It’s been five years since I competed at the Arnold in strongman, and for five years I’ve wanted to get back there. The first time around, I was a new middleweight pro who just took fourth place at America’s Strongest Man. I was invited to compete as a heavyweight amateur only six weeks out, and it was the heaviest amateur show of the year.

Six weeks is not a lot of time to train for a show of that magnitude, but I couldn’t turn the opportunity down. I trained my ass off for those six weeks, and just decided I was there to have fun and hopefully hit a few PRs. I never expected to do well against 50 of the top heavyweight amateurs in the world.

Fast-forward and I ended up making the Top-10 to compete on the main stage at the Arnold. I was told I was the first middleweight pro who competed in America’s Strongest Man to then make the Top-10 as a heavyweight at the Arnold. One of my favorite moments of my career was right here, where I got to press a 350-pound log in front of the biggest crowd I have competed for.

Since this moment I have always wanted to come back, but like any experienced competitor, injuries start adding up, and I have unfortunately had three surgeries in the past three years. My last one was minor, but it was just 14 weeks ago.

Once again, I didn’t have a lot of time to train, but I am also fortunate enough to have all the strongman equipment needed for every event, unlike like a lot of other competitors. The spoils of owning your own gym, you could say. Training for the Arnold went great, and I rarely had a bad day.

My strongest events were my log press and my deadlift. The log was the heaviest I have ever had in a competition for reps at 330 pounds. It seems every year the weights get heavier, but the competitors also keep getting stronger. The deadlift has always been my favorite event in both strongman and powerlifting. We favor what we’re good at, of course. This time around, we had a 700-pound deadlift for reps on an axle.

For some of you who may not understand strongman, although we generally use straps on a deadlift, the axle is still much more difficult than a regular bar. The axle has absolutely no give to it, and although you are able to use straps, it is still taxing on your grip. The other events were a 340-pound farmer's walk and a 370-pound block carry to a 520-pound hand-over-hand sled pull. Overall, I felt really good on these events, as farmer's walks were also a strong event of mine. The block carry was an interesting one, as in my 12 years of competing, I have never carried a block, only pressed it.

One thing I have learned from competing is to always have your meals prepared. I have made the mistake numerous times when traveling to going out to eat at restaurants where you are unsure of how the food is prepared. Especially for those of you that are cutting weight, the worst thing you can do after fasting/dehydrating for 24 hours is to go pig out on greasy junk. Trust me, you will have a bad time at the competition. Keep your foods the same as when you are training, so you have no other variables to worry about. I use a food prep service now when I fly to compete, so I know my stomach will be OK come competition time. The last thing you want to do is eat a lot of food that your system isn’t used to and be constantly running to the bathroom as your name is being called out. It’s a stress you don’t need when you are already stressed enough.

Another thing to prioritize is sleep. I know the night before a big competition it’s tough to relax and shut your mind off. I would recommend bringing a noisemaker that lets off a white noise, like a loud fan, to drown out any other noises that would keep you up. There are also apps you can download on your phone for this. With my last meal before bed, I take some melatonin and ZMA to help me doze off and stay asleep. Also, you should have taken in plenty of liquids to rehydrate but cut it off once it gets closer to bedtime. You don’t want to get up to piss three times in the night or you really won’t get back to sleep.

Event 1: Log Press

I haven’t competed in strongman in over a year and a half, so needless to say, I was very nervous to come back to the Arnold. Of course, everyone is nervous before a competition, but I was more than usual. The women got to go first, so I always like to watch how the judges are, how long we have to hold lockouts, etc. Just as in powerlifting, a judge may give you a long press command, and in strongman, you may get a long down command.

Finally getting to warm-ups, I was feeling great. Unfortunately, what happens at big shows is that we are rushed to warm up, and as heavyweights, we get to go last. My first warm-up was with an empty log at 150 pounds to get loose. I normally like to do a lot of reps in warm-ups, as I find I get older, I need more time to get the blood flowing.

From 150, we jumped to 240 that I hit for a set of five, then they called two minutes left for warm-ups. Now there were 40 competitors all fighting to warm up on a couple of logs. With only one more warm-up to take, we jumped right to 310, which I hit for a very easy single. I was feeling really good and confident going into this event. A 330-pound log is very heavy, but I was prepared to come from training two weeks back hitting it for three. The goal was to get four, which would be a big PR for me, especially coming off of elbow surgery.

The problem at the high-level shows is that we get to warm up and then wait for almost an hour as heavyweights. This is very tough to stay warmed-up for, as we’re rushed, and then we have to wait for everyone else to go. I sat around for a little while, as there was no need to keep moving while we had to wait for almost an hour. Once our time got closer, I got up and started to stretch to warm up yet again.

Once my name was called I was excited but also nervous. My first rep flew right up, which is always a good sign, but it also felt a little heavier than it did in training. I went for a second right away, but I rushed it and didn’t get low enough on the clean to fire my hips through to one-motion it. My plan was to one-motion all of these reps, as that’s how I trained. It’s a faster way to get reps, but it also can fatigue you fast. I took a step back, gained my composure, and went back in to hit another good clean rep.

At this point, I was pretty tired from missing a rep. As most of you know, missing a rep drains you a lot and negative thoughts creep into your head, which is hard to come back from. I waited until I had a few more seconds left but couldn’t muster a third rep. I definitely was not happy with how this event went, but again, 330 pounds is a heavy log to press. I believe almost half the field either zeroed or got one rep, so I was trying not to beat myself up too much. As anyone who competes knows, sometimes training goes a lot better than competition day. Bobby Thompson was the winner of that event with a huge six reps.

Event 2: Farmer's Walk

Event two was the farmer's walk. At 340 pounds per hand, this was not a heavy event at all, so it was going to come down to speed. In training, I rotated between speed days, contest weight, and going slightly heavier. Overall, I was feeling good, as grip can be an issue here for some, but that has always been a strong suit of mine. Once again, warm-ups were rushed, as all of us were trying to get in to move a little bit with the little time we had. I was able to do one run with 250 pounds per hand before we had to clear the field to start.

Again, I’m someone who likes a lot of warm-ups to keep moving, so this didn’t sit well with me again having only gotten one warm-up in and now having to sprint with 680 pounds in my hands, but this is strongman, and that’s how this sport goes a lot of the time.

I did my best to warm up with bands and bodyweight exercises. Setting up, I dug my grip in and did my best to haul ass for 50 feet. I felt good, and my grip was like a vise with no issues there. However, I was slow in comparison to how I trained, finishing in 9.6 seconds, where in training I was finishing sub-8. I believe the winning time was 6.1 by Anthony Fuhrman, which is crazy fast and impressive.

Overall, Day 1 wasn’t a disaster, but I didn’t do as well as I was capable of. I need to relax and get my head right for Day 2. It can be very difficult to get out of a rut mentally and push out the negative thoughts.

With only two events, we were done early with enough time to check out my elitefts teammates who were powerlifting. One thing I love about these sports is, of course, pushing yourself to be better, but it’s really the people involved.

Walking in, the first guy I saw was JP Carroll, who just squatted 950! He was moving on to the deadlift later, which is his least favorite lift, while it’s my favorite.

I also got to finally meet Jo Jordan, whom I have looked up to for years as a powerlifter. He’s just a year out after his shoulder surgery, and already benching mid-600s. I was able to stay and watch a few lifters, but unfortunately, I couldn’t stay till the end, as I was very hungry and in need of some rest.

Event 3: Deadlifts

One thing that kept me positive was the deadlift to start out Day 2. During the entire 10-week training cycle, I didn’t have one bad deadlift day, and all I could think was, “I’m going to hit five reps for a big PR.”

Once again, we were rushed for warm-ups, which wasn’t a surprise at this point. I took my first warm-up at 405 for a set of five and returned to the end of the line. Next on the bar was 585, which I pulled for just one rep, as I didn’t want to wear myself out. We had about an hour to wait, so I watched the other weight classes go as I got my head right.

Once my time got closer, I grabbed a light band to mimic the deadlift as best I could to get the blood pumping again. I grabbed my figure 8 straps and stepped out to the bar. We had to strap in on time, so one thing I practiced in training was rushing up to the bar, strapping in, and pulling right away. Despite the lack of warm-ups again, I was confident going into this event, and if there was one thing I wanted to accomplish, this weekend it was getting a PR here.

The whistle blew, and I strapped in right away and pulled the first rep with no problem. I was able to pull four reps pretty quick, but I needed a breather if I was going to get a fifth. I took a knee to catch my breath and got back up to pull a very tough fifth rep. It’s funny watching the video now; it didn’t look that hard, but at the time I wasn’t sure about a sixth rep. With a few seconds left, I went to pull, but I had nothing left. I was very happy coming off of this event, and it’s what I needed moving forward. Right after, we found out the bars were loaded to 715, which we can’t complain, as we all had the same amount and also that made an even bigger PR for me!

Event 4: Block Carry to Hand-Over-Hand Sled Pull

The final event of the day was the block carry to the hand-over-hand sled pull. I wasn’t sure how this event was going to go, as I had trained the sled pull on turf and also a 2-inch thick rope. It turns out that pulling a sled on smooth concrete is a lot easier. This time around, we got plenty of time to warm up.

On my first pick of the block, I felt a sharp pain in my hamstring. It was nothing major, but it had me worried. I stretched and worked on it for a few minutes and went back to pick up a 320-pound block with no pain, luckily. We had another long wait before the heavyweights went, so again, I stayed as warmed up as I could using bands.

Sadly, as I watched everyone go, I saw a lot of injuries of mainly hamstring and bicep tears. You want to move fast on this event, of course, so you have to run up to the block and get it to your hips as fast as possible. However, like ripping up a deadlift, you are risking injury here. It’s a double-edged sword, as you will save a second by grabbing the block fast, but now you are risking injury.

After seeing this, I decided to play it safe and set my grip and hips to get tight before pulling the block up to my hips. As I said earlier, I was coming from three surgeries in three years, and I was not about to tear anything else. Once the block was up, the rest of the event was easy. We had to stand it up and get right to the sled, where I felt I moved very fast.

Overall, I finished in the middle of the pack on all events except for the deadlift where I took third. Eighteenth place out of 40 of the top heavyweight amateurs in the world isn’t too bad in my book, but it definitely isn’t where I wanted to finish. The goal was to make the Top-10 as I did before to make it to the main stage for Day 3, but things didn’t go as planned which happens

One thing I must say is do not take me commenting on the warm-ups as me complaining or making any excuses. Everyone in my class had the same amount of warm-up time, and the strongest won. I do have a few takeaways for this weekend that I will absolutely fix next time around.

First, I need to be better prepared for my warm-ups. I have competed at big shows in the past where we have little time to warm up, so I should have anticipated this. I would absolutely recommend bringing bands and even a jump rope before moving events to keep your feet moving fast. Bringing a jump rope is something I used to do and completely forgot to bring this time around.

Also, I would have changed how I warmed up in training. As I stated before, in most big shows I have done, we had very little time to warm up and a long wait before we did the first event. I should have trained similarly to this instead of my usual eight to ten sets of warm-ups before getting to working weight. It’s a great way to add volume, but it completely messed with my head when competing.

Another thing I realized was when I was at my best in strongman, I was competing on a regular basis. Like I said it had been a year and a half since my last strongman competition, and keeping in the competitive mentality is crucial. There is a big difference between training and competing. I’m sure we have all seen lifters on Instagram putting up huge numbers, but when they step up to the platform, their numbers are nowhere close.

This is all mental. It’s about the mental approach where you just have to get better at competing. We also see the opposite, where the athlete may not do anything overly impressive in training, but they know how to step it up when it comes to crunch time.

JP Carroll Takes Second Place at the 2019 XPCs