How World’s Strongest Man Tom Stoltman Lifts Unbalanced Loads Without Destroying His Back

Anything “functional” sounds boring, we get it. But in fitness, functional is one of the most exciting adjectives out there. It is a general word to describe the movements and exercises that prepare your body for real-life activities. The pandemic forced people away from gyms and led to an increase in outdoor exercise. We quickly realized that our training hadn’t exactly prepared us for wild environments. That extra muscle we had built in the gym only weighed us down on runs and walks. We rolled our ankles and injured our knees because we had only trained on perfect gym surfaces and lacked the right mix of mobility and stability. The 72 degree indoor environment hadn’t prepared us for the changes in temperature, the elements, and the general unpredictability of the outdoors. It’s time to make your fitness truly functional again by lifting heavy and awkward objects, climbing, crawling, and jumping more, pumping up your cardio, and engaging in other full-body sweat shenanigans. Nobody knows and appreciates this more than Tom Stoltman. He masters his strength lessons and you’ll have fun getting in the best shape of your life.


Tom Stoltman has seen it happen over and over again. The 408-pound strongman, co-owner of the Stoltman Strength Center in Invergordon, Scotland, will watch a gym buddy walk into his facility and instantly expect to lift a 200-pound Atlas stone. The guy could talk about how he deadlifts 300 pounds and bench presses 225 million times.

He will then grab the Atlas Stone, essentially a large, rounded piece of rock, and barely get it to move. “A lot of people will come to our gym and think that because they can easily deadlift 200 pounds, they can lift a 200-pound Atlas stone,” says Stoltman. “It’s a lot harder and weirder than people think.”

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Most real-world lifts are harder than you think, even if you’ve spent years and years perfecting your strength and power in the gym. Gym loads are almost always perfectly symmetrical and balanced. But pumping all that refined iron doesn’t necessarily teach your spine to take into account the randomness of picking up a FedEx package in real life, or holding a flat-screen TV up against the wall so a friend can mount it.

pic 171221 roddy scottstrongman tom stoltman in his hometown of invergordon, scotland

Tom Stoltman in his hometown of Invergordon, Scotland.


Handling unbalanced loads is Stoltman’s specialty. Last year, the 27-year-old, who is 1.80m tall, set the Atlas-stone world record lifting a barbell, lifting a 630-pound version. He has been training with weights in weird ways almost exclusively for the last decade, since he started training for strong men at 17 years old. “When you go to a regular gym, you see people lifting barbells and dumbbells, and it’s pretty boring,” he says. Strong men are “superhuman”. Flipping cars, lifting logs, lifting Atlas stones, that’s what he wanted to do.”

And sure, it may seem like you’re tearing your spine apart every time you bend your back (an old no-no in the gym!) to bend over and pick up another huge rock, but the exact opposite is actually happening. By training with Atlas stones and other odd weights like sandbags and barrels, Stoltman is teaching his back to stay grounded and strong no matter the situation. A recent study in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that because Atlas-stone lifts often require bending the back to lift a load straight off the floor, the strongmen in the study were able to move weights more efficiently, and the lifter’s body position required them to lock everything his torso. , which protected his spine.

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It is a form of full-body strength that is applied to the challenges of everyday life. And for Stoltman, strongman training has had other benefits as well. He has not only transformed him into one of the most massive humans in the world; it has also calmed his mind. Stoltman was diagnosed with autism when he was young, he says, and like many people with the neurodevelopmental disorder, he struggled with social interaction.

Tom Stoltman


But the regimented and focused training needed to compete like a strongman has helped him get his autism under control. Walk into the gym to do bicep curls and your mind may wander. But when Stoltman has to lift, say, the rear of a Jeep, he must work his way through a pre-lift routine and he can’t miss a step. “The positive is that autism makes you OCD and you need a routine,” he says. “Strongman is my routine. I write everything: sets, reps and meals. And once I have it in my head to win the World’s Strongest Man award, it’s like tunnel vision.”

Stoltman claimed the World’s Strongest Man title last year. And he is always ready to help you move a piano too.

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There are no giant atlas stones in your backyard. Don’t want to bench press your car? No problem. Start with the most classic of strongman events, the farmer’s ride, a Stoltman favorite. It’s also proven effective: Researchers in Canada found that strongman carries can help improve performance on regular lifts in the gym. However, add a twist to the strongman formula: unbalance the load. Instead of using his favorite pair of kettlebells or dumbbells, he holds the heaviest weight he can lift in one hand and a weight 20 pounds lighter in the other. Stand holding both weights at your sides and brace your abs, working to keep your hips and shoulders straight despite the difference in weight. Then he walks 30 steps. Change hands and walk 30 more steps. Do 3 to 4 sets. Make sure you go as heavy as you can on each set, with the goal of carrying your body weight; For example, if you weigh 180, hold 100 pounds in one hand and 80 in the other.

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Get a head start

Unbalanced bells will not only challenge your strength; they will challenge your core’s ability to stabilize as you walk. Your shoulders will naturally lean to the side that is bearing more weight; compensate for this by squeezing the oblique and shoulder blade on the opposite side.

Tom Stoltman

Ben Mounsey-Wood

Michael Easter is a health and fitness writer and visiting professor at UNLV.

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