Strongman Strength Program
written by sean hyson
I talked about my experience at Svend Karlsen’s strongman seminar in my last post. The former World’s Strongest Man imparted a lot of wisdom over that weekend, and I’ll try to share a little more with you.
Svend is a big, big fan of a particular program that, as far as I can tell, he came up with—although it has some similarities to block periodization. I actually interviewed him last summer for Muscle&Fitness (the first time we spoke—I had no idea that a year later I’d be training with him in the flesh) and he mentioned it then. He says he relied on this method to build strength in the main barbell lifts (as well as strongman events that are comparable to barbell lifts) throughout his career.
It’s very simple.
Say you’re squatting. Start with 7 sets of 4 reps the first week. The next week do 6 sets, then five, and so on down to one. The reps are always 4. Karlsen doesn’t pay much attention to rest periods, resting as he feels he needs to between sets to recover his strength, but he told me you could rest around a minute between sets for the first few weeks and then 90 seconds up to several minutes toward the end of the program. Naturally, the weight increases every week. Svend recommends adding about 25 pounds each time.
The trick here is to pick a weight you want to hit a new 4RM record with in the seventh week and figure out how to get there by working backward. So if you want to squat 400 for 4, you could plan it out like this.
400 for 1 x 4
375 for 2 x 4
250 for 7 x 4
That first week would probably feel pretty light, but I bet the fatigue would hit you pretty hard on the last two or three sets. Especially if your rests were short.
I think it’s a smart approach and it’s obviously worked for Karlsen, but I have a few reservations. As far as I know, Karlsen never did any kind of speed work throughout his training career—probably because he’s naturally very explosive. I think most of us would need some kind of dynamic effort day at some point for either an upper- or lower-body lift, but I’m sure lots of people could make good gains without that for a while.
Another point I’d make is that there’s no deload till you’re done. Seven weeks is a long time to go without any kind of break for most of us, and a lot of that time is spent with heavy weights.
It also assumes smooth, linear progress. Deloads and lighter days in general are often helpful for keeping things going long term. Squatting 400 after seven weeks looks like a sure thing on paper, but I know from experience that continuous heavy weeks can be a major grind. Especially if you haven’t had a long period of GPP behind you to build up to them.
Furthermore, adding 25 pounds per week is a big jump, particularly in the last couple weeks.
But, as with block periodization, you get a lot of pluses. Your body will get very grooved in that 4-rep range. You get a lot of volume with light weights for a “block” and then more intensity with heavy loads for another block. I just wonder if three weeks at a time is enough. You’ll learn to lift moderate weight for more volume than you probably ever did.
Anyway, it’s something you may enjoy and do well with, so I’d love if you gave it a shot and reported back with your results.
Here are two days of a sample program Svend outlined for us.
Axle press, 7x4, 6x4, 5x4… (as written above)
Overhead lateral raise (hold dumbbells directly overhead with palms facing up and slowly bring your arms down to 90 degrees—raise them back up)
Incline bench press, 4 x 4
Dumbbell fly, 4 x 8–12
Cable Crossover, 4 x 10–14
Press plate, 3 x 8–12 (while standing, squeeze two weight plates together with your palms at chest level—extend your elbows to press them out in front of you and then come back.)
Squat/Front Squat, 7x4, 6x4, 5x4… (as written above)
Karlsen Squat, 4 x 8–12 (use a hack squat machine but face the back pad)
Stiff-legged deadlift, 4 x 8–12
Calf raise, 4 x 20
Here’s a video of Svend and I discussing the method. Sorry the audio is hard to hear. Hopefully, I’ve explained it well enough here that you won’t be left with a lot of questions. While we were at it, I also *encouraged* Svend to corroborate my 500-pound deadlift. We had a laugh about that.