From Lab Geek to Strongman
A True Adventure

My whole world was silence and pain. The silence came from my intense concentration. The only sounds in the world to me at that moment were my heart beating, my lungs sucking air and the blood rushing through my veins. The pain, however, was everywhere and it saturated every fiber in my being.

My vision had gone tunnel 15 seconds into the event. Although the entire keg run only lasted 46 seconds, it seemed like an eternity. Despite all this, the kegs felt lighter than their reported 220 pounds. I began to think, "I can win this. I can win this!" That was when I felt my feet begin to slip on the dewy grass. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion. I lost my balance, dropped the keg and landed full force on my face. And I wasn't exactly good looking to begin with.

That was the first of many hard lessons I learned during the Strongman 2000 competition at Tawas City, Michigan. There were many more to come. The road leading to the competition had begun months before, but now all that preparation was just a fuzzy memory blurred by pain and exhaustion....

How It All Began

My story dates back to 1986. I had just won the teenage nationals in one of the alphabet soup powerlifting federations. At 18 years of age, I squatted 440 pounds, benched 286, and deadlifted 520 in the 181 pound weight class. After this I decided to give weightlifting a try. I enrolled into Penn State because my coach was there. Not knowing what to do with school, I started taking courses in Exercise and Sport Science. Pretty soon I realized I had to get involved with research.

In the next few years I absorbed everything I could. I read countless abstracts and thousands of articles about the science of weight training, diet, and supplementation. I participated in a variety of studies, became a reviewer for several journals and gradually became a member of over 25 different scientific organizations. And while friends sometimes referred to me as Casper the Friendly Ghost (hey, I didn't get out much) I still competed in weightlifting at the Collegiate Nationals, the American Championships, and the Senior Nationals. After graduating from PSU, I made the trip down to the University of Miami, a school known for its many studies on enhancing athletic performance.

What's the Strongman Deal?

Although I never stopped training, I'd spent the last two years in a lab and was dying to compete again. Around January, I came across an ad for the Strongman 2000 contest. I figured, what the heck? Let's see what all I can learn without banging myself up too badly.

My first step was to figure out how one trained for such a competition. I had to prepare for events I had never done before. Here's what was on the agenda:

If I were to make it to the finals, I'd also be pulling a 16,000-pound truck hand over hand, pressing a 200-pound log for reps, and lifting stones ranging from 190 to 300 pounds. This wasn't exactly going to be my usual day in the lab!

I enlisted the help of Juan Carlos Santana (no relation to the Grammy winning Santana) and together we designed a four phase training program. Before adopting this program, I was going crazy in the gym. I was lifting heavy quite often and since I don't use androgens or growth factors, I was hammering my way towards overtraining. This new program would help me prepare for the contest in a more logical manner.

The four phases are as follows: General Strength, Special Strength, Specific Strength I, and Specific Strength II. Each phase is followed by a planned active recovery week.

Phase I — General Strength

For this phase I trained four days per week. Two days per week I worked out twice per day. I performed movements to strengthen muscles that I'd need for competition. I didn't want to start mimicking exact competition events yet in the gym. This would be too early and lead to my gains reaching a plateau. I wanted to be able to increase my strength after each phase while transferring it to more event-specific movements. A sample week looked like this:

Day 1: AM
Power Snatches3 sets of 5 reps, Heavy (3 x 5 H)
Back Squats(wide stance to box) 3 x 5 H
Explosive Good Mornings3 x 5, Medium (M)
Pull Ups3 x 5 M
Clean Holds3 x 30 seconds
Ab Rotations3 x 5 M
Day 1: PM
Light keg runs (to learn how to run with a keg)
Day 2
Push Presses4 x 5 M
High Pulls3 x 5 H
Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press4 x 5 M
Alternating Dumbbell Upright Rows3 x 5 H
Wall Marches4 x 20 seconds
Day 3
Dumbbell Snatches4 x 5 M
Clean Pulls3 x 5 M
Barbell Rows3 x 6 H
Step Ups4 x 6 M
Day 4: AM
Clean and Jerks4 x 3 H
Back Squats(narrow stance very deep) 3 x 5 H
Bench Press3 x 5 H
Chin Ups4 x 5 M
Wood Chops3 x 10 M
Day 4: PM
Push Truck (to work on technique)

I added one set to each workout each week so that by the fifth week my volume was 3 to 5 sets greater for each workout. I also did a number of abdominal exercises.

The exercises were alternated so that one week an exercise was heavy, then the next week medium. I kept my rest periods to two minutes or less and would often superset antagonistic movements within a workout. This was done to improve my conditioning. My strength increased in all movements, although my left shoulder was bugging me from the push presses. I held back on the last push press workout since it wouldn't make any sense to aggravate the joint.

This General Strength phase lasted five weeks and was followed by a week of active recovery. The week of active recovery included one-legged squats, some stability ball work, some light jumping, and sprinting, nothing very challenging. By the end of the week, I was dying to train. I also felt strong, like I wanted to lift something very heavy like Rosie O'Donnell (okay, maybe not that heavy).

Phase II — Special Strength

This phase was designed to more closely mimic some of the events in the competition.

Day 1: AM
Power Cleans3 x 5 H
Keg Deadlifts or Zercher Deadlifts3 x 5 H
Front Squats3 x 5 M
Dumbbell Step Holds3 x 30 seconds
One Arm Rotations3 x 15 M
Day 1: PM
Light keg runs (just working on form and technique)
Day 2
Military Press3 x 5 H
Alternating Dumbbell Inclines3 x 5 M
Standing Cable Rows4 x 5 H
Wall Marches3 x 20 seconds
One Arm Rear Reaches3 x 10
Day 3
Keg Carry & Load2 x 6 M
Farmer's Walk2 x 3 laps M
Tire Flip2 x 10
Day 4: AM
Clean and Push Jerks3 x 10 H
Cheat Curls3 x 10 M
Front Squats3 x 5 M
Incline Bench3 x 5 M
Barbell Rows3 x 5 M
1 Legged Anterior Reaches4 x 15
Day 4: PM
Truck Push & Pull2 x 70 feet M

Again this was followed by a week of active recovery.

Enter the Special Strength Phases

My goal in these last two phases was to "functionalize" my strength. Functionalize simply means learning how to use my strength in competition specific movements, or at least as close as I can get.

Phase III — Special Strength 1

This cycle lasted about four weeks, including the active recovery week. By the way, these active recovery weeks were the single best modification I made to my training. In the past I'd train all the time and wind up having to work around injuries. This time, I had some aches and pains but nothing really serious. A typical week would look like this:

Day 1
Power Clean4 x 9 H
Dumbbell Carry3 x 5 H
T-Bar Presses4 x 5 M
Speed Front Squats4 x 8
One Arm Rotations3 x 15 (done with stretch bands or weighted cables)
Forward & Backward Truck Run3 x 70 feet
Day 2
Keg Clean & Press3 x 10 MH (medium heavy)
Dumbbell Farmer's Walk3 x 70 seconds
Wall Marches3 x 30 seconds
One Legged Rear Reaches3 x 20
Rope Pull Ups3 x Failure
Day 3
Power Clean & Push Jerks4 x 8-10 H
Parallel Dumbbell Press4 x 10 H
One Legged Pulley Drives3 x 12 H
Speed Deadlifts3 x 8-10
One Leg Anterior Reaches w/2 Arms4 x 15-20 H
Day 4
Keg Carry & Load3 x 6 M
Farmer's Walk3 x Failure
Tire Flip3 x 8-10 M
Truck Push & Pull3 x 100 feet

At the end of the first Specific Strength phase, my strength and conditioning were at an all time high. As examples, I power cleaned 275 for 4 sets of 10 reps with 2 to 4 minutes of rest between sets and deadlifted 500 pounds for 2 sets of 10 reps.

Phase IV — Special Strength II

My goal in this final phase was to practice the events exactly as I would have to do them in competition. I traveled a lot during this phase, but luckily I was able to procure several real strongman implements. I also trained with Bryan Neese, a strongman competitor who manufactures this type of specialty equipment.

During this phase I did tire flips with 750- and 900-pound tires, farmer's walks with 220, sled pulls with 465, van pushes and thick bar reverse curls. I even got the chance to practice lifting stones at Chad Coy's Powerhouse Gym. I hoisted the 245-pound stone to a 48 inch platform with no problem, but trying to dump the 335-pound stone in a barrel almost killed me. In the end I did it and had the bleeding forearms to prove it. During these practice sessions, I never wore a belt. Soon my girlfriend was threatening to move in with a "normal" bodybuilder instead of a crazy strongman like myself! Lucky for me, the training was about over. It was almost competition time.

How to Eat Like A Strongman

My weight division limit is 220 pounds. I started training for this around 200 pounds and I entered the competition at 218. My actual diet was almost exactly like The Get Big Diet I outlined here at T-mag. A sample day with supplements looked something like this:

That's it, nothing very fancy or elaborate. From time to time I took Methoxy-7 and I think it helped keep me stay lean despite my "Get Big" diet. Closer to competition time and during the competition, I ingested a lot of Ribose-C and Power Drive. After I started pushing trucks around, I noticed that Ribose-C made a big difference in my ability to repeat the high intensity efforts. Try pushing a 12,000-pound truck over 100 feet for time. When that gets easy, try pulling the truck as you walk backwards. Try doing this with and without taking ribose and you'll come to appreciate this supplement.

The Day of Reckoning

We arrived at the competition site the day before the big show. I got to meet the other competitors and play around with the actual competition equipment. The tires were huge! I began to wonder why I waned to compete in this event in the first place!

That night as we sat at an outdoor restaurant, a bird flew over and deposited a big gooey dump on my shirt. I began to wander if this was some sort of omen of shit luck to come. I began to imagine I was the ancient mariner from Coleridge's poem. Only instead of shooting the pious bird with my crossbow, the damned thing just shit on my shirt and flew off! Hmm, maybe I was just getting the pre-contest jitters? Or maybe it really was an omen! You be the judge.

The day of the competition arrived and I found out I was number three in the order of rotation. That means I was one of the first to go. I would've rather gone last so I'd know the times I had to beat and so I could learn from watching the more experienced guys. The Birdshit Curse had struck for the first time.

Fueling the Competition

Game day, no matter what sport, is a very special day. Eating junk, skipping meals, or forgetting to drink plenty of fluids are sure ways to set yourself up to lose or perform badly. The ideal day begins with an athlete already at competition weight. A sensible meal is eaten. Sensible, in this case, means eating foods you normally eat, while understanding that excessive fat can slow down digestion. Get down to the competition site in plenty of time to warm-up, check out the events, and see what's going on. You should have plenty of water and plenty of your favorite sports drink (i.e. Gatorade, Powerade, etc). Drink enough fluid so that your urine is clear all day. Set up scheduled times to drink and don't wait until you're thirsty; it's too late then.

My personal strategy included one bottle of water and one bottle of Gatorade every 30-45 minutes. I added about 5 grams of glutamine, 3 grams of BCAAS, and 5 grams of Ribose-C to each bottle of Gatorade. I felt this helped me to compete all-out and then come back again for the next event. I also ingested additional antioxidants during the competition.

The Events

The first event was the keg run. You already know what happened there: I fell on my face. (Birdshit Curse #2? Maybe.) I quickly jumped up, grabbed the keg and hoisted it. The second and third kegs were no problem. By the fourth keg my legs were starting to feel like Jell-O! The last and final keg remained. If you think doing a set of leg extensions to failure makes your legs feel like they're on fire, then you don't know what fire really feels like! Hobbling over to the platform, I looked like a Weeble-Wobble.

Normally I don't run like a duck, but after five kegs I could no longer control my body's movements. Reaching the platform previously was no challenge, but now it seemed high. It's amazing how fatigue changes your perspective. My final time was 46 seconds. Better than my training times, but not very competitive, as it placed me 14th. Lessons learned here: Always bring cleats with you and don't fall down. It kills your time and women laugh.

The next event was the truck push and sled pull. We pushed an 8000-pound truck (a Ford Excursion) 60 feet and pulled a 550-pound sled 60 feet back. The truck push was no problem. The sled drag siphoned the life right out of me. My quads were shot and I just didn't have anything left to pull the sled back. My girlfriend was yelling at me to keep my head up and shoulders back. I tried and ended up falling flat on my back! Third Birdshit Curse. I jumped up again and changed my method of attack. Instead of pulling with my legs, I just rowed it with my upper and lower back. This seemed to work well for me because my back is pretty strong. My final place in this event was also 14th. Lesson learned here: Use rock climbing shoes for the pavement and row, row, row your sled.

The third event was a 650-pound tire flip in the sand for 50 feet. I negotiated it for a couple of minutes before the event began. Words of advice to pace myself were given, and unfortunately I took them to heart. I held back too much and at the end of the flip I realized that I could've gone much faster and had enough energy to flip the tire the full 50 feet. Fourth Birdshit Curse. I came in 9th place with a respectable time, but I know that I could've done much better. Lessons learned here: Experience is a valuable teacher.

The Farmer's Walk was the last event before the finals. I had done so well with Bryan's Farmer's Walk implements, I thought that I'd smoke this event. The middleweights carry 220 pounds in each hand and that's what I had practiced with. But the competition implements were shaped much wider than mine. They were cylinders with a welded piece of railroad track on the bottom and handles on the top. There was no doubt now: the Birdshit Curse was real!

The entire 70 feet they were smacking into the sides and backs of my legs. I ended up with bleeding, oozing wounds that still haven't healed! I had to stop twice because of the searing pain in my legs. This only made it harder, though, because then I had to deadlift the implements each time to get started again. Despite the stopping, I still managed to finish under a minute, still better than my practice times, but not competitive enough. Lesson learned here: Buy kneepads and while you're at it, get some elbow pads for the hell of it, too.

The Results

My overall placing was 15th out of 27 competitors. I had hoped to finish in the top ten, but after seeing the competitors' times, I knew that wasn't realistic. I clearly needed the experience that one competition under my belt gave me. Oh well, at least I gained 18 pounds and got a lot stronger preparing for the event.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons that I'll incorporate into my training. I think all T-mag readers can pick up some valuable training, diet or supplementation tips from my experience. The most important lesson? Before your next competition, watch out for the damn birds!

About the Author

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