MACRO CYCLE PLANNING FOR STRONGMAN
By Elliott Giles
February 27, 2019
Strongman. The sport that requires its athletes to pick up awkward objects and run with them, flip tyres, lift stones and be strong in the 3 classic lifts. Planning a training cycle for this sport can be quite tricky as the events in each competition vary every time you compete.
So how do strongmen plan their macro cycles if they don’t know what events they will be doing on the day of competition until a few weeks before hand? This is the question we are going to attempt to answer in this article.
Before deciding on what method a strongman should use to get ‘strong’ we first need to identify what attributes a strongman needs in order to compete at their best. In order of importance these are:
Aerobic and anaerobic fitness
Speed (general athleticism)
The most common events held at strongman contests are:
Deadlift event (Car deadlift for reps, max deadlift Powerlifting style, 18’’ Deadlift)
Pressing event (Axle Clean and Press, Log Clean and Press, Dumbbell Clean and Press)
Movement Events (Yoke carry, Loading race, Farmers walks)
Grip Events (Farmers or Frame hold, Crucifix Hold)
Explosive Events (Keg Toss, Atlas Stones)
However, any mixture of events could be presented to the competitor on the day of competition.
In order to appropriately program a macro cycle for a strongman we need to set a few details in place, for the scope of this article we will assume we have a healthy, average weight strongman competing in the Body Power UK Strongman event in mid-May. We are going to create a 12-month plan for this athlete to ensure that they will be able to compete at their highest possible level.
AEROBIC FITNESS - AN EXPLANATION
This is often the most overlooked part of strongman training as the key emphasis is always getting stronger. However, most strongman competitions have events that last for 60 seconds all the way up to 90 seconds in some cases. However, this doesn’t mean we are going to send our strongman on a 5-mile run as this is counter intuitive to how their body is designed to work. If a strongman were to engage in long bouts of aerobic fitness this would fly in the face of the research by Coffey and Hawley around concurrent training and reduce the effectiveness of our hypertrophy work.
However, we still want to create the ‘fittest’ strongman we can and aerobic fitness can still be achieved in small rounds of exercise such as 60 and 90 seconds according to Gastin.
So, unlike other traditional macrocycles being sold by other strength professionals we are going to have significant parts of our macrocycle dedicated to conditioning protocols to work both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. My rationale for this is simple, if we look at the top 3 strongmen of 2018 the list contains 2 ex-basketball players and a young man who is known world-wide as one of the best bus/boat/plane pullers and consistently wins the frame carry at a world-wide level. It is no surprise that conditioning makes our list as this will often be the difference between winning and not.
So how do we set up our strongman macro cycle?
The macro cycle plan above has a clear layout of the priorities for each month or phase of training, let’s explore some of the reasoning behind our choices.
WHY HYPERTROPHY OVER STRENGTH?
In the first 3 months we have chosen to make hypertrophy our 1st priority, the reason is simple – our competition is not a body weight restricted event. The heavier we are (lean mass) the more potential for strength we have to gain later in the year. A lot of strongmen do a lot of hypertrophy work after their main strength work; however, the energy systems have been heavily depleted at this point and so the amount of hypertrophy work a person is able to do is lessened. If we spend a solid 12-13 weeks using rep ranges of 8 – 12 in our big lifts and with other movements we are sure to pack on some serious size. This rep range also replicates our strength endurance events – although likely at a much lighter weight.
Need some more convincing? Here is a video of Eddie Hall using sets of 8 on the flat bench and incline months before he won World’s Strongest Man in 2017:
WHAT IS STRENGTH ENDURANCE?
Simply put this is the ability to produce a large amount of strength or force over a long period of time. This is so important for events such as deadlift for reps, pressing for reps etc. A lot of strongmen put a lot of emphasis on bringing up their 1RM to then fall short in competition as they are unable to hit 8+ reps in the event. We suggest using cluster sets or even a simple AMRAP (as many reps as possible) to improve strength endurance. This can easily be merged with events/skills sessions to make workouts even more efficient. This will also improve our conditioning as bouts of strength endurance can last as long as 45 seconds depending on the rep range etc.
What exactly should a strongman be doing 4 weeks before a contest? This has a lot of personal preference to it, however in my opinion I often think that maintaining strength and conditioning and focusing on food, sleep, recovery such as massage and skills are more important here. If you haven’t achieved the appropriate amount of absolute strength in the 7 months prior then I’m afraid it might be a bit too late. That’s not to say that the athlete shouldn’t be lifting heavy, they must do to maintain their strength. However, at this time I feel that the athlete should be ensuring their technique for each event is very good and they are minimising the risk of injury.
METHODS OF TRAINING
We would like to finish this article exploring some methods that strongman competitors can use in their macro cycle to improve the various areas of fitness.
Our top three conditioning tools for strongman include:
Every minute on the minute – pick a movement such as yoke run into farmers walk, stone to shoulder or even log clean and press. Pick a number of reps that will take you roughly 30 seconds to complete. Do those reps at the top of every minute for 8 – 12 minutes. As you get tired you will become slower, eating into your rest time and keeping the heart rate high.
Log Clean’s for reps – have you ever tried cleaning a log for 15 repetitions? No? Give it a try. Add 60% of your 1RM to the log and try 15 consecutive cleans, it will improve your aerobic fitness very quickly as it is an explosive movement that requires all muscles to work in sync.
Last man standing stone over yoke – grab a training partner and a fairly heavy stone, something you could rep 10 times. Then pass the stone over the yoke to each other until someone can no longer pick the stone up. This ties nicely with strength endurance too, although we don’t want the stone to be that heavy.
We use conditioning in our macrocycle to drive the second half of our year to greater success. A strongman who has good all round aerobic and anaerobic fitness will be able to recover faster between sets and therefore events. It is likely that our athlete will complete 5 of their events in a short time period, perhaps as quick as 2 hours (the body power strongman event is exceptionally well run). This means that our athlete is going to have to master all of their energy systems to perform at their peak come competition day.
Our strongman is going to utilise all three energy systems throughout the day, events such as loading races and keg toss can last 60 seconds or beyond, this means that we must train all three energy systems to be accessible to our athlete. Another excellent benefit of including specific conditioning tools is that our strongman is also going to be able to recover quicker between sessions and even take on more volume in each session if they have strengthened the energy systems.
As we know there are many ways to get stronger and picking a strength routine can often be very intimidating for strength athletes. Our recommendation? Keep it simple. Strength is built at 85% of your 1RM and above (Tudor O. Bompa – Periodization 2018), you do not need to max out every day as this can quite easily lead to injuries. However, if you’re patient and smart you can build plenty of strength over the year without any problems. For my strength athletes, depending on the access they have to equipment, I like to use frequency to drive volume – rather than long drawn out sessions. For example, my coach Matjaz Belsak (Slovenia’s Strongest Man) programs for me on a Monday to work up to a heavy double in the deadlift – then back off for 2 sets of 5 at 80% of that weight. Then on Friday we pull 3 sets of 6 for axle rack pulls. This gives me 6 sets of deadlifts and variations throughout the week, allows me to stay over 85% relative intensity in both sessions and keep my technique sharp as I tend to still have good energy.
There has been some use of the conjugate system in strongman, athletes such as Brian Shaw are regularly seen to use maximum lift days and dynamic lift days utilising chains and bands etc. This method is a very valid way of getting stronger, however what we need to remember about this method is that it still requires volume in order to drive adaptation. Athletes like Brian will use their multiple warm up sets to drive volume as well as back off sets, this means that if Brian is working up to a heavy deadlift he will do sets of 5+ reps until he reaches his desired weight. Consider however, that Brain is going to be deadlifting 900lb+ (400kg) on a regular basis. Assuming he is using regular 45lb (20kg) plates and performing a warm up set adding 1 pair at a time – that is 10 warm up sets as a minimum before he reaches his desired weight. If our athlete only has a 660lb (300kg) deadlift as an example, then they will only be completing 7 warm up sets. That may not sound like a big difference but let us assume that Brian is using sets of 5 to warm up, he is getting an extra 11500lb (5100kg) of extra volume through his warm up sets alone. Therefore, if our athlete wanted to use the conjugate system they must ensure to use an appropriate amount of back off sets to drive adaptation.
BIOGRAPHY: ELLIOTT GILES
Elliott is a strength athlete, strength coach, Olympic Weightlifting coach, deep tissue therapist and owner of Compound Strength & Conditioning LTD based in Essex, United Kingdom. He has competed in powerlifting in the u83kg class and most recently in strongman - competing in both Essex and England’s strongest man. Elliott enjoys working with a range of clients but has found great success coaching young athletes in Olympic weightlifting - his ‘after school club’ has become very popular in recent years. His coaching philosophy is clear and simple - move well, use the compound lifts and apply scientific principles at all times.