I am not athletic in the slightest. I am oafishly strong, and when it comes to standing still and moving heavy stuff short distances, I am well within my element, but as soon as speed, timing, coordination, precision, etc all come into place, I am a fish out of water. This became abundantly clear to me in my 8th strongman competition, when I needed to press a 245lb axle for reps, a weight I had easily pressed out of the rack in training many times, and ended up zeroing the event because I simply couldn’t get the axle onto my chest. I had a 650lb+ deadlift, and yet couldn’t move 245lbs fast enough off the floor. Please watch for your viewing pleasure.
This is what it looks like when you drown on land
This, of course, was a crushing blow to my pride, and I resolved that, immediately after that show, I was going to master the continental and never let this happen again. …and then I blew out my ACL and meniscus on the third event. Turned out it would be another 9 months before I could even ATTEMPT a continental again. And then, to make matters even more interesting, I found myself signed up for a show that had a max weight axle press as the first event. I now had 3 months to try to teach myself how to continental enough weight to be able to match how much I could press, at least if I had any hopes of not embarrassing myself come competition day.
The outcome? I ended up hitting a 270lb press and was able to continental 300lbs double overhand.
For the first time ever, I was able to continental MORE than I could press. With that, I will share what I did in the 3 months leading up to the contest, so that those who are in a similar position can attempt to do the same. But first…
WHY THE CONTINENTAL?
I mean, it just seems so unsafe compared to traditional weightlifting technique
Most folks who see a continental for the first time all have the same initial question: why? And usually the follow-up is; “isn’t that dangerous?” To answer the latter: yes. The continental isn’t a “safe” movement at all, and with a mixed grip especially it carries a risk of bicep tears among other issues. However, the reason strongman competitors use it is because it’s the only practical option to get an axle from the floor to the chest.
The axle is different from a barbell. Most people key in on the wider diameter, which is true, but there are 2 other significant factors at play here. An axle has zero flex, which becomes very apparent when you compare it to a whippy weightlifting barbell, and makes cleaning it significantly more difficult. The most significant factor though is that an axle doesn’t have rotating collars, and when the weight is clamped on tight (or, in the case of some competitions, welded to the axle) there is limited opportunity to get any spin out of the axle on the second pull of the clean. Whereas a barbell will allow you to get your wrists back and your elbows high, attempting to do the same with an axle will just result in the weight getting ripped out of your hands. You can observe this here, with accomplished weightlifter Misha Koklayev
Keep in mind; if an Olympic caliber weightlifter can’t clean a heavy axle, you probably have no chance. Any weight you CAN clean is simply not that heavy, and it means you’re limiting yourself from REALLY putting up some heavy poundage if you only press what you can clean.
As a note; the thick diameter of the axle typically results in needing to pull with a mixed grip and then flip your hand through out the pull, as seen here
However, in my instance, I’ve got long fingers, a strongish grip, and I’m still not pressing monster weights, so you’ll see me using doubleoverhand throughout my demonstration.
Onto HOW I went about bridging the gap and building my continental. As I’ve written about in the past; proficiency is best gained through frequency. The more often you train something, the faster you get better at it. Many mistake this for rapid strength gains, but what we’re observing is the ability to better recruit the strength that is already available. If you are already strong and simply uncoordinated, this will work for you. If that’s NOT the case, you may need to spend more time hitting the iron.
In the first month and a half, I’d train the continental 3x a week in the following manner.
-On my press day, I would do all of my warm-ups and my top workset out of the rack. After that, I would put the axle on the floor and continental it up for any/all backoff sets. I mainly did this because I trained first thing in the morning, and didn’t want to piss off my neighbors by making a lot of noise. If you’re so inclined, you could continental all of your warm-ups. If you were as bad at the start as I was, you most likely CAN’T continental the weight you will use on your topset (yet), and that’s ok. This is just practice.
-On my squat day, after my squat workout, I would work up to a max single or triple on continentals. Yes, this means you will train the continental in a fatigued state, and therefore not be able to move as much weight as if you were fresh. This is by design. If you can get good at the continental when you are fatigued, you’ll be even better when you’re fresh. Additionally, you don’t want to detract from your strength work by exhausting yourself with lightweight technique work. Just work up to 1 topset here.
-On a third day, independent of any lifting, I’d perform a triple of continentals, every minute on the minute (EMOM) for 10 minutes. It looked like this.
I started off incredibly light at first, at 156lbs. This was a weight I could easily power clean, but the point was to learn the technique, so I focused on making sure I was only using the continental. In full disclosure, I completely lifted this idea from Brian Shaw in an issue of “Power” when he described how to improve log cleans, and I had used it for that purpose in the past, so I figured “why not?”
I initially started with a thumbless grip for this workout until I reached about 196lbs. After that, I switched to full grip. I think it’s a good idea to use that approach, as it did develop a fair amount of grip strength, but your mileage may vary.
Since I have a unique assortment of bumper plates, I tried to make as small an adjustment as possible on this workout without using any metal plates. It ended up going 156, 173, 186 and 193.
For the next month and a half, the training went in this direction.
-Still the same approach on press day. I only used the continental on the back off set, but that had grown heavier as the months progressed.
-I had now eliminated the max continental from the squat day, primarily because weights were getting heavier and it was beating me down to keep training it so frequently.
-The EMOM workout transition to doubles for the first 2 weeks (ended up at 206lbs). After that, I would simply work up to a max single on continentals for the next 4 weeks. I was no longer in a fatigued state here, so weight was really getting pushed, and I was learning how to get better at moving heavier weights.
It’s a simple approach, but it paid off well. The EMOM workouts drilled technique and improved my conditioning, the training under fatigued forced me to perfect my technique so I couldn’t just muscle up the weight, the heavier fresh work got me used to lifting heavier weights, and the frequency gave me the ability to cram in a lot of practice in a short period of time. I went from a continental of essentially zero to 300lbs, with some room in the tank for maybe a little more.
Hopefully that helps, and feel free to leave a question or a comment if you have something to say.
Jared Miller is a strongman (200lb LW) and powerlifter (181 class). Best total in competition is 1439 (unequipped) as of 2012, with a 502lb squat, 336lb bench and 601lb deadlift. Best gym lifts of a 545×5 squat, 350lb bench and 650 deadlift. I have competed in 9 strongman competitions taking 3 first place, 1 second, 2 forth places and 1 sixth in the 200lb class and 1 forth place showing in the 231lb class (competing up), along with a ruptured ACL and a third place finish in a team contest.