I get a fair amount of questions regarding training with axles: How are they different from a barbell? How will they benefit my training? Why the hell am I squatting with an axle? I will break down a few of the different ways and reasons why I use an axle for the majority of my bar training, and offer some advice on how it can benefit your training. Axle Deadlift
The first and most obvious use of an axle would be for deadlifts: whether it has plates, tires, or some beautiful ladies standing on each end, the axle deadlift is a common event in Strongman shows. The big difference between axle and straight bar deadlifts is, of course, the diameter: the average barbell is about 1″ in diameter, while the average axle is 2″, although I have used axles that were 3″ on a couple occasions. This diameter changes the lift a great deal more than you might think, because your grip will truly be the limiting factor, especially when going for max reps. I may be at a disadvantage for a lot of lifts due to my height, but I am truly blessed to have a pair of giant hands, which makes gripping the larger axle much easier.
The use of a mixed grip is the best course of action when using an axle for max reps or weight, simply because you won’t physically be able to grip an axle double overhand when the weight gets heavier. You will notice that while your back and traps may feel fine when maxing your axle deadlift, your grip will be the first thing to go. A few ways to train this would be to deadlift with axles more often, and even doing some lighter high rep sets of double overhand axle deadlifts to get used to the diameter. Anything over 315lbs double overhand on an axle is entering man-weight territory, and there are some smaller guys on YouTube who can double-overhand 500lbs, which is nothing short of impressive. Some general tips would be to chalk up your hands as much as you need to, probably more than you would with a regular barbell. Using a false grip (like in my hands in the two photos above) can help you to grip the bar better; personally, it feels better on my wrists. Don’t use straps on an axle, as that would defeat the purpose of the axle. Save your straps for regular barbells. Axle Press
I get questions occasionally as to why I choose to press and bench press almost exclusively with an axle. I do this because I have torn ligaments in each wrist, and the larger surface of the axle in my hands feels better on my wrists. I also do this because I like to kill two birds with one stone: it will improve my forearm strength, and I will more often than not be pressing an axle in competitions. Unfortunately, my overheads are my weakest link by far, and combined with the distance I have to press due to longer arms, I have a lot of work to do. Although, there are some men, like Robert Oberst, who are 6’8″ and have ridiculously large presses, so I just need to grit my teeth and keep pressing on. Some things to remember when doing push presses or jerks with an axle is that most people can’t get that nice rack position that you can with a barbell due to the axle diameter, so the axle can sit farther off your midline. This is where it is absolutely crucial to get your dip as solid as possible, so you are pushing the axle UP and BEHIND your head, rather than OUT and AWAY from your head. Read more on how to improve your dip HERE. Axle Cleans
There are two main ways to clean an axle: The continental clean (which I won’t discuss here because it has already been exhaustively covered in this previous article) and the straight clean. This is where doing lots of double overhand axles deadlifts can come in handy, and where having big bear hands will come in extra handy. Again, the limiting factor in these straight cleans will usually be your grip strength, and sometimes your mental strength. It takes a little turning off of the brain in order to do these, simply because the axle doesn’t rotate independent of the sleeves like on an Olympic bar, which means you are literally reverse curling the bar to your chest. The key points to remember for axle straight cleans are ripping the bar off the floor as fast as possible, squeezing it with every fiber of your being, and dropping under it slightly when you catch it. You usually won’t be able to catch it on top of the deltoids like an Olympic bar because of the axle diameter, so expect to catch it like I have in the photo above. If you find yourself doing the Dougie when trying to catch it, remember you can just drop the bar and try it again. Don’t spend 4-5 seconds trying to muscle it in position, just try dropping faster the next time you clean it. Axle Squats
I definitely get some googly eyes (not the good kind) when I am seen doing axle squats, although I do have reasons for doing them. First, I have developed a fear of losing the bar over my head during failed attempts. It has happened many times in the past, and I have gotten some lovely scars because of it. That, combined with the fact that my neck discs have been messed up since birth, creates problems when the thin diameter of a barbell pushes down directly on them. The larger surface area of the axle relieves this pressure, which in turn prevents pressure on nerves than run into my hands, preventing my hands from going numb throughout the day. The third and final reason I squat with an axle is I don’t like the whip of barbells that are available to me in my current gym situation, and the axle has literally no whip to it while lifting. I am not a powerlifter, so the squat is just an accessory lift to me. As long as I am hitting depth with a bar on my back (sans tampon bar), I am a happy man. If you experience any of these issues, trying squatting with an axle. Just make sure you are positioned in the middle, as most axles don’t have rings or knurling in the center to show you the absolute middle.
It is no secret that I love my 10 minute axle curl sessions after deadlifts, and with good reason. As Matt Mills thoroughly discussed in this previous article, axle curls promote not only bicep strength (very important in our sport), they also build tendon and muscle thickness in the forearms and around the elbow. I have found that sets of 135lb curls on an axle are much easier on the wrists than with a straight bar, and with the added benefit of building forearm strength, you should probably be running to the gym to hit some axle curls right now. There are a multitude of other accessory axle lifts you can add to your arsenal. Sometimes it is fun to just monkey around with them. Here is a 100kg axle snatch I hit after deadlift medleys on Saturday:
Did it look extra special? Yes. Will I be the next Lu Xioajun? No. Can you do it? Not if your grip sucks! It takes an incredible amount of grip strength to do quick, explosive movements with an axle, and the sooner you add them to your training, the better your grip will be. However, something to remember about axles is that if you do too much, too soon, you risk seriously inflaming your brachialis, which can in turn lead to very tight elbows and bicep pain that can lead up into your front or rear delts. Start adding axles gradually into your training, and watch your grip strength shoot through the roof. Don’t use “tiny hands” as an excuse, Joan has baby hands, and can still axle deadlift 100kg 20 times in 60 seconds.
Stay big, my friends.