If you're planning on a Spartan Race of any distance, know that you will encounter some strength challenges along the way! The key strength elements for us at The Beast last year were, in order of importance:
- Odd object lifts & carries - LOTS of lifting and carrying stuff! We carried logs, tires, rocks, sandbags, and buckets of gravel up and down hills, through muddy trails, across rocky, unstable footing. Short version - get lots of practice carrying heavy, weird shit over uneven ground and up steep hills. Also, there was a tractor tire flip, but I would rate it as WAY easier than the loaded carries. The tires were also not monsters by any stretch of the imagination, and I didn't see anyone struggle on them.
- Climbing up and over walls and nets - walls of various heights and angles. Some you could get a run up, and in the Open class, you could get a boost from a friend. The wall climbs were not super hard, honestly, but being able to do a chin-up would be a definite plus. Because they were solid walls rather than bars you had to get over, you could use your feet to scramble a bit. A bit of technique could help here - a modified MovNat Elbow Swing Up or Sliding Swing Up (with a push up from the hanging leg rather than swinging it, since you wouldn't have room) would work well, I think. The cargo net climb was more tiring (especially since it was at the very end, before the fire jump), but not particularly hard either. The worst one, I think, was the climbing wall traverse, because the 2x4 blocks you had for hand holds were quite big, and difficult to grip around - you couldn't hook your fingers in them, and they were slippery as foot holds.
- Climbing/pulling/dragging stuff with ropes - there were three obstacles where we either pulled on ropes or dragged things with ropes - the bucket lift, the tire drag and the "tractor pull" cinder block drag. There was also a slanted, slippery wall climb with a rope, and there was the vertical rope climb at the end. With how shot my legs were, the vertical rope climb proved impossible for me - my legs just seized totally, and I couldn't do the climb arms-only. Crush grip strength was important on all of these.
- Hanging from or supporting on bars - monkey bar and parallel bar traverses were both more technique-oriented than really strength challenging, I think. Not being the stupid greased bars they apparently use in Tough Mudder, with a good front swing traverse technique on the monkey bars, they were really quite easy. The parallel bars were more difficult, but still technique more than strength - I used a tall, straight-armed support between both bars and swung / hopped my hands to cross them, while others did a sideways traverse down one side. I can't remember if you were allowed to hang under the parallel bars or not, but if you could, a hook traverse would work quite well.
So, with the above in mind, the basic framework for Spartan Race strength training should be:
- Odd object lifts, holds and carries (this should be the bulk of the work)
- Single leg strength/endurance (for the hill work, especially the loaded carries on hills)
- Vertical and horizontal upper-body pulling
- Core stability under load, particularly anti-lateral flexion (due to offset loading), and pelvic control / lumbar anti-flexion/anti-extension while moving
- Crush grip and alternating hands grip/re-grip training, especially with ropes and large blocks
In the gym, we're already working with or will be working with 40, 60 and 80 pound sandbags, buckets, kettlebells, bumper plates and the trap bar for lifts, holds, carries, squats, lunges and step-ups. The object and movements can vary from day to day, but we're focusing on tall and tight posture, and moving with control to build what Rob Shaul of Mountain Tactical Institute calls "Chassis Integrity". When the weather improves, we'll take the carries outside to the big ass hill behind The BTG Garage, or out onto the driveway (which is steeper than it looks). :)
Single-leg, we're doing high-box strict step-ups, split-squats, slideboard reverse lunges, walking lunges and explosive step-ups with various loads. The focus here is mostly on higher-rep sets, in the 20+ range, since we need more muscle-endurance than raw strength to perform on the terrain and obstacles. We will make the occasional foray down to low-rep, high-load deadlifts or squats to make sure we're staying strong, though!
For pulling, we're primarily working on the chin-up bars, TRX Suspension Trainers and ropes, but will also throw in some dumbbell / kettlebell / T-bar rowing for some variety. I really like using breathing reps (I.E. perform one rep, then do a controlled breath in the hang, then perform the next rep) or hang-time reps (perform one rep each specified interval - E.G. every 20 seconds) to force a bit more grip time, but also a focus on keeping the core stable between reps. We're balancing this off with breathing / hold-time reps on push-ups as well.
Core stability is already being significantly challenged with all of the above, but we're also working in more advanced plank variations, controlled crawls and hollow-body work to add a bit more core challenge in there. We'll also add in some L-sit holds to work a little bit on the strength for the parallel bars.
Likewise, we don't really need to do more grip-specific training with the demands of the odd-object and pulling work.
Off-Site / Bodyweight Strength
What to do if you're not training at The BTG, and don't have access to all the gear we have? You can certainly get "strong enough" to function well in life and to get through a Spartan Race without any external load or weight, but if you want to really perform WELL on the Spartan Race obstacles, you will run into two main issues.
The biggest challenge will be the odd-object lifts and carries because, by definition, you need an object, and a heavy one at that, to work with. Fortunately, if you're willing to spend a small amount of money (about $30-40), you can build a sandbag up to 40 pounds in weight - here's a guide we put together on building your own sandbag. If you're travelling, bringing a 40 pound sandbag will be a bit much, but in that case, you'll have your suitcase or other bags to work with - lift and carry them instead, though the hotel might wonder why you keep taking your bags with you everywhere. :)
The second biggest problem will be pulling, because without a chin-up bar or a suspension trainer, you'll be hard-pressed to get any effective pulling in. If you've built yourself a sandbag, you can certainly do some standing rowing work with the sandbag, but it's not really comparable to moving your entire body through space as in a chin-up or suspended row. My advice if you don't have a chin-up bar or TRX Suspension Trainer? Find an elementary school or neighbourhood playground, and train your pulling there.
Once you have those two issues sorted out, the framework is basically the same. Work on lots of odd-object lifts, single-leg strength/endurance and upper body pulling (rows / chin-ups). Also spend some time just hanging from your hands if you can, working up to a minute or more at a time. Use offset loads (E.G. sandbag on one shoulder) while staying tall and tight to challenge your core stability, and work on being controlled in your movements. To make bodyweight or light-loaded movements harder, go SLOOOOW - about five seconds up AND down, pause for a second or two at the peak contraction, with no pause or relaxation at the start of each rep. This will maximize the amount of time spent under tension with each rep.