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My Top 5 Mistakes as an Amateur Strongman

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Quick Intro

Before I get anywhere with this article, I need to offer one disclaimer: I wasn’t born a great athlete- far from it, to be completely honest. My dad has been a construction worker my entire life and my mom comes from a family of farmers, so while I may have a little “real world” strength coursing through my veins, I was the first person from the Burgess gene pool to truly try to apply it to a sport. What I do have is an insatiable desire to push my genetics to their limit, and the willingness to bust my ass in the process.

After topping out my football career as an alright offensive lineman at Colorado State University, it was only a matter of time before I found another avenue to push and challenge myself. So after spending a few years “dabbling” in Jiu-Jitsu, MMA, and seeing just how much of my football playing weight I could lose, I returned to my first love: lifting. A life-changing meeting with one of my former college strength coaches and a chance network of solid competitive Strongmen and women right in the city I lived steered me towards my first Strongman competition in October of 2010, and I have since competed in four more strongman contests and three powerlifting meets. My results haven’t been anything spectacular, but I HAVE progressively improved, learning many valuable lessons along the way. Having learned these lessons, there are some things I would go back and do-over, but because I’ve yet to figure out that whole time travel thing hopefully a few of you that are in the early stages of competing in Strongman, or thinking about getting started can learn from my mistakes.

5.) Getting caught up in “being” a strongman

I’m a Physical Preparation Coach by trade, and given my background I work a TON with football athletes and teams. A few years back one of the teams I was coaching was struggling, and I remember speaking with them about the difference between enjoying the sport of football and enjoying being a football player. I felt some of the kids on the team enjoyed “being” a football player more than actually playing the sport. Looking back on the start of my competitive Strongman journey, I can honestly say I was guilty of the same thing. I liked the implements, the perceived attitude, being different from the “norm”, and to be completely truthful, the attention. After toiling away in anonymity as an offensive lineman my entire football career, it felt cool to finally have people paying attention to me. This is NOT a winning mindset! Strength athletics is a brutally humbling world, and thankfully I got humbled real quick. Zach Gallmann, a high level competitive Strongman in Ohio, said it best in something he posted earlier this year: this sport will take more from you than you’ll ever get, so you have to accept that to progress. I didn’t really start going anywhere until I let go of the “trappings” associated with the sport and focused on the process.

Lesson Learned: Seek the Battle, not the Glory.

4.) Not getting specific with conditioning

You need to be strong to compete in Strongman, but you also need to be appropriately conditioned to display that strength. No matter what sport you’re training for, conditioning is going to be task specific. In the vast majority of strongman competitions you’ll be asked to lift, throw, carry, or load objects of varying size and resistance within a 60 to 80 second time frame. Some events are scored in favor of max reps, some are scored in favor of fastest time or furthest distance, and some are scored in favor of heaviest weight lifted. Given the unique and varying nature of events and the time constraints, competitive Strongman is considered an anaerobic-lactic activity. You want to prepare for this similar to how you’re going to have to compete. Carrying and loading medleys, heavy sled pushes and pulls, and rest/pause sets and rep-out sets are all great ways to increase muscular endurance and improve your lactic capacity, but it’s important to pick activities that transfer best to your competition. Flippin’ tires when you don’t even have to do that in your upcoming competition, or doing a whole bunch of Tabatas at the end of your lift will definitely have you feeling “worked”, but it’s not preparing you for the specific demands you’ll be facing. You also don’t want to forget aerobic capacity work. This doesn’t have to (nor should it) be hours of steady-state cardio; when interspersed with some bodyweight resistance and/or mobility work, low intensity sled dragging, prowler marching, rowing, or even going on short hikes are all great activities to do on your “off” days. This type of work will increase mitochondrial and capillary density, improving your ability to recover when competing, as well as expediting your recovery in training. Keep in mind when doing this type of work though that intensity should be moderate at best; if it feels like a kick in the balls, you’re defeating the purpose.

Lesson Learned: Move in training how you want to move in competition, and don’t underestimate the importance of active recovery work.

ryan tire

3.) Focusing too much on implements

This one may come as a surprise to some people. One of the major appeals of the sport is definitely the unique equipment. Tires, stones, logs, kegs, and other odd objects are just fun and challenging things to try to flip, carry, lift, and throw. And make no mistake about it: you definitely need to be familiar enough with the implements to understand the most effective way to accomplish whatever task is being asked of you. But the sport is called STRONGman for a reason. After finishing towards the back of the pack of a few consecutive competitions, I came to the brutal, ironic realization that the biggest thing holding me back was not my lack of technique, or conditioning, or anything else: I simply wasn’t strong enough. If you’re just using Strongman implements as a change of pace in your training, than by all means have at it. But if your goal is to cross the threshold and start competing, I highly recommend building your Squat, Deadlift, Overhead Press, and then back and grip strength through every row and pull-up variation you can think of. By stepping back and devoting the majority of my efforts into getting stronger in the traditional gym lifts, I was able to prep for my last competition on a much more solid foundation, resulting in a much better performance.

Lesson Learned: Your foundation is everything, and the stronger the better.

2.) Not training to get stronger

When I first started training for this sport, every lift was a battle. Whether event training or lifting, it was go heavy, go hard, or go home. The result of this was ok strength, poor technique, and shitty work capacity. So what do you think happened when I’d get to competition? I had ok strength, poor technique, and shitty work capacity! Definitely not the formula for success. I realized if I wanted to get any better, I had to learn how to train smarter, not harder. Success in life is measured in what you do, not how hard you tried, so I needed to really shift my attitude on how I approached training. I started studying what top athletes and lifters from generations past and today did to get strong, not necessarily what they did once they were strong. I stopped focusing on quantity on the bar and started focusing on quantity in the training session itself. I regressed my training almost to 0, rebuilding my squat from scratch and learning how to do things right as opposed to just doing them. The results have been tremendous, because since this shift I’ve been hitting lifetime PR’s while continuing to improve my work capacity and other important variables. If a washed-up college O-Lineman can find new levels of strength staring down the barrel of his 30th birthday, than there’s still hope for many of you that are reading this right now.

Lesson Learned:  Training is the means to your competitive end; be objective, plan the work, then work the plan.

ryan walk

1.) Not being fully committed

Don’t get me wrong, if you asked me back in 2011 I’d sure tell you I was committed. But to me, true commitment is when you start changing your life to reach your goals. Over the last year and a half I’ve made sweeping changes to my lifestyle, the majority of which are related to help me maximize my potential in this sport. My personal mantra right now is coach-train-recover-repeat. There’s a saying that I give to clients of mine soon after we start: change your actions, or change your expectations. If you aren’t willing to do the work, re-evaluate what you’re working towards- after all, it’s your goal. If you expect to challenge your genetic ceiling, though, act accordingly. Every champion that’s ever walked this Earth has had to sacrifice things on their road to success, and your journey and my journey will be no different.

Lesson Learned: Be willing to surrender what you are for what you can potentially be.

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