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Why you should train like a strongman

by | Nov 19, 2020 | The Agoge | 2 comments

The 2020 World’s Strongest Man contest concluded last weekend, and we now have a new title-holder. A young man named Oleksii Novikov won the title – well, he and his epic beard won – against some extremely tough competition. Four-time WSM champion Brian Shaw competed in the events, along with serious contenders like J. F. Caron and the Stoltman brothers. This year’s WSM competition got a lot of attention online, and rightly so. Obviously, there wasn’t much else to enjoy in the world of sports, what with the Coof. This also means that interest in strongman has increased considerably, as it should. I am very happy to see the sport of strongman gaining international recognition and traction, because the sport has many lessons to teach all of us. So let me explain to you why you should train like a strongman.

The Different Kinds of Strength

If you are at all interested in getting stronger and fitter, then you have many options available to you. Men who concentrate on aesthetics typical focus on bodybuilding. Those who want to build out their overall strength, and don’t care too much about looking like models, typically try powerlifting. In my opinion, if you want to increase your overall fitness quickly and efficiently, then real combat-ready martial arts are the way to go. I have covered, and will cover again, martial arts in different posts, so we’ll leave off that one for now.

Bodybuilding – Form Over Function

Now, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and strongman all concentrate on different types of strength. Bodybuilders typically fixate on doing LOTS of reps with relatively light weights – especially relative to their mass. A number of top-level bodybuilders, like Jay Cutler and Phil Heath, eschew heavy compound movements almost entirely and focus primarily on light-weight, high-rep isolation exercises. This, along with their, *ahem* supplement regimes, makes for absolute mass monsters to achieve a particular aesthetic:

A lot of bodybuilders are genuinely extremely strong. Ronnie Coleman in his prime was a great example of a bodybuilder who could easily have been a championship powerlifter. But a number of modern bodybuilders don’t bother at all with heavy compound lifts. Phil Heath has repeatedly stated that he does not do deadlifts, for example – he doesn’t need them.

As a result, bodybuilders are actually a lot weaker than they look, as a general rule – though there are exceptions.

Powerlifting – The Righteous Path

Powerlifters, on the other hand, eschew aesthetics in favour of simply lifting as much as possible in three specific ways. We aim to maximise our static strength. Our goal is to be as strong as possible in push (bench), pull (deadlift), and combined (squat) exercises. We can, and do, train in other exercises to supplement these. But the Big Three are our primary lifts.

To be a powerlifter requires intense focus, dedication, and pain tolerance. I am not exaggerating when I say that a lot of powerlifters have a very weird mindset. We appear genuinely strange to people who don’t share in our particular pursuit. They look at us in the gym as if we are freaks – and in many ways, we are. If you want to understand the Riddle of Steel, then you must obey the Ten Commandments of the Iron God, and you must pay the iron price. That’s just the truth.

If you want a humourous look at what life is like for powerlifters, then this video about sums it up:

Be that as it may, powerlifting has one core and simple truth to it. We train primarily for static strength. In other words, we train to lift things in specific ways in one place.

Real powerlifters are beasts among men, no mistake. But powerlifting is not the Alpha and Omega of strength sports. For that, we turn to…

Strongman – The Beast Life

The reason why you should train like a strongman is simple. Unlike powerlifting, which concentrates on three specific feats of strength, strongman is all about how much weight you can move in any scenario. This means that strongman encapsulates powerlifting. The best strongmen are also awesomely skilled powerlifters, because they incorporate powerlifting training into their routines. They have to, because squats and deadlifts are classic feats of strength.

The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. While many powerlifters can do well in strongman contests, the training requirements for the two sports are very different. Strongman emphasises a much broader range of strength feats and requires participants to move and carry weights. This is genuinely very hard to do. When you have to carry very heavy weights over a long distance, your overall strength is tested, not merely your static strength.

This means that you have to work on every aspect of your strength. You have to build up your cardio as well as your overall strength. (Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you have to do much running or rowing – you simply have to move weight over distances at a reasonably fast pace.)

Why You Should Train Like a Strongman

I reckon that there are three primary reasons to train like a strongman, should you have the inclination and the opportunity:

1. You Don’t Actually NEED a Lot of Fancy Equipment

Strongman is, at its core, all about lifting and moving weights. Powerlifting is about moving specific KINDS of weights in specific SETTINGS under specific RULES. As such, in strongman events, you might end up lifting and carrying sacks of weight over a distance. You might put a yoke on your back, balanced with weights, and move it over a course. Or perhaps you will have to test your static grip strength by holding two pillars together in a Hercules Hold.

The point is that all of these things can be done without a gym. If you live with some forest around you – pick up an axe and start chopping trees. Try to learn how to bend frying pans with your hands. Lift rocks and boulders. Flip tractor tires in a scrapyard. Carry heavy objects in each hand in a parking lot. Tie yourself to a car and try pulling it along behind you. The possibilities are endless. None of them require an actual gym.

2. You Will Get Very Strong Very Fast

You will put on muscle and strength very quickly. When you know how to flip a tractor tire, or carry a yoke, or pick up an Atlas stone, you will very rapidly grow in size and strength. You will also develop ALL of your muscle groups, including the smaller ones that typically don’t get a whole lot of attention in powerlifting.

Put simply, your overall strength will skyrocket because you are training in exercises specifically designed to test your strength in every situation.

3. You Will Learn Focus, Discipline, and Power

My contempt for and dislike of CrossShit is well known by this time. I think that their insistence on supposedly being “ready for anything” is absurd. CrossShitters are professional (and amateur) exercisers. That’s all they are.

Strongmen, on the other hand, are known for incredible feats of strength. That’s not mere exercise. That is strength applied in a very specific, precise, focused direction. As a result, your willpower, discipline, and self-esteem will go through the roof once you learn how to lift and move weight properly, safely, and carefully.

Conclusion – Gods Among Men

I’m a powerlifter. I hope to be a powerlifter until the day I die. Maybe I’ll ask to be buried with a barbell and have my gravestone made out of an iron plate with crossed barbells stenciled on it.

But you will NEVER hear one single word of disrespect coming from my mouth (or through my fingers) about strongmen. I consider them to be gods among mere mortal men for their incredible power, size, dedication, and strength of will. Strongmen are some of the humblest, kindest, most decent people that you will ever meet, yet they could tear you apart with their bare hands.

So, why should you train like a strongman? That’s easy – if you want to be a beast, and you want a body that can actually do things beyond merely looking good, then that IS the way to train.

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  1. Matt FreeMatt

    Powerlifting, as long as Im not traveling and getting mangled.

  2. Brigadon

    We use to practice strongman in the Navy by carrying Bytes of line down the deck. Since our Petty Officer was VERY focussed on strength Training and Fighting, most of our deck apes were… sorta gigantic by the end of back-to-back westpacs (6 month deployments with less than a month between)
    A coil of Line weighs around 1500 lbs, and two or three guys tried to move them from the stem to the stern of the ship as fast as possible… If you only take half of the byte, you have the weight PLUS the friction of dragging that enormously heavy line across non-skid.

    So your best bet was just to pick the whole damn thing up as a team and haul it to the other end of the ship. Do that a couple of dozen times a day as ‘makework’ and you get HUGE.


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