That time I did a Strongman contest

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About 18 months ago I did a very, very silly thing.  I participated in a local Strongman contest on a whim.  I just signed up a week before the contest and then I participated.  “How hard could it be?”, I thought naively.  I should preface this by providing some context at this point:  I know the organizer and for some mistaken reason I was under the impression that the contestants would be mostly my fellow Powerlifting (PL) team members and maybe a few other people.  So I thought it would be fun afternoon with a bunch people I basically know.  At the time I was doing a fair amount of overhead press, Atlas ball and some weighted carries in addition to squat, bench and deadlift so I thought I had an advantage.  Well, an advantage in the sense that I did more of this than some people in my PL gym so, since I thought they would be my main competitors.  Did I bother to learn about Strongman rules, strategy or do at least minimal contest prep?  Of course I didn’t.

I should also explain that at this point in time I was a strength-building “bulking” phase which is just a cool way of saying I was eating a lot (clean, yes, but a lot) and getting, well, sort of thick around the middle.  So, yes, I was relatively strong but my cardio capacity was even worse than usual thanks to the additional weight.  Additionally,  I had badly sprained my ankle 2 weeks before the event.

Sunday morning comes around and I nonchalantly roll up to the parking lot where the contest is being held.  First thing I noticed is that event looked a bit more “serious” than I was expecting – nicely set up, TV cameras, the works.  Second thing I noticed is that there weren’t many people from my PL team in attendance.  Those that were there were helping the organizers, not competing.  OK, I thought, no big deal.  Then as the other competitors arrived I realized that they were all Crossfitters and I easily had a good 18 years on the next oldest male competitor.  The horrible realization dawned on my that I had made a very foolish and potentially embarrassing decision to compete in a sport I know next to nothing about against a bunch of young guys with the strength and cardio fitness of race horses.  However, the only thing more mortifying than actually competing would have been to chicken out, especially in front of people I know.  My goals were clear – finish the competition and, for my self-esteem, not come in dead last.

Things got real even before the competition started.  The organizers took the competitors through some warm up stretches and light cardio.  In my “fuscular” bulking state, I was winded from the light cardio, and hobbling around to boot due to my sprained ankle.  It occurred to me as the events and rules were explained that Strongman is a lot more cardio intensive than I had anticipated and that, dear reader, did not bode well for yours truly.

The first event was the yoke carry over a 100 meters which I, of course, had never practiced.  Guess what, it’s harder than it looks, much harder.  Carrying a very heavy yoke over 100 meters takes a great deal of cardio.  (Strongman in general demands more cardio conditioning than people (or maybe just me) suspect)  After my carry I discretely went over to the side of the parking lot so fewer people would see me retching into the bushes.  I was the last to do the yoke carry so of course I was first up for the next event – farmer’s carry.   I was already winded to the point of seeing stars and now I was expected to pick up two weighted frames and move them 100 meters.  Ugh, my grip strength is my greatest weakness in the best of times, but in my tired state and with a sprained ankle, it wasn’t pretty.  I was dead last, by a country mile, in that event.

Two of the crossfitters were just absolute beasts, strong as hell and in all around excellent shape.  They were literally running away with the competition.  As the competition progressed I saw that the rest of my competitors were young (20 somethings), in much better cardio shape than I was but for the most part not as strong as your average powerlifter.  I did fairly well in those events that required upper body strength and/or resemble squatting or deadlifting.  So I placed well in one event that required us to pick up a 70kg ball off the ground and throw it over our shoulders for as many reps as possible (AMRAP) during one minute.  I came in second in the log press (pressing a weighted metal cylinder overhead for AMRAP during one minute) and probably would have done better if I knew how to do a push/press (i.e. utilizing your legs to help push the bar overhead).  People were screaming at me to stop doing a strict Overhead Press (which does not use the legs) but it was the only technique I knew.  Yep, a little contest prep would have gone a long way.

So I stumbled from event to event in an exhausted, hypoglycemic, trying not to retch daze.  Then, almost magically, the competition was over!  I had managed to get points in all of the events (not a given – some people, for example, couldn’t do even 1 rep of the log press and therefore got no points for that event).  Lo and behold, I managed to not place dead last.  OK, I was 6th from the bottom but on the other hand, I was old enough to be everyone’s father.  Aside the public humiliation that was my farmers carry attempt, I didn’t completely disgrace myself.

As I hobbled back to my car, every muscle and sinew in body was crying out in pain.  Uh-oh, I thought, this going to be even more sore tomorrow.  And indeed tomorrow was not kind.  I staggered into work and grimaced in pain every time I did radical things like get out of a chair or walk down a few stairs.  I am a manager in a conservative bank, where the sport of choice for people like me would be golf, tennis or running.  I am always the weirdo nursing some sort of injury like torn-up hands (due to deadlifting) but for the most part these injuries fly under the radar.  Impossible to remain un-noticed with the DOMS I was feeling from that competition.  I have never felt that physically trashed after a sporting event.  So big, big respect to all you strongman and strongwoman competitors out there.  You’re crazed masochists, the lot of you.

As I reviewed the video from the event I also came to the realization that there is a fine line between bulking for strength and looking like you’re wearing one of the tires you’re supposed to be flipping.  I also realized, in rather dramatic fashion, that I had an appalling lack of cardio conditioning.  I learned some honest to goodness respect for crossfitters.  It’s fashionable in some circles to talk trash about crossfitters because they are the jacks of all trades but masters of none.  You know what, if taught well and practiced with strict form, crossfit turns people into beasts.  If I was 20 years younger, I might be tempted to search out a really top-notch crossfit box.  Any sport that gets masses of people excited about compound barbell movements is all right by me..And, finally, it was fun to push the envelope a bit.  Wish I had done some contest prep and actual training for the events, but hey, hindsight is always 20/20.

 

Life under the bar

black-and-white-alcohol-bar-drinksAside from spending time with family and friends my absolute favorite things in life are reading, physical activity and, during a certain period, booze.  Reading, if one reads broadly, is obviously a way of cultivating one’s intellect.  Physical activity (running, yoga, weight-lifting, etc) is  the second part of the equation – Mens sana in corpore sano.  Most of us adopt these habits organically, not consciously adopting them because they are “GOOD HABITS”.  Like an anxious dog who has been locked inside all day, your body and mind will give you explicit hints that they need to be exercised.  Weak and flabby is not a great feeling, whether it’s intellectual or physical.

Addiction, in all it’s forms, is the flip side of the coin.  Addicts have an instinctive need  to retreat from some aspect of their life.  All addictions, be it alcohol, weed, social media or cheesecake, are methods of changing one’s brain chemistry and ultimately changing one’s perception of reality, however briefly.  Addiction is also an attempt, albeit very counterproductive, by the addict to assert control over their life.  It’s an attempt to quiet the ceaseless background chatter, the ever-present feelings of anxiety that lurk in the margins, the monkey mind.  The irony of addictive behavior is that in the immediate aftermath of a binge, the background chatter is foreground and the volume is pegged at 11.  Interesting that clichés about addiction employ circular imagery; a vicious circle, a downward spiral, spinning your wheels, etc.

It’s not surprising that gyms, yoga studios and running clubs are filled with ex-addicts.  For one, it’s a logical reaction to want to offset the damage of the addictive behavior.  Physical exercise can also be somewhat addictive (in a good way) unless taken to extremes (which, let’s be honest, are rare).  It’s a time-honored tradition to swap an addiction for one that is relatively harmless (i.e. people guzzling coffee at AA meetings).  Most important, I think, is that physical exercise begets a calmer state of mind and ultimately puts one far closer to the goal of quieting the monkey mind than guzzling tequila till 4 in the morning.   When you start to train seriously you set in motion behavioral patterns  and interests (exercise, nutrition, quality sleep, meditation) that reinforce each other and, yes, help you become that “best version of you”.  (Eeech, horrible phrase, but fitting in this context.)  Physical training makes you feel better, look better, clears your mind AND gives you regular hits of endorphins.

Probably less well-known is the number of people who still engage in addictive behavior and for whom training is a way of offsetting, somewhat, self-inflicted damage.  It’s also a handy psychological crutch, it allows you to feel just a little bit better about your sorry-ass, bleary-eyed self if you drag yourself to a heavy squat session.  And, yes, sports training is the ONLY way you’ll offset all of the calories you’ve ingested and clear the cobwebs a little.  (It goes without saying that this refers to people in a certain stage of addiction, not hardcore addicts. Also, I am not referring to addiction to extremely dangerous drugs such as crystal meth or opiates) In a way, training might empower some people to continue their addictive behavior by serving as a physical and psychological counterweight.  I like to think, though, that if the person stops the destructive behavior, the good habits they formed in training will help them through the rough patches on their way to sobriety.

I have mixed feelings about alcohol.  I appreciate good wine and beer.  I was a wine enthusiast for many years and did, at one point, take some preliminary steps towards a job in the wine trade.  The closer I got to this goal the more I realized that I didn’t want to make my living from a product was potentially harmful.  Like many,  my life has been negatively impacted by alcohol.  I have family and friends who were alcoholics and are now sober, some who are still fighting that battle and 2 friends who ultimately lost their lives as a direct result of their alcoholism.    In high school, college and “after work” I binge drank with the best of them – only I couldn’t keep up.  I was usually, but not always, the drunkest of the group.  I have done a number of idiotic and dangerous things while drunk and it’s truly astonishing that I’m still here to tell the tale.  Worse still, a perpetual hung over state meant that I often “less than present” for family or on the job.  Some people can take or leave alcohol while others are on a spectrum of “where have you been all my life?”.  I’m in the latter camp.  It’s only in the last few years that it dawned on me that  alcohol was getting far more out of me than I was getting from it.  So I decided to spend less time in the bar and more time under it.

It might surprising, then,  that I still go out for the occasional beer with friends or have wine with some meals.  I also like to scuba dive, hike, go camping and pursue other interests that have inherent risks.  An intelligent adult identifies and mitigates potential risks as much as possible.  A better analogy is having an aggressive dog in your house.  If you aren’t in control, the undisputed Alpha, that dog is going to bite you on the ass eventually.   I haven’t had hard spirits in my house for decades, and I rarely have wine or beer in the house.  I don’t go out much any more, especially when the occasion is a thinly veiled excuse for excessive drinking (which is most of the time in the country I live in).  If I do go, I offer to drive (thereby taking myself out of the boozing equation) or I go only if it’s within public transport or taxi range.  It’s matter of recognizing what could happen.  To thine own self be true.

Gyms are full of dogmatic cliques;  cardio freaks, Crossfitters, bodybuilders and powerlifters.  While each group looks down on the others they are united in their disdain for the New Year’s Resolutioners that pack gyms in January like salmon swimming upstream to spawn.  OK, it’s annoying to be in a more crowded environment but we all know that by February things will be back to normal.  I really love seeing new people in the gym, people who are little out of their element(for the time being) but are giving it a go.  There are so many good excuses to not go to the gym;  I’m tired, it takes too much time, it costs too much, gyms are full of shallow, judgemental douches, I feel self-conscious etc.  I say silence that background noise, get greedy and go get yourself some.  The bar will lift you up.

 

An Ode to Powerlifting Meets

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Powerlifting is the sort of sport that you generally fall into.  I’ve never heard of an absolute beginner walking into a gym with expressed intent of competing in the sport.  It’s a sport that you might gravitate to after you’ve spent a certain amount of time in a gym and have decided you have an interest in strength training.  Also, powerlifting gyms and qualified coaches are few and far between.  Unless you are very lucky, you’ll have to go out of your way to find them.  Lastly, compound movements like the squat and deadlift are relatively technical and intimidating to the uninitiated.  (It always blows my mind that people afraid of the squat (which is relatively easy to “bail”) and not the bench press, which involves lifting heavy weights over your face, throat and chest)

Sooner or later, you might realize that setting goals and getting stronger are powerful motivators.  So you search out qualified coaching in one of the more common strength sports like Crossfit, powerlifting or Olympic lifting.  As you surround yourself with like-minded people and get stronger, chances are that you’ll eventually be encouraged to compete.  As your gym mates will tell you, nothing focuses your training as much prepping for a meet and, besides, powerlifting meets are a lot of fun.  While I didn’t doubt that prepping for a meet makes you extra focused, I declined to compete because I told myself that I lift for myself, not for external validation.  Besides, like every powerlifter ever, I felt I should only compete when my lifts were “good enough”.  See, my squat is average for my weight and age, my bench press is actually well above average but I have a “poverty” deadlift.  It’s OK for a commercial gym goer, but it’s rather below average for a powerlifter.  “Ridiculous”, said my coach and the PL team members, “Nobody cares.  Just do it, get out there and compete”.

I finally allowed myself to be talked into signing up for a competition.  I noticed – and I remember this phenomena from my days of competing in martial arts tournaments – time seemed to telescope.  All of the sudden, 4 months did not seem like a very long time.  Every workout, every week of training and every phase of my programming became of utmost importance.  So, yes, you become very focused almost immediately.  Powerlifting is actually more athletic than most people would suspect.  It’s very common for a lifter to be good in 2 of the lifts and struggle in the 3rd.  It’s relatively rare to be strong in all 3 lifts.  Most commonly, you’ll see lifters that have a pretty good deadlift, a decent squat and an OK bench press.  So the challenge, when you’re training for a competition, is to maintain or improve your strength in the lifts that you do well, while striving mightily to improve the lift that presents the most problems.

Powerlifting is not bodybuilding so the most common body type is what I’ve heard referred to as “fuscular”.  Jacked, for the most part, but not exactly 6 percent body fat.  Everyone you speak to you will tell you that the biggest error a novice competitor can make is to cut weight for a competition.  Nevertheless, a week out from my first competition, I weighed myself and realized that I was on the borderline between 2 weight categories.  I had signed up for the -100 kgs class…and if I didn’t weigh in at 100 kgs or under, I would be put in the -110 kg class.  I shuddered to think what those guys deadlift, so I changed my diet.  Not radically, but no beer and no sugar outside of whole fruits.  I drank only water and black coffee and ate very cleanly, protein with lots of vegetables and limited amounts of rice and quinoa.  I realized when we got to the competition for the weigh-in that my team mates and most of the other competitors had been dieting as well.  As I weighed-in at 97 kg, the woman recording the weight said “That’s it, you’re good – time for a cheeseburger!”.

The vibe at a local level  powerlifting meet is indescribable. Yes, there are lots of jacked women and men walking around and yes, there will be nonstop rock and rap blaring from huge speakers near the lifting area but, nevertheless, it’s one of the most chill, laid back, kumbaya sporting events you’ll ever witness.   Everyone (including your direct competition) couldn’t be nicer or more encouraging.  It’s as if lifting really heavy things is roughly equivalent to eating a pot and Ecstasy laced brownie.  Everyone is happy, hungry, talkative, laughing, literally hugging virtual strangers, etc.  Bear in mind that I live in Northern Europe, so the behavior I just described is even more remarkable.  And while the physical effects of heavy lifting go a long way towards explaining this phenomenon, I think a contributing factor is the opportunity to be around like-minded people.  Powerlifting is very much a niche sport.  As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s a somewhat lonely passion and one that is sometimes prone to being subtly or even overtly discouraged by one’s family, friends and co-workers.  The complex programming, the nutrition, the endless tweaking of technique and the training itself take a huge amount of time.  Outside of one’s powerlifting team mates, nobody understands or even cares about it.  You hear plenty of semi-marathon prep chat, and not a little bragging, around the water cooler at work, but mention a 5 rep squat PR you just hit recently and an awkward silence will follow.  So a powerlifting meet is really just a large-scale geek out for powerlifters, a rare opportunity to let their freak flag fly.  It means that a few times a year you are surrounded by people who “get it” and are just as passionate about all the minutiae as you are.

So, yes, you will see some great lifters and big lifts.  You’ll also see lifters of many different levels of experience and ability.  Everyone there understands the dedication, passion and nerve it takes to compete so there is huge respect for anybody who goes out there gives it their all, whatever the weight.  Many people imagine that a powerlifting meet is the sole preserve of anti-social skinheads, but I have rarely seen (outside of Mardi Gras) such an example of people of all races, nationalities and sexual orientation genuinely getting along and having a laugh.  After your first powerlifting meet two things will happen; firstly, you’ll kick yourself for being such an ass and not listening  to those people who told you to “just compete!” and, secondly, you’ll be even more motivated for the next one.

 

The unexpected consequences of lifting.

What motivates people to train in the strength sports?  Ask 100 different lifters why they lift and you will no doubt get a 100 different answers that are just variations of the same theme.  The common thread running through their answers would be that it’s that it’s just flat out fun being strong.  Being stronger than you ever imagined you’d be is a hoot.

Everyone is familiar with runners’ high and “getting a pump” as just 2 examples of an immediate positive consequence or feedback from physical activity.   Whether you’re a  natural powerlifter, strong man competitor or Olympic lifter, one of the best things about lifting is working towards a well-defined goal and achieving it.  For strength athletes, the broad goal is to get stronger in your competition lifts. You do this by working your ass off, yes, but also by careful training and nutritional programming so that you are at your peak on the day of the competition.  Thus we get an even more potent high; the elation of hitting a PR as result of weeks or months of hard training or the “contact high” of seeing a training buddy hit theirs.  These are highs that can last for days.

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What, though, are the unintended consequences of lifting?  These are those things that happen as a result of your training but aren’t the reason you train and/or are something you would have anticipated.   Below are some of my personal unintended consequences – I’d like to this post to be more of a  forum thread and would love to hear about your “top” unanticipated consequences in the comments section below.

  • Diet and nutrition  –  Once I hit middle-age, became serious about strength training and decided  I was not going to take any Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), I  developed a healthy (yes, there will be puns) interest in achieving optimal performance via nutrition.  While none of this interested me before I now know why GMOs are bad, the value of organically raised produce, why processed “food” is so unhealthy and a number of other subjects that I once thought was the sole preserve of the patchouli-scented self-righteous.  This is probably the subject for another post, but suffice to say when you drive a Ferrari to the gas station, you don’t put diesel into it.  So why would you ingest something your body is not designed to handle?  Taken in a wider context, why would you poison an ecosystem in the same manner?
  • Quieting the monkey mind – Yes, meditation.  Once I started down the slippery slope of optimal performance via natural methods, I heard mediation referred to many times by too many disparate sources to ignore it any longer.  I’m still very much in the beginner stage of meditation and mindfulness training.   Considering how much of a difference it makes already,  I think it might be analogous to the “beginner gains” phenomenon that all weightlifters have experienced.
  • Negative reactions – I have never engaged in a sport that has garnered this much negative feedback – and that includes boxing, kickboxing, “point” sparring in Karate tournaments and running marathons.  Much of this sort of reaction is out of genuine albeit uninformed concern, as in “Me:  “Hey, I had a 190KG squat PR the other day!”  Concerned family member:  “You know, you could really hurt yourself”.  Really?  You don’t run a marathon without putting in some serious training nor do you put 190KG on your back and squat it on a whim.  To further the marathon analogy, when you run that marathon you’re going to be suffering the effects for days after.  You hit a squat PR, you’re just going to have a PR “high” for days after.  Another type of negative feedback is a lingering but common place feeling that people who engage in strength sports are illiterate knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.  People who don’t know you often make snap judgements which hopefully they are disabused of once they make your acquaintance.   And, finally, I’ve had more than a few female friends/past girlfriends/ex-wife as well as a few male acquaintances be kind enough to share their opinions of one of my favorite past-times, or at least its physical manifestation.  The script always as follows,  ” You know, this weight training thing, don’t you thing you want to tone it down a bit?  The muscle-bound look isn’t great and, honestly, women don’t find it attractive”  That’s fair, people are entitled to their opinions but what I find so interesting in this case is why these people are so eager to share this particular opinion when they wouldn’t do it to a fat person, a skinny person, a really gaunt but athletic type (think triathlon, etc) or pretty any other body type.  My thinking on the subject is as follows:  I’m (quite obviously) not a bodybuilder.  My physical appearance is just the byproduct of what I do and I’m aware that a person with an above-average amount of muscle combined with an average percentage of body fat will look much bulkier than a skinny-fat dude (less muscle, higher body fat percentage).  However, I do this activity because I like it makes me feel so how it makes me look is  of secondary or even tertiary importance. As far as women are concerned, no doubt some if not many find this look not to their liking.  However, one of the benefits of living 50 years is that I have realized that pretty much all women dislike a man who has no passion and only does whatever he thinks will please them in a given moment.  So I do what I do because it makes me happy.  To quote from Slaughterhouse 5 (yes, I could say “Kurt Vonnegut’s” but I like to think that would superfluous for any reader of this blog) “So it goes”.
  • Sex:  Don’t worry, I will not, repeat, will not go into detail.  Suffice it to say this, strength training will certainly not interfere with one’s sex drive. In most cases (embarrassed cough) it will  help things.  For one, all that exercise and attention to proper nutrition means that, hormonally speaking, you’re firing on all cylinders.  And being able to “pick things up and put them down”  can be kind of fun in the bedroom.  Also, and in spite of the negative feedback I’ve described above, I’ve found that some women do quite like the look.  It is a double-edged sword, I’m aware, to have somebody interested in you for purely physical reasons or whatever they think you represent, but that is the subject for another post.  Interestingly, I’ve often found that I’ve garnered the most interest  from women in the “entourage” of the same people who freely offered me their opinion.  (let me be clear, I’m divorced and currently not seeing anybody lest anyone think I’m a cad).
  • Happiness/Contentment:  Sustained physical activity done with focus and intent is or should be an integral part of everyone’s life.  A sound body does indeed help to foster a sound mind.  To be honest, if my schedule allowed for it, my main activity would once again be some sort of martial art, but my living situation, work schedule, etc precludes a long-term commitment to be consistently in the same place at the same time week after week.  With powerlifting all I need is access to good gyms and  to occasionally check in with my coach and my home “club”.  The feeling of physical well-being after a heavy squat session is, for me, almost indescribable.  (high praise for squats, to be honest, as I’m well above average in bench press, OK at squats and have a “poverty” deadlift”.)  Endorphins, stress reduction and the, as I mentioned earlier, the flat out fun of being strong are a potent combination.

What are your top “unintended consequences”?