Let me guess…today’s workout plan is to do about 30 minutes of “cardio” and then some
“toning” exercises like crunches and dumbbell kickbacks at the end. It’s the same workout you’ve done, more-or-less, since high school. And now, just like then, you’re struggling to see results. Are you surprised?

Some athletes grow out of the no-results plan and into intervals, total-body exercises and integrated core movements. Although these workouts are undeniably effective, some of us still get fed-up with the same old weightlifting plan. If you’re feeling a bit bored with your workout or are experiencing a plateau in your  performance, some good old-fashioned strongman training might be just the key.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s a very popular form of entertainment was the strongman show. In these shows, famed muscle-men performed a variety of feats of strength from basic weightlifting to hefting animals, to bending steel. These guys didn’t typically have gym memberships; they were more likely to train at home or on the farm with whichever various awkward and heavy objects they had on hand.

Not only did they get ungodly strong, their work capacities were through the roof. For a little variety and a lot of work, saddle up for one of the following exercises:

  • Farmer’s Walk. Grab a pair of really heavy dumbbells or kettlebells, and walk. Try to start with a weight that totals about 75% of your bodyweight, walking for 60-90 seconds. Great core and grip strengthening, and a real conditioning effect.
  • Sled Push or Pull. Load up a weight sled with about your own bodyweight. Push it 150-200 feet, then pull it back using a harness system. If you lack a sled, try a heavy wheelbarrow, or even try pushing your car for a few blocks!
  • Sandbags. You’ve seen them sitting in the corner of the gym, but what to do with them? Pick one up and hug it to your chest. Now, walk up and down the stairs with it a few times. You could also pick up a heavy one, press it overhead, and then put it down on the ground. Repeat until sundown. One of our favorites is the Zercher; pick up a bag and cradle it in the crooks of your arms, then start squatting. 15-20 reps should be sufficient to remind you how weak your abs are.
  • Tire Flipping. Get a big tractor tire (easier to find than you might think) and lay it on the ground. Get your hands underneath one side of it and flip it over. If you’ve got space, just keep flipping. If you’re limited on space, just move around the tire and flip it back the other way. Our favorite is to avoid counting reps and do it for time instead: one minute work, one minute rest. Try to go for five rounds.
  • Get-Up. The Turkish Get-Up is a classic strongman exercise, and it’s one that every athlete should be doing. The general idea is simple. Lie down on the ground and pick up a weight in one hand. Holding it with a locked elbow straight overhead, get-up into a standing position. Reverse the move and repeat with the other side. Although this is probably best as a kettlebell exercise, you can use just about anything; barbells, sandbags, dumbbells, or even very small people.

These are very simple and very effective movements. Chances are, you’ll find something you like, and chances are even better that it’ll improve your fitness. I guarantee  that two Get-Ups per workout is more valuable than a hundred-thousand dumbbell kickbacks.

You Can Do It

I remember being fascinated by oil tankers as a young boy. I couldn’t believe how huge they were and how much oil they could carry, but I was especially amazed by how long it took them to change speed or direction. It was my first lesson in inertia, and it stuck with me.

When it comes to habits, adults are a lot like oil tankers. Making small and subtle changes isn’t too bad, like switching from Pepsi to Coke. But when it comes to making a big change in direction, well…it takes some serious effort.

Up to 90 percent of our daily activities are based on habit. Think about it—you get up, brush your teeth, get your pants out of the bottom drawer, start the car, drive the normal route to work, and then probably do generally the same thing in reverse at the end of the day.

We tend to automatically associate the word habit with bad habits. It’s true that bad habits are the ones we feel we need to change, but getting rid of them rarely works. What usually works is exchanging them for good ones.

You’ve probably tried changing some habits from time to time, and found the task to be a challenge. More often then not, the change doesn’t stick. So how does one make a big change and stay with it?

Everyone likes to seem strong and decisive. We’re not. What we need is to pick a habit to change, and then set a long-term goal of what we’d like that habit to be. We then fill in short-term goals that lead us the right direction.

An example: Your bad habit is watching 3 hours of TV per day and exercising zero hours per day. For  many reasons, you’d like to get to where you watched only about an hour of TV per day and exercised at least one hour. Knowing how the vast majority of us react to just jumping in with both feet (poorly), a plan might look like this:

Week 1: 2.5h TV, 15 min exercise

Week 2: 2.0h TV, 20 min exercise

Week 3: 1.5h TV, 30 min exercise

Week 4 1.0h TV, 40 min exercise

You get the idea. By building a template for your behavior, you can keep yourself somewhat on track toward the long-term goal.

A second, and probably more important strategy is to let yourself be a human being. A common set of attributes can be seen in most people who fail to accomplish goals: perfectionism and ambition. That’s right, the better you want to do the job, and the more audacious your goal, the more likely you are to fail. Upon failure, perfectionists don’t set a more reasonable goal, they generally set a similarly audacious goal in a different area, only to (likely) fail again.

Because you’re human, you’re going to mess up and eat poorly, or miss a training day, or get sick, or whatever. Don’t worry about it. Stay with the plan. Find a way forward rather than throwing in the towel.

Hold onto the idea of a 90% effort. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds and you don’t quite make it, consider the effort a success if you made it most of the way. Set a new goal, build a new set of short-term goals to mark your progress, and try again.

Failure to reach goals is a hallmark of almost all successful people. Remember, improvement is hard, quitting is easy, and even making a slight change in course  is huge. You can do it.