Article written by Matt Mills
The first image that should come to mind for Strongman training is lifting an atlas stone. Strongman is all about lifting odd objects, whether it’s moving with them, pressing them over your head, or what we are going to cover here; how to pick them up and load them. (If anyone says “I lift things up and put them down” here I will come find you and drop an atlas stone on your foot!) Lifting an atlas stone works every single muscle in your body which is why it is by far my favorite event for strongman. Stone training mainly uses the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings, so developing these muscles before you attempt to lift a heavy stone is important.
Before we get into the technique involved with lifting a stone, I will go over some helpful attire and gear tips. First, what kind of shirt you wear is very important. If the material is too smooth, the stone is more likely to slip off, making the load far more difficult. Make sure to use a shirt that you don’t mind ruining, because the tacky will. I generally like to use my old contest shirts, but any basic cotton t-shirt will do. Also, if the shirt has any kind of a print across the chest it will work even better to grip the stone while coming up with it. The proper shirt may seem trivial but it will make all the difference when loading heavier stones. You’ll also want the shirt pulled back extremely tight, so have a friend or training partner twist it up in the back and tape it. Any looseness in the shirt can cause the stone to slip more when loading it. I have lost quite a few stones due to the stone getting caught on my shirt, and slipping that one inch can be what makes or breaks completing the load.
What kind of shorts or pants you wear is very important to loading a stone as well. If you wear loose fitting shorts when using tacky, the shorts will get stuck to the stone as you start coming up with it. There are plenty of stone loading shorts on the market so I would suggest getting a pair if competing and especially when using tacky. Ladies, a tight pair of yoga pants or capris will work too, and us guys will thank you for it. We all know how much Brandon loves spandex shorts, but in case you didn’t you can read more here: Spandex
The next step is whether or not you should tape your forearms. Bare skin does grip the stone best when not using tacky, but you will also rip up your forearms in the process. It is possible to build up forearm callouses similar to what we all have on our hands to protect us from the stone but for those of you who have your forearms tatted up, you will definitely want to cover them up! When it comes to lifting the really heavy stones in the 300lb+ (160lb+ for females) range you will absolutely need to use tacky and I would recommend taping your forearms or using forearm sleeves. You’ll also want to shave your forearms if using tape… Unless you’d like a free waxing! One thing to remember is chalk will make the stone more slick, and chalking your hands will hold you back from heavier stone loads.
Next is what type of shoes to wear. I have seen people wear everything from vibrams to big raised boots. My recommendation is whatever you are most comfortable in. When I first started I saw a lot of competitors’ stone loading in squat shoes so I started wearing them as well. This made sense to me at the time because the loading phase of the stone is similar to a power clean since there should be triple extension at the ankles, knees, and hips. However being slightly raised up in the heal will also make lifting the stone to the lap more difficult. Recently training for Nationals we had to load 3 stones from 15 feet away to a 54 inch bar so while having to move I switched to a pair of flat training shoes and felt great and did very well in the event. So try different footwear and see what works best for you.
Now that you are suited up and ready to go we can get to the technique of how to load a stone properly. First is the placement of the stone. You want the stone right underneath you like you are laying an egg, as I once was taught. Think of how you set up on the deadlift, the bar should not be out in front of you and if it is you make it far heavier to lift off the ground, and the stone is no different. Next open your fingers up as wide as you possibly can. (For the star trek geeks out there think Spock “live long and prosper”).
Now you want to dig your fingers underneath the stone as far as possible, and when I am going for a really heavy stone that I know will be difficult off of the ground, I will rock the stone back and forth over my fingers. Yes this is painful but this is also strongman so you might want to hold off on the manicure for a while. Once your grip is secured you begin the initial pull to the lap. The biggest mistake I see here is that people try to squat the stone up by using more of the quads and making it a lot harder to grip the stone as I had just outlined above. I know this has been taught by other “strongman” seminars but this puts you in a very weak and inefficient set up. This should be a deadlift to the lap (not a squat) with a slight knee bend and the hips hinged back. You want the low back, glutes, and hamstrings to be used efficiently here. The same concept applies in deadlifting; trying to squat the weight up will only hold you back from moving heavier weights.
Once the stone moves past the knees you now want to move the feet closer together and sit the stone down in your lap. Having the feet closer together will not only make it easier to set the stone on your lap, but also make you taller when loading the stone to a higher bar or podium. You should be able to take your time here and catch your breath if the lapping of the stone took a lot out of you. The stone should comfortably rest on top of your legs and NOW you want to squat down. Here comes the most important part of loading a stone and why the proper shirt makes a big difference. Reposition your arms over the top of stone, not around it, and definitely not under it. A lot of bicep tears happen on stone loading mainly due to poor technique; you want to pull the stone up not curl it! As Brandon and I were discussing this article he gave me a great cue that he teaches his clients; placing the arms on the stone at 10 and 2.
Once the hands are in the proper position you want to pull the stone into you as tight as possible and take a big breath in. A great tip I was told early in my career was to “eat the stone”, meaning you want the stone high up so your belly becomes a shelf and your chin is resting on the stone. If the stone is too low you will have a very difficult time loading a heavier stone and especially to a higher platform. As you inhale expand your belly not your chest, this will give you that shelf to put the stone on and if you are lean this will be even more important. Some people have trouble breathing into their gut so try this exercise to get the hang of it. Lie on your back and place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. As you inhale you should feel your belly rise up, once you perfect this, you will see a big difference in all of your lifts. In some powerlifting circles they will even stand on each other to strengthen their breathing pattern, I’m not saying to do this, but you get the point.
You want triple extension here just like a clean as I stated before. Pull the stone up as fast as possible while keeping it tight to your chest. Once the stone is on the bar or podium quickly move your hands to the front of the stone and push it in position. For the vertically challenged, technique on this is even more important when loading to a high podium or bar. You want to pull the stone up as fast as possible here and accelerate through the lift like you are going to throw the stone off your chest.
When loading a stone to a very high point there are a couple tricks that will help if you get stuck on the edge and aren’t able to simply rest the stone and push it into position. While loading over a yoke you pull the stone as high as possible and push your chest into it so the stone stays in contact with the bar. Squeeze your glutes tight to protect your lower back, grab the sides of the yoke and chest bump the stone over. I admit this isn’t the prettiest way of loading a stone but, in a contest you’re only getting the points for the stone successfully over the bar, not how it was executed. And there’s nothing worse than missing a stone load at the very top.
Somewhat of the same technique can also be used when loading to a high podium. Pull the stone up high so it is against the side of the podium and lean your chest into it; squeezing your glutes hard again. As the stone rests on top of your chest and the side of the podium, quickly move your hands to the bottom of the stone, pressing it up and over.
Now you are officially a bad ass and ready from the some real strongman training. Drop me questions and comments below, or on the LBEB Facebook page.