Training for strength is one thing, but accepting that you are going to step up and do that first competition can be very stressful. I remember going to watch a local strongman competition for three summers before I had the courage to commit to trying it out. Strongman originates from the mentality of just being strong and manipulating heavy awkward objects. However, this mentality makes it even more stressful for the first-time competitor since you don’t want to be embarrassed, perform poorly or get injured. All of these stresses can be mitigated through proper planning. The purpose of this article is to give you a general plan to help you take the steps towards doing your first strongman competition. I have laid out this plan with the assumption that you are giving yourself six months to prepare. Feel free to adjust this to your own timeline. The main activities are broken down such that you have only one or two to focus on each month. Regardless of your timeline, just keep in mind that serious endeavours require serious planning and preparation.
Month 1: Evaluate and Commit
The first part of this process is to evaluate yourself and make a plan. The essential skills of strongman competition are the deadlift, overhead press, load, carry, pull and flip. Ideally, the athlete should choose one movement, using strongman implements that falls into each of these general skill classes. If you only have access to a barbell, you can evaluate other barbell exercises that have some carryover to the general skills. In particular, you can evaluate your squat (deadlift, load, carry, pull, flip), bent-over row (load, pull, flip), barbell holds (carry) and bench press (overhead press, flip) along with the deadlift and overhead press. With either situation, you have six skills to test out. Try to evaluate each skill using both maximal and repetition efforts. Be conservative with these tests to reduce risk of injury and give yourself room to grow.
Once you complete this evaluation, you now have a baseline to build from. The only other task this month is to commit to a competition. Since this plan is laid out as a six month process, pick your competition and work backwards. Here in Ontario, the bulk of the contests begin in May or June meaning that December or January would be a good time to start executing this plan. However, this is usually too far away from the contest date to know about specific contests unless they have been reoccurring yearly events. If you don’t have a specific contest date, commit to a date and go to the competition that is closest to it.
Month 2: Practice Technique
The next step in this plan is to become more proficient at the skills you measured. I would suggest devoting roughly 30-50% of your efforts to improving your technique through practice and education. With access to internet, it is easy to look up information about proper strongman implement technique. If you are limited to barbell exercises only, try to spend some of this time looking for someone around you who has strongman implements. If you find one, make the effort to go try out the events. Any time practicing the specific technique will be a huge benefit come competition day. If you cannot find anyone locally, focus on improving your technique with your barbell exercises.
Month 3: Build Muscle
Bigger muscle have the potential to lift heavier objects. Up to this month, you have selected your exercises, you have improved your technique with them and now it is time to build the muscles that produce these motions. To do this, ramp up the work load by increasing the volume while using moderate weights. The goal is to do a lot of work without generating a great amount of fatigue, especially within your central nervous system. In order to support this increased workload and growth, you are going to have to fuel your body. Make sure to eat a little more food, drink a little more water and sleep in a little longer to support the increased demand. Easy enough eh?
Month 4: Simulate a Competition
A competition simulation, sometimes known as a walkthrough, can be very useful for the first-time competitor. The aim is to simulate aspects of the competition in order to be better prepared for competition day. Some aspects you will want to consider are timing of the events, weather conditions, terrain and nutrition. The timing of the events varies based on promoters, event types and number of competitors. If you happen to know the time of year your competition will be in, whether it will be indoor or outdoor and the type of surface under your feet you should try to replicate these conditions if possible. Finally, the stress of your impending performance on competition day can make eating and drinking very hard to stay consistent with. Since, the competition is long and many times, in the sun, getting enough nutrients to fuel your performance can make the difference between recovering between events or cramping up during a big lift. Use the first three weeks of this month to prepare your competition simulation and execute it in the final week of the month.
In case you aren’t sure how to develop the competition simulation, let me suggest one method for executing it. If you happen to know the event details of the competition at this time, plan on using these events in your simulation. Typically, novice contests consist of 4 test of strength. I suggest picking one variation of each of the deadlift, overhead press, carry and load if you do not know the competition details at this point. Schedule these events in alternating order of static and dynamic motions. For example, deadlift (static), carry (dynamic), overhead press (static) and load (dynamic). For each of the events, pick an effort type such as maximum effort or repetition effort on the static events and maximum distance, fastest time or medley on the dynamic events. On simulation day, start with your general warmup. If you’re like me, you will show up extra early and have lots of time to do a general warmup on competition day. Next, use the following general timeline for each event: 5 minute event warmup, complete the event (60-90 seconds) and 30 minute rest. Typically, you have very little or no time to warmup for the event short of picking up the empty implement, so get used to this aspect. By the time each competitor completes the event and the promoters get the next one ready, you are typically looking at 20-40 minutes of downtime. If you follow this general template for your simulation, you will be better prepared for the aspects of the competition you aren’t exposed to every training session.
Month 5: Build Strength
At this point, you have been building from your baseline, practiced your technique, built some muscle and had your first exposure to competition during your simulation. Next, the ability to exert maximal forces with heavy weights should be developed. To accomplish this, begin slowly increasing the weight on the implements or barbell each week while maintaining or decreasing the volume. This will generate a response in your central nervous system causing adaptions that lead to increased force production of that new muscle you built. One important note is to not get carried away trying to drive your one-repetition maximum (1RM) up or completing heavy sets for as many repetitions as possible. If you do either of these, you run the risk of injury or accumulating excessive fatigue which will impede your performance. These two effort types do need to be completed but in such a manner that you can add weight to the bar consistently over the next 4 weeks. Aim for heavy weights that cause you to strain but not so much that your technique breaks down.
Month 6: Final Preparation
In Powerlifting, the training phase leading into the competition is known commonly as the peaking phase. The idea behind this is that your skills have reached their highest potential to produce the best performance at the end of it. The term peaking phase might not be common for strongman yet but we still follow the same concept. In this final month, you should continue trying to increase the weight on the bar with two changes. First, do the exercises that are most similar to those at the competition if you haven’t been already. Second, slowly decrease the volume over this month. I would recommend work down from three heavy working sets on the first week to a single heavy set on the third week of the month. The final week should be used solely to recover for the competitions. No heavy lifting. Other tasks to complete this last week are planning your route to the competition, trying to find someone to come along to help you, making a checklist of the things you need to bring and preparing food for competition day.
If you were able to make it through this process, stop for a second and feel good about it. A significant amount of time and energy is required for you to complete this preparation. The good news is that you will be far more prepared than you would have been if you just decided to jump into a contest at the last minute. This preparation will help to decrease the chance of injury, make you stronger and achieve a better performance. I realize there is a lot to this entire process, much of which I have intentionally left out. However, you now have a general plan to help you towards your strongman goals. Good luck!
By Tyler Desplenter
Tyler is the founder of Norther Warrior. He competes as an amateur Strongman and Powerlifter in Ontario, Canada. He is working towards his PhD in robotics and control systems including the study of biomechanical modelling of human motion and control of wearable assistive devices. @strongbear89