Program Review: Mike Westerling's Basic Strongman

Apr 18, 2020

Fitness

By: Brandon Quakkelaar

This is my review of Basic Strongman. Basic Strongman is a program by Mike Westerling that I spent the last 12 weeks running. It’s a 3-day-a-week program for general strength and the sport of Strongman.

My Lifting History

First a little about me to give you some context for this review. I’m 35 and not particularly athletic. Four years ago I started taking strength training seriously. I had gone to commercial gyms off and on for a couple years before building a home gym. The first true strength program I tried was Stronglifts5x5. That’s when I realized how much fun it was to train for strength. It became my fitness priority. I cycled through 5/3/1, 3x5, and 5x5 programs sticking primarily to Wendler and Rippetoe ideologies. Over that time I had successes and some setbacks. I had three fairly significant breaks from lifting. They were when my son was born, when I needed a surgery, and when I had pretty bad hip pain that kept me from squatting and deadlifting normally until I figured out how to get rid of the pain with bands and hip stability movements. I competed in Strongman once as a Novice Class competitor, and I intend to compete again.

In January of this year I found a Strongman competition scheduled for April 11th. I decided to compete in it. Based on positive opinions found on r/Strongman I settled on using Basic Strongman from Mike Westerling’s e-book, Built By Mike, to prepare for the competition. Ultimately I didn’t compete due to the pandemic, but I still had success on the program.

Basic Strongman’s Biggest Differences

Compared to all the other programs I’ve tried, Basic Strongman easily requires the most specialized equipment. A yoke, farmers handles, log, axle, tire, and stones aren’t always easy to find. Then there’s also the more ubiquitous barbell, rack, bench, and deadlift blocks. The variety is a strength of this program because it’s designed to get you ready for just about anything a Strongman contest can throw your way.

Basic Strongman is definitely specific to the sport of Strongman. It takes into consideration the unique training stresses a competitor experiences. It’s way more than just a powerlifting program with an events day stapled to the end of the week. It identifies where there’s overlap between movements and it accounts for them so that you don’t get run down.

The biggest way it keeps lifters fresh is by structuring everything in a bi-weekly schedule. One week you’ll be doing a back squat and deadlifting from the floor. The next week you’ll be front squatting and deadlifting from blocks. One week you’ll be training farmers walk and the next you’ll be training yoke. This structure is sustainable and I found this doesn’t just keep you fresh physically, it also keeps the program from getting boring.

The first 6 weeks of the program also make great use of paused movement variations. I hadn’t ever trained paused squat or paused bench, but I found they really helped my stability and strength in the bottom of the movement. When the second half of the program started I was eager to see what I could lift without pauses.

Finally, every single day is a max effort day. You’ll be working up over several sets to five rep maxes, three, two, and single maximum lifts. This seemed to go against the advice I’ve seen sprinkled around online, which has the general sentiment: “don’t constantly test your personal records.” But, on this program that’s exactly what you’re trying to do. And it’s a ton of fun. I frequently set multiple PRs for reps in a single day. And I kept beating my PRs as the program went on.

Modifications

I did make some modifications to the program. I substituted a few things because of equipment limitations or competition considerations.

I also did not pull the deficit deadlifts using touch’n’go for the first six weeks. I was using mostly bumper plates and I was brand new to pulling from a deficit. With my inexperience and the bouncing bar I was worried about hurting myself. So I didn’t do it.

Blunders

I made other modifications that I consider blunders. I didn’t follow day three very well at all. I missed some days and I decided I didn’t want to train yoke, and I was lazy and didn’t make the effort to figure out my sled setup. By the end I really regretted these decisions and I eventually did train yoke and sled pushes, but I had missed out on a lot of progress if I had just done those things from the beginning.

It also took a little while to get the hang of picking my weights for each incrementally heavier set. Eventually I got the feel of it. Mike recommends favoring smaller PRs rather than ambitious ones.

Despite these blunders I still made progress.

Results

Previous Post Change
Body Weight 310 310 0
Squat 410 420 10
Front Squat * 310 325 15
Log Clean & Press * 200 210 10
Axle Clean & Press ** ? 220
Deficit Deadlift ** ? 425
18” Deadlift 495 500 5
Farmers * 190 220 30
Yoke * 408 515 107
Sandbag Load 206 235 29

* Hadn’t trained the lift in over six months before starting this program.
** Didn’t have a max previous to running this program.

Even though I substituted deadlifting from the floor with a deficit deadlift, I still got a +10 pound deadlift PR.

To see each workout I did you can look at my training log. I started January 20th and ended April 13th.

Surprises

  1. I was able to make progress without gaining weight.
  2. The bi-weekly structure got me stronger.
    Until now I avoided this program because I thought for sure it wouldn’t work. My past experience indicated that to make progress I had to perform each of the big four lifts at least twice a week and eat protein like it was my job. Performing a lift only once on a bi-weekly schedule sounded crazy, but it worked very well.
  3. No ‘run down’ feeling at the end of 12 weeks.
  4. Constantly trying to get PRs seems to work.
  5. My deadlift improved even though I didn’t train a regular deadlift from the floor.

Summary

This program was a ton of fun. I got stronger. I did not feel rundown at the end. This program likely could be run repeatedly for a long time. Probably not a good program for beginners because you pick your own weight jumps, you need to know how to strain, and you need to either have access to a fair amount of equipment or know how to make sensible substitutions. Overall, this was great and I recommend following the program as Mike Westerling wrote it.