Elitefts Roundtable: The 5 Best Barbell or Dumbbell Exercises for Strongman

Training the specific events for strongman competitors is essential for success.  Although strongman contests are starting to become more standardized when it comes to event categories, each event is very unique in nature. This is one of the reasons why a great number of strongman competitors travel great distances on weekends to train the specific events with the load, time limit, distance, and any other specifications of their next contest. Overall, most competitions will have a clean & press, a deadlift, a carry, atlas stones and some sort of medley.

Clean & Press

Deadlift

Carry

Flip or Drag

Atlas Stones

Log

Car or Frame Deadlift

Farmer’s or Frame

Tire Flip

Stones over Bar

Axle

18” Deadlift

Yoke or Conan’s Wheel

Sled Drag

Stones on Platform

Circus DB

Axle Deadlift

Husafell Stone or Sandbag Carry

 Duck Walk

Sandbag Load

Due to limited access to strongman implements and other training days; the question is what should competitors spend their time doing in the gym when not training events?  That brought me to this question I asked elitefts™ lifters, coaches, and columnists:

What are the best five barbell or dumbbell exercises that correlate to success in strongman?

If you could only do five barbell or dumbbell exercises and without knowing the events, what would you choose?


Ok, the five best barbell dumbbell exercises for strongman.  Considering powerlifting was always my main focus and that it allowed me to jump into other strength sports at a high level with little experience, I would have to say my first three are squat, bench, and deadlift.

1.  Squat-  As with all lifts, technique and style are very important.  If your technique is bad, you will not be working the proper muscle groups to the proper intensity level.  With bad technique or wrong style you may not be using the right muscle groups at all.  That being said, this would be a powerlifting style squat with feet wider than shoulder-width and pushing the ass back throughout the movement.  This is a full body movement.  It will build low back, upper back, glutes, hamstrings, and abs/oblique (core).  This will help with many strongman events like truck pulls, various squats, stones, yoke carry, etc.

2.  Bench Press- This again is powerlifting style, not bodybuilding or whatever people call the crap they do in most commercial gyms.  This is again a full-body movement but will focus on building upper back, triceps, lats, anterior delts, abs/obliques.  This will help with any overhead lifting events, yoke carry, frame or farmer’s carry, and fingal fingers.  I know some people right now are questioning how it helps overhead events or yoke or farmers.  Well, a proper powerlifting bench works upper back extremely hard.  The upper back is huge in overhead lifting. If done properly, the upper back stabilizes the shoulders and gives them something to push off of.  Your upper back is important in the farmer’s, too.  It is important to help stabilize the shoulders and helps control the weight.

3.  Deadlift- This should be a conventional deadlift, mostly due to the fact that in strongman a sumo is rarely allowed, if ever.  Again, it’s a whole body movement working the hamstrings, glutes, low back, upper back, abs/obliques.

4.  Standing Military-  In my powerlifting training, I usually do these seated, but in strongman your overhead is always done standing.  Training the standing version will help more with the full body effect and help to better learn to control the body while keeping stable.  This will also work more of the core, low back, and lower body.

5.  Bicep Curls- I wish the was a list of just four exercises!  The first four are solid staples for me but when it comes to the fifth, a lot of different barbell/dumbell exercises come to mind.  I think I would have to lean toward curls.  The biceps do play a role in many Strongman events and they are also a very commonly tore muscle.  For these reasons, I think curls are an exercise that needs to be done.


Overhead Press, Deadlift, Squat; Train these for a total like a powerlifter.

OHP and bench press are swapped.  Most strongman contests will require some sort of overhead movement; you have to be strong here.

Deadlift- You are going to have to be able to pull. Might be a partial dead, car dead, max regular dead or deadlift for reps. “Endurance” for deadlifting in a strongman contest is going to be enhanced by improving limit strength. When Benedict Magnusson pulled 1015, he won the deadlift for reps right after. Orlando Green got 2nd place with a 865 deadlift, and 2nd place in reps. Strength endurance in the strongman-pulling sense is enhanced by deadlift limit strength.  Deadlifts build the posterior chain for any sort of hip extension needed, as well as grip, RFD and overall limit strength.

Squat- Squatting events can make their way into strongman contests, and these are primarily to enhance strength and explosive power.

Bent-Over Row- “Strong back equals strong man” said the strongest man of all time, Kaz.  Besides building a strong, broad backed street soldier, these bad boys are similar  to how you pull up a log or keg. There is some specificity here along with building a strong back

Dips- I know they’re not barbell or dumbbell, but their transference to OHP is underrated.


Honestly, I had a hard time coming up with five exercises that are MUSTS when it comes to preparing for a strongman contest in which you did not know the events you would be competing in.  EVERY competition in Europe is a contest where you do not know the events till the day that you arrive to do the competition, so the idea is just to come in STRONG with NO WEAKNESSES!!!  Base strength, endurance, mobility, agility, and technical skill at all major events.  It mostly comes down to having the core strongman events in your hands and on your body at least once every 14 days and a few random ones on your body at least once per month…AND BE STRONG in the gym!

1)  Box Squat: This has always been the core lift for me, the most important.  Every time I have taken box squats with bands out of my training program, every single event has suffered in strength and speed.  It does not have to be DEEP, does not have to be max effort, it just has to be done with intensity.

2)  Deadlift:  The deadlift doesn’t have to be done every week but I believe that it should be done in one form or fashion at least every 10 days.  When training for strongman you will probably have a pair of farmers handles in your hands or even a car deadlift…but nothing substitutes all around for the deadlift.

3)  Overhead Strict Press:  A lot of strongman overhead press events require odd pressing strength and even some of the top weight lifters will have issues having to strict press an object or having to “odd press” an uneven object.  That requires strict press strength.

4)  Push Press:  Knowing how to push press means that you have some coordination AND that you know how to use it.

5)  Wait…do I have to stop at five now?  Doggone it!!!!  From here you need to know how to ROW like crazy!!!!  I remember people asking David Ostlund (once known as the best stone loader in the world) how to get good at stones without having atlas stones to train with and his answer was interesting yet simple.  My training partner in Murray, KY, USA used to spend his entire Summer training with Dave Ostlund in Michigan and he always told me that Dave loaded stones in his basement boiler room and it was amazingly hot and even much more humid…so loading stones was similar to wrestling greased pigs in August.  What did Dave suggest?  Just row!  Row something.  A barbell, a dumbbell, a sand bag…just become crazy strong at rows!

6)  Since everyone knows that I’m long winded and now one of those “soft” weight lifters…I’d suggest learning how to do weight lifting pulls.  Doesn’t matter which type…snatch grip, clean grip…just put on some straps, hook grip it, and load the bar.  Learn how to pull from the floor and then EXPLODE once you hit your knees and hit pure triple extension.  If you have problems loading stones to taller platforms…learn how to do snatch grip pulls…then finish one every once in a while :)


1. Clean & Press: Direct correlation to axle and any pressing event

2. Deadlift: From varying heights using double overhand as long as possible to also work grip. Another direct correlation to variations of deadlift events and also to building a strong posterior chain.

3. Front squats: Has great carryover for the loading events such as stones, kegs, sandbags, etc.

4. Close-Grip Bench: Builds tricep strength that will transfer to lockout on overhead pressing events.

5. Good Mornings: Builds strong lower back and posterior chain which aids in most strongman events.


One and two are overhead press/jerk and deadlift. This is stupidly obvious, so I’ll try to go in a little different direction.

Close-grip bench: I don’t like benching that much, but when I have tried to leave it out of my programming, I get weaker on atlas stones. Besides keeping me strong on stones, it also hits triceps in a way that aids in lockout on overhead pressing.

Single-leg work (lunges, split-squats, step-ups, etc.): The more single-leg work I do, the better my moving events are. I attribute this to both strengthening the muscles that stabilize the ankle, knee, and hip, as well as hitting the musculature of the mid section in an alternating leg position.

Prowler sprints: Progressive programming with shorter and longer distances mixed with lighter and heavier weights is the absolute best thing I have done for increasing my work capacity. This makes all aspects of training easier and competitions become much easier to recover from and during.

Curls for the girls (or bis for the guys): I hate curls. I hate doing them and I hate telling other people to do them. But in a sport where biceps tears rank right up at the top of the most common injuries list, direct bicep work is necessary to keep both the muscles and tendons strong and healthy.

Barbell hip thrusts: Good for the weight room as well as the bedroom. Obviously it’ll help your deadlift lockout, but also cleans for log, axle, and barbell and of course the loading of the atlas stones.


I love this question because it really does make you think about your programming. I think every movement in a training program has to have a specific purpose. I also feel certain gym lifts have more carryover to events than others. As most people know every strongman contest varies in the events they have and implements used. But with that being said, almost all strongman competitions have: a press, a deadlift event and atlas stones. If you do really well in those three events, you’ll typically do pretty well in a competition. They also typically have at least one carry event. So this really helps narrow down the list to five movements that would/should help prepare someone for a strongman competition without access to the actual implements. They are:

1. Squats – This is simple. The squat builds overall strength. It also has nice carryover to yoke picks, car deadlifts and strengthening the quads for leg drive on the overhead press events.

2. Deadlifts – Same as the squat, the deadlift is a great overall strength builder. There is also almost always a deadlift event in strongman (axle, 18 inch, medley, car deadlift, etc.). This obviously has some carryover to those events, but it also has carryover for atlas stones, farmers walk, yoke walk, tire flip, any odd object (sandbag, keg, Husafell) pick off the ground. To help aid in grip strength, I’d recommend using a double overhand grip as long as possible when working up in weight.

3. Clean & Press – Strongman almost always has a clean and press event. Whether it’s an axle, log, dumbbell or keg – something is picked up from the ground, cleaned to the shoulders and pressed overhead. So the basic barbell clean and press is a great pick for building explosive power and strength for all things overhead. The clean also has carryover to the tire flip.

4. Paused Front Squats – I find these are great for improving atlas stones. Essentially once the stone is picked and lapped you are in a position very similar to that of the bottom of a front squat. And since there is no stretch reflex when coming up from that position while holding the stone I find that the paused front squat to be a great movement with a lot of carryover. This will also aid in strengthening the quads which will in turn carryover to the overhead press events.

5. Zercher Barbell Carry – There is almost always a carry in strongman. I almost went with heavy dumbbell farmers walk for my last choice, but decided against it because dumbbell farmers walk feel much different than using actually farmer implements. That coupled with most dumbbells are way too light, I think that the Zercher carry would give more bang for the buck. A lot of contests have a sandbag, keg or Husafell stone carry. This is a great way to train for those. It would also have some carryover to farmers and yoke from the standpoint of actually moving with the weight instead of being stationary like most barbell and dumbbell lifts require.


Great Question. Here’s my answer on the five best barbell or dumbbell exercise that correlate to success in strongman.

1). Deadlift: Provides total-body strength and power. From a movement pattern perspective and body position, nearly everything in strongman resembles some type of deadlift.

2). Squat: Lower body and total body strength and power, and speed. The squat provides hip dominates for loading atlas stones, provides hip strength and stability for walking events such as heavy farmers walk, and yoke walks, glute and lockout strength for both deadlift, car deadlift, and aids in explosiveness for tire flips.

3). Barbell OH Press, or Axel Clean and Press: There is no contest without some type of pressing. This is a weak area for many competitors, so it most certainly needs to be a priority throughout the training cycle and for contest preparation.

4. Floor press or variation: In order to aid the OH Press, floor pressing or variation should be included. This will provide additional strength and lockout strength for all pressing movements and for all events that involve some type of pressing. Triceps tend to be a weak area for many. You can never have enough tricep strength.

5). Single-Arm DB Overhead Press/Circus Dumbbell: Nowadays, many contents incorporate pressing medleys, which often include a big monster or circus dumbbell. This takes some getting used to which most normal gyms don’t have. Don’t negate this, as it’s definitely a an exercise to be utilized.


Power Clean/Jerk or Push Press- Cleaning and pressing is one of the most common exercises in some form in strongman. Not doing them in your training is a mistake. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a log or an axle, the movements are fairly similar. Work them for 1-3 rep maxes and also for max reps in 60-90 seconds. This will also carry over to tire flipping. Flipping a tire properly is very similar to a clean at a different angle.

Squat-Do I really need to explain why you need to squat?

Deadlift- In contests, you almost always see a deadlift variation. Deads build muscle, endurance, and grip strength. You need  all of these in strongman. I suggest doing these in waves with 1-3 rep maxes, balls out heavy for reps/time, snatch grip and also form a deficit from time to time.  Adding variety in your deadlift training will help you out a lot when it comes to doing a deadlift on some type of contest apparatus. I particularly like snatch grip deads and deficit pulls  because they are HARD and build different strengths. You will need to be able to pull form a wide variety of positions and like powerlifting, I have seen many contest placing around the deadlift event. Work this one hard.

Dumbell overhead press-I chose dumbells as opposed to a  barbell because of the stabilizing muscles required to perform the exercise as well as the fact it helps to eliminate a bilateral deficit. Three is always a press in strongman and you will usually be able to push or jerk it, so adding in STRICT dumbbell presses done heavy for high reps will keep you strong.

Hammer Curls-Biceps love to tear in Strongman. The constant abuse they get form stones, tires, logs and deadllifts beats on your biceps. High rep hammer curls are great for getting your bi’s and attachments strong. Adding in sets of heavy curls for lower reps won’t hurt either.


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About the Author

Mark Watts is the Director of Education at elitefts.com™ and the NSCA Ohio State Director. He has a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion from California University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in elementary education from Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Mark has been working with college athletes in over 20 different sports at the Division I, II, and III levels for over 15 years as a strength and conditioning coach. Prior to elitefts™, he coached athletes at Denison University, the United States Military Academy at West Point, Allegheny College, and Clarion University. He has also completed strength and conditioning internships at the University of Tulsa and Ohio State University. Mark is certified by the National Strength & Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and the Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association. He started competing in powerlifting in 1997 and is an amateur Strongman competitor in the master's division. Mark is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is a USMC veteran.