Strongman Conditioning: Modern Day Cardio For Strongman

June 24, 2022

In my opinion, strongman is the greatest strength sport. To be a successful strongman, one must be well-rounded. An athlete must have a very high level of maximal strength, be mobile enough to hit certain positions and postures, and be conditioned to complete rep, carry, and endurance events.

Strongman conditioning should focus on using the events or traditional cardio to develop the aerobic energy system, which is not targeted during regular Strongman training.

Not only that, but they need to be able to do this for multiple days in a row. Having to excel in several factors means athletes can burn out trying to train too many things at once. Training economy is an important concept. We want all of the training we do to lead to adaptations without excess fatigue.

What Is Conditioning For Strongman?

Conditioning is often a hot topic with strongman. I define conditioning as "getting an athlete in shape for their chosen sport." This means for an athlete to be in "condition," they must be able to express their condition in any event.

Before we look at some specific strongman conditioning examples, it should be noted maximal strength is a prerequisite in all events. It doesn't matter how many metabolic conditioning circuits or sprints you do if you try to do reps with 90% of your max. If you have a rep event at 90% of your maximum, you would be better off focusing your training on maximal strength.

Another overlooked aspect that, in my experience, is an essential prerequisite for conditioning is having a decent aerobic capacity. Now when looking at our definition of conditioning, we can see we need to be conditioned for the sport itself.

So don't think I'm trying to convince you that you must run a marathon. No. Instead, strongmen & women need enough of an aerobic base to stay healthy and recover from the hard anaerobic work. 

Having a decent aerobic base will allow an athlete to recover better between sets of high-volume training and recovery between sessions.

If you can’t do a 45 min low-impact walk without gassing out, then you need to improve your aerobic capacity before adding in more high-intensity anaerobic work.

While you could get a decent training effect from anaerobic work, it comes at the cost of recovery. Whereas 2-3 x 45 min walks a week are low-cost recovery-wise and essentially low-hanging fruit.

To help explain this, I will summarize some heart physiology.

When heart rates are high, the heart doesn't fully expand, leading to concentric hypertrophy. This is common with strength training. Heart rate usually spikes during or post the set, then returns to lower levels.

While great for improving the contractile power of the heart, too much reduces your aerobic conditioning by reducing the size of your heart chamber, decreasing the amount of blood that can be pumped per heartbeat [1].

We can achieve eccentric cardiac hypertrophy by keeping our heart rate in the 120-150 bpm range and keeping it there for at least 30 mins.

This means the left ventricle chamber size expands, allowing the heart to pump more blood with each beat. Resulting in a lower resting heart rate and a higher anaerobic threshold.

With strongman training predominantly causing concentric hypertrophy, it’s more efficient to grab the low-hanging fruit in the form of aerobic capacity work and take advantage of the adaptations there.

So with aerobic training being such low impact and good for your performance and health, there is no reason not to do it as a strength athlete.

Now let’s talk about if you have this aerobic base and have decent strength already but find you tend to "gas out" in rep events or moving events. What can we do to make this better? Here are a few options.

When it comes to conditioning, ensure you are training the specific events or similar movement patterns. 

While using the stationary bike will help train your heart, you will be missing out on peripheral adaptations in the muscles needed for the specific event.

For example, if you have a sandbag carry medley with a time limit of 60 seconds, don't expect to do 60-second sprints on the bike to get your grip, upper back, and lower body conditioned for the medley.

You still need to train the actual movement patterns in as specific a way as possible. The bike sprints can be helpful assistance work for the medley as they can be added in without the same fatigue cost as doing more medley work. But they will not drive the adaptations needed most.

Strongman Conditioning For Max Reps

Conditioning For Strongman

The most basic option for conditioning yourself to do max reps is to perform higher reps in training. An easy way to do this is to choose a target of what number of reps you think you are capable of and progressively add weight each week as the competition comes closer.

For example, a log clean and press for reps in 60 seconds.

If you know the comp weight and aim to do 9 reps on comp day, you could progress each week like this:

  • 9 x 65% competition weight
  • 9 x 70% competition weight
  • 9 x 75% competition weight
  • 9 x 80% competition weight
  • 9 x 85% competition weight
  • 9 x 90% competition weight
  • 9 x 95% competition weight

Progressively add weight each week, then 2 weeks out hit 95% of comp weight for max reps, and deload until the competition.

This is a fundamental but efficient method. You can still have heavier lower rep work done before the rep conditioning or on another day.

Another option is to do EMOM sets.

  • 9 x competition weight w/ 1 min rest
  • 9 x competition weight w/ 50 sec rest
  • 9 x competition weight w/ 40 sec rest
  • 9 x competition weight w/ 30 sec rest
  • 9 x competition weight w/ 20 sec rest
  • 9 x competition weight w/ 15 sec rest
  • 9 x competition weight w/ 10 sec rest

With the above example goal of 9 repetitions, I would start with week one, doing 9 sets of comp weight with 1 min rest. Week 2 go 50 seconds rest, week 3 40 seconds rest, and so on. This can be a good option for someone wanting to get a feel for the comp weight or to practice a particular technique.

For example, one motioning the log. This is because doing that many sets give you more chances to practice the setup and motion without the level of fatigue that would come in the latter reps on a high rep set.

It's important to note you need to start at a level that leaves you walking out of the gym feeling like you could have pushed a little harder the first week.

If on week one you only make it through 3 reps before gassing and you're unable to recover, either the weight is too close to your max for this method, or you need to work on your aerobic capacity to recover between sets.

Strongman Conditioning For Medleys

Cardio For Strongman

Medleys are a staple of strongman and one of my favorite stipulations. They could involve carrying, pressing, and pulling various implements, one after the other. To train for a medley, the gold standard will be practicing the actual event itself.

Once again, nothing fancy is needed here. You can start with sets of your comp medley at about 65-70% of comp weight and slowly build up over the weeks before the comp. 

Not only will this help your body become conditioned to the medley, but by starting lighter than the competition weight, you can work on your foot speed and transitions. Two vital skills needed to excel in medleys.

If you have less time to train (4 weeks) for a medley or one on the heavier side, another option is to do near-competition weight. Make sure to take your time between implements, making sure you're doing everything technically sound. This is for medleys where just finishing it will be the deciding factor on placings instead of sheer speed.

Strongman Conditioning Assistance

As mentioned above, lower-intensity cardio options are a fantastic option to help assist with strongman training. It will help improve your health (you can't be strong if you're dead) and improve your ability to recover between sets and events/days of competition. 

It also comes in with a low fatigue cost compared to doing more strongman medleys or rep sets. For this, keep your heart rate between 120-150bpm for 30-60mins.

Depending on your size and level, some easy options are: 

  • Walking
  • Stationary bike
  • Light rowing
  • Light mobility circuits
  • Light shadow boxing
  • Light jogging

If conditioning is a weakness of yours and you’re already doing the strongman-specific work needed, then some extra options include:

  • Walking
  • Stationary bike
  • Light rowing
  • Light mobility circuits
  • Light shadow boxing
  • Light jogging

45-75 sec work with 1-3 mins rest for a total of 10-20mins

  • Sprints on rower or exercise bike
  • Slow weight exercise metabolic conditioning circuit (sled hammer, med ball slams, etc.)
  • Sled or prowler work
  • Battle ropes

How To Periodize Strongman Conditioning

Strongman Cardio

You should be doing less event training in an offseason or further away from competition. This is an excellent time to focus on aerobic capacity using the low-impact methods above. You can also use the higher intensity conditioning methods here to maintain a certain level of conditioning.

A 15 min HIIT session will fit fine as a replacement for doing a specific strongman exercise. For example, doing sprints on the exercise bike instead of log clean and press reps should be less taxing while helping maintain a general conditioning level.

One session of HIIT should be sufficient unless conditioning is a weakness you are addressing in the offseason. You could go to 2-3 sessions a week after your resistance training.

Closer to a competition, you want to get as specific as possible. So here, I would keep the conditioning options to lower intensity aerobic work and get your sport-specific conditioning in through your strongman event training.

Summary

Keep you’re conditioning as specific as possible. Be honest with yourself and consider what you need to improve as an athlete. Don't neglect slower, lower-intensity cardio options. Be wary of the fatigue that comes from adding HIIT to your current strongman events training.

References

Jamieson, J. (2009). Ultimate MMA conditioning. Performance Sports Incorporated.

About the Author

Colm Woulfe has competed at World's Strongest Man twice (2016 and 2017) and has won New Zealand's Strongest Man 3x (2012-2014). He also holds a Master of Sport & Exercise Degree from AUT in NZ with a thesis on strongman training.

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