Strongman Training for the Tactical Athlete
In tennis, if you screw up, it’s 15-love; as a tactical athlete it’s six feet deep!
The term “tactical athlete” is becoming increasingly popular in strength and conditioning circles. Tactical athletes are folks in occupations necessitating unique physical training strategies with the objective of improving occupational performance.
A tactical athlete is unique because she must possess the tactical skills, physical ability, speed, conditioning and strength to thrive on a long-range mission or standoff, that unpredictably includes explosive bursts of speed.
Like football players, tactical athletes need to mobile, agile, strong, explosive and be able to repeatedly express these abilities under penetrating stress and fatigue.
Most people want to be able to perform like a tactical athlete; regardless of their current form of employment, this can be accomplished with the right training strategies.
No matter what a soldier’s conditioning level is, if he is not strong enough to sprint up a hill or climb over an obstacle with 120 pounds over his bodyweight, he will be compromised; and no matter how strong and explosive a police officer is, if she does not have the endurance to sprint beyond 40 yards, a suspect may flee without apprehension.
For far too long the training regimens of tactical athletes, designed by so-called experts, look like 5K training programs out of Runner’s World, this does not reflect reality. In a survey I personally conducted of 256 Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs), a vast majority have never had a foot pursuit even 300 yards once in their entire career; this echoes other research that shows LEOs rarely run even 95 yards in a pursuit.
Famed Sports Scientist, William J. Kraemer, has classified modern-day warfare as the “anaerobic battlefield”. The modern-day battlefield is anaerobic because advances in technology and troop movements. Some of the anaerobic tasks faced by modern-day warfighters are heavy lifting, repetitive lifting, heavy load carriage, sprinting (under heavy load), casualty evacuation, and many other tasks that must be done fast and under extreme load, almost sounds like a higher stake strongman contest. Strength, power, and a high amount of muscle mass with a low percentage of bodyfat are great predictors of how well a modern-day soldier can carry out these tasks.
A cursory Google search of “functional training” will show exercises that look straight out of a three-ring circus sideshow; at best, these bizarre exercises do not benefit the tactical athlete, at worst, they cause injuries.
So, what the hell does functional training really mean?
It means transfer of training or how well training transfers to an intended performance goal; in the case of the tactical athlete, it is the job and the stakes are a hell of a lot higher than wins and losses!
Mike Golden, legendary strength and conditioning coach, says the following about strongman training, “It’s irregular lifting, which makes it closer to football movements than ordinary weight training. It makes the body perform when it’s not in a perfect line, so tendons and joints get stronger. And just like in football, a player is forced to use his whole body.”
Now, let’s replace the word football with the statement occupational demands of tactical athletes, and it holds true. Take home point is this, strongman training is functional training!
The top five competitors averaged a bodyweight of 386 pounds at the 2018 World’s Strongest Man competition. Yet, these athletes are aggressive, fast, explosive, athletic, flexible and have a high level of conditioning.
Strongman, as a competitive sport, requires limit strength, dynamic strength, lactate threshold, flexibility, core strength, powerful hip extensors and a strong posterior chain.
Powerlifting is generalized as purely limit strength. The objective of powerlifting is to move the most weight possible, regardless of time or any other factor.
Olympic lifting is classified as speed strength, meaning the speed of muscle contraction or strength exhibited with speed.
Bodybuilding is all about maximizing muscle hypertrophy and minimizing body fat.
Strongman training is the synergistic blend of powerlifting, Olympic lifting and bodybuilding that can safely and effectively increase limit strength, speed strength, conditioning, grip strength and muscle hypertrophy, despite having a small learning curve and has direct applications and benefits to firefighting, military and law enforcement.
If properly implemented, the use of strongman events in a tactical athlete’s strength and conditioning protocol is a superior method for a below-average or an elite athlete to develop explosive power using triple extension (extension of the ankles, knees and hips) to produce maximal power, think jumping, sprinting or a powerful throwing movement.
Not only does strongman training build explosive strength, but it offers very functional movements that benefit the tactical athlete.
According to Bob Jodoin, strength coach and ISSA master trainer, “With stone lifting, you start with your knuckles on the ground and finish at triple extension. The loads and leverages are different, however, and this plays well into the concept of dynamic, real world training.” The movement Jodoin describes has functional carryover to the actions involved in a double-leg takedown, of benefit to any tactical athlete in an unarmed combat altercation.
Other examples of the biomechanical superiority of strongman training could be given, but Joe DeFranco says it best, “The beauty of strongman training is that there’s no one way to perform the exercises. Athletes usually end up improvising to complete the event. The tire doesn’t always flip over the same way. The sled doesn’t always glide easily over the surface. The awkwardness of these events builds true ‘functional’ strength from head to toe. This enables the athlete to strengthen muscles that are nearly impossible to strengthen with traditional training.”
Strongman training can effectively enhance grip, power, speed, static strength, dynamic strength/flexibility and strength endurance in a multi-planar environment. Moreover, just like the circumstances a tactical athlete faces in the field, the strongman events force adaptation to the peculiar circumstances of the awkward movement to complete the “lift”.
Here are examples of some, but not all, events that are beneficial to tactical athletes:
- Farmers Walks
- Tire Flips
- Stones or any Loading Event
- Any Weighted Carry
- Keg Rolls
- Log Press or Viking Press
- Crucifix Holds
- Deadlift Holds
- Truck Pulls
- Medleys (for conditioning; e.g., are Tire Flip, Farmers Walk, Sled Drag)
- Sled Drags or any Dragging Events
Remember, the reason a tactical athletes trains inside the gym is to perform outside of it. While there is nothing wrong with triple-drop set leg extensions, or solely chasing powerlifting numbers, the tactical athlete needs durability and performance in an unpredictable field.
The tactical athlete does not have the time to learn overly complex Olympic lifts that a majority of unemployed division one athletes are unable to properly execute, so the learning curve can be kept simple with strongman exercises.
All strength training must transfer; strongman training is not a substitute for traditional training but a supplement that bridges the gap between the weight room and occupational demands of tactical athletes.