There’s something very appealing about tests of strength and athleticism.
The motivated gym fanatic is just naturally drawn to them. If we see a guy rip a bar off the floor and lock it out, or crank out dozens of chin-ups with a 45-pound plate strapped to his butt, we can’t help but wonder, “Hmm, wonder how I’d do with that?”
Recently, I was asked to participate in the Warrior Dash. It’s a crazy-ass 5K where you run through rivers, climb cargo nets, crawl under barbed wire through the mud, and leap fire. At the end, you get a Viking helmet and free beer. I shit you not.
Now, I loathe endurance sports, mainly because I suck at them. But part of me wondered, “Hmm, what if I dug out my old Timberland trail runners, gobbled down a Finibar™ Competition Bar, and just entered the damn thing? How would I do? And how awesome would I look in a Viking helmet?”
Uber -coach Dan John has experienced the same thing. In fact, he’s the first to admit that most “challenges” are just plain dumb. He’s also the first crazy mother-trucker to get in the pit and accept them!
As iron-heads and athletes, we just love to evaluate where we stand against our peers. We love to test our mettle, our grit. In that spirit, here are three favorite challenges from Coach Dan and I to test your resolve and give you one hell of a workout!
I’ve enjoyed many idiot challenges in my career, including:
- My ill-fated attempt to squat 300 pounds 61 times.
- The 100 Rep Challenge: Doing 100 singles with a weight in a serious movement. I’ve done a hundred power cleans with 205 and a hundred front squats with 255. Not in one day, no, but thank you very much.
Then there was that time when the phone rang at 4AM and a friend asked me to be the tenth man on his 10K centipede team. (For the record, a strength athlete should be told that a 10K run is farther than a 40 meter sprint.)
Like I said after my famous “Whiskeys Around the World Challenge,” it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Earl Nightingale used to say that a rut is just a grave with the ends kicked out. Many of us get into a perfect training program that pays great dividends for weeks, months and – for a lucky few – years. Then, one day, we enter the gym, look at the program, and see that we have to do this again, followed by that again, with a rich finishing touch of more of the same. Sigh.
Challenges don’t bounce you out of a rut, but they often make you appreciate the fine insights of the beautiful program you were doing before this idiocy. I have glorious memories of laying in a pool of my own sweat with bloody hands and realizing that doing three sets of eight with a minute rest certainly seems like a good thing to do for the next few weeks.
So, let’s toss out a few challenges which are easy on equipment and hard on you. First, a couple of quick points.
An underappreciated area of training and real life is posture. When doing a challenge, be sure to find exercises or moves that support fine posture. Thrower Andy Bloom notes that posture breaks down:
- After collisions (think football)
- After impact (think of hitting the ground)
- Under fatigue
- After a repeated series of big movements, such as jumps.
When doing a challenge, find moves that protect your posture. I choose movements like the Olympic lifts and squats because I’ve ingrained myself to hold the positions. For you, focus on the keys:
- Strive to have the top of your head pulled up. A nice technique is to “stroke the back of your head upwards.”
- Pull your shoulders back. I’ve advocated “big chest” for decades, but be sure the shoulders are pulled down as much as simply back.
- If the movement involves bending, learn to “hip hinge” and not just bend the knees.
So, I suggest movements that support proper posture. This brings us to the next key in a challenge: choosing the right movements. I sum up movements with just these basics:
- Deadlift (or a big posterior chain movement)
When doing a challenge, focus in on these movements and stay as basic as you can. When I do a challenge, I try to narrow the focus and let the numbers be the goal.
Now, let me offer you two such tests.
Dan’s Farmer’s Walk Challenge
This is something I came up with before the dawn of the Internet, but I’m sure others do something like this, too.
When I was coaching at another school, we had some dumbbells donated and, as often is the case with donations, we didn’t have any matching pairs except for the 85’s. So the Farmer’s Walk Challenge with 85-pound dumbbells was invented.
Sidenote: I returned to the school about six years after I moved on and talked to some of the kids. Even though they had a full stock of ‘bells now, their coach insisted that Farmer’s Walks were done with the 85’s.
Adults shouldn’t go much heavier than 85’s either. The challenge is simple: Go as far as you can for five minutes. It does work best to go for a walk away from the starting point so the rest of the workout will make more sense.
The rest of the workout is simply this: Return the weights to the starting point.
In a gym setting, just do loops around some equipment or go back and forth. (Don’t use a treadmill, but if you do, film it so we can laugh at you when you fall.) An unpopular variation of this challenge is to go out for a 15-minute walk, then return, but that might be for lunatics only.
Obviously, the difficult part of the challenge is returning the dumbbells. What took five minutes “out” can take a long time back to the start. Hold your posture and discover your traps for the first time!
Gary’s Half-Hour Deadlift Challenge
The second challenge comes by way of my brother, Gary: Load the bar to 315 pounds. In the next half-hour, deadlift it as many times as you can.
Gary, a 61 year-old thrower, did 60 reps during his last attempt. He does doubles on the minute. I suggested that to insure less soreness (as if this were possible) do one rep every thirty seconds and drop the bar at the “top” lockout position on every deadlift.
That’s right, drop every deadlift. You’ll experience far less soreness this way.
I think it goes without saying to keep good posture here. The upside of challenges like this is that your technique actually improves over the workout and your capacity to work increases.
Now, if you can’t deadlift 315, well, maybe that’s the problem you’re having right there!
My training partner and I once decided we would walk a mile carrying two 100-pound farmer’s walk implements we’d welded out of pieces of railroad track. I’d carry first to exhaustion, then he’d carry as I walked along and rested. When he couldn’t go any further, it was my turn again, and so on.
Ah, gotta love those training days when enthusiasm overpowers good sense!
Here’s a more practical challenge that you can try anywhere, no train rails or crazy Texans required. I call it…
The Texas Push-Up Challenge
Picture if you will a furniture store in Texas. The crew is on break, standing around comparing pick-up trucks and loose women. The conversation wanes, until suddenly one of the crew – Big Bubba from the loading dock – makes a wager.
“Hey, Billy Joe, I bet you five beers you caint do something I can do.”
The Testosterone surges and Billy Joe bows up. Sure, he worked the showroom floor selling recliners and had to wear slacks instead of Wranglers, but dammit, he was a man, just as much of a man as Bubba standing there in his steel-toe boots. There was nothin’ – nothin’! – Bubba could do that he couldn’t!
“Oh yeah, Bubba? What’s that?”
Bubba goes on to challenge Billy Joe to a little physical test… and I’ll tell you who won the free beers in a minute.
When I first heard this story, I laughed at the idea of a bunch of good ol’ boys wagering beers and challenging each other to feats of fitness. But after I heard the challenge, I was struck quickly by this thought: “Hmm, I wonder how I’d do on that bet?”
So I tried it. Then my buddy tried it. Soon, half my gym wanted to see how they stacked up. So I decided to write up the little test and see how T NATION readers do on it. You ready for a challenge? You got enough pocket money for five beers?
Here’s how it works:
- Begin in a standing position.
- Drop to a push-up position and do one push-up.
- Stand back up quickly.
- Drop back down and do two push-ups.
- Stand back up.
- Drop back down and do three push-ups, then stand back up.
- Repeat this pattern until you do 10 reps on the last set of push-ups.
So, you’ll end up doing a total of 55 push-ups, standing up between sets, and trying not to rest. Or barf.
- Goal #1: Just try to finish all the sets, ya wimp. If you do, then congratulations, you’re adequate. Whoopie.
- Goal #2: Finish all the sets in under two minutes. Do that and you can brag. A little.
- Goal #3: Now it gets personal. From this point on, try to beat your previous time. Or, get a few buddies together and see who finishes first.
Tips and Guidelines
- Use a full range of motion on the push-ups. None of that halfway horseshit.
- Push-up bars are fine if you want to use them.
- Most people “hit a wall” around the 7th or 8th set. So don’t get too cocky when set #6 feels easy. Pride comes before the fall, hoss.
- If you have to rest more than a few seconds between sets, you fail. Try again another time.
- Take the Texas Push-Up Challenge on an off day, or do it first thing on the day you train chest or upper body. You may want to truncate your chest workout a bit though since you’ll be doing 55 intense reps of push-ups at the beginning of your normal workout.
You Up For It, Bubba?
It turns out that Billy Joe completed the challenge. Barely. But it made him realize how out of shape he was getting from standing around selling sofas all day. The next day he joined a gym.
As for Big Bubba, well, he lost the bet because he couldn’t even finish the challenge. Bubba had made a fatal error: He thought that just because he played football in high school that he was still an athlete…. 15 years later.
“Damn Golden Coral chicken-fried steaks,” he was heard muttering.
Are you up for the Texas Push-Up Challenge? How about Dan’s farmer’s walk or deadlift tests?
Give ’em a shot, then post your results by hitting the “discuss” button below!