Whether you’ve been working out for years or you just landed on this site by accident, you already know most of the hot fitness trends. CrossFit is everywhere, your neighbors are doing mud runs, and your girlfriend has begged you more than once to accompany her to a Pilates class. But there’s one fitness craze that’s older than any of them, yet doesn’t get nearly the same attention—strongman, the ancient Viking tradition of lifting odd objects.
Like you, I used to see strongman contests on TV while channel surfing late at night (you know, before the porn shows came on), and I wondered how anybody could get so big and lift stones and axles—until I decided to find out firsthand. Here are five things I learned from strongman training, culminating in my first appearance in a strongman contest.
1. Free Weights Aren’t Enough
I’ve been a gym guy for more than a decade. I love to lift weights, and I’ve measured my strength (and pride) by what I could hoist on classic exercises like the bench press and squat. But when I joined a strongman gym, I learned there was more to building strength than lifting barbells and dumbbells alone.
Strongmen train with various implements that allow them to build strength all over the body and from every angle. Equipment like the yoke, Atlas stones, axle, and log require more work from your core and grip compared with what conventional lifts demand. As a result, you fortify areas that were weak before, resulting in more balanced strength that leads to muscle gains and reduced risk for injury. I now measure my strength by how far I can carry a Husafell stone (a block shaped like Superman’s shield) and how fast I can walk with a yoke on my back (a metal frame that you might see attached to an ox or bull) as much as by how much I can bench.
2. Carrying Things Builds as Much Muscle as Lifting Them
I used to moan when my dad would ask me to carry firewood up to the house or push a wheelbarrow full of topsoil up our driveway. If I had realized I was training, I might have thought it was cool instead of boring yard work.
Many strongman events resemble chores, such as walking with heavy implements in hand or dragging or pulling objects for a certain distance. Doing so not only provides a change of pace from the usual “three sets of 10” traditional weight training, but it’s also just as effective for building muscle. I put on eight pounds in three weeks without making any effort to eat more food, and the only significant change to my training was the addition of heavy carries. Try doing farmer’s walks (pick up the heaviest dumbbells you can and walk as far as possible) at the end of your workouts, and you’ll get a sense of how exhausting these exercises can be and how much muscle they activate.
3. Cardio Can Be Manly
I’ve always been the type who hates cardio. I’ll look for any reason to skip it. If you find treadmills as boring as I do, strongman is your salvation. The weighted carries mentioned above double as interval training, but really, almost any strongman exercise is going to make your pulse hammer. Because so much muscle is working, your body’s demand for oxygen is extreme. You’ll get a cardio session in while training your muscles, and you’ll have a blast doing it. Once you’ve carried a keg or sandbag 200-plus feet, it’s hard to go back to hitting the elliptical for an hour.
4. It’s Safer than You Think
I find it funny that everyone seems to want to do a mud run these days through obstacle courses that feature barbed and electrified wire but fear lifting stones. Performing strongman lifts poses the same risk as performing any other lift—if you know what you’re doing, you’re not likely to get hurt.
It may look primitive and uncomplicated, but lifting an Atlas stone requires technique, like any other exercise. I learned to begin the movement like a deadlift, driving through my feet to raise the stone just above my knees. Then I drop into the bottom of a squat, allowing the stone to rest on my lap. From there, I reach over the top of it, squeezing the stone against my chest and belly, and then extend my hips explosively to raise it up to chest level (where I can then deposit it on a platform or drop it). I’ve never gotten hurt lifting stones.
The loads that strongmen lift can be extreme, and injuries can happen during competition. But for a recreational lifter working within his limits, strongman training is no more dangerous than bench pressing without a spotter, straining to take a set past failure, or stretching without warming up first. And, of course, being electrocuted.
5. It’s Great for the Ego
Strongman is as beneficial to the mind as it is to the body. There’s something about lifting a 300-pound stone or pressing a tractor axle that does more to boost your confidence than pumping up your biceps with curls or improving your mile time (at least I think so). There’s a primal sense of accomplishment in performing feats that most other people can’t do and would never even attempt. On top of that, I’ve found that the carryover from strongman exercises to other lifts is tremendous. When you can walk with hundreds of pounds on your back, squatting doesn’t seem so daunting, and if you can press an axle overhead, you’ll be able to handle pressing a normal barbell off your chest.
In December 2013, I competed in my first strongman contest. I walked 50 feet with a 650-pound yoke on my back, carried a Husafell stone weighing 275 pounds 400 feet, deadlifted 495 seven times, and lifted a 270-pound Atlas stone five times—all big personal records for me. The camaraderie among the competitors made it feel as if we were all on the same team, and despite the freezing temperature (hey, it IS the sport of Vikings, after all), I had an awesome time.
To find a strongman gym near you, go to nastrongman.com
Sean Hyson, C.S.C.S., is the training director for Men's Fitness. He is the author of 101 Best Workouts of All Time, available at 101bestworkouts.com