Article written by Matt Mills
I have always been a big believer in doing lots of assistance exercises, especially when it comes to the sport of Strongman. Higher volume training has always been something my body has responded best too. Most beginners to the sport need to focus on the main movements of Strongman and improve their technique. Once a base has been established namely in the deadlift, overhead press, and moving events, then more accessory exercises can be added to the program. The best competitors train their weak points, and that is where the accessory work comes in to help. These are just a handful of assistance exercises I use to improve my events. Now, this list is not a replacement for any of the main barbell lifts or strongman events as we are looking to improve here.
1. Paused Front and Back Squats
If you have never tried paused squats, they are very humbling. Start with a very light weight, and slowly build your way up to a heavier set. I like to pause for 3 seconds at the bottom, any less and I don’t feel there is much benefit and any more, you may pass out. You want to make sure you hold your breath at the bottom of this movement, breathing out will only relax you to some degree. The pause front squat has the best carry over to improving the atlas stone load and picking a Husafell off the floor. A good tip on this exercise is to stay tight! Any kind of relaxing out of the hole will make this miserable to finish. Keep yourself honest with these and have someone count for 3 seconds, otherwise it will turn into hardly a pause at all. Not only do paused squats help in building your deadlift and stone events, they also improve your strength coming out of the hole with normal squats. If you want to make these even more difficult, try paused back squats with a Safety bar if you have access to one, and lose the belt here to build more core
2. Snatch Grip Deadlifts
In strongman, it’s not very common to have a deadlift event be from a standard height. Generally it is something extremely heavy but raised off the ground 12 to even 18 inches sometimes. For some this may be an easier lift, but for others, this height can be extremely challenging to get the bar moving. Deadlifting from this height takes an incredible amount of upper back strength which is exactly what we are focusing on when performing a snatch grip deadlift. For those of you who have done a car deadlift this movement is essential for building strength at that angle. A whole other article could be written about how to do a car deadlift but the angle you must pull at requires huge amounts of upper back strength. I love any variation of a snatch grip deadlift for its degree of difficulty, and I feel it is one of the best exercise to add muscle to your entire body.
3. Z press
The Z-press I feel is the most challenging overhead press that can be performed with a barbell and it’s named after the strongest presser in the world, Zydrunas Savickas, so you know it must work. Strictly Military presses should always be part of your program but when the weight gets too heavy you tend to lean back to press the weight overhead. With the Z press you must stay perfectly up right as you drive the bar overhead. Your core will be greatly challenged, as well as your shoulder stability, both needed to press awkward objects overhead in strongman. Make sure you set the pins or straps about clavicle height so you won’t have much of a problem getting the bar into position. Make sure you drive your head through as the bar passes your forehead, otherwise with a heavy weight you will fall backwards. This movement can also be performed with dumbbells and kettlebells.
4. Overhead Dicks Press
Another exercise to build lockout strength in the overhead press, the Overhead Dicks press is deceiving in how difficult it really is, but your triceps will thank you later. As Chad Wesley Smith told me “don’t worry it has nothing to do with your dick.” Begin by pressing the bar overhead and keeping your body extremely tight, especially in the glutes. From the bar being locked out, lower the bar right to your fore head. Proceed to skim the top of your head and bring the bar right behind the back of your head but be careful to not go down too far. Think about just shaving the top of your head without actually touching the bar to your head. Once you reach the back of your head, bring the bar right back to the front of your forehead and press overhead. The breathing can be a little tricky on these but I like to take a big breath in while the bar is overhead then breath out and back in after a rep at lockout.
5. Zercher Good Morning
As if Zercher Squats weren’t painful enough, try using this position as a good morning. This movement can be very difficult to perform,, as you will reach a point that you will not be able to hold on to the bar. Unlike the squat where the bar must stay tight to your body during the goodmorning you must let the bar travel out as you drive your hips back. Even at 135lbs this movement can be very tough on your glutes, hamstrings, and low back: 3 muscle groups that are essential to strongman. Focus on driving your hips back but squeeze your glutes hard coming back up. Recently, I have been pushing the weight on these but have been using the help of a front squat/zercher harness to keep the bar in place. You look like you are ready for a Mad Max movie but it’s worth the investment to go heavier. If you are looking to improve your deadlift, then give these a try.
6. Pendlay Rows
This list couldn’t be complete without a row variation, and the Pendlay row is at the top for building a bigger and stronger back. There isn’t a strength sport out there where you couldn’t benefit from having stronger lats, traps, and erectors. You want a bigger deadlift, here you go, want to hang on to that husafell a little longer, get a stronger back. The Pendlay Row is essentially a bentover row but you will dead stop the bar on the floor after each row. I like this variation much better than a basic bentover row for a couple reasons. One being the increased range of motion. On a barbell row we tend to stand a little more upright as we get tired bringing the bar to the lower abdomen. During the Pendlay row the bar must come right to the lower chest/upper abs every rep. Also the dead stop off the floor every rep will build your deadlift strength as well as pick up odd objects off the ground in strongman.
7. Hatfield Squats
Named after one of the best squatters ever Fred Hatfield aka “Dr. Squat.” They have recently been introduced to me from Josh Bryant and I really like this exercise for a lot of reasons. The first being you can move some heavy ass weight which is always a nice ego booster. I was never a fan of doing heavy partial squats because I always liked hitting depth in a squat as I’m sure any reader of Lift Big Eat Big does. The only downside of this exercise is you need a safety bar to do them as you will not be able to balance a barbell on your back without using your hands, unless of course you are Mikhail Koklyaev.
When you walk the bar out, take very shallow steps as to stay close to the rack to hang on. As you descend grip tight and keep the chest as high as possible. Coming out of the hole, try not to pull yourself up as hard as possible, but rather use the rack to stay in a good position to make your legs do more of the work. Don’t worry, the safety bar will not move while you are squatting which makes it another great investment for anyone with shoulder issues squatting with a barbell. Not only does the Hatfield squat make the barbell squat into more of a full body exercise it also will build a faster yoke time.