Bodybuilding for Strongman Athletes: More Gains, More Strength, Fewer Injuries
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In every sport, there is a time and place to go hard on the specifics of competition and chase achievement. Then, there’s a time to build back up what competition breaks down.
The sport of strongman is no different. You may picture the world’s strongest men and women performing mind-blowing feats of strength and hauling around soul-crushing weights year-round, but they’re definitely not. And if you’re trying to, well, there’s a good chance you won’t last in this sport—or feel as good as you should doing it.
Anthony Fuhrman, the 105-kilogram World’s Strongest Man and creator of the innovative BodyFit program Total-Package Strength, says he incorporates as much muscle-building work as he can fit in year-round. He also swears it’s particularly important, and underappreciated, for beginners and amateurs in the sport.
Just get your mind blown a little bit? Here’s how and why you should prioritize gains.
Reason 1: More Size Means More Strength Potential
Strongman is a sport about lifting heavy-ass stuff and moving it around, not showing off your physique. Plus, bodybuilders aren’t all that strong, right? So goes the common objection to muscle-focused work, anyway.
Here’s the truth: Strength and muscle aren’t either/or. The more muscle you have, the greater your strength potential becomes. Plus, lean tissue is a type of body armor, which can be helpful to protect you against the punishment of the sport—just ask any football player.
Reason 2: Better, Faster Recovery
Using higher reps and lighter weights enhances blood flow to muscles, which helps carry oxygen and nutrients and speed up the process of healing. Hypertrophy training also often targets smaller muscle groups and stabilizers that are used during compound movements but not targeted as directly.
“It’s just different than the traditional 80-90 percent [of max] work at lower reps that strength athletes tend to gravitate toward,” Fuhrman says. “The problem with putting that amount of stress on your body on a regular basis is that eventually your tendons, ligaments, and bones take a beating from the effects of repetitive sheer force.”
Reason 3: Allows Room for Conditioning
Unlike powerlifting, strongman is more than a max-effort strength contest. Anyone who has ever tried it was instantly surprised how out of breath they were after just a few minutes. Fuhrman says his lighter-weight bodybuilding-style training sessions allow him to “sneak in” a lot of conditioning without doing a lot of cardio.
“Conditioning is like the ugly stepchild of strength sports,” he says. “A lot of athletes won’t do it, but the ones at the top of their field do.”
One of Fuhrman’s favorite approaches to combine muscle and conditioning is to alternate a rowing machine with light push-presses in a CrossFit-style AMRAP for 10-15 minutes. Another is to perform back squats every minute on the minute (EMOM) for 20 minutes total.
Hitting big barbell moves with a conditioning focus? A belt is a must for stronger and safer lifts.
Grow Like a Strongman Should
Below is a sample of what a hypertrophy workout might look like for Fuhrman in his off-season. This is an upper-body day based around the press movement. The popular BodyFit program Total-Package Strength with Anthony Fuhrman features a full six-week program built along the same principles, spread across four training days per week.
“The basic principles to follow are to choose a priming exercise for the area to be improved—in this case, lateral raises for shoulders—and 2-3 compound exercises followed by 5-6 hypertrophy exercises,” he says. “It is important in strongman to be able to move heavy weight over a given time, not just for one rep, which is why what would normally be strength-based exercises are [done] higher-rep.”
Creatine has been shown to increase max strength and muscle size. Taking 5 grams a day if you’re training strongman-style is a no-brainer.