Why You Should Be Lifting Atlas Stones
“If you can lift a 300lb stone you can lift a 300lb anything”
-Brian Alsruhe, NEVERsate Athletics
If there were ever a lift most deserving of the cliche “functional fitness” crown, it would be atlas stones.
To hell with your commercial gym trainer’s one legged, bosu ball, resistance band with chains, single arm, kettlebell swing…with your eye’s closed…
You simply aren’t going to find a more bang for your buck movement than picking up a big ass rock.
This is not an atlas stone tutorial. (For step by step instruction on how to lift stones click here).
This is why I believe atlas stones are easily in contention for the title of “best strength movement ever”.
Why You Should be lifting Atlas Stones
Atlas stones are the real definition of a full body movement.
For starters, this thing doesn’t have any handles to grab onto. You physically have to crush the stone in the most violent hug you’re ever going to give. Not only does this allow for natural grip strength and forearm development, but the musculature of your upper back is also going to be working hard to maintain this crush position.
You simply aren’t going to reproduce this “crush” movement with anything in the gym outside of stones and sandbags. This unique benefit makes stones a useful training tool for athletes like football players, or those in combat sports.
From there you’ll be picking up all the same great benefits you would from a deadlift. Basically, you’re training everything.
Regardless of what specific stone event you are doing (stone over bar, stone to shoulder, stone hugs) you have to deadlift the stone up into your lap. You’re going to be working the entirety of your posterior chain while still maintaining that crush position we already talked about.
What makes lifting stones arguably even better than deadlifts, however, is what comes next.
The most common stone lifting event is stone over bar, or loading it to a platform. Getting the stone their requires you not only deadlift the stone into your lap, but also triple extend with the stone in hand over the platform.
This is where stones overtake deadlifts in my books.
Not only is this triple extension just plain fun as hell. (Who doesn’t want to throw a rock around?) But you are developing hip explosiveness on another level.
Or at least you should be.
To get any decently heavy stone to move you need to not only have the raw strength, but also the explosive power to do so.
Getting into more competitive strongman makes it even better because you can guarantee that platform you are loading to is going to be high (with some events being determined by how high you can actually load). This means you need the raw strength to pick the stone up. The explosive hip power to get it moving, and the athletic skill to triple extend as high as you possible can. This is the kind of strength + athletics combination I can really get behind, which brings me to my next point.
Unique Blend of Strength/Power/Skill
In addition to all of the great muscle building benefits, stones hit a unique balance of strength, power, and skill. Whereas other lifts tend to be dominated by one area.
Your general every day resistance training like bro curls and bench pressing some dumbbells would fall under strength (ability to overcome resistance)
Something like olympic weightlifting would hit on the areas of power (ability to overcome resistance quickly) and skill (technical proficiency with a movement)
But, to be good at stones you truly need all three. Can you muscle up a sub-maximal stone with minimal form?
Can you lack raw strength but be very technically proficient and out lift other’s?
However, to take it to that next level you’ve got to learn how to combine the strength, with the explosiveness, with the technical know how to lift some seriously heavy stones.
This makes the overall experience of learning to lift stones that much more enjoyable. While you may have some things to work on, you can make up for it in other areas in the meantime. This encourages a lifter to continue practicing a movement compared to if they were just bad across the board.
When a movement get’s too far into only relying on positioning, or only on explosiveness, or only on skill, it can be frustrating to get a new athlete to continue on if those aren’t areas they are gifted in.
Stones give you lots of routes to be good at the movement, with the combination of all those routes leading you to be great at it.
“Isn’t this dangerous?”
At least not in the way you are thinking.
The most common concern you’ll see with stones is people see the curved back position the movement requires and immediately believe they are going to pop a disc.
Every… single…one…I’M KIDDING.
The most common injury you’ll see with stones is getting your finger accidentally crushed. If an athlete gets out of their intended position/path with the stone a finger can end up getting caught between the stone and the bar they are trying to load it over. Definitely not fun. But also not the end of the world.
Can any number of other accidents happen. Sure. Bet you’ve probably seen a few YouTube clips of bad things happening with stones. First, these incidents are exceptions not the status quo. Second the very same, very nasty accidents can happen squatting or deadlifting too. There’s always going to be a little bit of risk with everything you do. Unless your content with living in a bubble the rest of your life of course.
Unfortunately, most dominantly “round back” stigma has plagued this movement and keeps people away from ever trying stones in the first place. Truth is your in no more risk of danger than you would be with normal everyday squats and deadlifts in terms of low back injury.
Anecdotally you may even find the stone position feels a little bit better than a squat or a deadlift. This is because when getting into that “round back” position what’s actually happening is the athlete is wrapping themselves around the stone, tight up against it.
In this position the stone serves as a natural support for you. So long as you are tucked up nice and close to it you actually can brace into the stone itself helping you maintain a nice stable position.
Yes this is how it’s supposed to be done. No don’t try and fight against this position you may actually increase your chance of hurting yourself.
Understand, there’s much MUCH more to the prevalence of low back pain/low back pain injuries than the simple monkey brain response “round back bad”. What’s more important is you give your body the proper amount of time to advance this movement. Slowly creep up to heavier stones over a long period of time to give your body time to adapt to the new stress. While the round back position of stones isn’t going to hurt you, trying to max out the very first time you ever try stones is a great way get the job done.
“I’m in. Where do I find a stone?”
This is the main snag in the road of why stones aren’t as popular as they should be.
They just aren’t as readily available as basic barbells and dumbbells. Probably never will be.
Which makes sense. There is almost zero incentive for commercial gyms to bring in some dirty rocks that take up a bunch of space. Create a new liability for accidents. Make a bunch of noise. Could potentially damage flooring, etc., etc., etc.
I get it.
But that does make it hard for those of you that want to try out stones to actually get your hands on one. Here are your options.
Find a strongman gym. This is probably the easiest route to take. Simply lookup “strongman gyms in my area”. Understand that, while the sport is growing, strongman gyms still aren’t all that popular. At least when compared to commercial gyms. Be ready to accept a potentially long drive to one in your area. Even if you can only make it once per week that’s better than nothing at all.
If you come up with nothing on a strongman gym search, check out every privately owned gym in your area. While they may not be marketing towards the strongman crowd, more and more small business gyms are picking up pieces of strongman equipment to differentiate from commercial gyms. You may surprise yourself and find a pile of rocks in the corner of a gym that’s actually trying to draw in crossfitters.
If that doesn’t work you can make atlas stones yourself. You’re going to need a weekend, a twelve pack, and a whole bunch of patience. Companies like Slater and Hybrid Athletics make stone molds for you to make your own stones using concrete. I’ll let you do your own research on which you may like best. From there, there’s many great stone making videos on YouTube just look up “how to make an Atlas Stone” and settle in for some hard, but rewarding work.
The very last option you have is to go out back and find yourself a stone. These are what are called “natural stones”. All the same basic lifting tenants that go into atlas stones applies with natural stones. Their unique shapes, however, can make them potentially easier, or harder to lift compared to the normal globe shape. Best of all natural stones are free. So long as you can get it back to your intended place to train of course.