Incorporating Strongman into CrossFit


As CrossFitters, we employ a wide range of training tools that have been deemed “functional”; compound/multi-joint movements which replicate the stresses of life, and carry over to all forms of physical activity, be it sport, work, or a healthy active lifestyle. From the very beginning CrossFit has borrowed extensively from the well established disciplines of powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and gymnastics, all of which regularly use movements which are considered functional. Some of the best coaches in these fields have been sought out to ensure that, while used in a limited capacity, we are getting the maximum training benefit through our use of these disciplines. Mark Rippetoe, Mike Burgener, and Roger Harrell are now household names in our community, and rightfully so. Their contributions to CrossFit has brought insight to the table that cannot easily be gained without years of coaching and experience in the field. Their involvement has sparked a large amount of public talk about lifting and gymnastics. A quick look at the CrossFit messageboards will show eager athletes learning the Clean, working towards a new deadlift PR, or mastering the freestanding handstand. Ease of access to expertise and frequent debate has given a large group of people insight into fields they may have otherwise known nothing about, resulting in extremely well-rounded athletes.

Yet there’s a missing piece to the CrossFit pool of expertise which it draws from, a major and established discipline which in our community is rarely talked about and frequently employed incorrectly. What I’m talking about here is Strongman, and it’s incorporation into CrossFit training.

Going by the given definition of “functional” training by CrossFit, many of the movements seen in strongman competitions and training programs fit the bill. Looking to Mike Burgener’s training philosophy, these movements satisfy “Yes to the 4th power”.
In terms of real-world application, many movements arguably surpass the barbell. For the majority of the barbell lifts, the bar follows a fairly smooth straight line while you move around the bar. Through the use of odd-object lifting and the wide variety of implements (the axle, log, tires, etc…), you are forced to learn how to use your body to support and control objects in a much different manner. In the real world/sports, there is a high degree of flexibility when it comes to how a task is performed. While there is a generally accepted way to perform the Clean and Jerk, Snatch, back squat etc… what counts in strongman is the finished product much more so than the method. There are various techniques which have been found to be more efficient or safe, but there is a great deal of leeway which enables you to use your personal strengths/anthropometry to your advantage. This is real-world application as opposed to max force production, and to be a well-rounded athlete you’ll need both.
Lastly, strongman closely ties into the CrossFit mentality of using cheap resources for maximum gains. No $1000 machines required. Free, cheap, or easily fabricated can describe many a strongman implement.

In order to begin training with strongman, let’s start off by choosing the implements that would be best integrated into CrossFit. Practically speaking, CrossFitters rely on not only cheap, but often portable and easily attainable equipment. A super yoke or Conan’s Wheel setup does not have much of a place in most CrossFit gyms. We must also use movements that can be performed quickly and repeatedly, with little setup time. I’m sure truck pulls are a blast, but I just can’t picture using it in conjunction with much else, especially in succession. Finally, preference should be given to explosive, metabolically demanding movements.

From these criteria, we come up with the following list of common strongman movements:
1) Tire Flips
2) Sled drags/Hand-over-hand sled pulling
3) Odd object manipulation – lapping, shouldering, loading, pressing – stones and sandbags
4) Log or Axle Clean and Press
5) Heavy Support walking – Farmer’s Walks, Stone/Keg Carrying

Now that we’ve got our list, in the next article we’ll get to work. For each of these movements I’ll go over how to acquire or build the implement, proper technique(s), and provide a CrossFit-style workout incorporating strongman elements to get you rolling.

farmer’s walk bars

Disclaimer: In no way do I pretend to be an authority on strongman training. I recently took a 6 week class at The Weight Room/River City Strongman taught by Chris Lawyer. Since then, I have continued to train using the implements at the weight room, as well as training on my own and integrating strongman movements into CrossFit workouts. I’m here to pass on any information I can, enjoy!