What we can learn from a strongman competition

GZS member Ryan Sullivan carries a 750lb yoke.

A few of us from Ground Zero Strength competed in a strongman competition last weekend. The setting was in a small, narrow alleyway outside a low-key commercial gym. A group of men and women wanting to test their strength and grit gathered in the alley packed in like a can of sardines surrounding all sorts of strange looking implements, sour patch kids candy, and a US Army Humvee for a day of lifting awkward things in awkward ways, just to say they did.

To the lay person, there is probably nothing more boring than watching strength competitions unless you enjoy “people watching” the participants. But for a strength coach, who spends much of his time thinking about ways to keep getting his clients stronger and the importance of strength, the entire experience shed a light on how physical strength is truly the human “meta adaptation”, a term coined by the boys at Starting Strength.

For the purpose of this post, let's briefly define strength. Strength, in simple terms, is force produced against external resistance. Not terribly hard to understand, especially when you look deeper into the equation. Force = mass x acceleration. This force is how an object moves. Mass can be anything, a body part, a rock, a barbell, a car, a spaceship, it doesn’t matter. This applies to everything that moves in space. The more mass a person can accelerate, the stronger they are physically.

The importance of strength is relative to a person, but I tend to go by this rule with strength: You should have enough strength that you are never limited in the activities you want/need to do because of strength itself. For an 86-year-old grandmother, maintaining her strength so she can live without assistance is all she needs. For a competitive strongman, having enough strength that they can successfully complete the events needed without their STRENGTH limiting them is what they need. This strength helps us develop all our other physical attributes as humans. Our power, speed, agility, endurance, stamina, coordination, flexibility, to name a few.

I had a lot of time to observe and watch between the events that day and noticed a few things.

Some competitors excelled at the events, which required skill and practice in strongman specific events. I’m talking atlas stones, and some of the weirder pressing movements like the Circus Dumbbell. Even the pressing ladders, while strength helps, there is a lot of technique involved that a weaker person can finesse to complete the event.

But the events that required RAW strength like the deadlift ladders (ascending weights on deadlifts for reps) I noticed some lifters that breezed through the skill work couldn’t make their weight effectively on the deadlifts. For example, I saw one man who carried 1000lbs on his back, and crushed the press medley, but struggled mightily to complete his set of 3 reps at 450lbs on the deadlift. In my opinion, a 450lb deadlift for reps should be default for a reasonably sized strongman.

From a training perspective, this further reinforced the concept of the “Two-Factor Model” of programming/performance described by Starting Strength. In the shortest terms, the idea behind the two-factor model is training should be separate from practice for your sport. You get strong in the weight room and get conditioned enough so neither limits you. This is the goal for your TRAINING. Then, you go out and PRACTICE your sport to improve the skills you need to successfully compete. At no point do you try to mimic the sport in your training, or vice versa. This really hurts people with the title “sports performance coach” or even “physical therapist” or “CSCS” because it can’t be that simple and they want to muddy waters and make their training look cool. No doubt, our lifter explained above spent a lot of time practicing the skill specific events and less time working on his absolute strength in his training, and it costed him in a couple events.

Anyway, at no point should an athlete be limited by their strength. If an event requires you to deadlift 450lbs for time, it would be in your best interest to get your deadlift up to 600lbs instead of trying to train up to the 450lb pulls for time. Who is going to pull 450lbs more times and faster? The 600lb deadlift guy? Or the 465lb deadlift guy only training submaximally to try and work on the event? The 600lb deadlift guy will win every day of the week.

A golfer on the other hand, requires different considerations. A golfer should be strong enough that it isn’t limiting his swing. Take a guy who has done zero strength training, have him progressively lift weights for a year, and no doubt he will be driving the ball farther and not getting as tired on the back nine. Does this man need a 600lbs deadlift to see these benefits? Absolutely not. But getting a general base of strength will improve his strength 10-fold.

At the strongman comp, I saw other guys with the ability to lift 270lb atlas stones, but couldn’t deadlift 500lbs during the deadlift ladder. Atlas stones are a skill, and can be practiced enough to become competent, but strength can easily limit someone and be the difference between them lifting the 270lb stone 3 times, or 11 times in a minute. A 500lb deadlift is a novice powerlifting benchmark, but is advanced to normal people. A person with a 550lb deadlift is going to be able to lift a 270lbs stone with minimal practice, and a person who rarely tests their max strength with a barbell and only lifts stones may never get past the 270lbs stone. I am a good example of this. A mid-500’s puller, I have minimal practice with my class’s event stone (220lbs), but I placed one of the best in my class at stone pulling and I attribute that to my overall strength.

From a training and programming perspective, this was an important lesson for me as a coach. Never take building absolute strength out of your crosshairs as an important training metric. It is easy to get wrapped up into more specific training for an athlete, having them practice all the events and work up to them that way. But wouldn’t it be more effective to get them strong, that they can use that strength more effectively when it comes time to practice and compete in their sport?

Not everyone wants to compete in strength sports. But almost everyone has activities they love to do: golf, skiing, hiking, hunting, kayaking, running, rec sports. Some just need to function properly every day to make sure they can continue doing things they need to do, like work, or raising kids. Building strength is a difficult, arduous process. But you don’t have to become HE-MAN to reap the benefits of it. Commit to resistance training 2-3x/wk for a long period of time. Enjoy the fruits of your labor by never having to say “I can’t do that” again. Simple.

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