Atlas Stone Training: Part 1: Gym Training
By Craig Pfisterer
I do a lot of goofy looking stuff in the gym and my large stature often compels people to ask me if I’m training for a sport. Usually when I tell them I train for strongman they confuse it with bodybuilding or powerlifting (which they then further confuse with Olympic weightlifting). I clarify to these disoriented fans by saying “you know, like on ESPN?” and their eyes instantly light up with recognition! The excited reply is generally “You pull them big trucks, flip them big tires and lift them big cement balls!?”
These articles will focus on lifting “them big cement balls.”
Atlas Stone Training: In the Gym
Stone lifting has been a traditional test of ones strength in just about every culture. Atlas stones (or McGlashen Stones) are spherical stones generally made of a concrete mix. Inserts are used to increase or decrease the weight while maintaining the same size stone. It is one of the more popular disciplines in strongman contests and they are contested in a variety of ways.
The traditional format is five stones to five platforms. As the stone weight increases, the platform heights decrease. I love atlas stone lifting and I got really good at them fast!
First time touching a stone I did over 300lbs, loaded my first over 400lbs stone in less than 11 months of starting strongman and I’m one of the few to ever load a 500lbs stone.
(See 2:00 for Craig’s 505lb Stone Load)
Now granted I have advantages, like long arms and height but that can only go so far! Hell, I’m not even considered very strong in strongman terms when it comes to static strength events. The thing is, there is quite a bit more to excelling at stone lifting than simply hoisting it off the ground.
This first article will focus on how to get stronger at atlas stones without having access to them. I have definite experience with this.
For my first year of strongman training the only time I touched atlas stones was in contests. I hadn’t figured to try looking for training groups and thought driving an hour one way to train was a bit much (oh how things have changed).
So I had to get creative!
EXERCISE 1 (see video)
The first exercise is basically “stone lifting without stones”. Essentially, I took a piece of pipe, put a flange on it and loaded bumper plates on to it. I would then bear hug it off the ground and lift it to my chest in one motion. Then I would set it back on the ground and continue to do it again for reps.
The other options would be using a barbell end or an Elitefts Stone Trainer as they are quite a bit more sturdy than a pipe with a flange but also more costly. I Actually bent two of them before I bought an Elitefts Stone Trainer (what can I say, I’m cheap).
Now this is quite versatile as you can practice just “bear-hug” deadlifts or rows, as well as working on lapping your new makeshift stone. This exercise is very helpful in teaching the lifter to squeeze the stone with the forearms and chest as well as teaching to lift with a rounded back.
This lift will help teach you to squeeze with the forearms and not pull with the arms. It will also help with “breaking” a stone off the ground.
Doing this lift in the one motion style as described above will help with the final extension and holding on to the stone. This was one of my main strengthening exercises for when I didn’t have access to stones my entire first year and really helped me excel at the lift.
Russian strongman, Mikhail Koklyaev, actually used this exercise as he also didn’t have stones and he too is one of the few men in the world to lift an atlas stone of over 500lbs!
I recommend using bumper plates at least for the middle of the plate stone for two reasons.
- Won’t mess up the floor as much.
- Will allow you to grip it easier.
Metal plates are slick and being sweaty will make it very tough to hold on to it. If there are no bumper plates, try chalk and athletic tape on the arms. This is a good lift to have on say a lower body training day as an accessory lift.
REMEMBER: This not the end all be all if you can’t get the exercise to work for you. There are other options! This is a good lift to have on say a lower body training day as an accessory lift.
EXERCISE 2 (see video – 1:31)
The next set of exercises I’ll just label as Zercher Lifts. Really they are just lifts with the weight in the crook of your arms. You can do good-mornings, squats, rack lifts, pulls off the ground and add variations.
I’m not a fan of doing these with a regular barbell and it is NOT JUST because of discomfort. Discomfort is something you have to deal with a great bit if you are venturing towards actually training the Atlas Stones.
The reason I am not a huge fan of Zercher lifts with a regular barbell are that these 3 specialty bars do a much better job in my mind to simulate stone lifting better.
- The first is the cambered squat bar. The weights rock back and forth so your core will have to activate and work that much harder.
- The second bar I recommend is the safety squat bar. By wrapping your arms around the yoke part of the bar, you can work on squeezing the chest while lifting. Also, the camber will rock you forward, like a stone.
- The third bar is my favorite and that is the thick bar. While it doesn’t rock like the previous two, its larger diameter pushes it farther away from your body. The increased surface area also lessens the pressure on the nerves near the biceps. Also an added bonus to the thick bar: the larger size puts a lot of pressure on the forearms, similar to a stone.
My two favorite variations of this lift for were a squat and a rack lift.
The squat I would start from the top and go into a deep squat and rest the bar weight on my thighs. I would then squat back up and repeat.
The rack lift I’d do from about 3” above my knees. I’d let each rep settle on the pins before lifting it again.
The Zercher lifts will help with “uncurling” the body to load a stone as well as help to get the stone moving off of your lap. This could be seen as a midpoint lift as you will not be working on breaking off the floor strength or the top end extension strength of stone lifting.
If going heavy (3-5 reps), I’d suggest keeping this on your heavy lower body type days as a secondary exercise but can be used for higher reps on a light day as well.
EXERCISE 3 (see video – 2:23)
Another good exercise is the glute bridge which goes by several alias names such as: hip lifts, hip thrusts, barbell lovers, weighted night moves and womb wreckers. These were made semi famous by Bret Conteras, aka “The Glute Guy. “
Really any variation of this lift will do, either the floor version or the bench version (which has two variations as well). Add bands or chains as needed or for variation.
A lot of people try them and don’t really go up as heavy in weight as the pain tolerance plus the learning curve is a bit tough. A “sissy” pad only helps a little. You can load up to a lot of weight on these if you push them hard in your routine and train them regularly. I’ve done a single with over 700lbs when my deadlift was just over 600lbs for instance.
So why go through the trouble of this awkward and often painful movement? Answer: Because it is probably the best exercise to improve drive off the hips with a stone in both power and endurance.
If my lower back is fresh, stones fly up off my lap. If my lower back is fatigued I can still grind out a lift for several seconds. I caution you to really only focus on this lift if stones is a major weakness as the hip thrust can be very taxing and I find it has very little carry over to the bigger lifts such as squats and deadlifts.
This is another midpoint lift but it has a bit more emphasis on the extension. Keep these on a lower body day and depending on your preference either a light or heavy day will work also.
EXERCISE 4 (see video – 2:41)
The final exercise is actually an upper body lift but I find it instrumental in improving stones.
It is the Rear Deltoid dumbbell raise with quite a bit of body english.
Explosive upper back power is vital to strongman and this exercise has been very good to me for developing that necessary strength.
I do them face down on an incline bench so my lower back gets rest and I can focus on just the upper back. Higher reps are good on these and also help you to focus in the exact muscles you are supposed to use (Traps, Rear Delts, Romboids)
Raise the weight fast and try to fully extend the arms at the top. This will help a lot with holding on to the stone as you go into extension.
Add this exercise to the end of an upper body training day to see improvement in the top end of your stone loads.
Hopefully these exercises with accompanying tips should provide you with plenty of alternatives to implement into your gym workouts (along with healthy doses of squats, deadlifts and presses of course).
These exercises should at least start to prepare for you the task of lifting an actual atlas stone!
The next article will detail out how to load odd objects and the World Strongest Man famous ATLAS STONES!