Six Weeks To Strongmanby Jennifer Blake
“It looks like everyone else is chalking up, so we’re going to, too. Act natural.”
I glanced over to see my training partner Jen Sinkler vigorously rubbing a brick of chalk over her shoulders, chest, and thighs. She tossed it to me next, and as I chalked up I glanced around. She was right: All the other female competitors were already covered in white smears. I had to laugh inside as I recalled a highly controversial list trainer Bret Contreras compiled a while back on training women, in which he included a line about women loving to train with chalk, then clapping and getting powder all over the place in the process.
I grinned, gave my hands one hard clap, and walked through my own cloud of white to the starting line for the yoke carry, a 300-pound monster we were to carry as quickly as we could for 100 feet. The standings in the contest so far dictated that Jen and I were to race our yokes at the same time. We tossed each other a grin, put our game faces on and ducked under the yoke bar, positioning it on our chalked up shoulders and waiting for the start whistle.
In the end, she beat me (of course she did, she loves to compete!), but we were the first women in the contest to manage to make it over the finish line, and the cheers from the crowd lifted me up once I was able to dump the weight off my shoulders.
It was a growing theme of the day. It was our first strongman contest and we were the new kids on the block, but our whole team was more than holding their own, and no one would have known it. Pam won two of the five events. Jen placed fourth overall out of 13 competitors, and since there were no weight classes in this contest, all the women competed directly against each other, regardless of heft. And Maggie and I both joined the “300 Club” by setting PRs in our deadlift that day. (That’s what I’m celebrating in the photo below.)
It is hard to describe the feeling of freedom and accomplishment that comes with being physically capable. It’s even harder to describe when you accomplish feats that most people wouldn’t even dream of attempting.
All this is made even more amazing when you consider we made these leaps of strength with just six weeks of specific-ish training.
Road To Strongman
I’m going to be straight with you: There are many, many sound training programs available to you that will get you results in the gym. But a good program is just that: a good program on a sheet of paper. It’s up to you to do the work. There were three things my team did to make the program I wrote less about work and more about fun and progress, and three things you can apply to better your own workouts in the gym — strongman training or not.
Between the four of us, we agreed on a training schedule. We would meet three times a week, and there would be no missed/cancelled training sessions (ride or die, homies). When Jen hit the road for travel, she took her program with her and made the time to train. When Pam went on a Disney Cruise with her family (her love of cartoon characters is not to be believed) she did the same. We shot for the same days and times every week to get in a training groove while also allowing adequate recovery time.
I cannot stress this enough: You gotta listen to the cues your body sends you. What feels great for my body might feel terrible for yours. After years of playing international-level rugby and competing in a multitude of endurance events, Pam’s body – while still being very fit – had specific issues that needed to be addressed in training. Believe me when I say that there is not a single workout on the planet that is worth getting injured over.
You will see in the program attached that there are options listed for every movement. This exactly mimics how our group trained together. When we deadlifted together, it was likely we would all be assuming different stances (i.e. conventional, sumo or Jefferson). Biceps curls tweaked Jen’s elbow so she would do chin-ups instead. Walking lunges were awkward for me – I have pins in my right ankle, which limits my ROM – so I would do box step-ups instead. By working within our bodies’ limitations, rather than fighting against them, we all were able to make continuous progress without injury.
Think of it this way: Imagine a big circle. All the things you are currently capable of doing live inside that circle. If you work with what you have, and focus on getting a little bit better, a little faster, a little stronger in each workout, in ways that don’t cause you pain (this is the key) you’re going to give the edges of your circle continuous little nudges. Your circle is going to get bigger and hold more capabilities and soon you’ll be doing things you were never previously able to do.
This is why, in contest, Jen was able to deadlift 300 pounds for 11 reps in one minute. She had never done it before. She almost always deadlifts sumo, but for most strongman competitions, it isn’t allowed. Only the conventional stance was permitted, a stance she hadn’t tested her max in for years.
When that bar flew off the ground on the first rep and then kept going . . .and going . . .and going . . .it was truly a joyful sight to behold.
3. A System of Support
The sport of strongman is a concept foreign to a lot of people. And whether you choose to train for it or you’re heading down a different path, the very best thing you can do is surround yourself with people who share your goals and who are there to support you.
Consistency, especially in the beginning stages, is hard. Having a workout buddy, or a group like we did, ensures a feeling of accountability — you don’t want to let each other down. When you can laugh about how hip thrust always make you burp or Jefferson deadlifts always cause you to ovulate (sorry, guys) it becomes about more than the training. You’ve found your tribe. Accountability breeds consistency and consistency is easy when your training is fun.
Like Jen recently said, “Your gym should be your ‘third place’ [a cherished place for socializing, separate from the usual two, the home and the workplace] and if it isn’t, you need to keep looking.”
This support system is why, in the hour following the competition, we got a group text from Pam:
“OK. That. Was. Fun. And you guys are awesome training partners. Thanks for all the training and fun. What’s next?!”
The fun’s not over yet! A powerlifting competition is on deck for mid-August (which means we’re into our next program already) and there is more strongman on the horizon. As for you, whether you’re just looking to get stronger, you want to switch up your routine, or you really are interested in competing in strongman (do it do it do it!) give this 6-week program a shot, and let me know what you think.
And please. . .use ALL the chalk.
What You’re Really Here For: The Program
First, it’s worth noting that all of my team members and myself came into this program with a base level of strength and knowledge. This training program assumes you already know how to properly squat, deadlift, and overhead press, and that you also have the knowledge to scale the movement to your own ability, if needed. If you are shaky in any of these areas, I highly encourage you to reach out to a coach or trainer to help shore up any weak spots and fill in any knowledge gaps. Coo?
This program is broken down into two 3-week training blocks.
Weeks 1-3 focus heavily on building pure strength, with the main emphasis on strengthening the posterior chain and upper body pushing and pulling. You’ll wrap up your strength session with either a short, hard conditioning set or specific grip training. (Because if you can’t grip it, you can’t rip it, yo.)
Weeks 4-6 add in more volume, as well as power and speed development. More advanced strength movements reside in this block of training and each strength session ends with a more event-specific drill.
You can click on THIS LINK for the full program (it’s a PDF download), but I’ve listed some of the more unusual movements below to give you a taste of all the fun you’re about to get into:
The Anderson Squat
One of the events in our competition was the odd-object carry and load: five objects of increasing weight that were to be picked up, carried between 5 and 15 feet, and loaded onto a 48-inch-tall truck bed. One of the movements we used in training to prepare for this — because we didn’t have access to more event-specific training equipment — was the Anderson squat.
In it, load the bar onto pins inside the squat rack and you begin the movement from the bottom position. This eliminates the stretch reflex that can help bounce you out of the bottom of the squat and builds truly authentic strength from a dead-stop position — very helpful when you have to get into a deep squat position to pick up a heavy object.
This is a harder variation of the typical back squat. If you’re new to the Anderson squat, deload the bar a bit – or a lot. Keep your chest up, your abs braced, and drive your legs down through the floor.
The Z Press
In strongman, even though each competition hosts different events, you can always count on an overhead press being included. To work on developing pure upper-body strength, we incorporated the Z-Press, a press done from a seated position on the floor.
The legs are taken out of the equation here, and a lot of emphasis on placed on the back and shoulders. If your hip mobility limits you from sitting up with a straight spine when your legs are extended, prop yourself up by sitting on stacked plates or a low box. Brace your abdominals and drive the arms up to lock out.
The Sandbag Load
In strongman – and in life in general – it makes sense to get strong in awkward positions to be able carry oddly shaped things. Outside the gym, you’re not always going to have the luxury of a perfectly balanced bar that sits near your center of gravity. So, we included sandbag loads in our training to adapt our bodies to loading with a flexed, or rounded spine, as well as the “cleaning” technique required to load the object on a high platform.
Start with a light sandbag folded in half, or a moderately heavy medicine ball. Grip your fingers underneath and row the object into your chest. Sit back, lower your hips, and set the object on your lap. Hug the object to you nice and tight, drive your legs down, hips forward, and head back. Either tap the object to the bar or toss it over.
For strongman events, coaches and resources in your area, check out Kalle Beck’s website, www.startingstrongman.com, and check out the interview we did with Beck and competitor Maya Camille Winters, “So You Want to Be a Strongman?”
[Event-day photos taken by the talented Jason Albus of Jalbus Photo.]