“Functional” anything sounds boring—we get it. But in fitness, functional is one of the most exciting adjectives out there. It’s a catchall word to describe the moves and exercises that prep your body for real-life activities. The pandemic forced people away from gyms and led to a surge in outdoor exercise. We quickly realized that our workouts hadn’t exactly prepared us for wild environments. That extra muscle we’d built in the gym only weighed us down on trail runs and hikes. We rolled ankles and injured knees because we’d only trained on perfect gym surfaces and lacked the right combination of mobility and stability. The 72 degree indoor environment hadn’t readied us for temperature swings, the elements, and the general unpredictability of the outdoors. It’s time to make your fitness truly functional again by lifting heavy awkward objects, climbing and crawling and jumping more, redlining your cardio, and engaging in other total-body sweat shenanigans. Nobody knows and appreciates this more than Tom Stoltman. Master his lessons in strength and you’ll have fun getting in the best shape of your life.
Tom Stoltman has seen it happen over and over again. The 408-pound strongman, a co-owner of Stoltman Strength Centre in Invergordon, Scotland, will watch some gym bro walk into his facility and instantly expect to lift a 200-pound Atlas stone. The guy might talk up how he deadlifts 300 pounds and bench-presses 225 umpteen-million times.
Then he’ll grab at the Atlas stone—essentially an oversized, rounded piece of rock—and barely get it to budge. “Many people will come into our gym and think that because they can easily deadlift 200 pounds, they can lift a 200-pound Atlas stone,” says Stoltman. “It’s so much harder and weirder than people think.”
Most real-world lifts are harder than you think, even if you’ve spent years and years honing your strength and power in the gym. Gym loads are almost always perfectly symmetrical and balanced. But pumping all that refined iron doesn’t necessarily teach your spine to account for the randomness of picking up a FedEx package in real life, or holding a flat-screen TV steady against the wall so a friend can mount it.
Handling unbalanced loads is Stoltman’s specialty. Last year, the 27-year-old, who stands six-eight, set the world record for Atlas-stone lifting over a bar, picking up a 630-pound version. He’s been training with oddly shaped weights almost exclusively for the past decade, ever since he started strongman training at 17. “When you go into a normal gym, you see people lifting barbells and dumbbells, and it’s quite boring,” he says. Strongmen are “superhuman. Flipping cars, lifting logs, lifting Atlas stones—that’s what I wanted to do.”
And sure, it might look like he’s destroying his spine whenever he rounds his back (a longtime gym no-no!) to reach down and pick up another massive stone, but the exact opposite is actually taking place. By training with Atlas stones and other strange weights, like sandbags and kegs, Stoltman is teaching his back to stay tight and strong no matter the situation. A recent study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that, because Atlas-stone lifts often require bending the back to scoop a load directly from the floor, the strongmen in the study were able to move weights more efficiently, and the body position of the lift demanded that they lock down their entire torso, which protected their spine.
It’s a form of total-body strength that’s applicable to the challenges of your everyday life. And for Stoltman, strongman training has had other benefits, too. It hasn’t just transformed him into one of the world’s most massive humans; it’s also calmed his mind. Stoltman was diagnosed with autism as a youngster, he says, and like many people with the neurodevelopmental disorder, he struggled with social interaction.
But the regimented, focused training necessary to compete as a strongman has helped him manage his autism. Walk into the gym to do biceps curls and your mind can drift. But when Stoltman has to lift, say, the back end of a Jeep, he must calmly work through a prelift routine and can’t miss a step. “The positive is that autism makes you OCD, and you need a routine,” he says. “Strongman is my routine. I write everything down—sets and reps and meals. And once I get winning World’s Strongest Man in my head, it’s like tunnel vision.”
Stoltman claimed the World’s Strongest Man title last year. And he’s always ready to help you move a piano, too.
GET STRONG LIKE STOLTMAN
No giant atlas stones in your backyard. Don’t want to bench-press your car? No problem. Start with the most classic of strongman events, the farmer’s walk, a Stoltman favorite. It’s also been proven effective: Researchers in Canada discovered that strongman carries may help improve performance on regular gym-based lifts. Add one twist to the strongman formula, though: Unbalance the load. Instead of using your favorite pair of heavy kettlebells or dumbbells, hold the heaviest weight you can lift in one hand—and a weight 20 pounds lighter in the other. Stand holding both weights at your sides and tighten your abs, working to keep your hips and shoulders square despite the weight difference. Then walk 30 steps. Switch hands and walk 30 more steps. Do 3 to 4 sets. Make sure to go as heavy as you possibly can each set, aiming to carry your bodyweight—for example, if you weigh 180, hold 100 pounds in one hand, 80 in the other.
Get an Edge
The imbalanced bells won’t just challenge your strength; they’ll challenge your core’s ability to stabilize as you walk. Your shoulders will naturally tip toward the side holding more weight; offset this by squeezing your oblique and shoulder blade on the opposite side.
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