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Train Strongman Feel Great!

March 15, 2013

As a child my friends and I used to go out into the woods and take turns picking up rocks and logs to test our strength.  We would pretend we were Heracles and Thor attempting to show the other up.  There was just something extremely primal and manly feeling about lifting and throwing natural objects in their natural environments.  While today I immensely enjoy lifting heavy barbells, only strong man training has come close to replicating those childhood sensations of power and manliness.  Few activities feel more primal than lifting a heavy rock onto ones shoulder, or more masculine than throwing a keg over the head.


Above is an old pic of Jason Cholewa (2006) from his bodybuilding days getting distracted by a random object to lift on a photo shoot in Storrs Connecticut.

And I am not alone.  Most people, men and women, who take part in strongman training experience similar feelings of primal achievement.  And there is good reason, the work is intense: Berning et al. (1) reported that car pushing increases heart rate up to 95% maximum and elicits lactate values nearly twice that of competition rowing (2).  Keogh et al. (4) reported similar demands for 3 sets of 6 tire flips with a 500lb tire.  Clearly, strongman events not only require a significant force output, but also are metabolically demanding.

But what about the sensations of manliness (or womanliness) elicited by strongman training?  Is there a possible link between strongman training and the omnipotent affect?

There may just be!

Ghigiarelli et al. (3) put 15 well trained men through a strongman training protocol.  The subjects performed 3 sets of tire flips, chain drags, farmer’s walks, keg carries, and atlas stone lifts with 2 min of rest between sets.  Strongman training resulted in a 70% increase in free testosterone post exercise that persisted for at least 30 min into recovery.  Interestingly, traditional resistance training resulted in an even greater increase in testosterone; however, the authors caution that there were a few outliers with traditional training that may have skewed the results.  Additionally, none of the athletes were familiar with strong man lifts, and many of the athletes reported a level of anxiety prior to trying the strongman events that may have reduced the testosterone spike.

Either way, this transitory increase in free testosterone will enhance muscle protein synthesis (recovery and growth; 9), and it may also be responsible for the omnipotent affect.  While the link between testosterone and aggression is “very unclear in humans” (5), increases in testosterone induced by strongman training may be responsible for positive mood changes.  Indeed, testosterone supplementation has been shown to improve mood in healthy men (7) and symptoms of chronic depression in middle aged men (8).  Could this testosterone spike enhance our animalistic nature?  It’s possible, though probably a stretch.

More than likely it’s the movement patterns associated with strongman training that elevated the primal sensations.   McGill et al. (6) reported that strongman carrying events often exceed the strength capability of the hips, placing an increased demand upon the core musculature not seen during traditional barbell lifts.  In these cases, the quadratus lumborum was recruited to provide torso and pelvic stabilization while allowing for peripheral muscles to perform in order to carry the load.  Additionally, lifting atlas stones required a different timing of muscle activation patterns compared to barbell lifts, especially at the hip extensors.  Overall, strongman training events uniquely challenge the strength of the kinetic chain and stabilizers in way that is much different from traditional barbell lifts (6).  It’s plausible that strongman training may involve a very primitive set of subconscious neuromuscular programing, and thus results in the primal and omnipotent sensations many experience.

There are several options for incorporating strongman events into your traditional program.

Even if my above hypothesis is off base, strongman training has great potential to enhance traditional weight-lifting strength and bodybuilding programs by challenging the core and hip musculature, and inducing a hormonal milieu favorable for hypertrophy.

  • Use the caries, pushes, and drags as conditioning work at the end of a session
  • Utilize the atlas stone lift, tire flip, and keg toss as a deadlift alternative on repetition or speed days, respectively
  • Use the loaded log press as part of a pressing day workout, or substitute it occasionally for traditional pressing altogether
  • Or, go to Lightening Fitness in South Windsor, CT or Just Performance LLC in Plainfield, CT and dedicate a few days a week to training like an animal

Strongman Training Clips of Jason Cholewa and Vinny Cholewa

320 pound/arm farmers carry (640 pounds total carried) for 50 feet.  Dominated by Jason!

Strong man Medley for time…Vinny beat me out on this one.

200 pound atlas stone to shoulder lift

Atlas stone medley

600 pound loaded yolk walk

By Jason Cholewa, Ph.D., CSCS

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1.        Berning, J. M., Adams, K. J., Climstein, M. & Stamford, B. A. Metabolic demands of “junkyard” training: pushing and pulling a motor vehicle. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association 21, 853–6 (2007).

2.        Forsyth, J. J. & Farrally, M. R. A comparison of lactate concentration in plasma collected from the toe, ear, and fingertip after a simulated rowing exercise. British journal of sports medicine 34, 35–8 (2000).

3.        Ghigiarelli, J. J., Sell, K. M., Raddock, J. M. & Taveras, K. Effects of strongman training on salivary testosterone levels in a sample of trained men. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association 27, 738–47 (2013).

4.        Keogh, J. W. L., Payne, A. L., Anderson, B. B. & Atkins, P. J. A brief description of the biomechanics and physiology of a strongman event: the tire flip. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association 24, 1223–8 (2010).

5.        Kuepper, Y. et al. Aggression–interactions of serotonin and testosterone in healthy men and women. Behavioural brain research 206, 93–100 (2010).

6.        McGill, S. M., McDermott, A. & Fenwick, C. M. Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association 23, 1148–61 (2009).

7.        Seidman, S. N., Miyazaki, M. & Roose, S. P. Intramuscular testosterone supplementation to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor in treatment-resistant depressed men: randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of clinical psychopharmacology 25, 584–8 (2005).

8.        Seidman, S. N. et al. Effects of testosterone replacement in middle-aged men with dysthymia: a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of clinical psychopharmacology 29, 216–21 (2009).

9.         Spiering, B. A. et al. Elevated endogenous testosterone concentrations potentiate muscle androgen receptor responses to resistance exercise. The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology 114, 195–9 (2009).

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