3 Feats of Strength: An Introduction to Strongman Exercises

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 16, 2009 · 23 comments

in Health & Sports

georgeGeorge Hackenschmidt – Legendary Oldtime Wrestler and Strongman

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jedd Johnson, CSCS from DieselCrew.com.

In the past, the pioneers of strength, like George Hackenschmidt, and other classic strongmen and wrestlers, were built like machines and were able to move serious weight and do feats of strength that left you thinking, “WOW.”

The primary focus on the part of these performers was strength, while the appearance of their body came secondary.

They foucused on strengthening their legs, back, and grip first and by using complex, ground based movements, the size of their shoulders, arms, and chest followed right along.

George Hackenschmidt didn’t try to build a V-shape torso with flared lats and a wasp-like waist. He built a thick back, a thick core, and could support tremendous amounts of weight in movements like the squat and deadlift.


These days, it’s different. Most of the weight training that goes on in the gym today is not nearly as focused on the development of strength. Now, the focus is mostly on aesthetics – perfectly proportioned biceps and calves, a broad chest, and big biceps.

You can bet the Sandows of the day didn’t care about the peak on their biceps. The Hackenschmidts of the era weren’t worried about a big pump in their chest.

Somewhere along the lines, there was a shift from being strong to looking good. Much of this shift can be blamed on the overwhelming presence of bodybuilding literature at the newsstand.

For me, however, when it comes to a rewarding experience in the gym, bodybuilding falls short. I am more interested in building strength. In fact, much of my training revolves around doing what the oldtime strongmen considered “feats of strength.”

I want to share with you all what I feel are the best feats of strength to perform in order to build a strong back, powerful body, and an impressive grip.

Overhead Lifts

Without a doubt, one the best pure feats of strength is lifting something from the floor and up overhead. I don’t care if it’s a barbell, a dumbbell, a stone, or a beer keg filled with sand and water, there is just something about getting the object to arm’s length overhead that means you are truly strong. To do this requires practically all the musculature in the body from the ground to the hands. If your back is weak, the object won’t make it off the ground. If your legs are weak, they will crumble beneath the load as you try to push it up overhead. And if your mind is weak, you can get halted at any point along the way.

The best thing about overhead lifting is that you are getting up out of a seated position and performing the lift on your feet. This type of lifting requires more talent and athleticism than the seated variations which in turn makes you more of an athlete and more of a man.

The Log Overhead Lift

The majority of my overhead lifting is done with a log. I have competed in many Strongman competitions and the Log was always one of my favorite events, whether it was for max weight or for repetitions. Not only does it build your overhead strength, but also makes your lower back stable, as well as the grip.

The Keg Overhead Lift

I love Keg Lifting also, because kegs are so unstable. While you can hold a barbell or dumbbell pretty easily, the keg has a dynamic center of gravity that you have to compete with along with the fact it is so heavy and bulky.

Odd Object Lifting and Carrying

It is one thing to lift something heavy off the ground. It’s another thing altogether to pick it up and then carry it.

This is the primary difference between the sport of powerlifting and the sport of strongman. In the sport of powerlifting, the lifts that are executed are the bench press, the deadlift, and the squat. While tremendous weights are lifted in these three disciplines, all that takes place is the lifting and lowering of the weights. In many strongman competitions, however, the objective is to lift and then move heavy and bulky items such as stones, farmer’s walk implements, yokes, and sandbags. This is often done at high rates of speed as well. The athletes in strongman competitions have to be extremely strong, and be able to move nimbly over the course to be successful.

Carrying heavy objects, just like overhead lifting, requires the recruitment of every muscle in the body. With each step, tremors course through the body, requiring you to re-adjust and stay on track. The joints have to be strong and stable in order to keep from buckling with each stride, all while keeping your breathing under load. Carrying objects is a great way to train, and it can be done in the gym or in a parking lot or field. The most important thing is not where it is done, but that it actually gets done.

Homemade Farmers Implements

The Farmer’s Walk is a basic strongman event. You just pick up the farmers and take off. My farmers were made by a friend from scrap industrial pieces. He made the handles extra thick so it is more taxing on the grip and the handles are extra high, which causes swing. You have to be ready to stroll with these things.

Keg Carrying – The Toughest Walk in the Park You’ll Ever Have

Carrying the keg is a challenge not only because you have to pick it up but because you then have to move with it. Also, because it sits on your belly, it can be very hard to breath.

Bending Steel

There are few things in strength training that feel as good as bending steel. Strength feat enthusiasts have enjoyed bending nails, bolts, stock, wrenches, hammers, horse shoes and more for years. Training for this type of feat is becoming more common all the time as resources become more available to the public.

Generally when bending steel, there is some form of protective covering placed on the ends of the item being bent to avoid puncturing the skin. Usually this is a towel or thin piece of suede leather. This is extremely important because the hands have to press on the ends of the object with a great deal of pressure. If there is no protection, there is a much higher risk of injury, especially punctures and lacerations. Also, with no protection, the pain factor is escalated and when that happens it is much harder to apply full strength into the object, and the feat might not be completed.

Obviously, there has to be some limitation to how much protective gear is used because eventually it becomes padding. A balance needs to be maintained between protecting yourself and making the feat too easy.

There are two main types of bending – braced bending and unbraced bending. Braced bending is done by pushing the object against your thigh, knee, or other part of the body to get the bend started. When bending very long objects, like steel bars, very thick objects, like wrenches and hammers, or very resilient items, such as frying pans, bracing is needed. Unbraced bending is done by keeping the object free of the body for the most part and relying more on hand and wrist strength to start and complete the feat.

In order to bend something, you have to go about it with intensity. When going for a top-level bend, if you are not 100% focused on the bend at hand, you will not be successful.

Short unbraced bending, such as nail, bolt, and stock bending is featured in many grip strength competitions each year. Unbraced bending is chosen because it is a better means for testing hand, wrist and grip strength.

Double Overhand Bending

Double Underhand Bending

Reverse Bending

As you can see, there are many ways to bend steel. However, short bending should not be considered a grip strength feat only. There is a great deal of engagement of the core and torso to create radiant tension that travels down through the arms and into the hands to strengthen the grip on the object being bent. This increase in tension increases your bending ability while at the same time making it a safer practice as it keeps your hands from slipping off the object and causing injury. If you are interested in learning how to bend nails, bolts and other items, there is no better resource than the Nail Bending eBook. It is the definitive resource on short, unbraced bending.


As you can see, there is much more to training that can be done in the weight room than just bodybuilding. While bodybuilding is a perfectly healthy and rewarding endeavor, feat of strength training can actually be just as effective at building muscle and getting a respectable body. The added benefit of feat training is the real world strength that comes along with it, strength you can keep under wraps until you need it for something serious, like changing a tire or carrying your friends out of a burning building. If you have any questions, please feel free check out my site, DieselCrew.com. Feel free to leave a comment or to drop me an email at jedd[dot]diesel[at]gmail[dot]com.

Jedd Johnson is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist in Northeastern PA. He specializes in Grip Strength Training but studies all types of strength training disciplines. His website, http://www.DieselCrew.com is an on-line community with the objective of helping its readers become as strong and healthy as possible.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Le Yusuf December 17, 2009 at 2:00 am

I like to deadlift because it allows me to push myself beyond my limits. I’m about 65 KG and I don’t follow a diet (which is pretty bad). I’m 1m87cm tall and I have recently deadlifted 120KG. It’s not much but it’s satisfying for a little guy like me. When I deadlift and others are benching, they stop, they’re amazed and they’re like “HOLY COW!”. For me, bodybuilding is cool but strength training is great.

2 Fat guy December 17, 2009 at 9:39 am

@Le Yusuf


3 Roger December 17, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Great article! I’d love to learn how to bend steel!

4 Torrey December 17, 2009 at 1:50 pm

This is definately a testament showing that you don’t need to go to a big box gym to get fit.

5 roentarre December 17, 2009 at 3:11 pm

I am restarting my gym programmes now to enhance my own physical fitness as well as calmness to my mind

6 Don December 17, 2009 at 8:46 pm

I was a high school wrestler and some of the strongest guys I had to go against were ones that never lifted a weight in their life, but lived on a farm and did these types of activities on a daily basis.

7 Jedd December 17, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Glad you guys enjoyed my article. These types of training are not only fun but give you a huge bang for your buck. You really get a lot out of odd object lifting like what is shown above.

Bending steel is awesome too. It will make a man out of you. It ain’t easy, but you will love it if you go after it. And the best thing is every time you bend steel, you always have a trophy to put on your mantle.

Thanks for the chance to write again!


8 Robbo December 17, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Great article. I’m joining the Air Force next year and I’m looking for ways to increase not just my muscle mass but my strength also. Being 6’1 and 130 pounds, I’ve got a long way to go but it’s nice to know I don’t have to spend money on gym memberships to achieve my goals. Any more tips you’d like to share would be greatly appreciated!

9 Isaac December 17, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Sweet. I’m just getting into powerlifting (not competing, but trying to improve my totals on those lifts in particular) and it’s awesome.

10 Ibrahim | TwentiesLife.com December 21, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Wow. This one can definitely make a guy feel like he needs to hit the gym… =)

11 oznick December 22, 2009 at 12:51 pm

dead lifts, over head presses, heavy squats and any awkward type lift should be exercised with extreme care. Doing these exercises untrained is a recipe for disaster. I lifted free weights for nearly a year doing basic exercises (bench,squat,curl etc) before I started dead lifting or doing bent over rows/good mornings. Your form has to be spot on or you WILL injure yourself. Having said that for strength nothing pulled my upper & lower body together better than dead lifts they are the best all over exercise. Before you ask yes I bodybuild (& yes I am strong) relative to my bodyweight obviously. Strength comes with progressive resistance no matter what training style you use. You really want that work type strength become a construction labourer and lump timber or steel all day. Terrible for your body but will make you super strong.

12 D December 22, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Airsoft. I know most people think it’s gay or for kids, but we go out and train just like the military. Most of my team is either army or Marines. And they are the ones training the rest of us.

We move fast and we hit hard but above all, we are silent.
Never Seen. Never Heard. Always Deadly.

I think another feat deserving of notice is running 3 miles in 18:00 minutes or under. Just sayin.

13 Phillip December 29, 2009 at 5:13 pm

These are great lifts that will give you real world applicable strength. However, Sandow did care about the peak of his biceps and his proportions. Sandow was a physical culturist, not just a strong man. He built his body to specifically match the measurements of greek classical statues, hence the “Greek Ideal”.

14 Emil Outzen January 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Well I agree on most weight training is mostly focused on the aesthetics part. But instead of only focusing on being strong like George Hackenschmidt, I think you should focus on your overall body strenght and quickness. Because guys who only focus on devloping a huge bicep or chest seems heavy and awkward to me.

15 Colin April 20, 2010 at 6:34 pm

George Hackenshmidt wasn’t “heavy and awkward”, he was a champion wrestler whose only losses were the result of cheating and it’s made pretty clear in the article that to become like him means not to train for aesthetics.

16 Pete June 15, 2010 at 3:25 am

Good article, and a timely reminder of functional fitness. Some of the best athletes in professional sports developed their strength doing work in the real world, not in the gym. Bobby Hull, one of the strongest men ever to play professional hockey, and famed as the man with the hardest slapshot of all time, developed his renowned physique working on a farm, man-handling 80-100 lb. bales of hay day in and day out, and other such chores. These movements mimic the complex multijoint movements required in professional sports, and are thus good preparation for it.
I married into a farm family, and to a man, all of the guys in it – who never lift weights – are very strong. The other guys who impress me as very strong, especially in the grip, are mechanics and other tradesmen who work with their hands all day. Bone-crushing strength in some of those guys hands.

17 Fred July 24, 2010 at 8:18 am

And steroids! Don’t forget to take your steroids! :D

18 muggles July 24, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Enjoyable article. Particularly about the moving with bulky objects, odd shapes, etc. Very logical.
One important cavet: overhead lifts cause huge numbers of injuries, particularly in men over 40. I was a reliable gym rat on machines for five years, yet seriously hurt my left shoulder merely by bumping up the weight 5 lbs and reps by 2, in once instance. My physical thearpist told me this kind of injury is very common in post 40 men due to changes in ligaments, etc. as we age. As a result I was told to cease doing these lifts completely, which I have done. So all of this advice is contingent upon initial conditioning as well as age. I no longer have shoulder pain but there is no glory in hurting yourself.

19 Old fitness rat July 24, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Strength is good, but it should be tempered with flexibility and agility training. In actual situations where physical ability is needed, these two factors will beat out strength almost every time.

20 Wayne September 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm

I used to practice a form of Karate called Ueshi-Ryu. My Sensei showed several techniques with natural weights, using your balance and strength to push, pull and lift. Another interesting one is to pull a skid full of weight across a field with the ropes attached around your shoulders, chest, or your lower waist. You learn to use different muscles and types of balance.

21 Bill M February 21, 2013 at 6:57 am

Bodybuilding is a fine endeavor, but one must stress muscles that are used in everyday situations. It is a form of injury prevention. It largely depends on your work and lifestyle….Good stuff.

22 TheSeeker March 27, 2013 at 10:32 am

I have read just about 1-2 articles on this website through google-search, and am pleasantly amazed to now see one portal that has content which is in line with my POV of worldly-affairs. am subscribing to this site!

with respect to the present article’s context, i have personally been a strong advocate of & believer in training for power, strength, and old-school type training-traditions. the surrounding environment where everybody seems to be more concerned with aesthetics, finesse, looks (we know why!), is utterly displeasing & disappointing to me. i strongly believe that when it comes to following a physical regimen, one should focus on development of external & internal power, and all the aesthetic-part follows in naturally as a side-benefit.

great article(s) AOM!

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