Strongman 101: Why You’re Not Improving
By Dain Wallis
The sport of Strongman is growing at a rapid pace. As such, there are more and more athletes trying to figure out how they can rise to the top amongst a growing field of competitors. Given the name of the sport, many people harness their energy into lifting as much heavy stuff as possible. Logical yet far too simplistic, this approach will never yield elite results. After a decade in the sport, training, coaching and competing with athletes from various countries, here’s a breakdown of why I see athletes struggle to break away from the pack.
You Skipped the Basics
This is something seen often in Bodybuilding and Crossfit where Average Joe(anna) jumps enthusiastically though irresponsibly into a sport without the requisite experience but now it’s happening in Strongman as well. Many if not most recreational lifters were never taught the basics of breathing and bracing or bodyweight patterning prior to jumping under a bar. I was certainly one of those people and taking time off to go back to the basics was paramount to becoming a high level Strongman competitor.
Coaches and experienced lifters alike are forever preaching “technique”, but the reality is that very few are actually disciplined enough to make this a priority as the weights increase. Can you squat and deadlift without losing a neutral spine? Can you perform a Deadbug without compensation? Do you have sufficient thoracic extension to press overhead without sacrificing your spine or shoulders? How’s your torsion control? If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you may have some great opportunities to strengthen your foundation and increase your capacity for maximum strength (not to mention injury-prevention).
Strongman is a sport that puts the body in disadvantageous positions and more often than not forces athletes out of perfectly balanced barbell positioning: this by definition demonstrates how Strongman events require advanced skills. Without the basic movement foundations, training advanced skills can bring a Strongman career to a grinding halt through injury that could have otherwise been avoided. Think about it: If you can’t deadlift a barbell without looking like a dog doing its business, why do you think you should jump into handling objects that will put your body in an even more compromising position?
Your Mindset Isn’t Giving You a Chance
People new to the sport are always asking questions about other athletes and trying to discover where the current bar is set: Who’s my competition? What can they lift? Are they signed up for this competition? It’s good to know your opposition, but you’re dead in the water if you’re worried about when they’re competing and how well they’re going to do.
In the sport of Strongman, you have no affect on the performance of your opponents. You are tasked with a challenge and you need to execute to the best of your ability. If your concern is to achieve an unrealistic result based on the expected outcomes of your competition, you’ll underperform to your own standards. Most athletes, including myself, have had this mindset at one point or another, but until you start dedicating 100% of your focus to your own performance, you’ll continue to underachieve.
Your More-Is-Always-Better Attitude is Leaving You with Less
This is a pandemic in the Strongman community. More gear. More carbs. More supplements. More stimulants. More sets. More volume. Here’s some advice: Less is often more and quality always trumps quantity. A more-is-always-better attitude will catch up to you in the end and leave you searching for answers. This applies to many aspects of the sport, such as:
You Rely Too Much on Gear
To succeed at Strongman you must be strong. Obvious statement, right? I would agree, but the training actions of too many athletes rebel against this very simple concept. Training without gear and equipment (belts, suits, wraps, etc.) will make the body as strong and resilient as possible in the proper movement patterns, recruiting the appropriate muscle groups. Training with gear could lead to more short term PRs, but serves only to give athletes false confidence that they can and should routinely handle bigger weights than their unassisted body can truly manage.
Training with gear does have a time and place:
1. To learn how to use the gear that will be worn in competition
2. To push the body strategically during a peak phase
Relying on gear in every training session will degrade technique and create muscular compensation along with dysfunctional movement patterns. Don’t get me wrong- dysfunctional strength will ultimately happen in competition when you are pushing the limits of your capacity- but it will always be limited by the amount of weight you can move using proper unassisted technique. The more you rely on compensatory movement patterns, the sooner you’ll find yourself injured and unable to compete at all.
Hitting PRs is fun and admittedly addictive but just because you threw on a belt and hit a PR (with or without crappy, dysfunctional form) does not mean you should continue to use the belt every time you’re in the gym. This goes back to the point above about becoming proficient in the basics prior to tackling Strongman events: build your capacity in the basics without gear to build true resilience and strength.
You’re Far Too Aroused
No, I’m not talking about the pleats in your pants. I’m talking about your abuse of caffeine. And loud music. And nose tork. And back slaps. In case you missed it, science has given us a lovely bell-curve that explains there is an optimal zone of arousal prior to completing a task.
If you are under-aroused or over-aroused, you will not perform to your peak ability. Furthermore, to benefit from substances like caffeine, you can’t abuse it all the time as the body becomes tolerant. Too much will leave you over-aroused and under-performing. Likewise, if you constantly train with music blaring in your ears but can’t control said music in competition (which for the most part, you can’t), you’re training your body to perform under conditions that you’ll never face when it truly matters.
Constant abuse of substances and situations that hype your arousal is an exercise in training your body to underachieve in competition. Instead, train yourself to find your sweet spot. Yes, more focused training instead of relying on stuff- life is hard right?
Read: The Relationship between Arousal & Performance Part 1 & 2 for more on this topic
Your Diet Has No Point
This one is pretty self-explanatory. You want to get bigger and stronger so you just eat a lot of protein and carbs’n stuff. If you want to be the best, you should probably have a diet strategy, especially if you’re competing in a weight class. I’m just going to leave this right here…
Your Training Plan and Approach is Illogical
Strongman is fun and cool because you get to lift heavy, weird objects. If you’re approaching the sport as a hobby, a structured training plan isn’t paramount and you can push to your max and be an Instagram Hero on a weekly basis. If you want to be competitive however, you need to scrap the ego and actually train your body progressively. This entails having a properly periodized program that is tailored to both building strength basics and improving technical competency with specific events.
As much as a proper program will bring about increased strength and conditioning, there will also be times during a training cycle when you feel weak and your mental strength will be challenged (at which point the all-too tempting gear will scream to you that it can help). You have to be aware that there is a difference between being weak and being under-recovered, and that you shouldn’t always be able to hit big weights- something crucial to understand when it comes to peaking your training properly for competition.
With that said, what do experienced athletes do the week before a show? Next-to-nothing. Some athletes take closer to 10-14 days away from heavy weights prior to a show to ensure full recovery and preparedness. Why? The bottom line is that if you are not recovered and healthy, you will not perform. If you think you’re going to get stronger by training in the days before a competition, you’re setting yourself up for a massive disappointment as the human body simply does not operate that way. You must understand that there is a difference between being strong and being prepared to elicit maximum strength. You may be strong as hell, but if your body is stressed and under-recovered, you will compete weak.
You’re Unprepared for Competition
All Strongman competitions are a bit different, but athletes almost always know the events ahead of time. If you enter a competition without having first trained the events at hand, you cannot expect to be competitive. This is fine for novice athletes entering their first show, but if you’re a competitive athlete, you must without exception train the exact events leading up to a show. Consider for a minute that it takes 10,000 hours of focused practice to become proficient at something. Ten-thousand! But you think you can walk into a show untrained and dominate a stone run? A yoke walk? A circus dumbbell? Good luck! It’s one thing to be strong, but it’s another thing altogether to be good at Strongman.
In Summary, becoming a competitive Strongman athlete entails:
- First becoming proficient at bodyweight movement patterns with an emphasis on spinal position, breathing and bracing
- Knowing your competition, but focusing 100% of your efforts on your own performance
- Understanding that more isn’t always better:
- Being proficient with equipment and gear, but not relying on it every training session
- Learning to train your optimal state of arousal instead of relying on substances and stimulants to get to 110%
- Carefully planning your diet instead of just “eating a lot of the right stuff”
- Training patiently, progressively, and with specificity, instead of maximally
- Understanding that proficiency in Strongman takes time, but that the more you train and mimic competition settings, the better you’ll become at your sport
Dain Wallis is a Nutrition & Strength Coach and the current Canadian Strongman Champion in the 175 weight class. For questions about the content of this article, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For inquiries about Strongman Coaching, head over to http://startingstrongman.com/coaching/.