The Need to Increment Resistance during Strongman Training

The Need to Increment Resistance during Strongman Training

By Dr. Daniel Baker
Strength Coach, Brisbane Broncos,
Level 3 Strength & Conditioning Coach
Australian Strength & Conditioning Association Master Coach of Strength & Conditioning

Strongman training is growing in popularity for athletes such as rugby league and union players.  Advocates of it suggest that it is more “specific” than other forms of strength training.  This article is not going to argue the case one way or another on that issue, but suggest where limitations in the application of the overload during this form of training can be improved.

The advocates of strongman training claim it can be done very easily with “objects that are just lying around”.  No doubt on a farm there can be large tractor tyres, logs and various other heavy objects “just lying around”, but in reality for training athletes this is not the case.  As a strength & conditioning coach, if you want to do strongman training with the “old school” approach, you have to go and acquire these objects.  That is one problem, storing objects such as tractor tyres, logs, kegs etc is another BIG PROBLEM.

However, what I find the most problematic issue with “old school” strongman training is the inexact nature of the overload when dealing with large groups of athletes at the same time, as is the case when you train rugby league or union players.  When you are training athletes of different heights, body weights, strength levels or upbringings (ie. those with a manual labour background versus those who do not), the imprecise nature of the overload in “old school” strongman training can cause a vast disparity in the training effect.

Following is an example of this taken from the training of the Brisbane Broncos rugby league team a few years back.  During a rugby league game the mean or average heart rate (HR) is 165-175 beats per minute, with spikes taking it higher to 180-200 and recovery periods where it may drop to 120-140 for very short times.  So we attempted to devise a session of mixed training session to prepare the players for the game by combining hard muscle work plus hard running work, which is the nature of rugby league.  The training session consisted of “old school” strongman training exercises such as tyre flipping, log carrying, water filled conduit carrying and so on coupled with some running conditioning.  Observe in Table 1 the difference in heart rate response for seven elite players, all of them NRL players, 6 of them Queensland State of Origin players at some point in their careers and 3 of them international test players.   Due to differences in bodyweight, upper or lower body strength, there is some disparity in the extent of the overload.

Obviously the overload for some of the players was where we wanted it to be, with average HR’s of around 165.  Note, however, that the two strongest players W and B did not attain the desired average HR of around 165 bpm.   Player M is similar in enough bodyweight and lower body full squat strength to W and found the session a little harder, but it was still not enough.  Why? Player W is much stronger in the upper body than player M (who is a long armed individual at an upper body strength disadvantage).  Player W also grew up on a farm and even though a full time professional rugby league payer, still worked part-time on his farm and he did this sort of stuff around his farm every week of his life.  Player B is just a strong bloke, in both the upper and lower body.  So for W and B, despite being very different in bodyweight, the workout was too easy ~ they are strong blokes, the objects were just not heavy enough to elicit the desired HR response!  M had to work a little harder because clearly his upper body strength is the weakest chain.  But three of the seven were under trained by this session!

So what could the solution be?  How could we have trained them harder?  How do we make “old school” training harder with those objects?  We cannot put another 5 kg on the tyre somehow?  Do we stop training and uncap the conduit and then fill it up with some more water or tip some out, depending upon whose set it is?  Do I go and get more logs of different weights?  Have a virtual forest of logs so there will be one appropriate for each player?

The point is that the “old school” objects cannot be incremented like standard strength training equipment such as barbells, or sleds or like the Strongman equipment from Getstrength.  When training athletes in groups you need to adjust weights according to each individual’s needs and strength levels.  Just because two players were international forwards with bodyweights of 107-112 kg, such as W and M, does not mean they will respond similarly to “old school” strongman training.

So if you are going to embark on strongman training with a large group of athletes get some strongman equipment that you can put weights onto, so that the overload can be efficiently and methodically applied to the levels appropriate for each individual.  There is plenty of good strongman equipment available that you can use standard weight plates with.  The use of these pieces of equipment will ensure a more effective overload for individuals and more efficient use of facility space, coaching time and personell, as compared to the “old school” objects commonly used.

Table 1.  Differences in hear rate responses by professional rugby league players of different body weights and strength levels (Copyright Daniel Baker 2007).

Subject1RM SQ1RM BPBWTPeak HRMean HRDifficulty
W220170112169139Too easy
B19514087175145Too easy
M190120107194156A little easy
* 1RM SQ = 1 rep max full squat,  1RM BP = 1 rep max bench press, BWT = bodyweight, Peak HR = the highest heart rate of the session, Mean HR = the average heart rate of the session, Difficulty = Approximation based upon the goal of a mean HR of 165.

Ashley Jones

Ashley Jones specialist in the physical preparation of rugby athletes. He has worked with professional sports teams that include Sydney Kings, Newcastle Knights, Parramatta Eels, Northern Eagles, Crusaders, New Zealand All Blacks, and Australian Wallabies. Irish by Ancestry, Australian by Birth, Japanese by Accident and a Kiwi by Choice.

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