A Common Question

Let me begin by stating that the content of this article is my opinion only. I'm giving you my opinion because I am frequently asked the question. And yes, I do realize that the question can be answered both ways.

So what is the question? It is, ‘which has more carryover to the other sport—powerlifting or strongman?’ The answer? One word—strongman.

Remember, I compete in both. Although my strongman days might be over as a competitor, I love them both so you will get an unbiased opinion. I’ll explain my reasoning as I go on, but first let’s compare the two sports.

Powerlifting consists of three attempts to lift as much weight as you can for one rep in the bench press, squat, and deadlift. With the exception of some rule variations such as “rack commands,” powerlifting is always the same. Some federations allow gear, monolifts, and more while others don’t. However, it all boils down to the bench, squat, and deadlift—nine times.

Strongman is like the Wild West. You don’t know what is going to happen from one contest to the next or even one event to the next. I have competed in contests where events have been substituted on the spot and then changed again for one reason or another. What this means is that it is less regulated and less focused on one type of strength.

Powerlifting is focused on maximum strength for one rep with long rests in between. However, in the strongman, you might be running for 25 seconds with an 800 lb yoke on your back or pressing a log once for max weight. These are obviously two different aspects of strength. To paraphrase something I read recently, “powerlifters don’t need to be in shape to haul their fat asses to the powerlifting platform.” While this might be true, I believe that a fitter Powerlifter will do better at a meet than an unfit one who is squatting and out of breath walking to the bathroom. If you need to catch your breath after putting on your briefs, you’ve got some issues and need some GPP. You don’t have to be a 5000 meter runner, but you need to be in shape.

Of course, someone with a powerlifting background will do much better at a strongman event than a bodybuilder. I have seen this many times, especially in the novice divisions at NAS events. (The novice class is for people who are looking to try out strongman for the first time. The weights are lighter than in the open class.) I have seen powerlifters and laborers (masons, iron workers, etc.) smoke the tanned, oiled-up, salami hammock wearers too many times to count.

Both sports require dedication to learning the techniques and a tremendous mastery over their disciplines, especially with the bench press. Here is where I’ll give the edge to powerlifting. From what I’ve seen, powerlifters tend to do better at the squatting and deadlifting events because of their knowledge of form and technique.

The nature of many strongman events, such as atlas stones and tire flipping, can give you an edge in powerlifting because they require you to use muscles not utilized in the squat and deadlift. Lifting odd objects makes you stronger when paired with traditional lifting. Not too many people will argue that strongman is true functional training.

Strongman also requires a much higher level of conditioning to excel at it. Of course powerlifters don’t need a conditioning level as high as with strongman, but this attribute is neglected by many powerlifters. At times, I am included in that as well. In 2003, I focused on improving my three lift training for a meet and neglected my GPP. By the time I got to the deadlift, I was exhausted. Obviously I should have been in better shape! Had I only done what I knew worked for me, (using strongman events as a conditioning tool), I would have fared much better.

In my many years of experience as a trainer and coach of both powerlifting and strongman athletes and from what we’ve seen at TPS, strongman training gives powerlifters the edge. A few years back, we had several lifters enter a USAPL meet on short notice. One lifter competed raw, and we had a first and second place finish. The raw lifter was the first place winner. But that’s just one example. Although I mention my own personal experiences, someone else might completely disagree, as they might have had an opposite experience. Nonetheless, it’s my experience.

My final thoughts. Although this has been a little bit of a “rambling” piece, let me say this. Strongman requires many different attributes and strength in all positions. Powerlifting requires you to be brutally strong and have an absolute mastery in all three exercises. I feel to compete in strongman you need to have a base level of strength, as you do not get to pick your opening weights. This is where a powerlifting background helps—you will already be pretty strong.

On the other hand, and in a bigger way for the powerlifter, strongman will make you stronger, more conditioned, somewhat more flexible (dynamically), and more balanced. Since strongman is done raw, if you get super strong raw, you’ll be stronger with your gear on!

I could go on all day with this, and I am sure someone else can make a case in the reverse. But here is something to think about—many of the most successful powerlifters come from West Side and gyms that train in that style. Louie Simmons uses every tool at his disposal, although I haven’t heard about him using much strongman training.

Why are they successful? Obviously they are very intelligent and they work hard. But, it is also that they try a lot of unusual things. How many powerlifters do you know who do the same thing over and over and are stuck at the same weights for a long time? I have met many. I have also met many who have tried everything, including incorporating strongman. It took what works for them to gain great success. This is why I base my opinion on strongman having more carryover.

Train hard, lift heavy stuff, and get strong!

CJ Murphy