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When Did We Start Flipping Big Honkin’ Tires as Physical Fitness?

Now a popular CrossFit activity, it was actually the World’s Strongest Man competition’s head referee who reinvented this wheel

“Hey, Ian! Paul got us a tractor tire!”

I was stoked to hear this from Ron, my best friend and longtime housemate. After being motivated by broadcasts of CrossFit events on ESPN 2, and wanting to capitalize on our home’s massive backyard, I specifically asked Ron if he knew anyone that might be able to find us a flipworthy tire.

For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you why I was so stoked to have access to this tire. It’s not like I didn’t have a gym membership, or a house filled with exercise gadgets like multiple pull-up bars, a dip stand, two sets of Bowflex SelectTech Dumbbells and an industrial-grade elliptical machine that conveniently overlooked a 54-inch television set in the living room. There was just something uniquely enticing about the option to reroute the accumulated frustrations of a brutal workday into manhandling a massive piece of rubber by flipping it around a grassy lawn — and then bashing it with a sledgehammer.

Everything you just said, of course, is totally insane. Speaking of insanity, where did the idea to train by flipping tires even come from?

The creation of the tire flip as both a sporting event and training event is credited to Scotsman Douglas Edmunds, an absolute legend in competitive strongman circles. He was the founder of the International Federation of Strength Athletes, and took advantage of his position as head referee of the “World’s Strongest Man” competition to innovate exercises like the Hercules Hold, Fingal’s Fingers, Keg Toss, Atlas Stones, Conan’s Circle and Power Stairs and turn them into strongman events.

As for when tire flipping debuted on the world stage, the most prominent early display of the event I was able to find — with Edmunds standing there front and center to monitor the competitors’ responses to the physical exertion involved — was during the 1995 World’s Strongest Man qualifying heats in Nassau, Bahamas. Facing elimination from the contest, Bill Pittock, Heinz Ollesch, Colin Cox and Gerrit Badenhorst were all called upon to flip a 500-pound tire over a distance of 15 sandy meters.

Since Edmunds regrettably passed away in 2020, we don’t know precisely what was going through his mind at the time of the tire flip’s invention. I’m tempted to hypothesize that the innovation was owed to my mother’s birthplace of New Providence, a Bahamian island only 21 miles long and seven miles wide that lacked many of the implements that had grown to be common in strongman events during the prior decade. However, one thing development-heavy New Providence would certainly have possessed in abundance during the mid-1990s was tractor tires. (It’s also worth noting that tires had been incorporated into the World’s Strongest Man competitions and similar events in earlier years, including tire-hurling at the very first of such contests, and tire drags a little later on.)

Either way, the tire-flip event returned for the World’s Strongest Man competition in Port Louis, Mauritius the following year, where it was once again contested on sand, only this time the flipping distance was extended to 20 excruciating meters. Similarly, it was featured in the 1997 contest from the Primm Valley Resort in Nevada, where the infinite stretch of sandy desert made the event simple to accommodate.

So what happened from there?

As strongman events increased in popularity thanks to cable television, many local contests started replicating tire-flipping, often with heavier tires than those used in the actual World’s Strongest Man contests. In an event covered by The News-Messenger of Fremont, Ohio in August 2000, 27-year-old Travis Braden won the heavyweight division of the McPherson Strongman Competition primarily because he was one of few competitors capable of flipping an 850-pound tire even once.

But as the tire flip trickled down to athletes who were focused less on the development of pure strength and more on total body muscle endurance, the weights of the tires shrank back to mere-mortal levels in a push toward accessibility. Along those lines, by the mid-2000s, the tire flip was a frequent part of the lineman challenges of high school football programs and military conditioning programs.

In some cases, the tire flip was even the centerpiece of community-bonding initiatives. In 2013, The Austin-American Statesman covered the flipping of a 200-pound tire as the main attraction of a football and volleyball scholarship fundraiser. Each flip of the tire by a local athlete through a one-mile loop around the park raised the overall dollar amount administered by the scholarship.

Tire-flipping fundraiser event in Texas

Then, of course, there’s the aforementioned CrossFit, which can probably be given more credit than anything else for taking outdoor manual labor activities and moving them into the mainstream. It’s in that setting that you can pull a tire away from a wall and flip it the maximum number of times that you can muster. After that — i.e., when you can’t lift it another inch — you can whip out a sledgehammer and pound it into oblivion as if you were driving railroad spikes.

What is the training value of the tire flip?

Believe it or not, a tire flip is one of the most practical training methods for athletes required to administer force and move heavy objects that are mildly unpredictable once they’re in motion (hence their involvement in football linemen drills). The tire flip can also be employed for ballistic training if the athlete’s muscles are able to accelerate throughout the duration of the flip.

So while it might not be for everyone, for these athletes at least, this is definitely where the tire-flip rubber meets the road — or as Edmunds originally intended, the sand.