Training

Strongman Training and Why It’s NOT for Athletes


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By Chad Wesley Smith

In the past few weeks as Olympic Trials have been conducted, I have seen a lot of attention being given to the Strongman training done by one of the US’s top swimmers. Check it out below…

The Video Has Been Removed for legal reasons but here is a summary. A World Record Holding swimmer does overhead presses with a plate, Log Clean and Presses, tire flips and backwards anchor chain drags, while his strength coach talks about how he wants him to puke and how this training is making him tougher.

I have seen dozens of people on Facebook posting about how this training is going to help this athlete take over as the world’s top swimmer and I’m here to tell you, THEY ARE WRONG and he should fire his strength coach. Strongman training has a very limited place in the athlete’s training tool box and it certainly shouldn’t be included in a swimmer’s program.

 

Now because I don’t have access to see this athlete’s entire training plan but I can unequivocally say that overhead presses, log clean and presses and tire flips should have no place in it. The swimmer’s shoulder (and for that matter the pitcher’s, quarterback’s volleyball player’s, offensive/defensive lineman’s) undergoes enough stress from their sport practice and games each day and week, it is foolish to exacerbate that load with overhead pressing work.

Dr. Jason Reyonlds works at BodyDynamix Chiropractic and treats many Juggernaut athletes, as well as serving as the team chiropractor for several US National teams. Here are Dr. Reyonlds’ thoughts on overhead pressing for athletes: “The mechanics of overhead pressing stresses the anterior and inferior glenohumeral capsule. Adding load creates an increase in stress to these structures creating laxity and functional instability which can lead to impingement and improper utilization of the rotator cuff musculature required for dynamic stabilization through an overhead movement.” Maybe Lochte is unique in his ability to tolerate overhead pressing without aggravating his shoulders but in this way he would be the exception, not the rule and this is not a model to be followed by other swimmers, overhead throwing athletes or people such as fighters or football lineman whose shoulders undergo great stress.

This swimmer is also shown doing log clean and presses, probably under the misinformed guidance of his strength coach thinking that they will make him more explosive. I have written extensively about why I don’t think that Olympic lifts have a place in the athlete’s program and that sentiment is even stronger regarding strongman versions of the Olympic lifts. Shown below are a 462 pound Log Clean and Press (then the World Record) by Zydrunas Savickas and a 580 pound Clean and Jerk (then the World Record) by Hossein Rezazadeh…

 

 

Program Considerations

It doesn’t take an expert to see that the bar speed between the two efforts isn’t even comparable. If you must include Olympic Lifting variations in your and your athlete’s program, it is clear that the traditional versions are much better options than the strongman variations. With that being said, I would still choose sprints, jumps and throws (the throwing variations performed by him are great, his coach gets 1 point there). The velocities being achieved by athletes like swimmers, as well as football players, fighters, basketball and volleyball players and others are so far beyond the speeds achieved during strongman events that the events will have very little correspondence to these athlete’s performance.

This Olympic Gold Medal hopeful also performs tire flips during this training clip, which is also an exercise that I would be cautious in using during the training of athletes. While the tire flip is a great builder of leg and lower back strength, as are the squat and deadlift, it also places a great deal of stress on the bicep tendons. Bicep tears are very common among strongman competitors and the tire flip is often the culprit behind them.  The benefits of the tire flip for a swimmer far outweigh its potential benefits, especially since the same qualities can be developed much more safely through the squat and its variations. I’m not opposed to the tire flip for all athletes, it can certainly be used as a special strength exercise for offensive/defensive linemen and grapplers but even in these instances the weight of the tire is far less important the efficiency of movement displayed by the athlete.

 

 

The final drill that the athlete performs in his training clip is a backwards anchor chain drag. Many strongman drills are highly lactic in nature, while most team sport endeavors are alactic, be aware of the energy systems at work during your athlete’s competition and training. This athlete’s primary event is the 400 Individual Medley, which takes around 3 minutes to complete and is certainly lactic in nature, because of this the backward anchor chain drag is an appropriate training means, but the grip component of it does place great stress on the wrists and bicep tendons, so a simple backward sled drag would be a better choice.

The strength coach talks about how during the session he is going to “crush him metabolically” and how he is looking for a “protein spill”. While lactic threshold training is a critical component of being a great 400IM swimmer, looking to push your athlete to the point they vomit is foolish. Vomiting is a negative response from the body, not one that any coach should strive to elicit from their athletes. Too many coaches are simplistic in their thinking that more work or more difficult work is going to bring greater results for their athletes, while that simply isn’t the case, particularly when dealing with someone as high level as a World Record Holder. An exercise would become more difficult if I was to hit the athlete in the stomach with a baseball bat while he performed it, would that make it more effective for improving their performance? Many people will probably watch the video of this athlete’s training and herald his coach for building mental toughness. To me that is a cop out, athlete’s aren’t going to become tough from doing an exercise until they puke and this is especially true the farther along the athlete is during their career.

Other popular strongman events that make their way into the training of athletes are Yoke and Farmers Walks. While both of these exercises have merit in their ability to develop ankle and knee stability, as well as grip and upper back strength; I think their benefits are outweighed by the injury risks they present and CNS taxation they induce.  The CNS is very sensitive and plays a critical role in an athlete’s ability to practice their sport effectively and sport practice is the most important thing that any athletes do. It should be among the foremost concerns of physical preparation coaches to enhance, not detract from the athlete’s ability to practice.

As a competitive strongman I was conflicted to write this article, but I felt as a physical preparation coach it is my responsibility to bring truth to the people and help them reach their goals. While there are instances in which strongman events could be implemented into the training of athletes, there are more effective, efficient and safe choices that can should be made. Don’t make choices for your training based upon what is hardcore or will look badass in a YouTube video, make choices that will help your athletes improve the necessary qualities to excel in their sport without putting them at injury risk or interfering with their ability to practice effectively.

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