A Skinny Guy’s First Strongman Competition

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It’s been less than twenty-four hours since I snuck into California’s Strongest Man as a 231 competitor. My only goal was to choose my first sanctioned event, prepare sufficiently, and give myself the best chance possible to win.

I took 11th, one spot behind Alan Thrall, which is a trip considering I’ve followed his work online for quite some time. Every competitor was a class act and a damned good strongman.

I figured I’d share my experiences, while they are fresh in my mind because I think the sport of strongman should (and eventually will see) the growth and participation that it deserves.

Plain and simple, there are far more people with the desire to compete than actually throw their name in the ring.

Full disclosure: I trained specifically for a strongman event for eight months leading to this event. Four of those months, I knew which contest I’d compete in and, for the most part, I knew the exact events involved in the show.

My 11th place finish was a 100% effort. I didn’t get “screwed” or unlucky. I competed out of my mind, PRed on every event, and clawed for 11th out of 27. (This won’t be one of those “I did OK, but…” kind of articles.)

Here’s what getting ready for my first strongman event looked like:

 

BIGGER

This was my first contest and though I’d trained the movements and coached the movements for years proceeding, according to competitive strongman standards I was well under weight and under prepared strength-wise. Plus, it was my first sanctioned event. Over 8 months, I put on six and half pounds to weigh in at a lifetime PR of 226.5lbs on game day.

I had to be bigger to do this. Period.  weigh in

My version of “eating like an asshole” is very different than most average American’s, so take this with a grain of salt. My effort to gain weight was fairly tame. I relied on white rice, tubers, fruit, nut butters, and gallons of raw goat milk to combat some lifelong hard gainer tendencies. It was several months of eating burgers with buns on them and dabbling around pizza and not saying “No” to desert. I couldn’t completely forget my experience with nutrition, no matter how far 231 pounds was away.

Though I could have gained more weight completely falling off the wagon, given a second chance, I wouldn’t do this differently.

 

STRONGER

Of course, everyone needs to be stronger, but I’d argue that I wasn’t even strong enough to play when I got started on this idea to compete. My training shifted away from the GPP work we do at DEUCE Gym. I took very little GPP classes, and I took on a conjugate method-based strength approach. The first 12 weeks of my training came from Kalle Beck, founder of Starting Strongman, which I think was the perfect shift for me to get serious about what I was trying to do. It felt like basic strength work that included assistance work that was essentially body building with a bit of athletic flavor. Here I did my first biceps curls and shoulder raises.

To be honest, I was embarrassed doing this stuff at the gym.

Then, with a great deal of respect for the work of Westside Barbell, I had to find a way to finagle the conjugate method for strongman. Luckily, someone already took this on. ASC Lightweight Pro, Derek Stone, put together the Refuge Method with this in mind. By this point, I was following through for the first time on a plan towards a given date on the calendar, which I hated because I hate programs and I hate calendars, but to ignore the specific information of having a specific contest on a specific date would be foolish.

training logThe Refuge Method basically followed the conjugate method (max effort upper, max effort lower, dynamic effort upper), but substituted the dynamic lower day for a strongman event day. In hindsight, I feel better with a true dynamic effort lower day.

My training took one more shift after spending time with the world’s most accomplished female powerlifter, Laura Phelps Sweatt, and world champion coach, Shane Sweatt. Getting ‘Westside’ from the source put my focus and direction on another level. It was here that I dropped the Refuge Method to commit to Westside.

The creativity in assistance work quadrupled in my mind. I found ways to diversify and get specific with what my assistance work, which looked like and did things like heavy carries and heavy loading for lower assistance work, for example, instead of what I’d call more “typical” powerlifting assistance exercises.

Keep in mind this is my experience.

I had to be stronger. As I’ll explain later, the skill part of what was coming at California’s Strongest Man wasn’t my focus. Many, many prospective strong people can and should check out programs like The Refuge Method to get moving towards the events, but for me every minute spent not getting stronger was a minute wasted. This isn’t true of every athlete, however.

 

GAME DAY PERFORMANCE

Event one was sixty seconds max reps on the axel clean and press (clean once). I pressed the axel nine times (250lbs) and missed two reps. My PR coming in was six, and I wanted seven on game day. As someone with zero experience with team sports, the energy was insane. So, much so that I PR’ed by three reps and my field of vision was like looking through a straw at the judge’s eyes.

Event two was the keg toss and it was the most fun I’ve had competing in fitness. I was the first in the weight class to clear all five kegs. There was zero fatigue here. It was all show. keg toss

The farmer’s carry was miserable. We had a minute to cover two hundred feet (250lbs each hand with a turn), but I overachieved here, too, making it about 190 feet before running out of time. I had one drop before the finish and had some poor time awareness, which put trying to race the clock to get to line as time expired.

The medley was brutal. Fifty feet with a 240lb sandbag and six tire flips (700lbs) was fast and light for me, but the 50’ sled drag to finish was the most terrible feeling I’ve experienced anywhere, ever. At this point, I was first in the event and the first to finish the sled, which gave everyone trouble, including myself, mostly because of traction issues and how the sled stuck on the surface.

sled drag

The last event was a stone series with five stones from ~250lbs to 365lbs, which we all thought leading up to the event the final stone was 330lbs. In preparation, I consulted with incredible SoCal Strongman and strongman coach, Julien Pineau. He helped me more than anyone for this event. I went to his place to play with tacky for the first time and big ass stones for the first time. I loaded his 340 pound stone, which gave me the utmost confidence to finish the series (thinking the last stone was going to be 330). As a tall guy, I hoped to surprise some people here. DSC01780

When they announced the last stone being 365, I just figured it was going to have to be a PR day. And, somewhat to my surprise, it was! Loading that last stone was a thrill I haven’t felt since rounding the bases after putting one out of the yard. Wow! Eight months, condensed into 10 seconds is a rush.

 

 

A LOOK INSIDE THE STRONGMAN COMMUNITY

As an outsider coming in, I don’t think the event organizers knew what to expect from me, which I’d consider an advantage. The event included it’s fair share of playful heckling from the PA. I also benefited from an incredible majority rule-type presence in the crowd. Event organizer, Scott Brengel, was sure to mention that I won ‘Most Loved by the Crowd,’ which doesn’t get you a free steak, by the way.

You’d have to win to earn that prize.

The competitive strongman community is a unique one. Much like jujitsu, CrossFit, powerlifting, and any other specific discipline, there’s camaraderie and passion abound. I do feel like if they knew I competed in the 2011 CrossFit Games, however, I could have been burned at the stake, but that’s neither here nor there.

I had a few tips that the vibe would be pretty pro-strongman, and pretty anti-anything else strength and conditioning related, so I held my cards close. I chose to be the “ex-professional baseball player” then instead. There were probably half a dozen announcements that “you wouldn’t get this strong in a CrossFit gym” over the PA.

Noted.

One key take away was that though this wasn’t strongman at the highest level that, in general, the movement was far from excellent. Trying to communicate this without sounding pompous, I was shocked to receive comments from competitors and event coordinators saying, “you move so well” and “you have amazing technique,” considering this was my first show.

I’d venture to say virtually every 231 was as strong or stronger than me, some just under performed based on what looked like a premium placed on strength and some lack of value placed in the skill element. Before the strongman community reads that like this newbie thinks he has strongman figured out, let me be the first to stop you. That’s not the case. I’m the first to tell you I’m a student of this game. However, if there are more reps to be had with better movement, they should be had. Period.

At the end of the day, many reps were left on the table this weekend for a ton of competitors, including athletes that still out placed me.

Surely, there were some technical studs this weekend in the women’s event, the lightweights, and the heavy weights. I can say fully, however, that this event wasn’t a clinic on movement.

 

THE TAKE AWAY

I would do this 1000 times over. This won’t be my last competition. In addition, I’d encourage anyone who’s had any itch to compete to do it, especially women.

These events need to be inclusive in order to grow. When strongman can be both legit and open to new people, ignorant people, and weak people, the sky is the limit. A show like California’s Strongest Man should be in a place that attracts dozens of vendors, charges admission, and is packed with sponsored athletes. And, I think this is all possible without losing the element of it being “for the love of the game.”

Beyond strongman, the biggest take away here was sticking your neck out there to say you’re going to do something and following through. I learned a great deal along the way that I couldn’t have without the commitment to the plan. I’d venture to say that many folks around me paid attention to and that’s the kind of example we should be to each other, and that has nothing to do with strongman competitions and everything to do with who you are.

I want to thank California’s Strongest Man, Scott Brengal, Casey Garrison, and everyone else that made this show possible. I’ll remember it forever and I’m lucky to have such a well-run, timely show be my first experience in competitive strongman.

The DEUCE gym family showed up big! I loved everything about this event, but the only part that made me nervous was the droves of people that were coming down to watch me. It felt like a birthday party and I’m not big on parties for myself, but you guys all saved my ass. Thank you and I love you all.

L

The last thank you efforts go out to Julien Pineau, who gave his wisdom and time to help me above and beyond. Also, I wouldn’t be in this position without Rob Orlando. He inspired me to get into this. Now, I’m lucky enough to call him a co-worker and friend. Few, if any, have helped put more hands on atlas stones that him and I’ll have you back eight days a week, brother. The biggest thanks for to my beautiful girlfriend, Lindsey, who offered her love and support. As a bonus, I did not say no to her world-class chiropractic care.

 

 

 

Logan Gelbrich

@functionalcoach