Even if your name isn’t Magnus and you don’t have any plans to make a run at the top of the World’s Strongest Man podium, you can still reap the benefits of practicing the penultimate strongman event – the atlas stones.
The origins of lifting a stone for sport come from modest beginnings in different parts of the world, but our knowledge of their history comes from primarily Spain, Scotland, and Ireland. Irish countrysides were littered with stones of different sizes, making it impossible to properly farm the land. In order to grow food, farmers would have to move all the stones by hand. These stones were often moved to the outer edges of the property lines where they were neatly arranged into small walls, separating their neighbor’s parcel from their own.
Some of these larger stones made their way into the landscaping surrounding the farmer’s home as decoration. They later became a strength challenge for anyone who passed by. I’m willing to bet the conversation that started the first challenge stone went something like this:
Seamus: “That’s a big stone.”
Angus: “Yeah it is. I bet I could pick that up.”
Seamus: “Ah, no you couldn’t! You’re a f**king liar!”
Angus: “Oh really? Watch this!”
Aw, that’s stereotyping! Totally not politically correct, Clay! Okay, okay, you’re right. I’m sure the drinking was first.
And thus began the proud and noble tradition of stone lifting.
But enough history for now my little quadzillas, let’s get to the event and why stone lifting should get put into your program.
Lifting a stone uses every muscle in the body, making it one of the most functional exercises in existence. But being amazingly functional is not always enough to convince people to try it. Functional, effective exercises aren’t sexy or exciting but they will pack on slabs of muscle in all the right places. Not to mention that stone lifting will help build strength in two gym lifts that trainees typically need more help with – the front squat and deadlift. It also teaches the triple extension commonly used in the Olympic lifts.
To set up, let’s draw an imaginary line around the middle of the atlas stone like the equator around a globe. Everybody take out their imaginary pens!
Whoa, two round objects with equator lines around them? Did I just blow your mind or what?
Position the arch of your feet over the equator of the stone. Your feet should be spaced just far enough to allow your hands to get under the stone. Feet should be screwed into the ground to create tension in the lower body and prepare it to bear load. Bend at the hips and reach your hands as far under the stone as your flexibility will allow. Your hips should be high, knees slightly bent and slightly bowed out to allow your arms to pass by, and your back should be rounded.
“Isn’t round back lifting dangerous? I read something about how you can hurt yourself lifting that way.”
Everything’s dangerous if you’re not careful! You can tweak your back picking up your car keys if you don’t set up properly.
“Hey, this position looks kinda like something that we’re already doing in the gym. I think they call it a deadlift or something?”
Why, yes indeed! My, you are quite the astute trainee. Of course, most times you aren’t deadlifting the bar when it’s all the way down at your toes. A deadlift from a deficit and stone lifting are very similar movements; one will help the other too!
From here you will squeeze your hands and forearms onto the stone as hard as possible and begin to pull the stone off the ground. Your hips should stay high as the stone rises. As soon as the stone gets to your knees, bring your knees together slightly (remember, they were bowed out in the beginning) and roll the stone onto the tops of your thighs.
There are a few different ways to grip the stone:
Overhand grip Underhand grip Middle grip
The underarm position should be avoided at all costs. This is a bicep blaster and not in a good way. A grip around the middle of the stone is okay in most situations where the platform is a little higher or if the stone is too small to easily grab over the top. But the preferred method is to reach over the top of the stone. The stone should be firmly pressed against the top of your stomach. Having a bit of a belly will help, as will wearing a lifting belt. Our lovely strongwoman model Cortney isn’t so lucky to have a powergut. Poor girl.
Retract your shoulder blades and keep that stone tight against the belly as you start to stand.
A quick note about standing with the stone and where to place it on the belly. If the platform is lower, you don’t have to squat all that low when regripping the stone. But if the platform is high, you’ll need to squat much lower before regripping. Take a look at how high the stone is when the lifter holding the stone in the higher squat position when he stands. Then look at where the stone is where the lifter squatting much deeper stands with the stone.
Squat high… …to load to a low box
Squat low… …to load to a high box
You can squat to rock bottom every time you practice stone loading and build some good strength that way, However, it’s a more efficient use of your energy to only do as much work as is needed to get the stone to the platform. If you are in a contest situation, squatting to rock bottom every time is going to eat up more time and may keep you from performing at your full potential. But if you’re just adding stone lifting to get the ass of a 20 year old, then drop it low grrrrl.
Stone lifting also hits the same muscles and has a similar stimulus on the body as a front or back squat.
In the back squat, Cortney’s back is flat and the load is balanced between the heel and arch of the foot The load in the front squat and stone squat are directly over the middle of the foot. Her rounded back is a little more upright to counterbalance the load of the stone.
The next step is the triple extension. Getting the timing right on the triple extension is a matter of practice; getting everything firing in the right order will take a number of reps to get right.
Now that you’re standing with the stone and you have your eyes set on the platform, begin to fully extend your ankles, knees and hips to get as tall as possible. This position is similar to the extension executed in the snatch or clean.
The final piece of the puzzle is the release and load. Now that your ankles, knees and hips are fully extended, pull your shoulders back hard to roll the stone a little higher up your chest and pop the stone as high as possible.
In addition to simply loading a stone onto a platform, there are a couple other stone lifts you can do to build functional strength and all-around badassery.
One such lift is the stone squat. To execute this, simply lap the stone, regrip, then stand to full extension. Instead of releasing the stone at the top onto a platform, carefully roll the stone back down your chest and bend down into a full squat again. Stone squats recruit more muscle fiber than your standard barbell squat, so don’t be surprised when you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck the next day!
Another of my favorites is the stone to shoulder. Once the stone is in your lap, squat as low as you can and reach your arms around the middle of the stone. This lift is easier if you supinate your hands and reach all the way under the stone, but it puts a lot of strain on the bicep tendon. Strain the tendon and it may tear, which will require surgery and leave you with a misshapen muscle. And if you don’t have aesthetic symmetry in your biceps, do you really have anything anymore?
Once you have the stone locked in, stand up and explosively roll the stone up your chest to the shoulder. It should be noted that you should have a game plan going into this lift; that is, figure out which shoulder you’re going to roll the stone onto before you even touch it. I know that sounds remedial and borders on insulting, but I’ve seen lots of people start to roll the stone onto their chest only to get confused about where it’s going and drop it again.
The last part of getting the stone to shoulder takes a bit of finesse, balance, and proprioceptive awareness. Let’s say you’ve decided to load the stone to your right shoulder. As the stone comes up high onto your chest, quickly shift your left hand under the stone to help hoist it onto the right shoulder. Once you have the stone balanced atop your shoulder, lower it under control and bend back down into a squat position to perform another rep.
Stone loading can be done with many different volume/intensity schemes. For example, you can work stone lifts into your conditioning drills by using a light stone for many reps as part of a circuit or heavy singles and doubles to build some serious strength. Here are a couple sample workouts:
5 Minute AMRAP
5 Stone Squats
3 Stone to Shoulders Left
3 Stone to Shoulders Right
5 Stone Rows
3 Stone Squats then Load to Platform @ 70% of 1RM
3 Stone Squats then Load to Platform @ 80% of 1RM
2 Stone Squats then Load to Platform @ 90% of 1RM
1 Load to Platform @ 90-100% of 1RM
Now go dig up your neighbor’s yards looking for stones to lift!