Strongman contests aren’t just for blokes who can pull a plane. MF ’s UK correspondent Joel Snape chalks up.
According to the manufacturer’s specs, an unladen Vauxhall Astra weighs 1995kg, or just under two tonnes. Factor in a metal lifting platform and handles, calculate the leverages involved and add in a pair of furry dice, and it’s clear that hoisting it off the ground even once is going to require close to the best deadlift I’ve ever managed in my life. I check my wrist straps for the third time and wait for the whistle to sound.
Long considered the domain of giant men with arms like bridge cables, strongman competition is becoming an equal-opportunities sport open to everyone in the same way a 10K or triathlon is.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The events involved can be done without high-level technical expertise —unlike, say, Olympic lifts — and there’s an appeal to hauling a car or hurling a beer keg overhead that’s hard to replicate in other sports.
Just as important is the fact that most of the events last less than two minutes, giving you the rest of the day to drink protein shakes, work on your tan and hang out with the other competitors. It’s also, I soon discover, a great excuse to eat an enormous amount of barbecued meat.
Open to all
The competition I’ve been roped into entering is the inaugural Bigger, Stronger, Faster meet. As is common for this type of event, it’s taking place in a rugby club car park, this time in East Grinstead, West Sussex.
Like many modern events, it has weight categories, as well as competitions for women and teams of four. I’m at the lighter end of the under-90kg category. There are five events, three of which we’ve been told about. The other two are surprises. First up is the log clean and press.
“I blast the 70kg metal log overhead a monstrous (for me) eight times, then collapse.”
I have been training for this by upping the volume of my overhead presses in the gym and adding everything from strict dumbbell shoulder presses to behind-the-neck snatch-grip push presses, known as Klokovs after the giant Russian who popularised them.
Realistically, though, no kind of barbell work can really mimic the action of lifting a 70kg metal log up to your chest and then above your head, which requires a sort of exaggerated cheat curl followed by an explosive push press. In my sole attempt with a training log, I couldn’t get it over my head even once.
In the competition, well rested and buoyed by adrenaline and screaming crowds, I blast it overhead a monstrous (for me) eight times, then collapse to the ground after realising it has sucked all the oxygen out of my body. While I recover, I watch the women — who are using a 30kg log — achieve numbers in the 20s. My girlfriend, who has come along for moral support, tells me she’s already thinking about training for next year.
Tyred and emotional
Then comes the car deadlift. I’ve been looking forward to this event and dreading it in roughly equal parts — looking forward to it because I’m pretty good at deadlifting and dreading it because it’s a car. World’s Strongest Man competitors regularly do this sort of thing with trucks and massive Humvees, but even one practice rep with the Astravan takes everything I’ve got. When it’s my turn to lift, I get my girlfriend to give me a motivational slap — nothing wrong with a bit of showmanship — and strap in.
When the whistle goes, everything becomes a blur. My first lift is disallowed because my hips aren’t forward enough, and I make a mental note to lock out every rep for the rest of the event. After that I settle into a cycle: chest up, heels through the floor, grit teeth, drive, wait for the judge’s call, drop, reset, do it again.
After about 30 seconds, even the mental effort of thinking this through seems Herculean. Helpfully, though, one of the judges starts talking me through the lifts so I don’t have to worry about anything but driving and dropping. I’m wobbling up through my 11th (legitimate) rep when the second whistle goes, at which point I realise I haven’t even noticed the audience, which has been shouting for about a minute.
“I’ve been looking forward to the car deadlift and dreading it in equal parts.”
I high-five one judge, man-hug another and then almost fall over. This is definitely going well
After the car, the three head-to-head events that make up the rest of the competition feel almost anticlimactic. In the farmer’s walk, which involves carrying a 70kg handle in each hand as far as possible in 75 seconds, I am pitted against Dominic Doyle, a police officer who has come up for the day with his wife and daughters. He’s been training for only three months after a long lay-off and tells me that by doing exactly as instructed by event co-organiser Ben Coomber, he has dropped 10kg in weight, most of it fat. He’s clearly been doing something right because, although we’re closely matched for the first two laps of the car park, he pulls steadily ahead in the next two. By the time the final whistle goes, he’s a good four metres ahead.
The first surprise event is a tug-of-war tournament. Not having much experience — or weight — on my side, I’m dragged helplessly across the mats by George Mayhew, a director of National Grid [the UK electricity supply company]. He trains with Gym Jones, the team responsible for the Spartans’ physiques in 300.
Mayhew also drubs me in the final medley, a combination of prowler-pushing, duck-walking, rope-pulling and sandbag-loading, but we both put in a decent time.
I come stone last, thanks mainly to my woeful performance in the tug-of-war, but the main thing is that my training worked. I’ve put in a respectable performance in every event, smashed my best on the log, met some new people, got a bit of a tan and eaten a genuinely heroic amount of flame-grilled pig.
The next day, I don’t feel any worse than I would after any serious workout and the day after that I’m back in the gym doing a spot of bench-pressing. My training has a renewed focus, I’ve pushed through what I thought were my limits and I haven’t had to run 42 muscle-destroying kilometres to do it.
Oh, and there’s a picture on Facebook of me lifting a car. If my girlfriend does enter next year, she’s already got a partner.
Australia’s entrant at the recent World Strongest Man competition in Los Angeles was 34-year-old man mountain Eben Le Roux. The 190cm, 130kg fitter and turner from Brisbane has a number of incredible strength feats to his name.
In the last two years he has pulled a 70m-long, 80-tonne road train 1.3 metres for two minutes; busted out a 410kg farmer’s walk over seven metres; and lifted a 900kg weight 4mm off the ground at Giants Live [a Strongest Man qualifier] in Melbourne.
Le Roux’s approach to moving huge weights is simple: disrespect them. “I try to lose respect for the weight,” he says. “I get angry at it. If you think you’re going to try to lift it, you will only try to lift it and you will fail. I say: ‘I’m going to lift it — I won’t fail’.”
He trains four days a week doing three two-hour sessions of static work: powerlifting, dead lifts, squats and pressing. On weekends he does competition workouts.
The worst competition injury he’s had was while deadlifting in his native South Africa when he tore his lat where the tricep and lat meet, leaving a hole “the size of a golf ball”. Amazingly, it hasn’t affected his strength.
“Competing is like you have been at war,” he says. “You come back with scars, bruises and cuts and people tell you you’re crazy, but the feeling is awesome.”