Functional training using unconventional methods has become more and more commonplace in college and professional strength and conditioning programs. Made popular by the World's Strongest Man series and the absolutely astounding feats performed by its competitors, Strongman-style training has benefits that range beyond just increasing your ability to move large objects. A big misconception about Strongman training is that it is only specific to big strength/power-type athletes. Strongman as a sport embraces athletes from 0-430 pounds. As a training protocol, Strongman can be introduced to any athlete looking to develop his or her strength, conditioning, and power output. Strongman training is not sport specific, and with the right programming and coaching can be applied in one way or another to virtually any sport.
Not to mention, for a younger athlete, it can help to break up the monotony of barbells, dumbbells, and calisthenics. Using a few variations of these common strongman exercises can bolster an athlete to better performance not only in maximal strength, but in proper core control, improvements in anaerobic capacity, and reduce a number of factors associated with injury risk.
Farmer’s Walks / Weighted Carries
Strongman training develops the body to function for extended periods of time under heavy load. For the strength/power athlete, developing heavy, short-cycle work capacity is incredibly important. Additionally, Strongman training is usually grueling in nature and instills mental fortitude in the athlete. These same principles benefit any athlete just as much. Weighted carries are a versatile and grueling test of grit, functional strength, and anaerobic capacity. The method is very simple;
Pick up some farmer's handles (or heavy dumbbells, kettlebells, jugs of water, etc.)
Carry them for distance or time
Farmer's walks are not only great ways to introduce a high-load stress on the whole system, they are also a great tool for stressing good postural alignment and thoracic stability. When it comes to training a neutral spine, farmer's walks place the center of the load directly through the athlete’s midline. This allows for an easier cueing of both anterior and posterior structures to keep the spine in an upright position. Additionally, securing the shoulders, upper back, and neck in a good position are vital to the movement, helping to reinforce good upper-body postural mechanics. The added task of moving puts a demand on the hips, core musculature, and breath control to all come in to play as one cohesive system. Adding farmer's walks into circuits or making them a small-group or team competition are fun ways to add variety to finish out a training session. While farmer's handles are the best option for use, they can be expensive, especially if you're trying to outfit a whole team training environment. Heavy dumbbells can still get the job done, and getting creative with how they should be held can ramp up the difficulty of even the lightest weights.
To this day, there are still coaches out there who run their athletes into the ground with unnecessary or poorly developed conditioning protocols. Sled work must reflect the nature of the sport that the athlete is training. Sleds not only provide an intense metabolic stimulus, they can be scaled and varied for different training adaptations or the goals of different sport demands. The load, position of the body in relation to the sled, durations of sprint, and friction between ground and sled all play into how best to work them into your training.
Incorporating heavy sled sprints between 5-10 sec can help drive improvements in acceleration mechanics, especially when added as a pre-activation drill for short sprint training. Moving a sled equal to or greater than body weight for 10 yards, then disengaging from the sled into a full 40-yard sprint places an emphasis on efficient first step drive and the RFD (rate of force development) of initiating a sprint. Perform them with a full recovery between efforts, for true speed and acceleration training requires athletes to actually be achieving top speeds. Save fatigue for conditioning.
Sled pushes between 15 and 30 sec are more than enough for interval training to work power and capacity. Recovery times should be close to double or greater when introducing them into a training program, but the more adaptable an athlete becomes the more specific the work can be for the given goal. Be aware of the load on the sled, for the amount of fatigue and tension time can facilitate some pretty intense muscle soreness.
The sled can also be modified with ropes, towels, and a variety of different harness attachments to train dragging or more dynamic posterior chain movements. It’s such a versatile tool, most every athlete can find a benefit or use that complements something in their sport or general development plan.
Again, it’s not about punishing athletes for the sake of punishing them. Success is made through introducing progressively more intense stimuli. Adapt athletes to handle the feeling of fatigue, not the feeling of vomiting.
Loaded hip extension is a universal development tool for better power. Where hang cleans and loaded jumps are common in strength programs, adding in sandbags as a training tool can add a new training stimulus that is arguably more specific to real-world tasks than moving a barbell. Few times in a real-life application will you ever run across an athletic circumstance where you are moving a evenly distributed load in a single plane of motion. Sandbags are excellent for teaching the athlete how and when to apply their strength to an odd object, in less than ideal circumstances. Moving a load from the floor to shoulder, throwing them from the hip overhead, carrying them, or simply picking them up and slamming them into the ground all train very fundamental patterns of power generation. There is the added benefit of developing the strength of the hands, fingers, and forearms to battle an uneven distribution of weight. this makes the sandbags a great tool for football players, combat athletes, or any athlete that needs greater grip strength in dynamic movements. Sandbags are cheap to make if you look for the right resources. Not to mention, you can make a range of resistances simply by adding more or less filling.
If a coach has the necessary resources, I would strongly encourage them to purchase some Strongman equipment for their weight room. Without a doubt, a set of farmer walk handles, heavy sandbags, and a push/pull Prowler-style sled are my top choices for outfitting your gym for Strongman-style training. These would provide more than enough variation to give your program an immense boost in functional development and just outright fun and bad ass-itude. Honorable mention would have to go to tires, trap bars (dual purpose for deadlifting and acting as a frame), axle bars, and logs. All of these implements have multiple applications and are close to bombproof. Furthermore, doing any Strongman training because "it looks cool" is a big pitfall as well. Have a plan, follow the plan, reap the rewards.
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