Jan 29, 2015Tough Competition
Strongman events do more than just give your athletes a break from the weightroom and test functional strength in challenging situations. They can also help turn a group of individuals into a team.
By Kyle Garratt
Kyle Garratt is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].
For some people, strongman competition conjures up images of bulging-veined Europeans on late-night cable TV, lifting giant rocks onto pedestals or using a body harness to pull a car across a field. Amazing feats of strength to be sure, but not very practical for training athletes.
In the college and high school settings, however, strongman competitions can take on a much different flavor. They’re a way to break the monotony of the weightroom, build and measure strength, promote teamwork, and keep athletes motivated. Football teams use strongman training more frequently than other sports because the benefits transfer is so obvious, but a wider variety of teams are jumping on the bandwagon. Some programs have even used strongman events to raise money for charity and help their local communities.
Whether it’s old-fashioned tire flipping and keg tossing or some creative new activity using whatever happens to be handy and heavy, strongman work can add a new dimension to your strength program. “It’s like game day every time we do it,” says Ken Mannie, MS, MSCC, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University. “It puts pressure on the players and forces them into truly competitive situations–more than weightroom sessions and scripted workouts ever could.”
Coaches who use strongman competitions swear by their many benefits, both physical and psychological. “Our kids will tell you flat out, that even though it’s the hardest day, it’s also the most fun day,” says Mike Golden, CSCS, SCCC, Director of Strength and Conditioning at East Carolina University. “The athletes plan for it, work together, and strategize once we assign them to their teams.
“And the physical benefits are beyond reason,” continues Golden. “To me, it’s the best way to train for football. It’s irregular lifting, which makes it closer to football movement than ordinary weight training. It makes the body perform when it’s not in a perfect line, so tendons and joints get stronger. And just like in football, a player is forced to use his whole body.”
Ben Tonon, Strength and Conditioning Coach for wrestling and football at Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, N.J., agrees that strongman work provides some unique football-specific benefits that are hard to achieve in the weightroom. “I think it helps linemen the most, because when a tire is moving every which way, they have to adapt their body to it like they would to an opponent, and it is extremely heavy,” he says. “With the sled pull, their bodies are at a 45-degree angle and that teaches the number one lesson in football: Stay low. If you don’t stay low in the sled pull, the sled isn’t going to move.
“The key is making sure every strongman exercise transfers to the game in some way,” Tonon continues. “For example, the sled events help develop speed. The keg toss builds explosive strength. And the tire flip strengthens a player’s back and keeps him low.”
In addition to developing strength and speed, there are other small developments that can make a major difference. “It’s a great way to incorporate functional exercise, and that’s a big buzz term these days,” Mannie says. “Carrying awkward and hard-to-handle implements helps with strength training, energy systems, balance, and proprioception.”
Beyond all the physical benefits, anyone who has seen a group of athletes compete in strongman events can attest to their team-building and motivational value. “You get a chance to develop leadership and all the intangibles you need on a team,” says Paul Longo, CSCS, CSCCa, Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Cincinnati. “Players have to suck it up and perform when they’re tired. You get a good idea of how your players compete. We don’t want to wait until game day to learn whether they’re true competitors or not.”
In fact, building mental toughness, competitive desire, and team chemistry are top priorities for most strength coaches who run strongman competitions. “I care more about improving those qualities, because we can do other things for the physical side of training,” says Mickey Marotti, MS, MA, CSCS, MSCC, Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Florida. “I value the chemistry and camaraderie that we build doing these events as a team, because it’s rare to have that opportunity during traditional weightroom training.”
Mannie has noticed that the results can be surprising. “With some kids you think, ‘He’s just so introverted, I don’t know if he’s ever going to come out of his shell,'” Mannie says. “Then all of a sudden, he’s the leader on his particular squad. He still might not say much, but he leads by example to get other guys going.”
Golden says one of his favorite parts of strongman training is seeing players improve over time, as a team and individually. “In my first year we did a wooden sled push across the width of the field, and our times now for 100 yards are better than those original times going sideline to sideline,” he says. “Just this past season, one of our defensive ends ran our farmer’s walk the whole length of the field to win it. I remembered that when he was a freshman, he had been horrible at it–the bars kept falling out of his hands and he couldn’t finish. I went up to him after he won and asked, ‘Do you remember when you started this? Man, you’ve come a long way.'”
Unlike many traditional strength and conditioning regimens, a strongman competition is a blank canvas for strength coaches. While there is the standard strongman fare used almost everywhere, there’s also plenty of room for creativity when designing events and structuring contests.
The most common formula is an off-season program in which athletes perform strongman events as weekly training, and then end the training cycle with a one-day competition. Some programs make the strongman activities an ongoing competition, while others use just one competitive session as a fun way to end their off-season lifting program. Still other programs use the events only as a training modality and scrap the competition aspect altogether.
Football is still the dominant sport on the strongman scene, but other sports enjoy the cardiovascular, proprioception, and monotony-breaking benefits as well. At Michigan State, football, basketball, hockey, and some Olympic sport teams compete regularly in the Spartan Challenge, a 10-week strongman competition with activities held every Friday during the off-season. Mannie says every team at MSU has used strongman training to some extent.
Golden puts his football team through strongman events every Friday as part of the summer training cycle. The events include military presses with steel logs, sled pulls, farmer’s walks, keg tosses, and several others, including a stacking event in which athletes lift sand bags onto pedestals. At the end of the summer, he splits the players into 10 teams of 10 and each person participates in one event for points. Blackbeard’s Challenge is the final event of the day’s competition, in which one player from each squad performs a series of running and carrying exercises including a crab walk, tire flip, sled push, and agility cones course.
When Mannie assigns players to teams for the Spartan Challenge, he mixes the groups up to increase team cohesion and build camaraderie. “Everything in football pits the offense against the defense,” he says. “This is a great way to bring offensive and defensive players together, so I make sure each group has a nice mixture of players from different positions who normally wouldn’t work together in competitive situations. I think the players gain a lot of respect for each other when they train in this fashion.
“For example, defensive linemen are usually butting heads with the offensive linemen–now they’re working on the same side,” Mannie continues. “They’re encouraging each other, and they start to develop a bond. That unity factor–that oneness–permeates throughout the entire program.”
Mannie uses relay events to keep the competitions fresh and challenging. He runs something called the “Junkyard Relay,” in which he builds huge end zone piles of barbells, weight plates, tackling dummies, tires, and anything else he can get his hands on. The athletes run from the opposite end zone to pick up the implements, then run them back. As the weeks pass, the piles get larger and Mannie adds extra lengths of the field to the relay.
Other coaches have found their own ways to get creative with strongman work. At Bowling Green State University, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Rick Court, MS, SCCC, searches for unique tools and objects to keep things interesting. One of his creations is a barbell with car tires that his teams use for military presses. Tonon, meanwhile, has an attachment that allows his players to push his Chevy Tahoe up an incline. “Even strongman competitions can be boring if you make them boring,” says Tonon. “That’s why we’re always looking to try new events.”
A constant challenge with strongman work is making it progressive from one session to the next. This can be achieved by adding a few twists to basic activities. “As time goes on, you might start using heavier and more awkward implements, or having athletes run farther on relays,” says Mannie. “We also piggyback the activities so the sequences get more and more difficult. We might start out with a heavy farmer’s walk the length of the field, and then a tire flip on the return. Then the athlete has to jump through the tire and sprint to the goal line.”
When choosing which strongman events to use, remember the ultimate purpose is to improve athletic performance. “Every year we have a new group of athletes, so we have to be flexible and alter our competition accordingly,” Golden says. “For example, if a team needs more speed, we’ll do more events that focus on quick movements.”
Strongman competitions are often the most anticipated strength events on the calendar for athletes, and their impact can extend far beyond the teams involved. Some programs partner with charities or open their competitions to all comers to capitalize on the popularity of these events.
At the end of last summer’s training period, the University of Florida football team worked with six charities to make its annual strongman competition into a campus rally. Each charity had a booth for donations set up in the stadium, and about 1,800 fans watched players compete under the lights at “The Swamp.” The effort raised $6,000.
“We’ve always held strongman competitions as part of our training, but this year the players wanted to do something unique,” Marotti says. “They’ve done a lot of small group things to give back to the community, but we had never done a charity event with the entire team before. That made it special.”
The Gators split into six teams, each representing a charity, and donned shirts to show off their affiliation. The charities represented were the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Children’s Miracle Network, and the March of Dimes. Players competed in a tire flip, sled push, and various obstacle courses.
“Our players went a lot harder with all the people in the stands and knowing they were representing charities,” Marotti says. “We had great feedback from the fans and the groups we helped. This was the best strongman competition we’ve had, and we look forward to making it bigger and better next year.”
For the past two years, Tonon has been holding a National High School Strongman Competition, open to high school athletes across the country, through his strength training company, AthElite. He says about 50 athletes competed last year.
“Once summer hits, all these guys think about is the competition,” Tonon says. “When a player is on stage, flipping a tire in front of 40 other kids, you’d be surprised how much he steps up.”
With so many potential positives, strength coaches find it’s worth the extra effort and planning that go into a strongman competition. “Our profession is 50 percent science and 50 percent art,” says Longo. “Strongman training falls into the art part of it, but it’s really just another means to an end. We’re all trying to get our guys bigger, faster, stronger, and more resistant to injury, and to have them become better at their position every year.”
Sidebar: STRONGMAN SAFETY
No strength coach wants to tell a head coach that the team’s star player is out for the season because he dropped a keg or large stone on his foot. Some front-end research and common-sense planning can help protect your athletes from injury in strongman competitions.
“In the five years we have held strongman events, we’ve never had a kid get hurt, but I think a lot of coaches are afraid of that,” says Ben Tonon, Strength and Conditioning Coach for wrestling and football at Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, N.J. “If a kid gets hurt doing strongman events, that strength coach might be looking for a new job.
“We always start with the lightest weight, and we go over proper technique before each event,” Tonon continues. “When we’re doing the strongman events, we’re correcting the guys’ form each week. A lot of younger athletes are immature and don’t always pay attention, so it’s smart to choose events where one wrong move won’t jeopardize their safety.”
The Atlas Stones–a classic strongman event in which competitors lift a series of heavy, round stones and place them on pedestals–is usually avoided by strength coaches, though some simply alter it by using safer objects such as sandbags in place of actual stones. Common sense typically eliminates anything else that involves obvious danger.
Many coaches count on increased reps to ensure athletes are challenged without the need for extremely heavy weight. “We’re not giving a kid a 900-pound tire and saying, ‘Go flip it.'” says Mike Golden, CSCS, SCCC, Director of Strength and Conditioning at East Carolina University. “We might give him a 300-pound tire that we know he can move and say, ‘You have to flip this for five minutes.’ We want maximum effort, not maximum weight.”
But nothing can replace a watchful eye. “Each one of our strongman stations is coached and supervised,” says Rick Court, MS, SCCC, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Bowling Green State University. “We go over strict guidelines as a staff and then as a team. Coaches always have the ability to end a set. If I see a guy struggling with an exercise and I deem it unsafe, I’ll stop it right away.