6 Ways Old School Strongmen Used to Build Muscle That Still Totally Work

Through the Athlean-X channel, Jeff Cavaliere C.S.C.S. offers fitness insight and expertise, aiming to “put truth back into training.” In a video shared earlier this year, Cavaliere looked back on centuries of tried-and-tested training techniques, from the days of the old-fashioned strongman and even further back to the gymnasts and athletes of Ancient Greece, that still benefit people right now when it comes to building muscle.

Ground Based Compound Movements

Whether lifting something off the ground or dragging it, ground-based compound training is a strongman staple.

“Athletes train with their feet on the ground at every single opportunity,” says Cavaliere, “Performing exercises that don’t necessarily have to pick the weight up off the ground to initiate them, but actually generates force from the ground up. Utilizing ground reaction forces and the entire kinetic chain that pass through multiple joints and muscles to allow them to work together in a way they prefer to in the first place.”

Unilateral Movements

In addition to the bilateral workouts of ground-based compound movements, Cavaliere adds that unilateral training should always be an essential component in your approach. Training one side at a time with moves like the twisting side press and one-armed overhead press effectively work the core, and can help to address imbalances in muscle.

Bodyweight Movements

Calisthenics and bodyweight exercises are essential to building the strength to lifting the “most essential weight”: your own body. The ability to control your body in space (as was required of strongmen, gymnasts, and acrobats) relies on this strength.

“You cannot impress me with just being able to lift a barbell off the ground,” says Cavaliere. “If you can do that but you can’t manipulate your body in space, you’ve wasted an opportunity to realize your true strength potential.”

Isometric Training

Some old-school strongman moves seemed to be exercises in futility, like trying to push a brick wall or bending metal rods. While Cavaliere concedes that these kinds of isometric exercises “aren’t the be all and end all for building muscle,” he believes they still have value in enhancing our ability to recruit muscle fibers to the action we’re performing, which in turn can have a positive effect on muscle gains.

“What we’re doing is allowing ourselves to create the number one most important element to any type of muscle, and that’s tension” he says. “Tension is the currency with which our muscles speak. If we can generate more tension, we get more out of our muscles.”

Approach Your Workout Like Training

Mindset matters, and how you view the work you’re doing in the gym can have a huge impact on your results. As Cavaliere puts it: “Stop exercising, start training.”

Constantly trying out new workouts and going to the gym without a specific plan is far less likely to yield the gains you want than laying out the path you want to go on and following it, with progression.

Intensity + Consistency = Results

Just showing up to the gym isn’t enough if your workout lacks intensity and consistency. Equally, skipping workouts is going t0 put a real dent in your gains. In short, there’s no substitute for good old hard work.

“The magic lies in being able to take the right intensity and apply it in the right way, consistently,” says Cavaliere . “Knowing when to step on the gas a bit more, knowing when to step on the brakes, and manipulate your volumes over the course of time… The fact is, you need to bring both to the table or you’re not going to get the results you seek.”

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