“I’m pretty sure it’s here. It says on Google Maps; we are right on top of it.”
“Yeah, but I don’t see anything.”
“Maybe that warehouse right there?”
My dad and I are lost and trying to find where I am about to compete in my first Strongman competition. I’m nervous and being lost isn’t really helping.
What is a Strongman competition like? You may have watched events like World’s Strongest Man and thought it was incredibly cool (which it is), and upon hearing that amateur Strongman not only existed, but is growing rapidly, decided to do a competition yourself. You may be really apprehensive. You may not know what the hell you’re getting into. You may be right to be nervous. But only because it’s totally normal to be nervous before you push yourself to do something new, exciting, thrilling, fun and a little crazy.
After more driving literally in circles around a few empty buildings and texting and calling my coach, we ascertain that we are, in fact, in the wrong location, and that the venue recently moved. So, we were kind of right. Google was wrong.
By the time we arrive, the parking lot is starting to fill. A young man in an orange shirt asks us if we are looking for the competition and points us to the designated competitor space. My dad makes a joke about him being too short for a Strongman contest. Classic Brennan Humor. Unfortunately for my friends, it’s genetic.
We enter a door in the side of yet another warehouse. There is a ton of space and I stand there for a moment, unsure what to do, until I notice the check in table.
“Hello! How are you?!” I announce myself cheerfully, attempting to both be cool and likable. I don’t know who’s who and because I’m incredibly nervous, I worry that I’ll accidentally be rude to a judge or something.
“Name?” the tall bald man man behind the table does not share my caffeinated enthusiasm.
“Oh shit, no, uh…I need to buy one. Please.”
I had yet to purchase my federation membership card, a requirement for competing, whether you’re Novice or in the Open division. There are two Amateur Strongman federations, United States Strongman and Strongman Corporation. They both require membership of all competitors, and you can almost always buy that membership the day of. I’m in the Novice division, so I don’t have to weigh in. This varies. Some competitions have weight divided Novice divisions, depending on how many athletes sign up. This one has a Lightweight and Heavyweight for the Open Division, but not Novice.
I get my t-shirt, whose cartoon visage is headlined by the competition’s name.
Serious shirt for serious competitors.
One of the things I find incredibly charming about Strongman is that everyone is in on the spirit: contests bear grandiose titles like “Battle of the Thunder Gods,” “Clash of Giants,” etc, and trophies depict musclebound figures brandishing swords, barbells, the world itself; and other colorful variations on the theme of mythological strength and power. And it’s a few dozen regular-seeming people lifting, pulling, hauling and pressing odd and everyday objects in a warehouse in the middle of Pennsylvania. In Strongman, we take things that could be simply grueling, dirty and mundane and make them exhilarating, glorifying and heroically epic.
Strongman is the elevation of the ordinary to the sublime.
But please do not mistake the Strongman community’s love of the cartoonishly epic as arrogant posturing. People who Strongman (yes, I use it as a verb now) are some of the most friendly, positive and welcoming I have ever met. But I did not know that walking into my competition, even with my coach and dad there, I felt a bit out of place. So here are the basics to keep you on track at your first competition:
Where Do I Put My Stuff?
It depends on your venue, but generally speaking, you’ll be competing in a large gym, so it will be a free for all, with athletes and spectators seated together all over the venue. Typically I prefer to be close enough to the main “field,” that I can hear the Announcer/Promotor call events and names. We had 2 coolers and all my gear. Comfortable and set. We forgot a lawn chair. Don’t forget a lawn chair.
Your Squad (Or Lack Thereof)
My father is an honest-to-God Boy Scout Scoutmaster, so if you can borrow my dad or someone like him, bring them. Having an extra someone to grab water/food, help you gear up and generally support you can be really helpful. Get a friend, bring a gym-mate, someone who is going to help you through the day. Do NOT bring someone who is going to stress you out more.
If you’re going alone, I commend you! You can do it, and it won’t be terrible, I promise. Everyone is talking to everyone, and cheering everyone else on. People are bitching about their weight cut, sharing PRs, and asking each other where they got their sweet Batman leggings. Introduce yourself.
Find someone’s grandma to help you put on your duct tape on for stones, and you’ll be fine. Grandma will be thrilled. She might even let you borrow her tacky (a sticky paste commonly used to assist in stone-loading; you smear it on your arms and pray someone nearby has Goo Gone and Baby-oil for removal later), because she’s competing in Masters. You never know.
Bring the Kitchen Sink
If you lack my Boy Scout father’s supernatural preparation skills, pretend you’re packing for the Lifting Apocalypse. Bring. Everything. You. Own. Eventually you’ll figure out what you actually need in your kit and what is nonessential.
This is not a drill.
1. EAT/DRINK – Easily digestible carbs and protein for quick consumption. I don’t eat a lot on comp day, though I force-feed myself breakfast. I do bring my favorite energy drink, dark chocolate, bananas, protein bars, a gallon of water and gatorade. You don’t know if you’ll have access to a water-fountain or sink, so don’t bet on having easy access to refreshment.
2. TOYS – Foam roller, resistance bands, lacrosse ball and whatever else you might need to stretch, release, and warm up. You may need to do a little more movement prep than usual. How far did you travel? Did you sleep comfortably in that creepy motel?
3. GEAR – Wrist wraps, elbow sleeves, knee sleeves, shoes for deadlifting, shoes for moving events, shoes for pressing, soft belt, stiff belt, tacky, duct tape, chalk, scissors (they’re just handy). Don’t worry if you only have one pair of shoes and one velcro belt from Sports Authority – you have plenty of time to accumulate the dressings of a Strongman competitor. You don’t need all of these things necessarily, but if you have an extra belt and you’re not sure if you’ll use it, bring it. Having plenty of options for gear will help you feel prepared. In terms of immediate usefulness for beginners, wrist wraps and a medium stiffness velcro-closure belt are good place to start (both of which you can get at most major Sporting retailers).
4. CLOTHES MAKE THE COMPETITOR – Bring extra clothes. You’ll probably wear the designated competition shirt, but it could get super gross, so bring two shirts, one for potentially competing in, and one for changing into later. Now it gets real: bring extra pants, underwear and socks, in case of high-rep-induced bodily fluid releases. It’s unlikely, but you do NOT want to be up shit’s creek without…well, you know. Those max rep deadlifts…
Stick to the Plan
Our 3rd event of the day was the Husafell carry (a large metal boxy implement that looks like a small coffin) for max distance. Unlike in training, we got to pick the Husafell off a block rather than pick it from the ground, which was helpful. This was an adjustment that seemed reasonable and like it would jive with my training. I did see some women carry it a little differently, (one hand under, one hand across, etc) and I debated switching my grip. I decided against it at the advice of my coach and did what I did in training.
My second competition. I had never trained this event prior to performing it. That’s Strongman, a lot of the time.
This can be tricky. The odds are that one of the events may be slightly different, or VERY different from how you trained it. Go with it. It may be that the Husafell is actually a sandbag. If it is a piece of equipment that you have never touched, don’t sweat it. Ask around, and also ask if you can warm up (there is often a designated “warm up” portion at the very start of the day and also right before each event, where the competitors get a chance to handle the equipment). When in doubt, ask other people how they are doing it.
Even if you have a total curveball like a changed event, keep to what you know as much as possible. Now is not the time to change technique. Your body and mind are going to be stressed out enough as it is, adding in something new to think about it is usually a bad idea. Stick to how you trained your event – experiment with a new technique next training cycle.
There is a Rules meeting before the events start. Ask questions. Something I missed in Rules tripped me up during the max distance Husafell carry (you were not allowed to stop moving to adjust your grip – I just didn’t know, stopped, and that ended the event for me). Now is not the time to worry about sounding stupid – you’re new, it’s okay! Just ask. And pay attention to other people’s questions. Sometimes the event rules will be so carefully described you won’t need to ask, and that’s great. But don’t be shy if you need something clarified. It is all fair game.
Look how awkwardly long my t-shirt is. #BringScissors
If later in the competition, you want to ask one of the judges something, you should feel free, just remember to be polite and respectful. They are almost certainly unpaid volunteers helping out; it’s their weekend too and they are contributing their time to give the competitors a good contest. It’s no small task, and people will probably be haranguing them about scores all day, so be. Polite.
So What’s It Like?
It’s a damn good time, if you let it be, and if I had to give only piece of advice it would be to stay relaxed, have fun and appreciate the fact that you are competing. A lot of people never get the chance, or are too afraid. You have to decided to do something incredibly rewarding (and potentially nerve-wracking) and you should be proud of yourself and enjoy it.
The day will fly by, though there is often a lot of downtime between events, anywhere from 20-45 minutes or more, depending on the size of the competition. Watch the other competitors. Talk to people. Go for broke. Bust your ass. Have a great time.
Finally, there’s no Miss Congeniality award in Strongman, but being friendly rarely hurts. My first few competitions, I was too nervous and thought I needed to “Stay in the zone” all day, and not talk to anyone but whoever came with me. I would be walking around with headphones on, trying to psych myself up, glaring murder at the implements (as if the kegs cared). I still do that a little, but I’ve since learned that for me, talking, joking and making friends puts me far more at ease than being antisocial and thus, I perform better.
If you’ve never competed in a sport like this, you may not know what works for you. Sometimes talking to other people about the events will make you more nervous. I personally avoid talking about the events too much. Casual conversation, walking around, finding a dog to pet (there’s almost always a dog at these things), light snacking, watching people who aren’t in your class (I love watching the middleweight men and the novice divisions), hell, read. Take your mind off yourself for a little bit. You have to find what works for you personally, but I really believe in staying as relaxed and calm as possible is the best strategy. Getting too worked up between events may wear you out.
My first competition I knew that I knew nothing, so during the actual events, I both took my time and paid close attention to detail. I didn’t think too hard, but I worked really hard and enjoyed it as much as my somewhat overwhelmed-self could. Every single contest is a learning experience if you let it be, and there is so much to learn, so savor it.
Your name gets called. Your judge asks, “Athlete ready?!” You reply “READY.” The judge says “LIFT!” And it begins. It will be over before you know it, breath and take your time.
Photo Credit: Seth Miller
What is your first Strongman competition like? It’s a really good time. It is a long day and you will be very, very tired later, and may even have a fun post-adrenaline high headache like I sometimes get. It is nerve-wracking. It is spectacularly fun. It is a community experience. It is one of the best days of your life. It’s like a neighborhood cookout. Except with the thrill of personal effort and giant rocks. Enjoy it.