At Spartan, we love bodyweight exercises, but the truth is there are many ways to train for a Spartan Race. Read on to learn how you can train for your next Spartan Race by mastering five simple lifts.
Pull-ups and burpees. These are the two exercises Joe De Sena will tell you to do to prepare for a Spartan Race. And if there were only two exercises to chose from, those would be the best two. Luckily, there are countless exercises to choose from and an athlete has free rein to train as they choose.
Elite obstacle course racing athletes vary in their approach to strength training: some enter a gym once a year and others hit the gym 4-5 times a week. And not surprisingly, the former weighs 30 pounds lighter than the latter. The former, however is a much better distance runner. These five exercises are great for both types: the strength athlete looking for a new take on their favorite exercises and how they apply to Spartan Race, and the endurance athlete looking to improve running economy and obstacle immunity by getting stronger.
Mix these five strength and power moves into your workout routine to complete obstacles more efficiently, get stronger, produce more power and ultimately run faster in a Spartan Race.
The deadlift is one of the three main exercises performed at powerlifting competitions. The other two are the squat and bench press.
There are two types of deadlift stances: the conventional deadlift, where the feet are narrow, and the sumo deadlift, where the legs are wide. The exercise description below is for the conventional deadlift.
The deadlift is best used as a strength exercise, so keep your reps in the 1-6 rep-range. The Valsalva Maneuver, a breath-holding technique that contributes to maintain intra-abdominal pressure, is ideal for this rep range as it increases intra-abdominal and lung pressure while aiding in spinal stability by contracting the spine.
HOW TO DO A DEADLIFT
- GET IN THE RIGHT STANCE. Stand with 8-12 inches between your heels, with your toes pointed 10-30 degrees out. The bar should be 1-1.5 inches from your shins, which places the bar directly over the middle of the entire foot (the bar should stay in this position throughout the enter movement). Grip the bar using a pronated (double-overhand) grip, so that the hands are just outside of the legs and arms are fully extended. Next, bend your knees, lowering to them until your shins touch the bar and slightly push your knees out towards your elbows. Then, squeeze your chest up, and gaze 12-15 feet in front of you. This is the starting position.
- PULL. While in the starting position, take a deep breath and extend the knees and hips under control. Keeping the back flat (not rounded), drag the bar up the shins, and slightly shift weight towards your heels. Continue pulling until the body reaches a fully erect position and raise your chest. This is called the lockout position.
- DOWNWARD MOVEMENT. The bar can return to the starting position faster than it was raised. Flex the hips and knees and lower the bar, keeping it as close to the thighs and shins as possible. Maintain a tight, flat back with arms fully extended while lowering the weight. Once the bar is on the floor again, don’t let go of your grip on the bar. Exhale your breath. Gaze 12-15 feet ahead of you, take a deep breath, and do another 1-4 reps.
MAJOR MUSCLE GROUPS TARGETED:
- gluteus maximus
- latissimus dorsi (lats)
SPARTAN RACE TRANSFERS FOR THE DEADLIFT:
- Bucket Brigade
- Log Carry
- Inverted Wall
- Sandbag Carry
- Farmer’s Carry
- Tractor Pull
- Atlas Carry
- Don’t move the bar forward at any point during Steps 1-3.
- In terms of the hand grip, an alternating grip may be used for heavy sets, which will prevent the bar from roll out of the hands like in a pronated grip.
- If an alternating grip gives you shoulder trouble, try using wrist straps on heavier sets with a pronated grip, but don’t use straps for light and moderate weight regardless of grip type as you’ll never actually increase grip strength this way.
The Farmer’s Carry is a Spartan Race obstacle that requires you to carry a log in each hand using a chain as a handle for the required distance. The Jerry Can carry requires carrying a filled water jug in each hand (one total jug for women) for the required distance.
The Farmer’s Walk is a strongman exercise in which the athlete holds a load at the sides in each hand while walking forward. It develops total body anaerobic endurance, back endurance, and grip strength. Spartans know that if it’s race month, they’re going to be practicing the Farmer’s Walk at some point. Breezing through the Farmer’s Carry and Jerry Can Obstacle are great ways to make up time on a course.
HOW TO DO THE FARMER’S WALK:
Farmer’s walks can be done using dumbbells, kettlebells, short barbells, sandbags, water jugs, or even a trap deadlift bar.
- GRIP THE WEIGHTS. Squat down with a flat back so your head is in line with the spine. Focus the eyes straight ahead and grip each weight. Use a prone, closed grip, as this is how you’ll want to perform double carries on a course. Lift the weights up, standing fully upright and keeping the core tightened.
- WALK. Walk forward while holding the weights and keeping your torso upright. Don’t roll your shoulders or lean forward. A good target distance is 25 yards per set. Repeat for 8-10 sets. Increase the distance to 200 yards per set with the same weight. Once you can do this, start with a heavier weight and aim for 25 yards again.
FARMER’S WALK TIPS:
- Gloves can be a useful tool for training the Farmer’s Walk if you plan on doing a lot of sets. Sometimes it’s not worth ripping your hands to get 100-percent grip training (as opposed to a lower percentage with the gloves), especially right before a race.
- Do not practice the Valsalva Maneuver for a Farmer’s Walk. Instead, breathe in and out in whatever way feels most comfortable to you. A belt is never necessary or even particularly helpful for a Farmer’s Walk.
- Using a Fat Gripz or Harbinger Big Grips over the handle of a dumbbell increases the demand on the forearms and hands, increasing grip strength faster.
MAJOR MUSCLE GROUPS TARGETED WITH THE FARMER’S WALK:
- lower back/trunk musculature
SPARTAN RACE TRANSFERS FOR THE FARMER’S WALK:
The squat is another powerlifting exercise that engages the core and builds lower body strength. There are two types of bar placements for a barbell squat: high bar and low bar. Taller lifters tend to favor a higher bar placement but it’s best to practice both and find what works best for you. Regardless of bar placement, your thighs should reach below parallel on the descent and you should be trying to push your knees out throughout the rep.
HOW TO DO A BARBELL SQUAT:
STEP 1: GET THE BAR ON YOUR BACK
Squats are performed at power racks or squat stands. The bar should be set at a height that is around your mid-sternum. You should not have to tip-toe to re-rack the bar at the end of the motion.
Low Bar Squat: Walk up to the bar and grip it so that your hand and thumbs are over the top of it. The hands will typically be wider than shoulder-width apart. Dip your head under the bar and position it so it’s on top of the rear deltoids at the middle of the trapezius. Anatomically, this placement is jus under the spine of the scapula.
High Bar Squat: The hand grip placement will be slightly more narrow than a low bar squat. Place the bar above the rear deltoids at the base of the neck.
STEP 2: UNRACK THE BAR
In both the low and high bar squats, raise the elbows and chest simultaneously to create a shelf with upper back and shoulders for the bar to rest on. This will prevent it from slipping off. With the torso and shoulders tight in this position and both feet underneath you, remove the bar from the rack with it on your back, take 1-2 steps back. Position yourself so feet are between hip and shoulder width apart with toes pointed slightly outward so knees track over the feet. Look down at the floor about 4-5 feet in front of you.
STEP 3: DO THE SQUAT
Take a deep breath and flex the hips and knees under control. On the descent, keep your body’s weight over the middle of the foot, just as in the deadlift, and continue the downward movement until thighs are below parallel. If you can’t reach this point, the weight is too heavy and you should decrease the load. After reaching below parallel, raise the bar under control by extending the knees and hips. Move the bar upward by driving your butt vertically into the air, not forward. Don’t let your knees shift in on the way up. Once you’re at the start position again, walk toward the rack and place it down on the supporting hooks or ledge.
MAJOR MUSCLE GROUPS TARGETED BY THE BARBELL SQUAT:
- gluteus maximus
SPARTAN RACE TRANSFERS FOR THE BARBELL SQUAT:
TIPS FOR THE BARBELL SQUAT
- You can use a closed grip, with thumbs around the bar, for light squats.
- For heavy squats, this is not advised as it causes you to carry some of the weight on your wrists, which can result in very sore elbows and wrists.
- A weight belt should only be used in the last warm-up set and during heavy work sets.
- Squat as you normally would while wearing a belt that’s 4-inches thick.
- There is no benefit to squatting without shoes, in fact, wearing powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting shoes will add the stability necessary to power you out of the bottom of the squat. A foam or cushioned sole is unstable when squatting with heavy weights, and part of the force from the hip drive is absorbed in any air cell or cushioning.
PULL-UPS AND CHIN-UPS
Pull-ups are an essential exercise for success on any Spartan Race course. In a pull-up, you use an overhand grip. In a chin-up, you use an underhand grip. Chin-ups are also a useful exercise and actually recruit more of the biceps than pull-ups do, so incorporating both into a workout routine is ideal. Once you can do 12-15 bodyweight reps of pull-ups/chin-ups, it’s time to add weight. You can do this by wearing a dip belt that holds a weight plate or by holding a light dumbbell between the ankles.
HOW TO DO IT: The Pull-up
- HANG FROM THE BAR. Grab a sturdy bar overhead with both hands using a pronated (overhand) grip slightly wider than shoulder width. Keep your legs straight; don’t cross the feet over each other. Hang from bar with elbows straight.
- PULL YOURSELF UP. Keeping your legs straight, pull yourself vertically until your chin is higher than the bar. Return back to start position with your arms fully extended.
MAJOR MUSCLE GROUPS TARGETED BY PULL-UPS AND CHIN-UPS:
- latissimus dorsi
OBSTACLE TRANSFERS FROM PULL-UPS AND CHIN-UPS
TIPS FOR CHIN-UPS AND PULL-UPS:
- Drape a medium-sized towel over the pull-up bar, grasp both ends of the towel and do pull-ups gripping the towel for increased grip work.
- If you cannot do pull-ups, simply “jump” your chin over the bar and lower yourself under control, still using the towel on a frequent basis.
- Always “hang” from the bar for 30-60 seconds after your set is over to strengthen your grip.
The power clean is a version of the “clean” barbell exercise in which there is no leg split or front squat. Power is important when you’re doing a Spartan Race competitively because all obstacles must be completed as quickly as possible. That’s why all out-strength won’t be enough to get through many obstacles swiftly, as a combination of speed, strength and power will allow for efficient obstacle completion and transitions into running.
HOW TO DO A POWER CLEAN
- GET SET. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward, similar to a squat foot position. Squat down so your hips are below your shoulders and grab the barbell with an overhand, pronated grip with the bar 1-1.5 inches from the shins. Gaze 12-15 feet in front of you with elbows extended then forcefully extend the hip and knees.
- PULL AND JUMP. Pull the bar, as you would in a deadlift, up the shins until it touches your thigh. This is the point where you will initiate a vertical jump, not before. Keeping elbows straight, jump off the ground as you forcefully shrug the shoulders, which result in a fully erect or slightly hyperextended torso.
- CATCH. Upon landing back on the ground, your feet will now be wider than the initial pull. Instead of a conventional deadlift stance width, they will be in more of a squat width. When you land from the jump, the barbell should hit and rest on the deltoids, and your elbows should be pointed up and in towards the middle. (This is called the racked position.) While in the racked position, the knees are slightly bent, as in a quarter squat and four fingers (all except the thumb) should be on the bar, but less flexible people might only be able to keep two fingers on the bar here.
- LOWER THE BAR BACK DOWN. Rotate the arms around the bar, release the bar and catch it at the thighs. Slow the bar down using your grip plus a slight flex of the hips and knees to minimize the impact on the thighs from the bar. Keeping a straight back and torso, further flex the knees and hips to lower the bar back down to the ground. Get back into position for the next rep.
MAJOR MUSCLE GROUPS TARGETED WITH THE POWER CLEAN:
- gluteus maximus
- anterior and medial deltoids
OBSTACLE TRANSFERS FROM THE POWER CLEAN:
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SPARTAN OBSTACLES?
Our free obstacle training guide will help.