Dangerous Strongman Circuits for Women (or Men!)

Posted on 14 Feb 2012 20:57

I once wished that strongman was a more popular sport. Well, I am beginning to get what I wished for. However, I failed to foresee the unfortunate side-effect of this popularity: Trendy "Strongman fitness" programs thrown together in slapdash fashion for mass consumption. Case in point, this news program from NBC Today showing a Strongman circuit program for women.

While I have no general problem with certain strongman type "exercises" being used in general fitness and strength training, I do have a problem with throwing it all together in a fatigue producing session done break-neck style for people who do not necessarily have any strength training background or strength base.

We see sledgehammer work (okay, not SG), Atlas stones, Tire flipping, Yoke Walk, Farmer's Walk, rope flipping, etc. So what's the problem here? Why is this dangerous? I see two major problems.

The first is that certain strongman events just aren't fit for a general audience. Guess which one I am going to pick on here. No, I don't mean tire flipping, I mean the Yoke walk. The benefit to risk ratio is just too great and for those without a solid background in strength (with the stability that comes with it) I see badly wrenched knees and turned ankles, not to mention face plants. There are lots of very good choices that can yield the desired results that aren't so very risky as a huge instability producing Yoke.

The second thing is the main problem, though. I have no idea what the proprietors of the gym in the video actually practice, but a 40 minute circuit routine should NOT be the environment in which you learn and practice ANY new strength training exercise…especially things that involve lifting heavy objects. A woman lifting a 60 to 90 pound stone, under fatigue, for the first time in some half-ass "fitness program" is a recipe for sprained back, torn muscles, and maybe even slipped discs.

Lest you think I am scared of heavy objects, the truth is, I actually think that the sledgehammer could be just as big a source of problems, if not a bigger source, than the stones, tires, or yoke. Most clients will tend to respect these implements but think nothing much of the sledgehammer, where failing to maintain the lower back and going into repeated flexion and extension (i.e. using the lower back as the mover) can do a back in but good (ask me how I sustained 20+ years of pain). The large target area for the maul's head makes this less likely but clients would need to be monitored and taught just as carefully on the hammer as anything else.

Look closely at the sequence showing a woman flipping a heavy rope up and down. Such a large rope is actually a lot heavier than you might think. Now, look at what her lumbar is doing. That, my friends, is more "dangerous" than a properly done deadlift. It's not just going into flexion I'm talking about. We should be perfectly capable of that. It's repeated flexion/extension of the lumbar under load.

Alongside all of this, one of the biggest aspects of strongman type events is grip strength and grip endurance. If we look at the cross-section of events (rope flipping, the sledgehammer, atlas stones, farmer's walk, and tire flip) there are a number that rely heavily on grip. Perhaps one of the not often thought of aspects is finger strength and overall hand toughness. Anyone that has done tire flips will know that it can be a real killer to your hands and this is especially true for the fingers. Every tire flip begins by getting your fingers under the edge of the tire and lifting it up on end. Depending on the weight of the tire and/or the number of flips, the small muscles of the fingers can become extremely fatigued, or worse, injured. Similarly, the texture of the tire can be very abrasive and damaging to the skin. Simply put, the vast majority do not have "hands" that are conditioned for this type of activity. Combining all of this with a relatively untrained population, a circuit style of training, and not to mention a significant lack of lifting chalk, and you have a recipe for injured hands, forearms and fingers, cuts, scrapes, blisters, and torn skin.1

Coming to a heavy object or demanding strength exercise at the end of a fatigue producing circuit or medley is not how a trainer would normally introduce something new. Can a person learn under such conditions? Well, here is what I had to say about this in a past newsletter:

"…Assuming that the average person can learn the lifts without going through an intensive clinic, what are the training facets that are at work in deciding if one should program the lifts right off the bat or if you should go with, as we call it at GUS, a "honeymoon period"? Well there are many many things to consider but the two main questions at work here are the affects of fatigue and performance on learning.

The problem is that it is a circular consideration. Does fatigue affect learning? Not as such. You can teach a trainee a skill, have them practice for a while and see them improve. Now, the trainee practices for a while longer and gets tired. He rests. He goes back to practice and returns to pre-fatigue skill levels. Okay, so the fact that fatigue is introduced, at least acutely, does not "undo" the learning or damage a trainees ability to learn in itself.

Should we take that as an excuse to throw a trainee under the bus and aggressively program a lift he or she has just begun to perform? Aggressive programming means that fatigue will be a part of the picture on a chronic basis. Fatigue doesn't affect learning. But it affects performance. Performance affects learning. See the circularity here? If we practice a new lift in a consistently fatigued state, our performance of the lift is affected and thus our learning. If 50 percent or more of one's exposure to a lift is performed under fatigue, can that NOT influence the quality of the learning?

And does it matter? Do we care about the influence of fatigue or do we simply care whether the trainee learns the lift very well and hones it in as well as humanly possible? It depends on how much of a hurry we are in. Trainers get paid to produce results…"

Here, the results are "functional fitness and strength." To me, those are a bit nebulous and therefore the risk level is a bit off kilter. And regardless of what we know about learning, you can be sure that motor learning investigations are not done with the lifting of Atlas stones or flipping tires in mind! Strongman competitors do not just wake up one day, decide to become a strongman, and start flipping tires, lifting stones, doing Farmer's Walk, carry a Yoke, etc. all on the same day and all at once in a big hurry to get the workout finished. Most of them have a very thorough background and grounding in strength, and many have been, and still are, Powerlifters. I am sure more of this kind of program will be popping up all over the place. I am also sure the accompanying waivers will be quite thorough!

Despite all this and the warning given in the headline, I like the ideas inherent in this kind of thing, used judiciously, and some of the messages promoted in the piece. I like them enough that I'll list them in with bullet points:

  • Encourages women to lift heavy weights in strength training, and promotes lifting heavy in general.
  • Discourages the myth that lifting heavy weights will make you bulky.
  • Can be very, very FUN!
  • Will definitely get you in shape and make you feel strong and confident (if applied judiciously).

I am not sure that the women shown in the video were having fun, per se. That is part of the problem with most training: People are not having fun in their fitness pursuits. But using ideas from strongman as part of a more basic strength training program, and yes, as part of circuits or medleys is certainly a good idea. I am not opposed to it being done, I applaud it. I am only opposed to the way it was done (based on the assumptions above).

This page created 14 Feb 2012 20:57
Last updated 21 Mar 2018 03:16

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