BL&T No. 097: Competing in Strongman

Fitness / Wellness

Borrowed, Learned, & Thought (or BL&T) is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Published posts do not include all details shared via email to subscribers. Subscribe here.

Borrowed

"It’s funny, but a person once pointed out to me that “ultimate potential” is a goal-less pursuit. I had to think about it for a bit before realizing it’s true. We can never reach our ultimate potential. There is no goal, no finish line. So your focus must be on continual pursuit. Maximizing your potential is simply about trying and trying and never giving up."

From "The Millionaire Real Estate Agent" by Gary Keller, Jay Papasan, Dave Jenks [Book]

Learned

I participated in my first Strongman competition this past Saturday. Since then, I've been thinking about how to digest everything going through my mind before and after.

I'll start by sharing my journey to competition and then some key takeaways from my experience.

The Journey

I've been interested in the sport of Strongman for a few years but wasn't sure when or how I'd give it a try. When I first learned about the sport, I had just started competing in powerlifting with a barbell club in Brooklyn; my focus was on learning the ropes. Years later, I've learned that many athletes go from Powerlifting to Strongman, vice versa, or rotate between both.

In February 2020, the pandemic forced me to break from powerlifting. When I came out on the other side, a lot had changed. I moved to PA and had spent over a year doing at-home workouts in a 5x5 foot space in my Park Slope apartment, trading strength training for HIIT (high-intensity interval training) style workouts using a kettlebell and pair of dumbbells. I felt physically fit but was eager to get back to strength training and figure out my next fitness milestone.

I found a Strongman-focused strength gym called Lion's Den Elite Training and started taking classes. With the encouragement of a few gym friends, I signed up to compete in an upcoming Strongman competition called the Atlas Classic, hosted at Lion's Den. I reserved my spot in March 2022, four months ahead of the competition. People outside the gym thought I was crazy.

When I signed up, I hadn't done much Strongman training outside of a keg carry or tire flip. I figured a future milestone would push me to get more acquainted and dial in my training.

I spent the next four months training in my new home gym, occasionally visiting Lion's Den to get a feel for the implements used in competition.

The competition events were (each with a 60-second limit)

  1. Yoke Walk: Walk 75' with a 500#
  2. Keg Load Series: Pick up a 150# keg, then run 50' and throw it over a 38" bar. Then, 175# for 30'. Lastly, 200# for 15'.
  3. Viking Press: Press 200# for maximum reps
  4. Deadlift: three attempts to lift as heavy as you can (315# minimum weight with 50# increments)
  5. Axle Squat: Squat 405# on to 34" jerk blocks for maximum reps

Busy weekends made it challenging to go to the gym and train for the events in the way I planned. About one month out, I stopped by for a session and left feeling defeated. I was over 100# away from the 500# yoke walk, I barely managed to get a 150# keg over the bar, and I had only trained on the viking press once, below 200#.

Deep down, I started losing faith in my ability to compete. I knew the coming month would include work travel, family visits, and other commitments, making training even harder. However, I put those thoughts of failure out of my head and decided not to give up. Instead, I'd hammer on with my training and focus on why I set out to "compete" in the first place: to have a good time and get a taste of the experience.

I posted this on Instagram:

I continued training at home, doing my best to replicate the events with my equipment. When Gizmo chewed a dumbbell (oddly relevant) a few days before we left town for July 4th weekend, we got home at 10 pm from the emergency vet. I knew I couldn't train all weekend, so I sucked it up and worked out until close to midnight. I figured that even if I couldn't complete (or even begin) every event, all I could do was give it my best shot.

Last Tuesday, I took a break from training to recover my body in time for Saturday. Instead, I consumed recap videos of past Strongman competitions like the Arnold Strongman Classic to build momentum. It was comforting to see some of the strongest athletes in the world struggle through an event while also inspiring to see what they could do.

Saturday Morning

I can't remember the last time I had the sort of nerves I had this past Saturday morning. It's one thing to have no idea what to expect, but to know that there would be events like the Yoke Walk where I might not even be able to get it off the ground made it hard to get excited. I kept trying to imagine how it would feel to be the athlete who strikes out on multiple events in front of a crowd of people. Lion's Den owner, Coach Joe, has told me several times how supportive the strongman community is, so I kept returning to that, alongside images of elite athletes striking out on a world stage.

Upon arriving at the gym, I could tell I was likely half, if not a third, the size of all the other male competitors. As I met new people, they asked what weight class I was in for the competition. In Strongman, there's a novice class for first-timers like me, but it's open to competitors of all weights. I joined the novice group without any attention to the other weight classes.

The more people asked me about my weight class, the more I wondered which I might be in if this wasn't my first competition. Well, the lightweight class starts at 181#. I weigh 150#. The other competitors didn't only look big — they were big! I laughed at the thought of being 30# lighter than the lightest male competitor and reminded myself to have a good time.

I'm happy to report that the day far exceeded my expectations in the end. Coach Joe was spot on. I'm not sure I've ever met a more supportive and welcoming group of people who cheer each other on, despite having just met hours prior. In the events, I performed way better than I could have imagined.

  • Yoke Walk: I moved the 500# yoke almost halfway (~30') across the 75' stretch
  • Keg Load Series: I got both the 150# and 175# keg over the bar. I made it to the bar with the 200# but couldn't manage to get it over the bar in time.
  • Viking Press: I got three reps with the 200# press. For reference, most people got at least 10. A friend, Paul, in the Novice class, hit a record for the day with 33 reps!
  • Deadlift: I was hoping to beat my 385# PR. I got 365# but failed my 3rd attempt at 405#. I got it to my knees but couldn't complete the lift.
  • Axle Squat: I'm just proud I got the 405# loaded axle off the rack, but I couldn't complete a rep.
Some screenshots of videos from the day! Right to left: 500# yoke walk, keg load series, and viking press

I'm proud of myself for seeing it through and getting my first competition under my belt. My next step is figuring out when to compete again, what I want to achieve by then, and what a dialed-in training regimen might look like to get there. Looking forward to continued growth and learning!

Here are some takeaways I'll carry with me in whatever comes next.

Takeaways

1) You won't know unless you try.

Even if the competition didn't turn out as it did, I'd be glad I gave it a try. Whether participating in a strongman competition or facilitating a new client workshop, I've learned that I have the most to lose by never taking the first step. I keep thinking about how if I hadn't pushed through and competed, I never would have known my body was capable of moving a 500# yoke, almost 3.5x my bodyweight. And now, I have that much more fuel to keep going.

2) Giving it your best means putting in the work.

I am always more comfortable with an outcome when I know I gave it my best shot. That goes for client proposals, performances, and any other pursuit. However, giving it my best also means putting in the work. After my wife Dana witnessed the first event, the Yoke Walk, she came up to me and said, "I'm proud of you. I can see all your work paying off." She has no idea how much that meant. A long time ago, I decided to make fitness a priority, and weekly, I squeeze it in where I can. It's not always convenient for me (or her). Based on what I wanted from this experience, it feels good to look back without regret for the trade-offs and tough decisions.

3) Stay positive. Believe in yourself.

Moments before my first event, I told fellow competitors that I likely wouldn't get the yoke off the ground. Here was a group of guys I had just met dismissing my claims and instead encouraging me, telling me I'd do a great job. Looking back, I let my nerves get the best of me and bring me down on Saturday morning. Following the first event, though, everything changed. I wished I'd been more positive and confident from the start.

4) Visualize the future.

Despite my nerves, visualizing what it would look like to fail and accepting that outcome was what kept me pushing through. As much as I want to avoid undesirable outcomes, putting myself in the reality of that potential future state has helped me better weigh risks and take more leaps.

On the flip side, there's energy during a competition that is hard to replicate at any other time. I saw it when I performed live shows. I even see it when I interact with clients and the team. I'm interested in how I might be able to use visualization to tap into this energy during training sessions. I know there's an adrenaline rush I'll never be able to reproduce, but finding my path to get in the zone is enough.

5) Have fun.

This one goes without saying, but none of this is worth it if it's not fun. I'm grateful to be at a place where I enjoy my training sessions and always feel better when I get them in. I stay active for several reasons (health, longevity, etc.), but I choose to do these competitions to push myself and see how far I can go. If I start beating myself up for a failed lift or lousy workout, I try to take a step back and remember why I showed up in the first place.

Here is a shot of everyone who competed on Saturday. Thanks to Sebastian from @ironandcastle for the shot. See my instagram post for videos of my events.

Thought Starter

What pursuit am I putting off? What would it look like to give it my best shot? What might I miss out on by never taking the step?

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