| | Strongman for a Strongerlady

Author / John

We deal with a lot of misnomers in the strength and conditioning world- CrossFit Football being one of them.  I would venture to say another is Strongman.  True to it’s name, it certainly requires an impressive base level of strength, and not only that, the highest level athletes in this style of training are the perfect example of form following function.  Generally speaking, the sport is comprised of giant male specimens and has always had a much larger “bro” following, than “broette”.

The term “Strongman” has really evolved over time and still means different things to different people.  In my opinion, folks outside the world of CrossFit probably have the most accurate interpretation of the term assuming it was based on channel surfing at 3am.  Why ESPN – “The Ocho” insists on airing some of the most manly examples of badassery so late at night is beyond me.  Strongman in it’s most pure form is man’s best display of brute strength.  The movements are as varying as the implements used and over time it has found it’s way into the CrossFit community through educational seminars and training outlets such as Hybrid Athletics.  Although I believe Strongman training has been altered to suit our needs, generally speaking, the spirit of the sport has been preserved.

Like most other aspects to strength and conditioning, what was once dominated by bros is now being infiltrated by the fairer sex.  It does seem only natural that women would eventually gravitate towards something outright awkward and inconvenient.  Think about it, we love that shit.  High heels, child birth,  purses that double as carryon luggage, the list goes on.  In fact, it is the awkwardness of the movements that pose the most benefit to anyone looking to gain strength.  Struggling to balance, manipulate, or coordinate effort in this anaerobic style will challenge and develop our efficiency.  Barbells and dumbbells are conveniently shaped and very generous to our little paws.  These ergonomic implements are the effectual strength training snuggie – making us feel good about ourselves when we are banging heavy weights.


Bobbi Woodson, CrossFit Strongman Seminar Staff instructor, has been competing for 4 years and is a huge proponent for getting chicks involved in Strongman.  With moderate coaxing, she encouraged me to compete with her in a local competition.  Despite my joking that we would simply be asked to sit in lawn chairs and correctly identify “strong men”, we were actually required to shoulder, squat and carry atlas stones, do weighted wheelbarrow walks, and my least favorite- max weight yoke carries.  I had experience in my own training with all of the movements so I was pumped to get out there and push myself.

I knew it would be “hard” but it was difficult in a way I had not yet experienced in competition.  Amid the forearm fatigue and grip failure was a genuine mental toughness threshold.  Getting under a 400 lb yoke, attempt after attempt, only to gain 2 or 3 shaky steps takes commitment and shear fight, especially when your judge – Chad Wesley Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems – is looking at you like you like you are an incredible pussy.  When the lady behemoth next to you is matching you stride for stride and the crowd is screaming because you have a meager 2 inch lead, you’ve got to think to yourself “She’s tired.  I’m not.  She’s weak.  I’m tough.”

Aside from the mental fortitude you gain from grueling movements so intensely awkward and humbling, Bobbi likes to emphasize the crossover to our more familiar CrossFit style workouts.  “Doing a workout with an odd object can be very different and taxes different muscle groups which will only increase your gains.  For example, do Grace with a barbell as you normally would.  Then do Grace with odd objects for a few times – stones, kegs, fire hydrants, you name it!  Then go back to Grace with a barbell and you’re going to crush your time.”  As you can see, Strongman training affords all athletes numerous benefits, but does it offer anything unique for the ladies?

"Kati" | Kati Luoto (FIN) at World Strongwoman Championship 2008 in Tczew

Well, no.  Training heavy with awkward objects has mutually beneficial applications to both men and women.  What I will suggest, however, is that women just have a lot more …we’ll call it “opportunity”… for strength gains than our male counterparts.  Don’t be mad ladies, it’s science.  Absolute strength is heavily reliant on an efficient central nervous system and one of the most influential growth hormones responsible for CNS efficiency is testosterone.  What we know is that anything that is going to stimulate lactate (lactic threshold training) in the bloodstream will absolutely increase testosterone.  Strongman training is an excellent resource for provoking such a hormonal training response, ipso facto, chicks need it.

Ms. Woodson also says that along with it’s misleading name, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding Strongman training.  One biggie is that you can easily get injured slinging kegs, pressing axels, or carrying stones.  No shit.  “You can get hurt doing anything at any time.  That is why we teach technique and give you the “watch outs” on how to keep yourself safe.  Just like any other movements – you use your head first” says Bobbi.  The other major misconception is that women will become …wait for it… too bulky.  Leave to Bobbi to be a shining example of femininity and strength in this sport.  “I am proof that the scale went up but my jeans size went down”.

Whether your strength gains have reached a plateau or no amount of Dr. Tom’s supplements can get you jazzed for your boring old training, Strongman movements may be the solution to your workout woes.  My advice to anyone looking to implement more awkward, grip intensive, and potentially very CNS taxing movements, ask yourself what you’re training for.  If it’s to get stronger, better and more prepared for the “anything and everything” that is CrossFit, or become a resident badass and compete in Strongman, find a coach and get after it.  Female or male, Strong(wo)men athletes are the informal ambassadors of one of the oldest and most impressive sports in history.


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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. Christian on January 6, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    How would someone best go about adding strongman to the CFFB protocol? I’ve tried in the past to add an event day on Saturday instead of conditioning and then drop the Friday workout in favor of an extra rest day. Seems to work okay but I’m wondering if there is a better way.

    • CALI on January 7, 2014 at 2:46 pm

      That’s a good start. Like the guys above suggested- sub in awkward objects that replicate the intended movement pattern. You will likely end up using lighter weight because of the instability/awkwardness but you’ll still reap the benefits of high motor unit recruitment.

      Something to consider is that depending on what you’re training for, you may not need to throw in Strongman training. If you are a high level athlete with a dialed in SPP, Strongman could potentially have some detraining effects because of it’s taxation on the CNS and the fact that it could take an athlete out of good posture and position. Again, that is mostly for athletes with an incredibly specific skill set- ie a baseball pitcher. You could make a much better argument for a lineman.

  2. 01/07/2013: Happenings | CrossFit Jersey City on January 6, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    […] Strongman for a Stronger Lady […]

  3. Jim G. on January 7, 2014 at 5:53 am

    Christian, I have strongman implements in my garage and will do subs for the Conditioning work that CFFB posts.

    For example, there was a clean and jerk/t2b DWOD a few weeks back. Instead of C&Jing a bar, I used my stone.

    Or when sprints are programmed, and there is ice and snow all over the driveway, I might do farmer carries or yoke walks or stone carries.

    Going overhead? Use an axel instead. It may not be as rx’d by CFFB, but if you have the itch to get some strongman implements, it’s a good solution. I don’t do any standard medleys or max rep type events…

    • CALI on January 7, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      All good ideas if you’re just looking to keep the workouts interesting. It’s important to note that if you are a field sport athlete, there is no substitution for running/sprinting.

  4. Ingo B on January 7, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Christian – not exactly Strongman, but I also sub in awkward versions of RX’d implements on occasion for variety’s sake. Examples include: pull ups off the 2×4 spanning the Smith Machine, Fat Gripz, tires in lieu of slam balls.

    Beauty of CFFB.com programming is that it’s a shell, so if you’ve been to a cert and/or know what you’re doing, the world is your oyster.

  5. Christian on January 7, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    Thanks for the ideas everyone. I’m actually training specifically for strongman competitions. I like the CFFB protocol because it’s excellent strength and conditioning work. Just wondering if it can be adapted to strongman training.

  6. Chad Wesley Smith on January 7, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Gosh way to make me seem like a dick haha

    • CALI on January 8, 2014 at 9:31 am

      For the record, you were not a dick at all. I genuinely felt bad that you had waste time with us mere mortals. Especially those dbags who dropped down a division so that they could clean an atlas stone like it was a basketball.

  7. Jim G. on January 8, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Agreed Cali. Running/Sprinting effects are vastly different than farmer’s walks. Becomes a safety thing since I don’t have a place to train indoors. I’d rather be sprinting.

  8. Muzza on January 9, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    Brilliant article. Have shared this with our female power clients. We already incorporate strongman into our GPP. Our female clients are destroying it. Atlas stones are the weapon of choice for our female rugby league players.

  9. Chelsey on January 14, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    Love the article Cali!!! Tempted to pick up one of our heavy slamballs/atlas stones/kegs now next time Im warming up/working out for CFFB. And ladies… if lifting heavy and doing strong(women) esq workouts excites you & adds a fun element to your training DO IT!! Your body & mind will be all the healthier and beautifuller (yes, I made my own word right there) for it. Who cares if it scares all the Little Boys away. The strong ones will stick around 😉

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