A good sport for soldiers
For a lot of service personnel, social and competitive sports are an important part of staying fit. Sport makes a welcome change from long-distance running or weight workouts and adds an element of teamwork and competition.
Typically in the ADF, sport revolves around team games, such as rugby and soccer, or individual endurance sports such as running and triathlon.
These sports all have their benefits in terms of speed, strength and general conditioning, but there is one sport that combines speed, strength, endurance, grip strength, core stability and the need to handle awkward objects.
The sport is Strongman and, out of all the competitive sports in the world, it is easily one of the best for helping develop the fitness required for military operations.
Usually when people think of strongmen they think of huge barrel-chested individuals who can lift big, but who would have trouble running to catch a bus. However, these days, that’s not entirely correct.
There are now weight categories in strongman and, in the middle and lightweight classes you can find athletes who are lean and muscular and who possess incredible speed, strength and power as well huge work capacity and endurance.
Regular readers of this column will know that military service requires true functional fitness, which is the ability to handle objects in the real world, not just in a controlled gym environment.
Strongman is really the sport of functional fitness, as the whole point of Strongman competitions is to lift, load, move or carry awkward objects.
So, even if you never plan on competing, there are excellent reasons for including Strongman training in your program.
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Demands of Strongman
Warning! – Strongman training and competition is extremely tough and should only be undertaken if you’ve already got a basic level of conditioning. I like to think of Strongman as the icing on the cake for military conditioning so, make sure you’ve got a foundation of basic leg, lower-back, core and upper-body strength before starting. A few months of barbell and kettlebell training will sort that out.
Once you’ve built your base, you can use Strongman training to maximise the development of almost any aspect of your fitness. However, the main carryover from Strongman to military service comes in the following areas.
Core strength – Strongman implements are typically awkward objects like logs, stones and tyres, and a high level of core strength is required to stabilise these objects so that they can be lifted and carried.
The high loads used in other events such as the car deadlift for reps make core strength critical in transferring force from the legs and back through to the arms.
In the military, a high level of core strength means fewer injuries when carrying gear or negotiating obstacles.
Grip strength – how far can you carry a pair of full water jerries before your grip gives out?
At the top level, Strongman competitors regularly perform ‘farmers walks’ with the equivalent of seven full jerry cans in each hand! Implements such as thick axle clean and press, and sandbag loading all combine to give Strongman competitors unbelievable grip strength – and grip strength is critical in military work, for lifting, loading, climbing and much more.
Overall strength – deadlifting, stone loading and overhead pressing events develop strength in EVERY muscle in the body, without stupid isolation exercises.
The typical Strongman competitor is brutally strong and can instantly adapt to lifting huge loads even if they come in an odd package.
Conditioning – most Strongman events are quite short (90 seconds max) but they require a huge energy output, and training for them develops anaerobic/aerobic crossover fitness. This type of fitness is exactly what is required in combat situations and is a lot more applicable than steady-state aerobic fitness.
Mental toughness – the high-intensity nature of Strongman requires a certain amount of controlled aggression and mental toughness. Strongman events are often physically uncomfortable. Heavy bars tear at the hands, the infamous ‘Conan’s Wheel’ hurts the chest and arms, and racing against the clock pushes lactic acid levels through the roof, to the point where your lungs are on fire and every muscle in your body screams at you to stop.
NOTHING you’ve ever done will ever be as hard as Strongman if you go at it with maximum intensity and focus. And, I believe that in this world of air-conditioned gyms, chrome dumbbells and pin-loaded machines, what military personnel need is to get outside and get down and dirty with some hard-core training.
Traditional Strongman v Strongman training for military personnel
Strongman competitors spend a lot of time working on max strength in the gym as well as their event training.
The event training tends to be fairly short and relatively low volume because of the weight of the implements used.
This approach is geared towards being able to do a single big effort of 30 to 90 seconds, followed by at least 5 to 20 minutes of rest before the next event.
In military work, the requirement is generally that you perform a bout of high-intensity work followed by a very short recovery, and then the cycle repeats numerous times.
Therefore, if you want to use Strongman training in your conditioning, I suggest lowering the weights for things like tyre flips, farmers walks and so on, but do repeated efforts in the 60 to 90 second range with short, 30 to 60 second rests.
Occasionally you can test yourself with a heavier one-off set and longer rests.
For unit PT Strongman training, circuits and mini team comps can be set up using gear that’s generally readily available at any big military base.
Unlike most sports, Strongman events change from competition to competition and generally five to eight events are contested over a day or weekend.
Some events are specific to a certain comp, but the following events are staples of Strongman and will give you excellent training benefits.
I’ve included some typical weights in brackets for middleweight Strongmen but you should probably start with around 50 to 60% of these weights.
Farmers walk – two heavy (100 to 120kg each) objects with handles are carried either for maximum distance or as fast as possible over a fixed distance of 25 to 75m
Log press – a large log (100 to 130kg) with handles in the middle is lifted from the ground to overhead for max weight or max reps
Stone loading – five spherical or natural stones of increasing weight are loaded onto platforms of varying heights. Stones can range from 80 to 140kg+
Conan’s wheel – a tripod with a long arm (4 to 5m) is set up. Halfway along the arm, a cage filled with stones or barrels is attached. The competitor hugs the bar to the chest and then carries it around the centre pivot for max distance. Weights can be in excess of 200kg.
Tyre flipping – a large earth-moving-machine tyre (200 to 340kg) is flipped for distance or number of reps.
Truck pull or push – a vehicle is dragged or pushed for time over a fixed distance.
Deadlift or squats for max reps – deadlifting an odd object like a car, or a cage of barrels for squats. 200kg+ for maximum reps in 60 to 90 seconds.
Medleys – any two events contested back-to-back without a break.
If you want to take your training up a notch then there are a few Strongman comps being run in Australia, including novice events where the weights are lighter and people without any previous experience can have a go without needing to be able to lift a ton.
Competition really brings out the best results in people and it was notable that at the 2008 OzStrongman Nationals in Brisbane, a few of the guys competing were active service personnel.