You’ve seen squats before. But never like this.
Martins Licis—the 2019 World’s Strongest Man, in case you couldn’t tell from his enormous shoulders and 30-plus-inch thighs—is standing in the center of his tiny gym, the Training Hall, in Thousand Oaks, California, a barbell loaded with 605 pounds on his oak-tree back. I’m watching in awe, as are his two training partners. None of us are bothering to spot Licis. How do you spot a man with more than a quarter ton on his back?
Licis inhales a massively deep breath, puffs out his belly, then lowers into a squat, butt just inches from the floor, lower back rounded. You’re never supposed to round your back when you squat, conventional wisdom says. Licis’s badassery says otherwise. He stands back up, squeezing his glutes so hard his tight shorts ride up. He does this six more times. “That wasn’t hard,” he says in the same understated, matter-of-fact tone he uses in every discussion. “It felt good.”
When you’re the planet’s strongest human, you need bigger challenges than 605 pounds. Licis and his fellow strongmen know that, which is why they pull airplanes and push cars—and why they’ve evolved their own style of training. In most workouts, you position your body perfectly to lift your weight, but strongmen pick up everything from giant stones to dumbbells any way they can, building resilient bodies that can handle challenges from all angles. They pick up heavy weights the way you grab your groceries—without thinking about form. “It’s really the most functional training there is,” Licis says.
The Growing Strongman Trend
After years on the fringes of ESPN2, strongmen have found their spotlight, powered by the popularity of the Mountain, Thor Björnsson, on Game of Thrones. Strongman Brian Shaw has more YouTube subscribers (1.07 million) than Zac Efron (984,000). Licis, 29, views all this as an opportunity for a sport that’s long seemed intimidating. “Strongman training is for everybody,” he says as he hoists a 140-pound circus dumbbell on his shoulder and leans to the right side, a deceptively challenging exercise called a windmill.
That’s true, as I discover during three days with Licis. Sure, he does exotic lifts like the log clean and press and circus-dumbbell moves, but most of his exercises boil down to a millennia-old action you do every day—you pick something up, take it somewhere, and then put it down. “Strongman contests have been around since day one,” says trainer and fitness historian Dan John. “There’s a rock. Let’s see who picks up the rock best.”
The first organized strongman competition in the U. S., John says, was likely the Highland Games in 1836, which continued a Scottish tradition that had begun seven centuries earlier. Strongman competitions never attracted much attention, though, until ABC aired a show in the ’70s called Superstars, which pitted top athletes against bodybuilders like Lou Ferrigno in events such as weightlifting. These contests were “made for TV,” and the interest they drew led to the creation of the World’s Strongest Man competition in 1977. Suddenly, everyone was taking notice, including the NFL. John says several teams inquired about using strongman techniques in their practice sessions.
Since then, strongman moves have infiltrated your gym as “functional” exercises that let you lift from awkward positions. The tire flip, a mainstay in Spartan races, was a ’90s strongman move. The farmer’s walk, a strongman classic, is now a CrossFit staple.
Odell Beckham Jr. pulling trucks? Strongmen do that with buses. “We do things everyone can,” says Licis, “with a whole lot of weight.”
Licis’ Road To Strongman Dominance
He smiles, then goes over to his iPad and turns up the Rammstein in the gym. After taking a sniff of smelling salts, he heads to a pullup bar. Next up are max reps of pullups, but he wanted a boost first. He got these smelling salts from a YouTube tough guy named Jujimufu. He gives them to me. I get a whiff, and it fills my nasal cavities so far back that my eyes tear for two full minutes. Licis only grins wider and grasps the bar. He busts out 21 pullups. At 355 pounds.
Licis began his strongman quest two decades ago. Born in Latvia and raised in Massachusetts, he fell in love with the training as a teenager, when he returned to his homeland to visit his grandfather and was introduced to stone lifting. Always a large athlete (he played football briefly in high school), he was fascinated by the sport. Every summer, he’d visit Latvia and lift stones. At age 20, Licis told his parents he wanted to move to California to train with Odd E. Haugen, a strongman legend who co-owns the Training Hall, and he gradually began climbing the strongman ranks.
Almost a decade later, he says he won’t do this forever, and he doesn’t expect you to ever squat 500 pounds. He’s been battling knee soreness for the past few weeks. That’s partly why he’s tweaked his training this year. Since August, he’s fasted once a week in an effort to slim down while maintaining his strength. “Lifting the heaviest weights takes a toll on the body,” he says. “But you can do the strongman moves with lighter weights and still get strong.”
No matter how much weight you use, strongman exercises push your body to build fundamental strength. Your legs and core get stronger as you pull things off the ground, and you build durability and resilience in your back. And all that strength translates into your everyday life. Strongman farmer’s walks and holds will make it easier to carry groceries into your house, and all the log work will help you lift heavy boxes.
You’ll do more than pack on muscle with strongman training. You’ll pack on muscle and know exactly how to use it.
Lessons From The Champion
Three things MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., learned training with the World’s Strongest Man.
Traditional thinking suggests you should never round your back. But remember that Licis squat? Rounding your back is more natural than you imagine. “Rounding your back can make you stronger,” says trainer Dan John. “It gives you a chance to fill your torso with air, like a tire.” Build that strength with bear-hug farmer’s carries: Hold a heavy sandbag or med ball at your chest. Walk for 30 to 45 seconds; do 3 sets.
Don’t Fear Rest
You may be used to getting minimal rest between sets in
order to break a good sweat. Rethink that if major muscle’s the goal. During our first workout, Licis does 8 deadlift reps with 706 pounds, then rests 5 minutes. He does another 8 reps. “Do a set, then take a nap,” he jokes. “I need the recovery.” If you do exercises with fewer than 3 reps per set, don’t race to go into your next set; listen to your body.
Yes, Licis squatted 605 pounds, and he can do more, too. But when we warmed up, he started with only a 45-pound bar—and had me do the same. “You learn technique by warming up light,” he says. “And sometimes it’s harder to do it light.” Licis is right: A heavy weight can force your body into the right positions. Start with a light set of any exercise you do, to make sure your body can master the form.
Train Like a Strongman
Most gyms don’t have Atlas stones, and you’re not deadlifting your car. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get in on the strongman game. Start integrating these exercises into your workouts.
Log Clean and Press
This seems like a power clean and jerk, but a log is thicker than a barbell, so you can’t just lift it to your shoulders. Set up in deadlift position, row the log up your legs, then inhale deeply and roll it to your chest. Press it upward. Do 3 sets of 4.
No Log? Try . . . The continental clean, which can be done with a barbell. Using a mixed grip, clean the bar to your chest. As the bar approaches chest height, flip the underhand hand over. Use a light weight; do 3 sets of 6.
Atlas Stone Lifts
This teaches you to lift ungainly loads. Squat and grab the stone from the bottom. Lift it to your thighs. Sit back, letting your back round. Grip the stone tightly with your arms. Stand and roll it up your chest to your shoulder. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 3.
No Stone? Try . . . The Zercher squat. Stand with a loaded barbell in the crooks of your elbows. Bend at the knees and push your butt back until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Press back up. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 4 to 6.
Heavy Farmer’s Walk to Farmer’s Hold
You’ve done farmer’s walks before, but this time, load 2 farmer’s handles with heavy weights. Stand with the weights, squeezing your shoulder blades. Walk about 20 feet, then stop. Hold for 20 seconds. Do 3 sets.
No Farmer’s Handles? Try . . .Doing the farmer’s walk with barbells. They’re just as unstable—and harder to balance.
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