Strongman: A Complex Mathematical Problem, Part 1

Westerling Athlete Carl Foemmel


By Mike Westerling


I always joke with my athletes that training them is like a complex math problem because you need to balance recovery with total work load.

If you have the athlete do too much they get over-trained or worse, injured.  If you have them do too little you end up leaving out certain events and don’t get a well rounded athlete. This is especially problematic with the pro’s who typically have 2 day contests with 7-8 events with a couple of them being 2-3 event medleys. So now they have to be proficient at 10-12 different events at different rep ranges and different time domains.

Gone are the days when an athlete could be pretty strong and in super condition and get by an athletic talent alone. The weights have become frighteningly heavy and amateur lightweights are routinely asked to handle weights heavier than those seen at “Worlds Strongest Man” just a few years ago.


Westerling Athlete Ricky Iarocca

Now, 900lb yokes are common in medleys and a 400lb log press barely raises an eyebrow!

Don’t Get me wrong, this is great for the fans and makes for some cool looking tv!  But the problem is it beats the athletes to hell and injuries are becoming more commonplace within the sport.

Barely a contest weekend goes by without someone  posting about a bicep injury in the current strength scene.

I believe the biggest problem is that “Strongman Training” is still in it’s infancy. Even though it’s been around quite a while now, the beginning competitors basically trained with weights and showed up at the contests to let the chips fall where they may.Then Jouko Ahola came along and swept the strongman world by being the first athlete to actually train the events.  Most other competitors jumped on the bandwagon and some stellar performances occurred.

This worked great for quite a while as the weights where manageable and could be recovered from fairly easily if the athlete didn’t get too crazy with the volume.  Jesse Marunde proved volume training with manageable weights multiple times a day was a good way to get to the top of the heap quickly.

This also worked great as technique and conditioning would improve provided the weights stayed “manageable”. However, show weights are no longer “manageable.” Everyone except a select few have fallen prey to the dreaded bicep injury, even Big Z and the mighty Brian Shaw.

Strongman training, like all training, has been largely derived from other strength sports with the top competitors coming from Power lifting, Olympic Weightlifting, Throwing and Highland Games. These disciplines are for the most part where their base was built and their training rightfully reflects their background.

Most competitors follow their base training methods with an extra day thrown in to practice the events or just switch their events in for like exercises in their normal routine. With the success seen by their peers it’s hard to argue with results and so they figure this must be the best way to train.

Or is it?


Westerling Athlete Ryan Bakkes

In the beginning great results are had just by learning the movements. Especially if the newbie has a good solid base of strength off which to build. As the weights get heavier the stress on the body increases and is harder to recover from.

The athlete usually pushes on  figuring “If X got me here; X will get me to the next level, I just gotta work harder”.

If the athlete has great genetics, a good head on their shoulders, and a little bit of luck this will carry them to the next level. At some point though,  400lb overheads, 900lb yokes, 1000lb tires and 400lb stones become constant fixtures in ones workout. The body eventually cannot handle the stress and something gives.

Is it any wonder a bicep tears when it’s been subjected to explosive contractions under bone crushing weights applied at odd angles for years in and years out?

Now I know everyone will cite their favorite power lifter and how much he squats or their favorite Olympic lifter and how much training volume it takes to be an Olympian. The problem with this argument is two fold:


#1 Powerlifting and Olympic lifting are both very controllable sports with standardized weights and equipment. Their bars and weights and lifting areas are largely the same and only vary by a few lbs or a couple millimeters here and there.

Strongman implements are by nature vastly different weights, measurements and the events are often times done on uneven, unforgiving surfaces.

#2  Powerlifting only has 3 lifts and Olympic Lifting 2 lifts and both only one rep range that need to be focused on and improved. Assistance work is geared toward filling in weak points and most is light in comparison to the lifts themselves and fairly easily recovered from.


Strongmen must be proficient at maybe 15 different events and could be asked to do any weight, reps or combination at any given time. To top it off, events and implements are routinely changed at the last minute giving the athletes no time to prepare specifically for them.

How does one be prepared for such chaos?

Everything must be trained!

Westerling Athlete Brett Somerville

Athletes need to be super strong overhead pressers but even that’s not enough because just being good with the bar doesn’t guarantee proficiency with the log, axle, circus bell, block or on the viking press! They must be able to walk with 2 to 4 times their body weight and may be asked to carry it in their arms, on their backs or in their hands. They must be able to pull or push giant trucks, load fire hydrants, stones, kegs, river rocks, sandbags, blocks and who knows what else a creative promoter will come up with?!?!?!

To really add insult to injury at the back breaking weights they are now asked to lift there is a specific technique needed to successfully accomplish each one, so everything must be trained!

To tie it all up in a pretty bow, these athletes  better be able to do it at any weight or in any time frame someone decides would be “cool for the fans”.

So, the question becomes: “How does an athlete train for all these variables and stay healthy long enough to get good at all of them?”


In PART 2 I will outline what I have my athletes doing and why I set things up the way I do.


Thanks for reading,
Mike Westerling

5 Responses to Strongman: A Complex Mathematical Problem, Part 1

  1. lou July 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    ha I guess strongman all have big backs. Wow.

  2. Dan Pope July 8, 2012 at 4:10 am #

    Nice article Mike, excited to see what the other parts have to say. I’m glad to see some people commenting on better safer ways to train.

  3. billy reds July 11, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    hey lou great site,keep up the good stuff. really interested in the mike westerling articles,not every day do one of the top strongman trainers give up the goods.thanks in advance.

  4. ironmill July 11, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    I have amanda tied up in the closet doing my dirty internet site biddings. But, seriously, we are very excited to have Mike write for us. He will evolve the sport of strongman in my opinion.


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