortable position), can create some seriously energy intensive workouts that would put even the most hardcore barbell complex to shame.
You’ve seen my breakdown of just how versatile a strongman log is, but now I want to get in to probably one of my favourite training tools of all time; a piece of kit that I think offers more versatility and adaptability than anything else on the market- the sandbag.
A sandbag is probably the least complicated piece of training apparatus ever dreamt up; at it’s crudest it can be defined as ‘Sand. In a bag.’ In a pinch I’ve simply grabbed two 20kg bags off the shelf from Wickes, taped them together and got to work- however as the phrase goes ‘you buy cheap, you buy twice’ and it’s not long before you’ll find yourself cleaning up 40kg of sand from a split bag. Even so, once you’ve got yourself an indestructible, cordura bag to fill, pound for pound there’s no cheaper way to train heavy- 100kg of sand will cost you 20 times less that the equivalent dumbbells, coming in at around the price of a cinema ticket.
Cost effectiveness aside, sandbags offer perhaps the most versatile, holistic training experience available. As an ‘odd’ object, the sandbag (particularly the strongman sandbag), is not ‘designed’ to be lifted, in fact it’s dynamic, shifting nature capitulates with gravity more so than any other implement to try and ensure that you *can’t* lift it. This can foster a type of truly functional, ‘real world’ strength, offering far more carryover to everyday tasks and honing a type of ‘rep to rep adaptability’ that can be sorely missing once you’ve honed your barbell work to the millimetre.
Any lift that can be performed with more traditional equipment can be modified to work with a sandbag, making it a one-stop shop. ‘Gym in a bag’ may be a popular marketing catch phrase, but in this case the gym literally IS the bag.
Sandbags may hands down offer the greatest value for money, but I want to finish up by talking about something that you may think of as a little more ‘high-end’ or specialist, that in reality offers some serious versatility, whatever your goal.
The Strongman Yoke.
Traditionally seen as a big, cumbersome piece of kit with one purpose- to be shouldered and carried across short distances, most wouldn’t even consider picking up a yoke in the gym, let alone purchasing one for home. After all, why would you waste money and huge amounts of space on something that does ONE thing, that may not even serve your goals?
But the yoke is much more than ‘one thing’; aside from the myriad of exercises that can be performed safely, effectively and with huge amounts of weight on the apparatus, the yoke also acts as as sort of ‘weaponised’ squat rack- doing everything that a set of stands can do, before handily flat packing away into one corner of your gym, garage or shed.
In and of itself, a Yoke is an incredible tool, more likely than not a Yoke carry is the lift in which you have the propensity to go heavier than any other, with people routinely performing 20 metre walks with more than double their squat weights, safe in the knowledge that ‘bailing out’ only requires them to bend a few inches at the knees. Unloaded, the option to perform presses and overhead walks adds an upper body element to proceedings. With a quick adjustment, dead stop Anderson squats can be introduced, and lowering the bar even further an interesting, thick grip deadlift variety is quickly unlocked, as well as the ability to drag, push and pull in lieu of a sled or prowler. Back at the top of the uprights, pull-ups can be performed and Gym Rings can be hung for push-up, row and dip work. In more traditional Strongman style, Atlas Ball loads can be easily performed and adjusted for.
This mixed bag of full body strength and springy athleticism will test you at both ends of the spectrum. Begin with an unladen yoke and add 20-40kg each round until you can no longer carry the burden. For the ‘climb overs’- drop your yoke, grab the cross member and simply heave yourself over in any fashion possible, turnaround and repeat for a total of 8 reps/overs.