Training Bent Arm Strength to Crush Spartan Obstacles

Let’s talk Spartan Race obstacles.  So many people are failing obstacles like: Multi-Rig, Olympus, Twister, Monkey-Bars, Rope Climb, and the list goes on.  You’ve been training your grip strength like a mofo so that you can crush them in the next race.  Let me tell you…you are only getting one major piece to this puzzle.  Grip strength will only take you so far on obstacle completion, though it’s definitely required.

You need to start incorporating Bent Arm work.  And I don’t just mean bicep curls or the shake weight!

Bent Arm Strength

I mean actually doing movements that force you to hold in a Bent Arm position (though bicep curls will help believe it or not!).  Everyone who is smashing these obstacles has great bent-arm strength.  Keeping your arms straight makes it very difficult to complete these obstacles as you lose your grip very quickly (especially if the obstacles are wet!).

Spartan Race is full of Pulling obstacles.  There is very little push type movements besides the Burpee. (TMX, Tough Mudder, seems to be adding some more thought into their variety with pushing and pulling which is awesome to see!  Really want to try one of their races when I’m healthy).

This requires building strength in the Lats, Biceps, Scapulas, Rhomboids, Flexors, you get the point!  It also requires a bit of mobility work so you can avoid tearing your rotator cuffs when swinging or “pulling” yourself through the obstacles.  I have seen so many strong athletes get hurt on these obstacles due to poor mobility in the shoulder girdle.  So, if you want to stay in the game and keep conquering these obstacles you need healthy shoulders.

Ok.  Now what.  Oh, you want me to tell you what movements to work on.  There are a ton!  But let’s just go with these 3 basics that will help you with dominating these obstacles and you can work on them in most gym settings:

1. Hinge Rows– learned this baby at the Gymnasticbodies seminar a few years back.  I love this movement!  Once you have mastered the Ring Hinge Rows, you can start working on the Bar Hinge Row (stay tuned I will talk about that one in the future).  Hinge Rows are a great movement for building great bent-arm strength.  They also give the added benefits of improving your shoulder and scapular mobility at the same time.

Now this movement can be very tough for many individuals.  I have beginners start by sitting on the ground with their hips under the rings.  I set the ring height to when the athlete finishes the movement at the top that their arms/elbows are at 90 degrees.  Now, this movement can feel like nothing if you are sitting on the ground and pulling yourself into the hinged position…but if you go to a count of 5 on the way up and a count of 5 on the way down for 5-10 reps, even advanced athletes will get fatigued and really feel how to move towards progressing to the hinge row with their legs and hips off the ground.

2. Gunner Carries (flexed-arm carry)– this is an absolute bicep and grip strength killer.  If you really want to get nasty with this one, do a Gunner hold while doing a Wall Sit.  Work the legs and work that bent-arm strength all at once.  I would start really light here!  5-25 lbs if using dumbbells or if using a plate, you can double those numbers depending on how much gunshow power you have!

Bent Arm Strength

If you’re walking…choose a weight that you can hold in the Gunner position (elbows pulled in tight with the angle of the arms just over 90 degrees) for at least 30 seconds.  Same goes for the Wall Sit.  Something you can hold in that position for at least 30 seconds.  Once you get comfortable and stronger you should be shooting for a minute with the same weight!  Don’t go up in weight until you can hold the position for a minute.  Then start over again with heavier weight and build that tolerance up to a minute again.

This video shows a lot of different variations, but the one you are looking for is the second one he demonstrates…looks like Rambo going to town with his machine guns!  Ignore the others.

Bent Arm Strength

3. Pull Ups– Were you hoping for something fancier?  Lo siento…Nothing beats the traditional pull-up for bent-arm strength for dominating obstacles.  There are so many variations of the pull-up…but the one you should be focusing on is hands just outside the shoulders.  This is ideal for engaging the lats, scaps, and biceps and for generating a lot of torque.  If you don’t have a pull-up yet, you got a lot of work to do to get through those obstacles.  Most gyms have a pull-up machine that can assist you if you don’t have pull-ups yet.  Don’t have one of those?  You can do banded assisted pull ups (there is a variety of band strengths you can use to help you through the movement).  If are doing banded pull ups…do not bounce at the bottom position!  You will not build the proper strength out of the bottom phase of the pull by doing this (this phase is super essential for getting your ass over walls, getting into bent arm positions for Olympus, Twister, Multi-Rig, etc.).

This is my favorite walk-through on the pull-up and how to do it correctly (You’ll notice that myself and Mr. Grayson Strange crush the competition when it comes to instructional videos here).

Ok.  Those are 3 movements that will maximize your bent-arm strength game and help you get through many of those demanding upper body obstacles.  Let’s talk volume now.

Volume is super key because you don’t want to over or under train these movements.  You need a good balance.  I like higher volume of these movements as Spartan tends to throw multiple grip/bent-arm strength obstacles one after the other.  This means you are going to need to build up that bent-arm muscular endurance.  But…this also depends on the level of athlete we are talking here.  A lot of coaches and trainers will argue about what the proper volume and weights should be for each person, but I am going to break it down that will work well for most individuals.

I would do these movements twice a week!  1 session focused on high volume and lower intensity (endurance) and the other on less volume but higher intensity (strength).  Give yourself 2-3+ days between sessions to let those muscles recovery properly.

Session 1 (Endurance):

  1. 3×10-15 Hinge Rows (1 minute of rest between sets)
  2. 3×1 minute Gunner Carry (pick a weight you can carry for the full minute without resting, 2 minutes of rest between rounds)
  3. 3xMax Pull Ups (If using band or pull assisted machine no more than 10-15 reps, 1 minute of rest between sets)
  4. Mobilize those lats, rhomboids, shoulders, biceps, scapulas by stretching or using some massage therapy!

Session 2 (Strength):

  1. 3×5 Weighted Pull Ups, 5 Chest to Bar Pull Ups, or 10 Pull Ups (if you can do 10 pull ups switch to Chest to Bar.  if you can do 5 chest to bar switch to weighted pull ups, 2 minutes of rest between rounds)
  2. 3×30 seconds Gunner Hold in Wall Sit Position (go heavier than your endurance session ideally being able to hold the weight correctly for 30 seconds, rest for 1 minute)
  3. 3×8-10 Hinge Rows (Work on accelerating quickly to the bent-arm position with a controlled lower back to the bottom, 1 minute of rest between sets)
  4. Mobilize those lats, rhomboids, shoulders, biceps, scapulas by stretching or using some massage therapy!

Now go try them out and let me know how they go for you.  Looking forward to hearing about how you crush those obstacles in future races!

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