By Rick Howard, M.Ed., CSCS, *D, USAW on 6/23/2013 Back to Articles
Program Design for Strongman Based on Training Age
Program Design for Strongman Based on Training Age
Rick Howard, M.Ed., CSCS, *D, USAW
With the continued rise in popularity of strength athletics, beginners of all ages and abilities are asking how to get the most out of strongman lifts. When designing strength and conditioning programs for any athlete using any mode of exercise, including strongman, it is important to look for the best evidence-based peer-reviewed research available that matches the target age and experience of the athlete for whom the program will be designed. There does not yet exist a large body of evidence for incorporating strongman training into program design, especially for beginners. To start the conversation using the best available methods, we will examine the progressions possible, based on training age and the types of strongman training.
What is Training Age?
Training age is a construct that provides guidance on an athlete’s level of physical condition and preparedness to begin a new or revised resistance training program (NSCA Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 3rd Edition). Training age is usually classified according to experience with the resistance training program as Beginner (Training age 0; <2 months), Intermediate (Training age 1; 2-6 months), or Advanced (Training age 2+; ≥1 year). Other considerations for program design include the type of training program (resistance, speed, etc.), adherence to training program (how long and how often), effort (intensity), and mastery (exercise technique knowledge and skill). These classifications cannot be clearly distinguished from one another but rather exist on a continuum.
Athletes will progress along the continuum at different rates. No two athletes are the same so we need to be sure to individualize our programming. Training age is a helpful tool to guide strength coaches to determine when resistance training participants may begin a resistance training program, how much effort should be prescribed for each training age, and where the athlete falls along the training age relative continuum. Training age, therefore, is not set in stone but provides us a starting point to consider when designing the program.
Guidelines to consider, adapted from the NSCA model for training age and physical literacy:
Beginner – Train 1-2 times per week; use no or low training stress; focus on technique and learning a variety of exercises; usually performed in a circuit. Think press, pull, push, squat , rotate, brace.
Intermediate – Train up to 3 times per week; can use a moderate (low-12-15 reps, heavy-5-8 reps, medium- 8-12 reps)training stress; continue to focus on technique but can vary program design to accommodate low, medium, heavy (not maximal) training days.
Advanced – Train 3-4 times per week; can include high training stress, mastery of technique, and wider variety of program training design.
Andrew Read, a personal trainer in Australia, put together an interesting training age continuum for resistance training:
Beginner - cannot squat, deadlift or bench press bodyweight, has no linear stability (as per the Gray Cook FMS test).
Intermediate - Bodyweight squat, deadlift and bench press. Has linear stability and adequate rotary stability. Can do multiple repetitions of chin ups.
Advanced - 1.5x bodyweight squat, deadlift and bench press. Chin ups with extra weight for reps and overhead press bodyweight.
Other Variables to Consider
Training age applies across all ages (a 40-year-old virgin to resistance training and an 11-year old who has never resistance trained are both classified as training age 0), but training age is not the only variable to be considered. Sport interests (what type of movements, energy demands, injury risks) and testing profile based on sport and experience (fitness attributes for athleticism and general fitness) should also be considered. Two beginning level trainees who have never resistance trained before (Training Age 0), should typically be assigned a very similar resistance training program. But what if both beginners are 12 years old but one beginner has experience with multi-sports participation leading to development of strength, balance and coordination of movement and a burning desire to get stronger, while the other beginner needs to make up missed phys ed credit? What if their biological age (can vary two years on either side of their chronological age) and their maturational age (also called mental age) are vastly different? This is another reason why participating in a variety of activities in a variety of settings which develop all fitness attributes (also known as physical literacy) is so important—the sooner we can engage a participant in positive training opportunities, the more likely they are to respond positively to the opportunity. There are no clear cut answers other than to focus on form and technique above all else, select a variety of exercises that use all major muscle groups, use a variety of implements, body weight, and light barbells and dumbbells.
Application to Strongman Training
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, chronological age is a determinant of when to begin a resistance training program. Balance, control, posture, and coordination start to mature to adult levels by around 7 to 8 years of age. Other developmental factors play a role here, too. Milestones such as attention span, ability to stay focused, and maturity to accept and understand instruction all apply. To carry out strength training effectively, athletes must have correct form and be able to move the weight in a safe and efficient manner, listen to and follow directions, and have a desire to train. NSCA recommends that at relatively the same age that kids begin sports participation (usually around age 8) they may begin resistance training under qualified supervision.
This is not to say we should have all 8-year-olds lifting atlas stones and walking with a loaded yoke. Strongman provides a multitude of fitness benefits, including: improve grip strength, reinforce ability to triple-extend, produce movement under tension, absorb and react to force, handle odd objects, cross train including powerlifting and Olympic lifting movements, and embrace teamwork and camaraderie. To place a strongman athlete on Read’s training age model might look something like this:
Beginner - Cannot lift strongman implements with bodyweight, has limited balance and stability.
Intermediate – Can lift bodyweight for strongman implements, demonstrates adequate balance and stability. Chin ups and dips with bodyweight.
Advanced – Can lift 1.5x bodyweight with strongman implements. Chin ups and dips with extra weight for reps and overhead press bodyweight.
Of course, not every event fits in the same place in this model, just as not every powerlifting event fits in the same place in Read’s model. You might be an intermediate in one event and advanced in another. That should help you plan your training accordingly. To match to the training age model:
Beginner – Train 1-2 times per week; use no or low training stress (12-15 reps); focus on technique and learning a variety of exercises; usually performed in a circuit. Include hinging and static holds of short duration. Loads that can be lifted 12-15 times but modify to lower reps of that load initially to hard-wire technique. Include exercises that allow the athlete to push, pull, press, squat, rotate, and brace.
Intermediate – Train up to 3 times per week; can use a moderate (low-12-15 reps, heavy-5-8 reps, medium- 8-12 reps) training stress; continue to focus on technique but can vary program design to accommodate low, medium, heavy (not maximal) training days. Add longer static holds, carry short distance, less weight for longer distance, then progress gradually to carrying longer distance, adding weight for distance, maintaining grip with heavier implements and/or for longer duration
Advanced – Train 3-4 times per week; can include high training stress, mastery of technique, and wider variety of program training design. By this level, you can incorporate strongman training into any of the available training models for strength, strength-speed, speed-strength and strength-endurance.
Most resistance training guidelines include variables such as strength endurance (12-15 reps), hypertrophy (8-12 reps), strength (5-8 reps), and power (1-5 reps). Of course, there is overlap for these variables along yet another continuum. Basic resistance training sets the stage for the development of other strength fitness attributes such as timed strength endurance (static hold for x seconds, number of successful lifts in x seconds, or distance travelled in x seconds, for example). Including strongman implements into a progressive strength and conditioning program helps to develop the motor patterns for correct technique, familiarizes lifters with the events of strongman, promotes variety in exercise program design, and develops physical literacy by learning to train indoors and outdoors, with a variety of implements, in a variety of settings. Athletes need to be mobile enough to achieve the proper positions in their sport, and they need to be strong and explosive enough to move from these positions.
Until more research becomes available on strongman program design and integrating at various training ages, this article can serve as a guideline to design safe and effective programs for your athletes.