Ever shake someone’s hand and it’s obvious how strong they are? Usually it’s a callused, rugged hand-unaware it’s squeezing every drop of blood out of yours. And those hands often belong to an individual making a living as a mechanic, metalworker, or from another type of manual labor.
Some of the strongest people I’ve ever met make a living in those manual labor jobs. Most of them don’t even train at all-they’re strong right off the couch. And the manual labor jobs I worked as a young man definitely helped me develop the strength and physical capabilities I have now.
So what is it about manual labor? Heavy, odd objects, grip training, long days, unique tasks… The bottom line is: High levels of neuromuscular stimulation from grip intensive, heavy loading of odd objects on a regular basis produces results. And, we’re not just talking results in terms of strength here. The principles and training that go into strongman can be applied for injury prevention, core stabilization, work capacity-across all sorts of populations-from individuals with active lifestyles to elite athletes. In this article, we’ll discuss “odd objects”, “old school” or “strongman” training styles and how to integrate these into your program.
What is an odd object?
Odd objects include training items that challenge an individual in a unique fashion-often due to their awkward shape, weight, or odd distribution of load. They’re effective because they require high levels of nervous system stimulation, inter- and intramuscular coordination. Examples of odd objects include: items with oversize or no handles (i.e. fat bars), dynamic loads (sandbags), and/or unique shapes (river rock).
What is strongman training?
A type of high intensity training that involves odd objects, heavy loads, abnormal exercises and movements.
Why implement odd objects and train like a strongman?
It’s functional. Training that is truly “functional” makes life easier by enhancing performance in some fashion. That could mean it prevents injury, increases strength, stability, speed, improves posture, or develops some other physiological or psychological factor.
Strength, or the muscles’ ability to produce force, is critical for everyone and should be functional. The underlying principles of strongman and training with odd objects embody the definition of functional strength training described by Siff and Verkhoshansky in Supertraining. The description lists functional strength as being “associated with many different performance goals, including improvement in static strength, speed-strength, muscle endurance and reactive ability.” Also under this definition, functional strength “…involves the following processes: Intermuscular and Intramuscular coordination, facilitatory and inhibitory reflexive processes, motor learning.”
Consider an individual hitting a clean and press on a sandbag, for example. That sandbag, or odd object, drastically changes the movement when compared to a barbell clean and press. The objects variability forces the individual to use a slightly different motor pattern with each lift-teaching the body not just to produce force, but to do it in a coordinated fashion and maintain stability at each joint along the kinetic chain.
This type of training builds mental toughness. Ever used a draft horse harness to pull a water truck? Repeatedly loaded a 250 lb. atlas stone above chest height? Flipped a 650 lb. tire 50 yards as quickly as possible? I have, and these things are challenging-mentally and physically. Question your ability while under a heavy load and things can go south quickly! Lack of mental toughness can be a big issue for athletes. If you’re not confident in your ability and will to succeed, who will be? I implement odd objects with my athletes and clients because I expect them to be strong both physically and mentally.
Creating mental toughness is an important precursor for physical strength. Odd object/strongman training involves daunting challenges that require grit, strength, pain tolerance, and focus. But the biggest challenges are often the most rewarding. And when you’re successful with something that’s intimidating and foreign-that’s when you build confidence and mental fortitude.
Injury prevention. Strongman and odd object training prevents injuries in a number of ways. Obviously the strength benefits are a plus. The neural and connective tissue benefits play a big role as well.
Odd objects improve nervous system qualities that help keep us safe. Qualities like coordination, reactive ability, synchronization of motor units, and also production of high levels of stimulation in the CNS. When the nervous system is effective and well equipped for action, we can react quickly and appropriately to avoid injuries.
Injuries like broken bones or torn ligaments can be devastating. The heavy, abnormal loading of the tissues that odd object training provides helps prevent these types of injuries. Bones, tendons, ligaments-connective tissues in the body-become more resilient with repeated loading in this manner. Whether we’re competing or just aging-if the bones and connective tissues are strong-we’re well prepared for any trauma.
Grip strength? I vividly remember a chat I had with a “fitness professional” years ago. I asked him why he was using straps all the time, why not throw them out and challenge his grip? He replied, “the only thing grip is good for is a strong handshake!” Ah, one day you will learn grasshopper…
The hand is highly innervated with many nerve endings. By training the tissues of the hand and making them more effective, we can increase the spread of muscle activation-a phenomenon called “irradiation.” Through this increase in activation, we make everything stronger-not just the grip. Grab the bar tighter, lift heavier weights.
Most importantly, this stuff makes you STRONG! The high neuromuscular demand, heavy abnormal loads, grip intensive exercises, and strong connective tissue you get from training like a strongman can take your strength to another level. So transform into a functional, savagely strong human by including odd objects in your training program! Listed below are some examples of what implements to use and how to use them.
Equipment Examples/Types of Exercises
- Truck or Sled Pull
- Fat Grip exercises-axles, DB’s, BB’s, Phone book tear, Ropes
- Weighted carries, Farmer’s Walks
- Tire Flip
- Keg Work-Clean, Press, Row, Shouldering, Carry, Finger Walk
- Stone Work-Load, Shoulder, Squat
- Log Work-Carry, Clean, Press
- Other: Chains, Tires, etc.
- Medleys (pairing up several exercises back to back)
The list of implements is really up to your imagination. What it comes down to is this: Can you push it, pull it, carry it, drag it, load it, toss it, shoulder it, or just plain lift it? If the answer is yes, it may be a new addition to your equipment collection!
How to Integrate/Sample Workout
Due to the high demands this type of training puts on the body, it shouldn’t be utilized in every workout. Novice trainees tread lightly. Depending on the level of athlete, it can be worked into the program a few different ways. Devote your heavy lower body day to it or have a separate “strongman” specific training day one time per week. Or, 2-3 days per week take just 1 or 2 odd object exercises and program them into your workouts appropriately.
Here’s an example of a strongman specific training day I’ve used in the past:
- Dynamic Warmup
- Stone Loading 4 x 3, working up to a heavy 3 rep max
- Tire Flip 3 x 60 seconds, maximum amount of flips per set
- Keg Clean and Press 4 x 3
- Rope Chins 5 x leave 1 rep in the tank each set
- Farmer’s Walk 3 x 100 yards
With this type of training it’s important to push yourself, but be safe-the new implements, heavy loads, and neural demands of this type of training will definitely tax the mind and body.