Rock Training – Build Muscle and Gain Strength Lifting Rocks

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My fitness and strength career is defined into two very distinct parts. The first part was the years I lived for lifting heavy iron of all types. The second is my current obsession with calisthenics and various body weight training styles. In between these two eras, I had a transitional period where I started to really get into lifting weights that were a bit more natural. More specifically I lifted rocks and the occasional tree limb.

At first, I got into lifting rocks because of the novelty. It had this rustic hardcore primal edge to the training. It was also free and something I could do in the backyard in the fresh air. It was also a hell of a lot of fun and I worked muscles I never knew I had. Even though I had a lot of fun and gained a ton of strength, I also learned a whole lot about the nature of the body and how it was really designed to exercise.

#1: Lifting rocks tells you instantly what’s really natural and artificial about exercise in the gym. Before I got into lifting rocks, I spent most of my time under a barbell. I was, for all accounts, a power lifter with heavy doses of the bench press and back squat thrown in.

When I started lifting rocks I was quickly aware of just how artificial many weight lifting exercises were. Doing things like bench pressing or back squatting was incredibly difficult if not impossible. I couldn’t lay on the ground and bench press a 200 pound rock. Just getting the thing into position was a risky endeavor. Plus when I was done there was no rack. I nearly smashed my head and tore out my shoulders when I tried to throw even a 90 pound rock over my head. I quickly realized that bench pressing rocks was a bad idea.

Exercises like the bench press and back squat are fine, but we needed to invent special equipment to be able to do those moves. We needed to invent the barbell, the weight bench, the weight plates and the rack. In light of this observation I realized just how artificial bench pressing 300 pounds or back squatting 400 pounds could be.

#2: Natural weights are big, awkward and difficult to manipulate. When I went searching for rocks, I become aware of how big and awkward they were. It wasn’t like a dumbbell where it was all balanced and equipped with an easy carry handle. If I wanted a heavier rock then I needed a bigger rock. Often, the rocks would be awkward and hard to grip. It was very apparent off the bat that lifting rocks involved much more than strong muscles to lift the rock. I also needed a killer grip and the core strength to stabilize the darn thing.

#3: A lot of strength is used to carry weight, not just lift it. When I lifted weights, I spent a lot of energy actually lifting the weight. Not so with rocks. Much of the energy and strength I built up was due to carrying the rocks not just lifting them up.

rock-trainingThis was especially the case with doing things like squats and lunges. Without the ability to place a weight on my back, I had to hold the weight in my arms the whole time. I also had to carry the weight every time I pulled the rocks from the corner of the garage to the open space where I would exercise. Once again, this resulted in a lot of grip and core strength that had been sorely missing from my workouts in the gym.

#4: Most lifts involve picking something up from the ground and pushing it over head. When lifting gets as natural as lifting rocks or logs, you realize that most of the exercises in the gym are very artificial. When you lift rocks it’s just you, the rock and the ground. There are no racks, benches, platforms or spotters.

Because of this, lifting rocks essentially becomes reduced into 3 different exercise movements. You either pull the rock off the ground, carry it, or press it overhead. These movements were a refreshing yet simple way of looking at working out. Every exercise was full body and ground based. This made me much stronger and more athletic within a matter of months.

#5: Almost all leg work involves stepping and squatting. I did a million and one leg exercises in the gym, but I only had 2 different leg exercises with rock training. Almost everything was some variation of a squat or lunge.

Like many, I considered the lunge to be a lesser exercise. I got the shock of my life when I picked up a modest size rock and decided I would lunge down a football field as a “warm up”. I only made it 40 yards before both my legs seized up and I collapsed in the grass.

Again, I had no back squat I could really use, so every exercise involved either carrying rocks or putting them on my shoulder. Not only did this involve my upper body more, but I also found I could squat deeper and lunge longer than when I had a bar on my back.

#6: Throwing rocks can be great for explosive power and it’s a hell of a lot of fun too. Some years ago, I decided I wanted to incorporate more explosive training into my lifting. The problem was I could only move a weight so fast without losing control of it. On some occasions, I was literally throwing weights around. I was even laying on a bench and throwing a bar up into the air and catching it before it crushed my neck. I know, it wasn’t a smart thing to do.

Throwing weights was a dangerous and often damaging thing to do. I did the best I could with medicine balls, but I wanted something heavier than 10-15 pounds. Rocks gave me the freedom to toss, launch and heave heavy weight as fast as I wanted. I did explosive cleans, presses and even cleaned the rock to my chest before stepping forwards and tossing it in front of me. Not only did this greatly improve my explosive potential, but it was a whole lot of fun as well. I had little contests with friends to see who could toss a rock the furthest.

Of course, rock training can pose some unique risks. Without a solid grip on such an awkward weight it’s helpful to wear full finger gloves. This helps to avoid slippage but also protects your hands from cuts and abrasions. It’s also important to be aware of your surroundings. You want to use the rock on a surface you can’t damage if you drop it plus you want to be aware that rocks can bounce and roll when they hit the ground. Always be aware of your surroundings, other people and your own body position at all times. With a little care and awareness, lifting rocks can be a fun and very rewarding fitness practice!

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About Author

Matt Schifferle

My name is Matt Schifferle and I'm an A.C.E. Certified Personal Trainer, CrossFit Level 1 coach, underground strength coach and I'm a 5th degree black belt in Taekwon-Do. I specialize in outdoor and playground based underground and CrossFit style bootcamps. See my profile page for more information!

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Definitely agree with the rock workout routine! I started using rocks after being forced to sell my free weights to pay the bills. Amazed at how effective rocks can be! Found the trick is to have several rocks of different shapes and sizes. But by being creative I get a really explosive workout. Think of them as big kettlebells. Plus I imagine myself as Fred Flintstone’s weight lifting cousin! Rock on!

  2. Avatar

    I started carrying a 140 pound load on my back up grassy hills. I’m also doing homemade sandbag training in my home. The sand bags have no handles and they are covered in tape which is very slippery. I throw in just a few big movements here and there and I’m toast (from my feet to my head). This is something I never got from standard weight training. Plus, carrying odd objects is awesome cardio (HIIT)!

  3. Avatar
    Richard Lambert on

    I’m into rocks and have done a few powerlifting competitipns at a weight of 75-82kg with 235kg/145kg/225kg lifts and a few bodyweight strongman contests. I find my light body weight makes me okay at carrying weight. I have a collection of beach granite (43kg, 54kg, 62kg, 69kg), all of which I can press overhead and move quite quickly. Yesterday, I retrieved a monster 122kg rock which I carried and dragged with a dog chain for 1/4 mile before carrying it up 92 cliff steps. Today, I am ruined but chuffed my legs and my forearms are bruised and cramped, but I can’t wait to move it around the garden. I will time my 50m workout and then try to improve. My whole body feels pumped!

  4. Avatar

    Being a lifting fanatic I was a bit discouraged when I was in Croatia on vacation and I felt like I had to do something. I decided to pick up some rocks from behind the house, and with a little bit of rope, I was able to go all out “ancient world style” for my training. It’s awesome! Looking out at the Adriatic Sea while lifting stones is amazing. I will take that any day over the gym!

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