For as long as burpees have been a popular penalty for obstacle failure, they have been a tried and true staple of OCR training, but there are other great exercises out there that are worth incorporating into every OCR athlete’s training program. Whether you’re training for your first Spartan Sprint or training for World’s Toughest Mudder, these movements will help develop the fundamental strength you need to pass through an obstacle course in one piece – and in record time.
#1: Power Raises
Even among OCR athletes who do spend a lot of time in the gym, you’ll find very few who do direct calf work. After all, unless you’re a bodybuilder, do you really need it? While your typical race might not have judges looking for how shredded your lower legs are, adding a few sets per week of properly executed calf work can pay off big dividends in your running form and in preventing injury. When you think about it, the stride starts at the foot, but most people pay a lot more attention to the glutes, hamstrings, and quads than they do those pesky lower leg muscles that are difficult to pronounce. If you’re like most runners, you don’t pay any attention to your feet unless they’re in pain. However, focusing on strengthening the feet and calves sets your legs up for a powerful stride, making the most out of the stronger muscles you have up the chain. I’ve seen lots of athletes who perform tons of hip stability drills (single leg glute bridges, monster walks, side planks, etc) still have an apparent dysfunction in the hips because they don’t have the foot strength to support optimum foot and leg alignment throughout landing and toe-off. One of the best exercises you can do to develop the specific foot and calf strength needed is called the “power raise”.
Joe Uhan from Uhan Performance describes how to properly execute a power raise. “Stand flat or (more powerfully) on the edge of a stair… Drive your weight powerfully into the ball of the foot and big toe. Avoid curling the toes down and in: they should remain flat, but activated. Then, while the foot is active, bend the knee slightly (equal or behind the toes), and rotate the knees outward until the kneecap is centered over the third toe. Once this position is achieved, you might already feel gluteal-muscle activation. You are ready to go. Raise your heel by rolling through the ball of the foot and big toe– for a one-count, then slowly lower (again, biased onto medial arch) for a slow three-count.” 
Work on increasing the number of repetitions you can complete in a single set or in a workout. Focus on performing the movement as described above and don’t sacrifice your form just to get more reps. I recommend performing this movement bilaterally at first, then add dumbbells to increase the challenge. Once you’re able, try doing them on one foot at a time. A sloppily performed heel raise might be pretty easy on one foot, but you will be amazed at how difficult it is to perform a unilateral power raise. With consistent training, you’ll get there and your stride will thank you!
#2: Snatch Grip Deadlifts
The snatch grip deadlift can be a great program addition for many different athletes. Whether you’re a weightlifter training your snatch, a powerlifter building up your conventional deadlift, or an OCR athlete strengthening the posterior chain while packing on strength in the upper back and forearms, the snatch grip deadlift can be an extremely versatile accessory exercise. Check your ego at the door when you go to the gym for snatch grip deadlifts – you’ll probably start off with half the weight you could usually pull from the floor, so don’t bother videoing this lift for your Instagram.
Why do I like the SGDL so much (in addition to regular deadlifts) for OCR athletes? The increased range of motion when compared to a regular deadlift will help strengthen the posterior chain, especially the hamstrings, through a greater range of motion than conventional deadlifts alone. This can also be achieved through deficit deadlifts, but the SGDL has the added bonus of strengthening the upper back muscles without needing to spend a lot of time on other accessory lifts (like shrugs or rear delt flyes, for instance). A strong upper back is extremely important for OCR athletes, especially those competing in races with heavy object carries like sandbag carries, bucket brigades, or atlas stone carries. If you perform them without the use of straps, you’ll also get an incredible grip workout, eliminating the need for a lot of additional grip strength training.
All in all, SGDL is a great catch-all accessory lift to develop the muscles that a lot of OCR athletes are lacking. When using this lift as an OCR accessory lift, I recommend training with sets of 5 to 8 reps, focusing on quality reps rather than weight or volume. On day 1, try 3 sets of 5 with 50% of your known deadlift max. Add weight once you have the grip and upper back strength to go heavier. Avoid using straps for as long as possible to develop your grip strength maximally, then consider adding straps for your heavy sets if needed (but take advantage of strapless warm-up sets to build up those forearms).
#3: Suitcase Lunges (and Asymmetrically Loaded Lunges)
While squats, deadlifts, and other fundamental barbell movements are great, developing strength in split stance and single leg stance movements is especially important for athletes like runners. Adding an asymmetrical component to challenge the athlete either laterally or rotationally is great addition for OCR athletes who need lateral and rotational stability while flying down technical descents or completing obstacles that require some kind of twisting or side to side movement. Even obstacles as simple as a wall climb involve shifting the legs and hips to one side, spinning or rotating to the other side of the wall, and landing in an asymmetric position on the ground. What if there was an exercise that developed all of these abilities – and more?
The suitcase lunge is an excellent lunge variation to do if you’re looking to develop grip strength, shoulder and midline stability, and (obviously) leg strength. To do a suitcase lunge, simply hold a single dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand only, as if you were carrying a suitcase. Complete walking lunges as you normally would, paying special attention to your knees and hips; make sure you don’t let your front knee fall in and make sure you keep your hips level and facing directly forward. Complete 10-20 steps holding the weight in one hand, then swap hands for an additional 10-20 steps. When doing these for high volume sets (50 steps or more), I like to swap hands every 5 or 10 steps, rather than only swapping at the half-way point.
As you get stronger, it may become impractical to load suitcase lunges with enough weight to challenge your legs without completing losing balance. At that point, I recommend progressing towards an asymmetrically loaded lunge. This means holding two dumbbells or kettlebells of differing weights. For example, try completing 20 steps of walking lunges holding a 45# dumbbell in one hand and a 75# dumbbell in the other, then swap the weights for an additional 20 steps. Sound tough? It is! Even your typical dumbbell walking lunges have the potential to fry your forearms, but with asymmetrical loading, you reap the additional benefits of improved hip and trunk stability.
#4: Barbell Thrusters
If you don’t have much time in the gym, the barbell thruster is one of the most efficient exercises out there for developing explosive strength in the upper and lower body simultaneously. While lifting heavy may be impressive, power output is even more critical for runners. Being able to move weight quickly, especially through a large range of motion, will carry over into your running and obstacle course performance. Rather than training for a thruster 1-rep-max, focus on using a sub-maximal load and completing your sets as quickly as possible without sacrificing form.
Barbell (or dumbbell) thrusters are a great option when putting together circuits to simulate the difficulty of completing obstacles in the middle of a run. They pair well with posterior chain movements like deadlifts and with back/bicep movements like pull-ups and bent over rows. If you’re ever done the CrossFit workout “Fran” (21-15-9 for time of thrusters and pull-ups), you know that this particular combination is brutal. To turn Fran into a great OCR specific workout, try breaking up each section with a 400m running interval.
#5: Hanging Hip Touches
It’s no secret that a strong grip is critical in obstacle course racing, but being able to combine a strong grip with strong lats and stable shoulders is what really matters when it comes to things like monkey bars and rig mounted obstacles. There’s a lot of great obstacle simulations you can do if you have access to playground equipment, but for those of us training in a commercial gym, our options are more limited. The hanging hip touch is the perfect move for developing grip strength in the same way that you’ll need to implement it on the race course. It’s as close as you can get to doing monkey bars with limited equipment and is easily loaded or assisted in a gym setting to adjust difficulty.
A hanging hip touch is exactly what it sounds like. Simply hang from a pull-up bar, release one hand from the bar and tap your hip, raise that hand back to the bar, then complete the same thing on the other side. If touching your hips is too challenging, hanging head taps are a slightly easier modification. The hanging toe touch is an advanced progression if the hip touch is too easy for you. For the extremely advanced athlete, completing single arm scapular pull-ups is a great first step towards single armed pull-ups – the ultimate display of obstacle specific grip and lat strength. While the majority of OCR athletes won’t progress all the way to a one armed pull-up like Ryan Atkins, the hanging hip touch will get you a little bit closer.
CHP coaches @alecblenis and @ultrademus have been working on a huge project for the past few months, and today it’s finally ready! Head over to the website (link in our bio) to pick up their 12 and 18 week training templates for World’s Toughest Mudder. Here’s Alec demoing one of the movements from the template that will help prepare you for monkey bars and other rig mounted obstacles. #toughmudder #worldstoughestmudder #obstaclecourseracing #ocr @obstacleracingmedia
Putting it all together.
If you aren’t sure where to start or how to implement these moves into your programming, check out our World’s Toughest Mudder templates here and see how some of these moves are built into a ready-made program.