Dating back thousands of years, man has sought to prove his strength by lifting heavy stones. Lifting a heavy stone requires raw strength, grit, and determination, seldom seen in traditional gym exercises. Modern-day stones are specially molded spherical stones called atlas stones.
Due to the very smooth surface of the stone, modern strongmen and women use a glue-like substance called tacky to help adhere to the stone and aid in lifting it. While I feel this standardized nature of the stones has slightly taken away the true raw strength required to lift stones, it's essential not to neglect this aspect, as I learned back in 2016 at the Bundanoon Stones of Strength competition in Australia.
I was coming into the contest in great shape from a 6th place performance at the Australian Arnolds, where I barely missed loading a 220 atlas stone at the end of a 5 stone series. I had done my prep with tacky and stone sleeves, and the Bundanoon competition ended on a 165kg stone.
Easy, or so I thought. I was performing in front of thousands of people on a grass surface, and the stones accumulated a large amount of grass. Meaning grass would stick to your tacky, reducing its effectiveness and needing true brute strength.
This led me to fumble the final stone and have a slow time. Biggie Steffans and Luke Reynolds had monster grip and squeezing power and weren't even affected by the grass. I learned that to be truly good at lifting stones; you can't always rely on tacky.
Alongside dust and grass, the tacky itself can sometimes be a problem. Newer competitors tend to use too much tacky, making the stone slick and harder to grip. The weather can also play a role, with too hot or too cold conditions reducing tacky effectiveness. You will fail if you don't have raw squeezing strength to back it up.
Table of Contents
- Atlas Stone Technique
- Benefits Of Lifting Atlas Stones
- Atlas Stone Muscles Worked
- Atlas Stone World Record
- Atlas Stone Workout
- Do Atlas Stones Make You Stronger?
- Should You Wear Atlas Stone Sleeves?
Atlas Stone Technique
Step 1: Gripping The Stone
When gripping the atlas stone, you want your hands to go around the center diameter of the ball. Hands, you can either have the fingers splayed wide or kept closer together. There is no one size fits all approach to lifting stones.
Remember, everybody is different, and with stones being set sizes, you need to move your body in the way most efficient for you. If going with the splayed fingers approach, try to line up the center of the stone between your middle and ring finger.
If keeping hands closer together, I would go with the centerline of the ball lining up with the bottom of the middle finger. This is still personal preference, and experimentation is advised. From here, I like to try to squeeze my arms together. If the stone weren't there, I would be clapping.
Avoid using your biceps to curl the stone upwards towards you (bicep tears are common here). Instead, squeeze your arms hard into the stone and think of them as hooks while your posterior chain does the work of lifting the stone from the floor.
Step 2: Lapping The Stone
To lap the stone, you must first pass the knees. I like to think of the initial pull off the ground like a Romanian deadlift, with the hips high, tension through the hamstrings, then mentally thinking of driving my feet through the floor .
If you have decent hip mobility, bending the knees while flexing at the hips and bringing your hips closer to the stone to get more leg drive off the floor is also an option. I would aim to maintain a neutral back as possible.
A bit of rounding is inevitable, but with the load being more central than in front like a barbell, there shouldn't be as much shear force through the spine. Once the stone passes the knees, you must sit down into a front squat position. Generally, the higher you plan to load, the lower down you must squat.
This allows you to get the stone higher up on your body. For the first lighter stones in a series, this isn't needed, and for the sake of time, you're better off finishing the lift from a higher squat position.
Once in a front squat position (deeper for a higher load, shallow for lighter stone), it's ideal to regrip and reach the arms as far around the stone as possible. Pull it in tight to the body and grip the top half of the stone.
Step 3: Loading The Stone
When it comes to loading the stone, the prime mover is the hips. There are a couple of effective options here. The first and most simple is to perform a kind of front squat/hip thrust hybrid by simultaneously standing and driving your hips forward, I like to think of driving my hip 45 degrees upwards.
As you are doing this, you want to be pulling the stone in and upwards simultaneously. If you started from a deep lap position with the stone pulling high into your upper abdomen or chest, you likely won't need to extend very far to get it onto the platform. In training, it's worth extending the whole way through.
The second method is to raise your hips in the lap position before quickly reversing the motion into the first one. This utilizes the stretch-shortening cycle, enhancing force production . Martins Licis uses this technique on heavy stones with great success.
It requires a little more technical proficiency and a smaller margin of error regarding timing. I suggest trying both versions throughout a training block and finding which one you gravitate towards.
Benefits Of Lifting Atlas Stones
Strengthen Awkward & Vulnerable Positions
Lifting stones will help increase strength & muscle size in the glutes, hamstrings, and upper back. They are not the most efficient exercise to build these muscle groups as lifting stones can have a high level of fatigue and risk of injury compared to regular gym exercises.
So while not a good option for a competitive bodybuilder, they can be a good option for someone who wants to get stronger and put on some muscle while having fun training.
Stones can also strengthen the body in awkward or vulnerable positions, as the size of the stone does not allow a lifter to keep a neutral spine . Exposing the body to resistance in these awkward postures could benefit sports requiring force in awkward positions, such as rugby or wrestling.
Anecdotally, I find stones also develop grinding ability. To be a good stone lifter, you need to be patient when extending during the load. Often a lifter will give up before reaching full extension and not quite make it onto the platform.
The more stones are trained with a full-extension, the better the athlete will develop this ability. I've seen grinding ability help execute other lifts—for example, patience off the floor in the deadlift and out of the hole in squats.
Better For Strongman Competition
Stones are often the last event of competitions in the modern strongman scene. At World's Strongest Man, atlas stones are the most important event. Last man standing stones favors good stone lifters, and the faster stone time decides an overall tie for the title.
This is why atlas stones are the most important event. Even though this is at World's Strongest Man, smaller promotions often imitate the big show. Being an excellent stone lifter in strongman allows you to have an ace up your sleeve to get back points in the last event.
Develop Full-Body Strength
Atlas stones require the whole body to work in unison. All major muscle groups need to pull their weight from the calves to the forearms. Lifting atlas stones at their base form is picking up an object from the ground.
Thus the nature of the exercise lends itself to carry over to everyday events like moving house and taking out the trash. A stronger core and posterior chain will help with any deadlift or squatting motion.
Atlas Stone Muscles Worked
Atlas stone lifting will work the entire posterior chain. The glutes, hamstrings, and lower back contract powerfully to load a stone to a height. Upper body-wise, the upper back, forearms, and biceps work hard to keep the stone in place while the glutes and hamstrings can get the stone in position.
The pecs also have to assist in squeezing the stone, and the abdominals work to keep the torso rigid. More experienced stone lifters recruit more abdominals and glutes than less experienced ones who lift primarily with their backs . Take note of this when you lift stones and ensure you are making it a full-body lift.
Atlas Stone World Record
Tom Stoltman holds the heaviest Stone ever lifted with 286kg/630lb
Donna Moore holds the record for females with 171kg/377lbs
Atlas Stone Workout
If you are new to atlas stones, start with only 1-2 working sets a week and assess how the body feels afterward. Bicep tears are a real risk if not loading appropriately. Once you are no longer improving, you could add a set or two.
Stones picks and squeezes with no tacky
1 x 5
Very light stone
Stone loads no tacky
1 x 5
Very light stone
1 x 5
Stone load with small amount of tacky on hands
1 x 5
Stone load with small amount of tacky on hands and forearms
1 x 5
Do Atlas Stones Make You Stronger?
Lifting atlas stones will make you stronger. It's picking objects from the floor and loading them. This strength can aid with movements such as deadlifts inside the gym and moving furniture outside the gym.
Should You Wear Atlas Stone Sleeves?
Atlas stone sleeves protect your arms from scraping on the stone but are also a great surface to apply tacky. This makes cleaning up post-training much easier as you just need to remove the sleeves afterward and clean the tacky off of your hands (as opposed to the forearm).
Sleeves will also protect you from infecting your own wounds as often others will bleed onto stones. Whether or not to use sleeves is very much up to the individual.
We see great stone lifters wear sleeves at the world level, and some go bare skin. Another cheaper option that offers a little bit of protection and ease of clean-up is to use duct tape wrapped around the forearms.
If you like the idea of Atlas Stone lifting and want to get better at picking up objects off the floor, then give them a go. They will help develop a strong posterior chain, upper back, openhand strength, and grinding ability. Experiment with different lifting styles and equipment and find out what works for you.
Ensure you start with low-volume workouts and gradually increase them if progress stops. If you are unsure where to begin with your body type, seek a strongman coach.
1. Hindle, B., Lorimer, A., Winwood, P., Brimm, D., & Keogh, J. (2021). The biomechanical characteristics of the strongman atlas stone lift. PeerJ, 9, e12066.
2. McGill SM, McDermott A, Fenwick CM. Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jul;23(4):1148-61