They may seem unconventional, but they still hold up.
Bodybuilding and strength training for many of us may seem like ways to stay fit and healthy while looking and feeling great. But for many, it is an art form carefully done to sculpt their bodies to symmetry and perfection.
While this may be true about bodybuilding, strongmen have a rich history full of training methods and great physical feats. Strongmen today are seen as the strongest of the strong competing in competitions to prove who may just be the world’s strongest man. But at one time, history saw strongmen doing things like bending iron bars, lifting strange objects like anchors, and using their strength as a spectacle and source of entertainment.
When it comes to building, our ways of doing so today have changed drastically. With cardio machines like treadmills and ellipticals lining the back row of the gym, and cable machines spread out all over, the diversity of our workouts has changed so much. As science gets better and people learn more about how to build muscle faster and more efficiently, the ways we train evolve and our diets seem to be more researched.
Our abilities to grow have severely increased since the days of old strongmen and the strongmen today are wildly bigger in size than those from back in the day. Whether that be from supplements, diet, or exercise technology, it is most likely a combination of all three.
But what old school strongmen did are unique and fascinating exercises to still see big gains without the added luxuries of today. While many of these are unconventional, and definitely dated, they still allow for muscle growth and are fun ways to see how strongmen from back in the day prepared to entertain their audiences.
Much of the same movements we focus on today were used back then and these are important to understand when it comes to our own muscle growth and training techniques.
Ground Based Compound Movements
Any exercise involved with lifting or dragging something while working multiple muscle groups is great. Whether that be a deadlift or a sled pull, generating force allows for multiple muscles and their connective joints to work harder. Staying connected to the ground allows for increased stability and a great starting off point for a solid muscle-building workout.
Isometric training is great to place demand on your muscles without expanding or compressing them (1). These are great ways to include both upper body and lower body muscles at the same time for an all-around full body workout. Staying in one position can help improve strength for those in a confined area or with pain in certain areas. A wall sit or a plank are examples of isometric training.
Bodyweight movements are perfect for those with no equipment and those looking to save time. The benefit is you can increase strength, endurance, and explosive power by naturally working muscles like your core. With no weights to knock you off balance, they can improve your stability and flexibility and reduce your risk for injury (2). Great bodyweight exercises are the bodyweight squat or pushup.
While old school strongmen worked with traditional exercises like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses, they were able to find interesting ways to build muscle. While most were genetically gifted, like strongmen of today, they worked hard to see muscle growth and explosive power work to their benefit. Here are some of the unconventional exercises old school strongmen did for muscle growth.
Bodyweight Biceps Curls
An interesting bodyweight exercise for your biceps, this can be done for any desired number of reps for an interesting take on a bicep curl. While we mostly think of bicep curls as done with traditional dumbbells, this can be done with both arms for equal muscle balance.
Standing tall, place your left hand into your right with your arms down by your sides. Bend your arms up so your right hand is going to the right shoulder but put resistance between the left arm and right arm. You should feel this as a result of the tension created and make sure to keep that tension all the way through.
Kettlebell Triceps Extension
An exercise still used today, this is a great triceps workout that will decrease the amount of stress on the elbow and shoulder joints. You can do this sitting or standing and is a great isolation exercise for the triceps with all the benefits of a kettlebell (3). Lift the kettlebell over your head and bend your arm so it rests on the back of your shoulder, lift the kettlebell up extending your arm, pause, and lower.
Isometric Hip Abductor
This is an unusual exercise but works to target the inside and outside of the thigh. Sit with your legs out in front, bent up at the knee. Cross your arms so your right hand is on your left knee and left arm is on your right knee. Press against your inner thigh and squeeze your knees to resist the pressure of your hands. It is key to really work against the resistance of your hands and knees to feel this strange exercise at work.
The wrestler’s bride is a funny looking exercise but can really work to strengthen the neck to keep stability and avoid injury (4). Your weight will be on your head and feet and your back will be arched. With your feet facing forward and you laying on your back, lift yourself into a bridge position so your feet and neck are the only points of contact on the ground. Be careful with this one and go slow since your head does have quite a lot of weight to hold.
Great for your abs, this is essentially just a side plank. Holding a straight line with your body, have one foot stacked on top of the other and the same side hand as the only point of contact for the ground. For increased difficulty, you can elevate your feet. While this exercise is still done today, the longevity of it goes to show just how effective the side plank really is.
Old school strongmen made it work with what they had to build muscle and promote their own athletic endurance. While we are fortunate to have supplementation, better equipment, and more researched diets to increase our own growth, looking back into history can provide clues as to how these former strongmen got their strength. The movements and exercises we still use today and it shows just how effective they can be. Sometimes going back to the basics is really all you need.
*Images courtesy of Envato
- Oranchuk, Dustin J.; Storey, Adam G.; Nelson, Andre R.; Cronin, John B. (2019). “Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review”. (source)
- Langton, Becky M. A.; King, John M. S. (2018). “Utilizing body weight training with your personal training clients”. (source)
- Kravitz, Len. “Kettlebell Research Update”. (source)
- Rutgers University (2019). “Athletes should build neck strength to reduce concussion risk, researchers recommend”. (source)