Farmer's Walk or Squat, Tire Flip or Bench Press, Stone Lift or Seated Row - Is Strongmen Training as "Anabolic" as Classic Hypertrophy Training and Which is "Best"?

Is he (or she?) going to be muscular when he grows up, or is this kind of exercise just making him strong?
I guess we all know that the most muscular guys are not necessarily also the strongest men in the gym - but why is that the case? And moreover, how does this fit in with the notion that you'd have to use heavy weights to induce skeletal muscle hypertrophy? Yeah, I know. Many scientists believe that's nothing but "broscience" (cf. Burd. 2012) and if you look at the muscle fiber composition of a bodybuilder in this previously published article, you will see that it is by no means type II and thus "strength-specific". And let's be hones does not the advent of blood flow restricted training signify that we are about to witness a "paradigm change"? With the classic approach (heavy weight and 8-10 reps) being on the upper end of a "optimal growth continuum"?

Notwithstanding this contemporary trend towards "making light weights heavier" (let's be honest, BFR for example does exactly that), a group of researchers from the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at the Hofstra University and the Gridiron Training Facility in Hempstead, New York, did actually dare to "waste" their time on research on the opposite extreme of the heavy vs. light lifting divide.

Don't forget: The paradigm determines the research design

Before we delve further in to the methodological issues, let me briefly get one thing straight. Ghigiarelli and his colleagues firmly believe in the significance of the immediate and early endocrine response to a workout. They specifically cite the work from Stuart Phillips lab, I have been referring to numerous times times, but (and this is science, guys!) politely disagree with the conclusion that the relationship between elevated endogenous testosterone levels and hypertrophy function was non-existent or at least irrelevant, stating that...
Suggested read "Anabolic Workouts Revisited"
"[...] a much larger body of evidence supports the integral role that the acute hormonal response to RE [resistance exercise] has on muscle hypertrophy (Schoenfeld. 2010; Vingren. 2010) and its role in strength training adaptation (Hansen, 2001;Kvorning. 2006). Those in support of an endogenous testosterone response stand by the belief that RE causes an initial downregulation on AR content in the target tissue (i.e., skeletal muscle) followed by a subsequent upregulation during the recovery period, thus increasing free testosterone uptake facilitating protein synthesis." (Ghigiarelli. 2013)
It is therefore not a design flaw, when the scientists take the acute testosterone response to the workout as a measure of it anabolic potential and speculate that a strongmen-esque workout, which engages much more muscle fibers than even a compound based bodybuilding workout does, would elicit a stronger hormonal response than a "classic" hypertrophy training (additional read => the Saturdaily installment of On Short Notice) .

Real trainees, real workouts, real (?) results?

To probe their hypothesis the scientists recurited trained athletes from various athlete backgrounds. The mean age of the
  • tan recreational strength trainees (>4 training sessions per week, >2 years of training),
  • one wrestler and one football player, 
  • two competitive bodybuilders, 
  • one competitive powerlifter and one competitive o-lifter
was 24 years, whose mean 3-RMs , i.e. the weight the participants can maximally perform for 3 reps, were 161kg for the squat and 126kg for the bench press.
Main result: Not superior, but "similar"testosterone responses

I guess, when you read the word "similar" (which is a real quotation from the full text) in the above subheading and take a loot at the actual data in figure 1 some of you may not without good reason complain that Ghigiarelli et al. use the word "similar" pretty generously.
Figure 1: Salivary testosterone response to immediately after (post) and 30 min after work-matched classic hypertrophy,  strongmen and mixed routines (Ghigiarelli. 2013)
If you look at the raw data on the left, it does after all look as if the classic hypertrophy workout with its squats, the leg presses, bench presses and seated rows was way more "anabolic" than
  • its strongmen counterpart that consisted of tire flips, chain drags, farmers walks, keg carries and stone lifts
  • the mixed protocol which was build around tire flips, squats, chain drags, bench presses and stone lifts 
when all exercises were performed for 3 sets x 10 reps with 75% of the weight the subjects could lift... and what should I say? You are right!

"Hold on! I don't see any 'similar' response!?"

What the average data in figure 1 (left) does yet not convey, are the large inter-individual differences. If you take those into account and use some statistical shenanigan to compensate for differences in the workout duration and the individual exercise intensity (whatever that may be, see Steele's recent paper on the absence of a clearcut definition of "intensity"), the superiority does turn into "a nonsignificant trend of greater testosterone release after the H protocol" (Ghigiarelli. 2013) - a trend, the researchers ascribe to the "abnormal response" they observed in response to the hypertrophy training (abnormal as compared to other studies, where the reponse hypertrophy training is usually in the 70% range, as well), which in turn would be attributable to 6 high responders with extreme spikes testosterone spikes of 165-493%.

Does true mastery of the exercise determine skeletal muscle anabolism?

Usually outliers like that are a problem, but sometimes there are cases where the exception from the rule has the greatest explanatory value and in this case, the latter may well be the case. How come? Well, the two hypothesis Ghigiarelli et al. come up with to explain the differences is simply too attractive to discard it as being irrelevant. Firstly, the scientists believe that it would be plausible that the anxiety level due to the unfamiliarity of strongman lifts may have reduced the testosterone spike.
You have no goals or don't track your results? Huge mistake (learn why)!
"This possibility is supported by previous literature examining the hormonal responses to different RE protocols in seasoned trainers (Beaven. 2008). Beaven et al. suggested that the novelty and stress of the situation are likely to be perceived based on experience. Thus, the stressors of the ST and XST sessions and the lack of familiarity of the exercises can suppress the actual physical nature of the stimulus. This psychological nature of the hormonal response in our subject pool may have caused a different response to protocols with which they were unfamiliar with or disliked." (Ghigiarelli. 2013)
Now, if you go one step further and expand on this idea by involving my mantra that training is not about moving weights from point A to point B and rephrase all that using a term Nicolas Burd et al. mentioned in their recent review in Applied Phyisology and Nutrition, in which they advance the idea that it does not really matter on which extreme of the low vs. heavy weight continuum you train, as long as your protocol elicits "high intensity contractions" (Burd. 2012), you could also argue that the subjects may have moved the weight for 3 sets of 10 when they did the farmer's walk etc., but did not to so using "high intensity contractions".

The intensity of the contraction determines the gains

Knowing the "101 of Pre Workout Protein Supplementation" can make a difference. Over all the supplement shenanigan many trainees do yet tend to overlook the basics and simply  assume that as long as they move weight from A to B the use of the right powders and popping the right pills at the right times would have the largest impact on their results - big mistake!
In other words, the calculated "intensity" and the real muscular tension, i.e. the intensity of the contraction, were not identical and certainly sub-optimal for those of the trainees who have never flipped tires or carried kegs before. The bodybuilders and certainly also most of the recreational athletes may well have been so focused on the novel exercise that they could not pay any attention to the one thing that's at the bottom of skeletal muscle growth the "high intensity contraction".

Now, it is probably undebatable that the actual work that is done by the muscle and not the physical work, you would calculate by multiplying the weight (respectively the force you would apply to it in an ideal scenario) and the length of the way along which you dragged, carried or flipped it, is the physiologically relevant number here. In this context it would also be irrelevant, if the endocrine response to a workout does actually correlate with the net gains in muscle size or strength, as long as the "intensity of the contraction" did. In the end, it is thus not the weight or the exercise that determines the actual growth stimulus, but rather your ability to use a given weight in a given exercise to induce those damn high intensity contractions.

Bottom line: For 90% of the trainees out there, the first step to improve their gains would thus to improve their game. To take the true meaning of "training", of which the venerable Oxford English Dictionary says that it is  "the sustained instruction and practice (given or received) in an art, profession, occupation, or procedure, with a view to proficiency in it." (OED Online. 2012). For the majority of trainees I see at the gym, it would thus be much wiser to follow Adelfo Cerame's recent advice and focus on a handful of exercises, instead of hopping from one exercise to the next, whenever a study says: Subjects, X,Y and Z gained 0.5% more mass doing farmer's walks vs. squats.

For others, it may yet be time to move on or to expand their arsenal of exercises with what Ghigiarelli et al. feel are "unique and exciting" exercises which provide "effective alternative to traditional resistance training, but require a lot of training to even master them "manipulate the specific combinations of rest intervals, loading, and volume toward [your] desired training goals" (Ghigiarelli. 2013).

  • Beaven CM, Gill ND, Cook CJ. Salivary testosterone and cortisol responses in professional rugby players after four resistance exercise protocols. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Mar;22(2):426-32.
  • Burd NA, Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, Phillips SM. Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 Jun;37(3):551-4. doi: 10.1139/h2012-022. Epub 2012 Apr 26.
  • Ghigiarelli JJ, Sell KM, Raddock JM, Taveras K. Effects of strongman training on salivary testosterone levels in a sample of trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):738-47.
  • Hansen S, Kvorning T, Kjaer M, Sj√łgaard G. The effect of short-term strength training on human skeletal muscle: the importance of physiologically elevated hormone levels. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2001 Dec;11(6):347-54.
  • OED Online. "training, n.". December 2012. Oxford University Press. < >  accessed March 04, 2013.
  • Kvorning T, Andersen M, Brixen K, Madsen K. Suppression of endogenous testosterone production attenuates the response to strength training: a randomized, placebo-controlled, and blinded intervention study. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Dec;291(6):E1325-32.
  • Schoenfeld BJ The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.J Strength Cond Res. 2010; 24: 2857–2872.
  • Steele J. Intensity; in-ten-si-ty; noun. 1. Often used ambiguously within resistance training. 2. Is it time to drop the term altogether? Br J Sports Med. 2013 Feb 12. 
  • Vingren JL, Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA, Anderson JM, Volek JS, Maresh CM. Testosterone physiology in resistance exercise and training: the up-stream regulatory elements. Sports Med. 2010 Dec 1;40(12):1037-53.
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