Train Like A Strongman

Man does sled pull with a harness in a gym
(Image credit: Glen Burrows)

Strongmen don’t top many ‘body types you’d love to have’ lists. Zydrunas ‘Big Z’ Savickas wouldn’t look out of place playing professional darts, for instance, and even Hafthór Björnsson (AKA the Mountain from Game Of Thrones) looks like he probably gets out of breath climbing the stairs. So, even if strongman-style kit such as sleds and tyres is becoming more popular and accessible at gyms around the UK – my local Fitness First included – is it really worth doing?

“You don’t need to have the physique or strength of a strongman to get the benefits of training like one,” says coach Luke Chamberlain, as I arrive for my first modified strongman session. “Appearances can be deceptive. Professional strongmen eat up to 10,000 calories a day to add mass and counterbalance the enormous weights they lift, but if you take diet out of the equation, a lot of the more unusual events they do can be replicated in a gym and modified to help achieve huge improvements in physique and athletic performance.” Good news.

Flipping out

After some mobility-based warm-up drills, Chamberlain rolls out an 80kg gym-specific ‘tyre’ – complete with handles. “You’re going to flip the tyre down the length of this track, then deadlift it by the handles and carry it back,” he says, which seems reasonable enough. “You’ll do that continuously for one minute, rest for a minute, and repeat four times,” he adds with a smile. Ouch.

Flipping the tyre turns out to be easier than carrying it, but that’s not saying much, and within 30 seconds I’m sweating and breathing hard. The combination of full-body strength, power and endurance required to pick up the tyre and repeatedly carry it the length of the track is exhausting. By the end I have no choice but to ditch the tyre and collapse on the floor in a heap.

Next is the sled. Elite strongmen can pull trucks weighing up to 40 tonnes, which makes the 80kg on the sled seem puny. But it’s more than my bodyweight, and after a few lengths of the track my legs are seizing up while the harness bites into my shoulders.

After five brutal one-minute rounds – punctuated with one-minute rest periods – I finish with five rounds of clean and pressing with a ViPR, which, Chamberlain explains, replicates the strongman-style log press. It’s a welcome break from forcing myself up and down the track, but I soon start to struggle, and it’s a huge relief when the session ends.

The Power Of One

“A one-to-one work-to-rest ratio is crucial for maximising the fat-burning, muscle-building powers of strongman exercises,” explains Chamberlain when my shaking and dizziness has subsided. “Working for a minute at maximum capacity produces large amounts of lactic acid, especially with big compound exercises like these. The body responds by releasing extra growth hormone and testosterone, which helps you build lean muscle.”

The exercises also have a huge fat-burning metabolic effect. “So much so that they cause an ‘afterburn’ where you burn calories for hours after a workout,” he says. “These two factors make MST ideal if you’re trying to achieve a lean, muscular physique – you’ll see far better results than you would a typical body-part split workout.”

Strong To The Finish

The sessions don’t get any easier over the weeks, but I’m impressed with the visible changes in my physique, supported by a 1kg increase in muscle mass and a drop in body fat of four percentage points. What’s more, the workouts become increasingly fun as I get used to the mental challenge. As a bonus, I even set a couple of lifting PBs in the gym in moves where I’d been stuck on plateaus. It might not be pulling trucks, but it’s a start.

Walk This Way

No access to strongman kit? These three exercises use regular equipment and are ideally suited to the “five rounds, one minute on, one minute off” format

Overhead barbell carry

Builds your shoulders and core

Walk holding a barbell overhead with arms locked out and core braced.

Weight plate Zercher carry

Builds your arms

Hold a weight plate at chest height in the crooks of your elbows, keeping your shoulder blades pulled back.

Dumbbell farmer’s walk

Builds your legs and forearms

Walk with a heavy dumbbell in each hand with palms facing.

Ben Ince

Between 2010 and 2016, Ben was the deputy editor of Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Ben also contributed exclusive features to Coach on topics such as football drills, triathlon training plans and healthy eating.