Gym Training For Atlas Stones

Posted 15 Mar 2011 in Articles

by Craig Pfisterer

I do a lot of goofy looking stuff in the gym and my large stature often compels people to ask me if I’m training for a sport. Usually when I tell them I train for strongman, they confuse it with bodybuilding or powerlifting (which they usually confuse with Olympic weightlifting). I clarify by saying “you know, like on ESPN?” and the eyes light up and the reply is generally “you pull them big trucks” or “flip them big tires” or “lift them big cement balls?” These articles will focus on lifting them big cement balls.

Stone lifting has been a traditional test of ones strength in just about every culture. Atlas stones (or McGlashen Stones) are spherical stones generally made of a concrete mix. Inserts are used to increase or decrease the weight while maintaining the same size stone. It is one of the more popular disciplines in strongman contests and they are contested in a variety of ways. The traditional format is five stones to five platforms. As the stone weight increases, the platform heights decrease.

I love atlas stone lifting, and I got really good at them fast. Loaded my first over 400lbs stone in less than 11 months of starting strongman and I’m one of the few to ever load an over 500lbs stone. Granted I have advantages, like long arms and height but that can only go so far. Hell, I’m not even considered very strong in strongman terms when it comes to static strength events. The thing is, there is quite a bit more to it then lifting it off the ground.

Mike Jenkins and Craig Pfisterer training stones


This first article will focus on how to get stronger at atlas stones without having access to them. I have experience with this. For my first year of strongman training, the only time I touched atlas stones was in contests. I hadn’t figured to try looking for training groups and thought driving an hour one way to train was a bit much (oh how things have changed). So I had to get creative.

The first exercise is essentially “stone lifting without stones”. Essentially, I took a piece of pipe, put a flange on it and loaded bumper plates on to it. I would then bear hug it off the ground and lift it to my chest in one motion. I’d then set it on the ground and do it again for reps. Other options would be using a barbell end or an Elitefts Stone Trainer as they are quite a bit more sturdy than a pipe with a flange. Actually bent two of them before I bought an Elitefts Stone Trainer (what can I say, I’m cheap). Now this is quite versatile as you can practice just bearhug deadlifts or rows, as well as working on lapping it. This exercise is very helpful in teaching the lifter to squeeze the stone with the forearms and chest as well as teaching to lift with a rounded back. This lift will help teach you to squeeze with the forearms and not pull with the arms. It will also help with breaking a stone off the ground. Doing this lift in the one motion style as described above will help with the final extension and holding on to the stone. This was one of my main exercises for when I didn’t have access to stone my first year. Russian strongman, Mikhail Koklyaev, actually used this exercise as he didn’t have stones and is “also” one of the few men in the world to lift an atlas stone of over 500lbs. I recommend using bumper plates, at least for the middle of the plate stone for two reasons. 1) Won’t mess up the floor as much and 2) will allow you to grip it easier. Metal plates are slick and being sweaty will make it very tough to hold on to it. If there are no bumper plates, try chalk and athletic tape on the arms. But remember this not the end all be all if you can’t get the exercise to work for you. This is good lift to have on say a lower body training day as an accessory lift.

Mike Jenkins training stones


The next set of exercises I’ll just label as Zercher Lifts. Really, it’s lifts with the weight in the crook of your arms. You can do goodmornings, squats, rack lifts, pulls off the ground and add variations. I’m not a fan of doing these with a regular barbell and it is not just because of discomfort. Three specialty bars do a much better job as they simulate stone lifting better. The first is the cambered squat bar. The weights rock back and forth so the midsection needs to work even harder. The second is the safety squat bar. By wrapping your arms around the yoke part of the bar, you can work on squeezing the chest while lifting. Also, the camber will rock you forward, like a stone. The third is my favorite and that is the thick bar. While it doesn’t rock like the previous two, its larger diameter pushes it farther away from your body. The increased surface area also lessens the pressure on the nerves near the biceps. And an added bonus, the larger size puts a lot of pressure on the forearms, similar to a stone. My two favorite variations of this lift for heavy triples were a squat and a rack lift. The squat I would start from the top and go into a deep squat and rest the bar weight on my thighs. I would then squat back up and repeat. The rack lift I’d do from about 3” above my knees. I’d let each rep settle on the pins before lifting it again. The Zercher lifts will help with “unkurling” the body to load a stone as well as helping get the stone off of the lap. This could be seen as a midpoint lift as you will not be working on breaking off the floor strength or the top end extension strength. If going heavy (3-5 reps), I’d suggest keeping this on your heavy lower body type days as a secondary exercise but can be used for higher reps on a light day.

The next is Zercher/Front Squat Harness lifts. While similar to Zercher lifts, they are different in that they take out the arm and shoulder work and allow on to focus purely on the midsection and lower body. The benefits of the harness are numerous, in that it allows those with shoulder or arm issues to continue to do front loaded lifts. Taking the stress off the shoulders and arms can allow one to do this lift as well as train atlas stones and not have as much an issue with recovery, which tends to be the toughest thing when it comes to atlas stone training. One ingenious exercise using the top part of the harness is a lift I picked up from a friend that I call the Johnny Brah Squat. It involves holding on to a small swiss ball (20”-23” diameter) and squatting down until the ball rests on the thighs and then exploding up and trying to extend and lift the ball up to triple extension. Pretty good way to mimic lifting a stone off the lap. My favorite variations of doing these harness lifts is a wide stance lift using the low setting and a rack lift from right below the knee caps on the medium setting with doubled up light bands. These are similar in the other Zercher lifts in application and the same principles can be used here.

Another good exercise is the glute bridge which goes by several names; hip lifts, hip thrusts, barbell lovers, weighted night moves and womb wreckers. Kind of made famous by Bret Conteras, aka The Glute Guy. Really any variation of this lift will do, either the floor version or the bench version (which has two variations as well). Add bands or chains. A lot of people try them and don’t really go up in weight as the pain tolerance learning curve is a bit tough. A sissy pad only helps a little. You can get up to a lot of weight on these if you push them. I’ve done a single with over 700lbs when my deadlift was just over 600lbs. So why go through the trouble of this awkward and often painful movement? Because it is probably the best exercise to improve drive off the hips with a stone in both power and endurance. If my lower back is fresh, stones fly up off my lap. If my lower back is fatigued, I can still grind out a lift for several seconds. I caution to really only focus on this lift if stones is a major weakness as it can get very taxing and I find it has very little carry over to lifts like squats and deadlifts. This is another midpoint lift but it has a bit more emphasis on the extension. Keep these on a lower body day and depending on preference, either a light or heavy day will work.

The final exercise is actually an upper body lift but I find it instrumental in improving stones. It is rear delt dumbbell raises with quite a bit of body language. Explosive upper back power is vital to strongman and this exercise has been very good to me. I do them face down on an incline bench so my lower back gets rest and I can focus on just the upper back. Higher reps are good on these. Raise the weight fast and try to fully extend the arms at the top. This will help a lot with holding on to the stone as you go into extension. Add this exercise to the end of an upper body training day.

This should provide plenty of alternatives to implement into ones gym workouts (with healthy doses of squats, deadlifts and presses of course). These exercises should at least prepare you for the stones. The next article will detail training with stones.

Posted by Barry

Leave A Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.