After all my rambling about strength training, I decided I should put mine to the test. So I signed up for the novice round at England’s Strongest Man Under 80kg.
That weight category is very important. I have loved strongman ever since witnessing Magnus Ver Magnusson conquer all mortals in the early ’90s, but as a medium-sized chap I never wanted to – or believed I could – grow to the vast size necessary to compete with the monsters. Then one day at Genesis Gym I saw Lewis Blackwood lifting Atlas stone and discovered that strongman has weight categories. That changed everything.
At the end of April I signed up for a competition in mid-July, figuring that three months of training would be ample preparation. Then I immediately jumped into six weeks of working flat out on a film up in Leeds. The next time I opened my eyes it was the week-long binge of Download Festival in June, then it was 5 weeks until the competition and I had no idea where to even begin.
I also didn’t have a place to train. I’d moved out of London away from Genesis (my favourite gym) and 99% of other gyms feature a distinct lack of Atlas stones, farmer’s grips, axels, logs, yokes and the other strange and wonderful things that strongmen and strongwomen have to heft.
However, in a fortunate turn of events I happened to nip down to the nearest gym to my parents’ house – Wild Gym on the outskirts of High Wycombe. It’s wonderful place, but it’s primarily a functional fitness facility where movement is emphasised over the lifting of vast weights. Yet, lo and behold, they just so happened to have access to a whole stack of strongman training equipment! There was even a strongman training session every Monday night!
[Update: Wild Gym is now investing in a huge amount of additional strongman equipment, so watch this space!]
So began my five weeks of training in strongman, building up to these events:
Deadlift: 170kg as many times as possible in 60 seconds
Log Press: 70kg from floor to overhead as many times as possible in 60 seconds
Yoke Carry: 200kg for two 20m lengths as fast as possible
Truck Pull: 7.5 tons as far as possible in 60 seconds
Atlas Stones: 90kg over a yoke as many times as possible in 60 seconds
It wasn’t easy. In fact it was the exact opposite of easy, which I suppose is the entire point of strongman. For example, despite having just competed 4 months of overhead press training with an Olympic bar up to and over 100kg, as soon as I loaded a thick strongman log up to 70kg I could barely move the damn thing. The centre of mass is shifted forwards, your hands and arms are at a totally different angle, and you don’t feel like you can drive with your legs without dropping the whole thing on your feet. It was a truly humbling experience that made me realise the size of the task I had set myself, trying to get to grips with this within a month.
My training schedule went very roughly as follows:
Monday: strongman events, primarily those in the competition: log press, heavy Atlas stone and yoke carry.
Tuesday: upper body: bench press, chin ups and mobility
Thursday: leg power: deadlift, squat, light Atlas stone and mobility
Friday: endurance/capacity training: carrying heavy stuff around the place
Weekend: overhead: push press or log press
Slowly but surely I started to learn the techniques, but I still had no idea what was expected of me in the competition. How many reps should I expect to have to complete in a minute to be competitive? 4? 6? 8? No idea.
The first time I did floor to overhead, for example, it took 15 seconds to complete each rep. That was four in 60 seconds if I could make it through a full minute of hefting that weight, which I couldn’t – I was dying at 45 seconds. Even so, it seemed reasonable to expect that, after a month of training, I might be able to squeeze out another couple of reps if I could go the distance. That would give me six…but I decided to aim for eight. That’s twice as many, which was a pleasant-sounding ambition.
That number seemed realistic for each event. Many more than eight reps and surely you’re no longer in the realm of strongman, right? I asked around at training and was told, “It depends on the event, but in a novice comp some people will be closer to 20 than 10.”
That was bad news. I was confident of being able to hit five or six reps in each event, and aiming for eight as an ambitious goal. Nevertheless, I set to training. A couple of weeks later I could get six overheard reps out in 45 seconds, but was still dying on my ass after that. I practised Atlas stones and worked up to six reps, but I was moving slowly and it was taking a long time.
My deadlift had been very strong back in May, but for some reason I just couldn’t find my groove with it in the weeks leading up to the comp. It might have been all the Atlas Stones and other training giving my lower back a hammering, but less than two weeks out from the contest I found myself incapable of hefting 225kg: roughly three times my bodyweight which I had come to think of as a stable heavy lift of mine. It was worrying.
Moreover, practising deadlifting 170kg for a minute solid was proving to be a difficult thing to fit in without buggering up the rest of my training through sheer fatigue. As for practising the truck pull, I didn’t have a truck so I pulled a land rover twice… It was horrible!
Then, friends, it was over. I did one last Monday evening session and it was time to rest up for the competition at the weekend.
Oh…and lose some weight. Whoops.