If you’re new to Spartan, chances are you’re starting with a Sprint, a 3- to 5-mile race featuring about two dozen obstacles, including rope climbing, sandbag carrying, and tire dragging. It’s a great introduction to Spartan.
The Sprint may be short, but it’s no walk in the park. “Upper body and grip strength are most important to focus on if you want to be successful at conquering many of the obstacles,” says SGX trainer Anthony Ferguson. “People are often weakest in these areas.”
So, how do you build race-ready strength and power? We asked a handful of Spartan SGX trainers to identify the key upper-body and grip-strengthening moves every first-time Spartan needs to master.
Start with five rounds of at least two of the exercises below, three times a week, for at least a month leading up to the race (two months is even better). Rest one minute between each exercise. You can do this as a complete workout, part of a bigger strength training program, or as a finisher after a run. It’s important to change up the exercise combinations so you don’t overwork specific muscles and risk injury.
And even though it’ll be tempting to cram as much training in leading up to the race, your body will get stronger faster if you rest for a day or two a week as well.
“When you’re training for your first Spartan race, you can’t go wrong with any kind of pull-up,” says Ferguson, whose gym in Roanoke, Virginia, specializes in prepping clients for obstacle races. He suggests the inverted row as your go-to upper body move.
*How to do it: *Position a bar in a rack so it’s approximately waist high. Take a slightly wider than shoulder-width overhand grip, and slide your body under the bar, hanging directly under it and facing the ceiling. Your shoulders, body, hips, and legs should all be in a straight line with heels on the ground. Pull yourself up to the bar until your chest touches. Lower yourself back down slowly and repeat. That’s one rep.
Do as many as you can—that’s one round. When starting, you may only be able to do one rep. That’s fine, says Ferguson. You’ll improve quickly.
The burpee is the signature exercise of Spartan. “It’s the penalty if you don’t complete an obstacle, and it’s a great overall strength and cardio exercise,” says Spartan SGX trainer Brenda Hager of DSC Fitness in Long Island, New York.
However, she recommends a twist on the traditional move—adding a pull-up. “This will help with grip strength, and it gets you used to pulling up your entire body weight, which is something that many obstacles require.”
How to do it: Stand tall under a pull-up bar. Quickly lower your hips and place hands on the ground in front of your feet, then kick your feet out behind you into a pushup position. Complete a pushup, with your chest touching the ground. Jump your feet back under your hips, stand up tall, look up, and jump to grab the bar. Either do a pull-up or just make sure you have a good grip with both hands. Drop feet back to ground. That’s one rep. Do as many as you can each round.
“All variations of pull exercises will increase grip strength and endurance,” says Kasey Meunier, a Spartan SGX coach at Outside the Box Fitness in Wilmington, North Carolina. “This will allow you to hoist heavy weight, pull yourself up ropes and over walls, and drag yourself through the thickest of mud!”
How to do it: Meunier recommends starting off with dead hangs, often called straight-arm hangs. Perform three reps, holding for max time—that is, hang onto the bar for as long as you can. Make sure you time yourself. Rest for a minute between each rep. Then complete five reps, holding for half your max time. Again, rest for a minute between each rep.
Meunier advises retesting your max time every two weeks and adjusting your half-max time accordingly. As you build up ability, she suggests performing these alongside another pull-up of choice, such as a bent-arm hang.
Unstable Isometric-Static Pull-Up Hold
This exercise will help you master the rope climb, Atlas Stones, and up-and-downs, says Scooch Pascucci, owner of Scooch’s Health and Fitness in Norristown, Pennsylvania, which specializes in obstacle course race training.
“The unstable isometric-static hold works grip strength and also strengthens your shoulder girdle,” he says, “making it strong enough to complete any climbing, pulling, or hanging obstacle.”
How to do it: For the beginner, hold yourself at the top of a pull-up position. If you’re not physically strong enough to hold yourself up, Scooch suggests getting your trainer to connect bands to your knees to lighten the weight. Intermediate and advanced athletes can wrap a towel or a band around the pull-up bar and hold themselves up statically in this position. Hold as long as you can—that’s one rep. Do as many reps as you can, resting a minute between each.
“You use an unstable environment,” Scooch explains, “because the entire course is unstable and you should be trained to prepare for this. Most of the obstacles you will come across in a Spartan race will mimic if not depend on this movement to complete tasks in a timely fashion.”
Hand-Over-Hand Sled Pull
“Grip strength and recovering quickly from an obstacle that requires high metabolic demand are two of the most important components to any Spartan training program,” says Andrea Bowden, Spartan SGX coach, OCR specialist, and founder of Next Level Fitness Training in Oregon. “I like weighted pulls sandwiched between running.”
How to do it: For the hand-over-hand sled pull, use ropes of varying thickness as you never know what you’ll get at a race, says Bowden. Attach a rope onto the sled and grip the end of the rope with no slack. Sit still on a mat and practice using both arms with equal time hand over hand, pulling the sled toward you.
“Try not to dominate with one arm,” Bowden suggests. “Also, try to pull one-armed. In other words, hesitate before allowing the second arm to assist the pulling arm.”
By the time the sled reaches you, the rope will be bunched behind you. Grab the end of it and run to where the sled was before you began pulling. Ensure the rope is without slack and start again.
Do two reps and then ditch the rope and go for a run. “Depending on what your training goals are and the environment you’re training in, you can run around the block or sprint through the parking lot,” Bowden proposes. “I don’t use the treadmill but it certainly can be used if that’s what’s available.”
Don’t overdo it, though, she says. Keep running drills short and simple and use them to help with any stiffness developed in the sled workout.
Be smart, stay safe, and build up the strength to make this Spartan race the first of many.
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