“So You Want to Pick Up and Lift a Man Overhead”: A Fitness Roundtable -The Toast

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Hieu Truong’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

figure skater lifting manI thought it was hilarious at first when Mallory declared in a comment thread that it was her fitness goal to be able to pick up and lift a grown man over her head. Afterwards, I started noticing that other Toasties were declaring this in a tongue-in-cheek way, and I started thinking, “well, why not?”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn’t any more ridiculous or unlikely than any headline or superlative you catch on a mainstream fitness magazine, like “Get Amazing Abs in 16 Minutes!” I figured any program written to help a woman pick up a man and lift him overhead was going to lead to better overall health and fitness than any program written to “reveal your abs” in short period of time.

Who was going to write this? Well, it’s a poorly hidden secret that lifters like trying to do things that seem foolhardy to normal people just to see if they can do it. That’s why many “CrossFit Fail” pictures exist: pictures of people doing overhead squats on kettlebells or playing drinking games involving a shot of beer and a pull-up on the minute, every minute, for 100 minutes. For example, Camille Brown (a weightlifter and high-level Crossfitter) has posted a video of herself doing a no-hand clean and jerk. We goof around.

To put this together, I asked four friends of mine who coach strength sports. Their expertise lies in some combination of weightlifting, powerlifting, or strongman events, with an emphasis on one of those sports. This scenario raised some eyebrows, but everyone took it very seriously. How heavy was the man? How big is the woman? Is the man resisting, or not? Is there a set way to lift the man off the ground? Are push presses okay?

Tangent: I was also reminded multiple times that I should not expect to ever pick up my husband and press him overhead. Unfortunately, they’re right: my husband weighs twice as much and is over a foot taller than I am. Barring being transported to a comic book universe and being irradiated while touching an arachnid, I don’t really expect to pick up any man and put him over head, much less my husband. As one of them pointed out “you should’ve picked a smaller husband if you wanted to do this.” It’s okay, I have other means of establishing dominance.

The scenario I gave everyone was this: any woman, trying to pick up a 185 lb man any way she can, lifting him overhead any way she can. I chose 185lbs somewhat arbitrarily: although 200+ lb men seem very normal to me, I spend a lot of time in powerlifting and olympic weightlifting gyms and realize that my concept of “normal” is very skewed. Also, the median weight class for men in those sports seem to float around 185lbs.

Ultimately, two programs were written. There’s some common threads between the two, which may not be surprising given that both writers are primarily weightlifting coaches.

Both programs emphasize the following: 1) back squats, 2) push presses, 3) bench presses, 4) sandbag cleans. However, aside from differences in coaching and programming styles, there’s a key difference: one is for picking up a random man, while the other assumes that the man is a willing participant.

These training programs are untested, but if you do decide to do them, please let me know! Share any questions or feedback by commenting below, no matter how long it’s been since this has been posted.


Scenario 1: if you want to press any man, and he’s not trying to help you

(From Philip Stablein, Weightlifting coach at South Baltimore Strength and Conditioning.)

We’ll define a man as being 185lbs for the purposes of this discussion. Of course, this directly conflicts with the internet strength training standards of man, which is 200lbs for anyone 5’8” or above, but since we’re looking at population average we’ll have to avoid that subset. The reality appears to be worse: according to the CDC we’re actually looking at almost 91kg or 200lbs for the average US male. Nevertheless, we’re going to persist with 185lbs, as it also happens to be conveniently loaded on a standard Olympic barbell, using 2x45lb plates and 2x25lb plates (plus the 45lb bar).

With the target man defined, we need to agree what it means to press. I assume this means from shoulder to overhead in any manner, not strictly using the arms. Allowing leg drive has a tradition from strongman to CrossFit, and even the best “presses” from the time when it was a lift contested at the Olympics generally had some hip drive and layback. The trainee wishing to press the man needs to figure out how to get him in place to be pressed. The Steinborn squat is going to be the most practical way to get the man into place.

We’ve now answered “how much” and “how” for the target, we’ll outline the goals for getting there. Here are the standards and justifications:

Steinborn squat: 225lbs. Preferably done with 3-5 reps in the squat after loading. Since a man has a lack of symmetry and hand-holds, the trainee will need reserve strength above the goal load of 185lbs. Steinborn squatting is an asymmetrical exercise, which puts forces on the knees and back which are potentially very injurious – so using something safe like a barbell is going to be important for incremental loading and safe practice.

Bench Press: 225lbs. The bench press allows the most loading of all the upper body exercises and having reserve in this will help develop the overhead strength needs to elevate the man.

Push Press: 205lbs, or behind the neck variant at 225lbs. This exercise most closely mimics the actual lifting, but the extra loading leaves reserve strength for dealing with the asymmetry and lack of convenient hand holds on a human being.

Beyond these standards, there are two exercises which come to mind for developing this ability. First is the log press or push press, which is commonly contested in strongman and strongwoman competition. The log has a large diameter, and thus a less easy to wrangle center of gravity. Second is the sandbag, which is about the closest to a human body in terms of poor hand holds and shifting center of gravity. Some heavy sandbag Steinborn squats and behind-the-neck push presses complexes will be very helpful in developing proper technique for moving a man onto the shoulders and then overhead.

aneta lifting man for game showScenario 2: if you’re lifting a man who is a willing participant

(From Mike McKenna, Weightlifting and Strongwoman/Strongman coach, owner of McKenna’s Gym. Best quote from our conversation: “So I think I have some women here who could put up a guy already.”)

Assuming you’re working with a man within the realm of your strength–say, 100-150% of your weight–then you could put him over your head at some point. Here’s how I would train you to do it.

You need, more than anything else, to squat. Squat 3 days a week, two days back squats, one day front squats. For your front squats, do a solid five sets of three across the board with a few warm-up sets. These should be done about 80-85% of your best front squat. Your back squats should sandwich your front squat workouts, which means to back squat one day, front squat, then back squat.

One day of back squats should be volume based. I like Steve Shafley’s ladders for volume.

Basically, take 80% of your best squat and do 1 rep, then 2 reps, then 3 reps; repeat for a total of four groups, or 24 reps. If you make all the lifts, add 5 pounds the next week. You could also do 5,5,5, 3,3 at 80-95% of your best squat. The other back squat day should be for max strength. Get up to 90% for 1-3 sets of 2. Or five sets of 1. If the 90% feels easy, put more weight on the bar.

You also need to pull stuff from the floor. You can deadlift or do heavy cleans. (Hieu’s note: Mike didn’t specify power cleans or full/squat cleans, but for the purposes of this I’m choosing power cleans.) I would actually do the following one day a week:  Start at a weight easy for you to clean. Do six sets of 2, adding weight each time, getting up to a max set of 2. Then add weight and start to deadlift, doing another 3-5 sets of 1-3 reps in the deadlift. I would do these on the day you front squat. I’ll address other off the floor movements in the event training section.

For upper body strength, you will need to push press and bench press. You might want to even consider push jerks, as long as you do an upper body movement every day. Bench presses on the front squat day with dumbbells due to the one-sided stability they help you get. Do 4 sets of 6 in the bench, or even use the ladder system I suggested for the squats. For the push press or push jerk, do 5 sets of 3-6 sets of 2 as heavy as you can. This movement is the foundation or putting the guy overhead; so really focus on staying tight.

Another vitally important movement is overhead recoveries. Set up a power rack or something to hold a heavy weight, get under it with your arms extended and knees bent, and stand up. When you can do this with more than your husband weighs, you have a shot at holding him up over your head.

I really like a four day a week training split, and our fourth day is purely event training. Your event is the adult man overhead, so on event day, you’ll want to do some specialized movements using  strongman implements. The two most important would be the sandbag clean and press. You can use kegs to mix up the training if you want, but a sandbag is much more like a person. Go for max efforts on these lifts, followed by some sets of 2-3 reps at a lower weight. You also need to do some log cleans and presses, with the biggest diameter log you can find. Again, work to a 1-2 rep max and then do some back off sets. Finally, event day should end with some yoke carries for core strength. 50-100 feet with as heavy a weight as you can manage; do 5-10 sets.

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There’s one other thing: your lifting implement should be able to help you on the lift. You’ll need to practice with him, both when he’s overhead and when he’s on the ground. Break up the movements: pull him off the bed or the couch to your shoulder, then toss him back down. Once you get him to your shoulder, press him a time or two, or even start with him at your shoulder and press him. See what type of press/jerk is most effective for you two, then drop him on the bed or couch. Also, pull him off the floor to your waist, then to your shoulder, and don’t forget to drop him. His body will absorb the impact. Don’t forget: when he’s overhead, his ability to hold the plank position is crucial to your success. Also, he should help you out a little by pushing on you to make sure he gets overhead.

Hieu Truong lifts weights on a regular basis, and still trying to find that last shard for her own Adora's Amulet. She can be found tweeting away about niche sports and Neko Atsume at @Hieuzon1st.

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