Flip tyres to build functional strength

Jack Lovett is a S&C specialist, owner of Spartan Performance and two-time British natural strongman champion. He is based in Consett, County Durham.

Tyre flipping is a movement with huge benefits for many people, but it’s often misunderstood or done wrong. Firstly, it’s a full body stimulator – there isn’t a single muscle this exercise won’t recruit and strengthen – including stabilising muscles – in a way that traditional barbell and dumbbell movements can’t. I personally find it particularly beneficial for contact sport athletes as a bridge between the weight room and playing field. It helps develop force from the ground up – all flips require an explosive lower body drive which extends up into triple extension and through the hands. Tyre flipping can also be used to develop endurance, benefiting athletes and non-athletes alike. And finally, tyre flipping helps develop a formidable level of mental toughness: it’s not something you can approach casually and walk through. Suitably weighted tyres require total commitment and complete application from the individual. In my experience the best results always come from such effort.

Go big or go home
But there’s a caveat here. Rather than let my athletes start with tiny tyres and work up, I start my entry-level or beginner clients with 250-300kg, and work up to 300-350kg for experienced/heavier clients. There are two key reasons for this: firstly, it needs to be heavy enough to elicit the required training effect, but secondly: depth is crucial. Your tyre should be a minimum of 20” thick in order to allow the athlete to get into the optimal tyreflip position – thinner tyres encourage a ‘sumo deadlift’ lifting position, also known as the ‘biceps tearing’ position. If you find yourself setting up with your shins close to the tyre, back rounded and arms inside your legs, you’re going to end up lifting with your arms instead of your legs, back and minimal arms. So aim for a big tyre, but also remember that tyres are not a standard piece of professional gym equipment – they are mostly used or damaged, and very worn. I strongly advise using a tyre with suitable edge to ensure a safe and secure grip.

Run the numbers
Here’s a secret: tyre flipping isn’t that hard! You never lift the total weight and I have many athletes with sub 2xbodyweight squats tearing through 3xbodyweight tyres and heavier. A successful flip depends on ‘how’ you flip the tyre. Is it passively and slow (and thus heavy) or is it explosive and aggressive (and thus feels light)?.

With all that in mind I like to focus my client’s training on achieving roughly the below standards before considering the 300kg tyre:

Squat 1.75-2 x B/W or 200kg. Whatever comes first.

Deadlift 2-2.5 x B/W or 220kg. Whatever comes first

Bench No required standard though I do like 140kg as a minimum target for committed males.

Clean No specific standard, but the better you are, the more potential you have for a good tyre flip.
Clean up your technique

This is your setup for a solid tyre flip:
1) Chin on the tyre lip.
2) Chest and shoulders driven into the tyre wall but not over it (the hazard with too narrow a tyre and sumo stance lifts).
3) Feet back from the tyre to facilitate a forward lean. Roughly a 45˚angle but this will vary depending upon individual biomechanics and lever length as well as tyre size.
4) Flip with the legs and not the arms.
5) Explode from the start. You aren’t getting paid by the hour! Be aggressive.

The biggest mistakes I see in tyre flipping come from not being aggressive enough: lifting too slowly, or backing off. If the lifter does just enough to break the ground and then proceed to fight the tyre up by any means, you’re going to get a slow and ugly flip. This is the problem if the tyre doesn’t clear your knees from the initial drive – if your execution is violent and explosive enough. The tyre clears knee height easily and basically flips itself. Backing off from the tyre is also a big NO in my coaching. Once we begin to flip there is only one direction to project yourself and the tyre – forwards. Anyone who partially flips the tyre then has to back off slightly as the tyre falls backwards is not getting the most benefit. I also see this as another unnecessary injury risk. I use tyres to get my clients more explosive and stronger, not injured and slow.

Move on up
Firstly, nobody needs to flip a 500kg tyre. We have one at Spartan Performance, but that doesn’t mean it’s required flipping by all. I find many of the benefits to tyre flipping for trained populations can be achieved in the 300-350kg range – I reserve the 500kg for applicable strength athletes, those that have them in an upcoming contest at that weight

That being said assuming you have solid technique and a strong base of gym numbers, then the below sets/reps can be useful to progress in tyre weight:

A) 6-10 singles (120-180 rest) @ 300kg.

B) 8-10 singles (90s rest) @ 300kg.

C) 5-6 x 3-5 (120s rest) @ 300kg.

D) 3-4 x 8-10 (120s rest) @ 300kg – not required but I do like using this.

E) Repeat steps A-D with 325-350kg tyre, and move on when you can.

Just FYI, at the northern qualifier for sub-105kg strongman this year at Spartan Performance the best result was 9 flips of a 500kg tyre in 75s. You don’t need to get that strong, but you can certainly improve on what you’re doing now – and if you approach it with the right mixture of intelligence and aggression, you’ll do it without injury.

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