What You Need to Know Before Your First Strongman Competition

TAGS: United States Strongman, Press event, open, novice, North American Strongman, Medley event, first contest, Deadlift event, Chase Karnes, Carry event, warming up, atlas stones, strongman, Nutrition

In March 2009, I entered my first strongman competition. It was a small, non-sanctioned competition about 90 miles from where I lived. Going in, I was pretty confident. I felt I had a good base of strength and was ready to venture into the sport of strongman but I ended up sucking pretty bad. Don’t get me wrong; I had fun and would do it all over again. I also did the best I could, but finished fourth out of five total guys. It was a learning experience, but more than anything it made me realize what my strengths and weaknesses were in regards to competing in strongman. Since then, I’ve gone from finishing fourth out of five guys in a small local novice show to finishing second in the Nation and seventh in the world in my respective weight classes. So, by no means does your placement in your first few competitions predict where you will be in the future. That’s just how I looked at it: how can I improve to place better at my next competition? And I still do that to this day.

In this article, I will aim to cover everything that I wish I knew going into my first contest. I really wish someone would have told me these things before I started competing, but since they didn’t – at least I’m able to pass it on to you in the fashion of “Live, Learn, Pass On.” While there is more you’ll learn and you’ll find your preferred ways of doing things, hopefully this will give you some guidance as you take the plunge and mail in your entry for your first competition.

How Strong Do You Need to Be?

I think anyone who is interested in competing in strongman should give it a try as long as they have a decent base of strength with a barbell. While I’m all for getting more people into the sport and competing, you’ve got to be strong first. Hence the name STRONGman. While there’s no set standard on what’s strong enough to compete, I’ll give some general minimum guidelines that I think constitutes strong enough to give it a try.

LW Women – 200-pound deadlift, 185-pound squat, 115-pound push press/jerk

HW Women – 275-pound deadlift, 225-pound squat, 135-pound push press/jerk

LW Men – 400-pound deadlift, 350-pound squat, 185-pound push press/jerk

HW Men – 500-pound deadlift, 450-pound squat, 225-pound push press/jerk

Again – these aren’t set in stone , they’re just my personal opinion. But I’d bet that most people in their respective categories who are capable of hitting those numbers have a good enough base of strength to give it a try and do well in the novice division. All competitions have a novice division with lighter weights than the open classes for the purpose of new competitors to get out there and give it a try. You can also compete as a novice until you win the class – so it’s not like you have to jump right into open after your first contest.

Even if they don’t have access to train all of the events on the actual implements, jumping into a competition will let them know if strongman is something they’d want to compete in again. If so, they can find a serious training crew or start purchasing implements themselves to begin training with equipment that’s more specific for the contest.

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How to Find a Strongman Competition

Amateur strongman has two sanctioning bodies here in the US. They are called North American Strongman and United States Strongman. Both bodies have websites that list their upcoming competitions. These can be found on their websites. There is a competition (or multiple competitions) somewhere in the US almost every weekend. Finding one close to where you live isn’t very hard at all. Once you’ve found one you’re interested in, you can look at the entry online to see the events and the weights used for each event. Once you’ve decided that you want to commit, you can print off the entry, fill it out and send it in.

Now, there is some strategy to sending in your entry. The first entry received in the respective weight class goes last on the first event of the day. There is some strategy here. Typically I like to get my entry in early so I can go last on the first event. This allows you to see what the weight/time/reps are needed to win the event. This can be beneficial for some competitors. But sending your entry in later is also a strategy used by some. It allows them to go first or very early on the first event. For them they don’t have as long to sit around and wait and let their nerves build as long. They can simply get out there and do their best. And as those who’ve competed know, once the first event is over the nerves go down quite a bit. Another thing to consider is that should you sign up for the novice or open division. This really depends on what you want. If you are around the base numbers I listed above I’d suggest going novice. Or if you’re slightly above them, but haven’t had any access to implements I’d also suggest going novice. If you’ve got a great base of strength, have trained a few of the implements, and know you can do all the open class weights and be competitive then I’d suggest going open. There’s nothing more annoying than seeing a guy who should be in the open class go novice in his first competition and dominate every event. Just look at the event weights for your weight class for the novice and open and make your decision based on this combined with your current base level or strength and any experience you have training events.

Finding a Strongman Crew to Train With

Today there are strongman crews all across the US. From big cities to the middle of nowhere – there’s more than likely a strongman crew within driving distance to you. Hell, I can think of five in Western Kentucky alone. I highly suggest you find a crew to train with at least once (preferably more) before your first competition. This will allow you to try out the implements. Even if you have to travel some distance it will be worth it. But if you don’t have access or can’t travel that doesn’t mean you can’t still compete and do well. But if you can, then by all means do it.

There is a list of state chairs on the sanctioning bodies websites. Contact them for your state or any bordering states that are drivable. They should be able to point you in the direction of a crew to train with. If you still can’t find a crew, send me a message on the Q&A with your location and I’ll help find the one nearest to you. Please do some research yourself before contacting me. Thank you.

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How to Train for a Typical Contest

There are many, many ways to train for a contest. And not everyone should train the exact same way because we all have different strengths and weakness. I’m preparing three guys for the same strongman contest right now, but all three have different programs. But there are still some general rules and ideas to consider when training for a contest. The majority of strongman contests include:

  • Press event
  • Deadlift event
  • Carry event
  • Medley event
  • Atlas stones

This isn’t always the case, but it is the most common “template,” so to speak. If you have access to the actual implements you’ll want to train those. If you don’t, you’ll want to train something similar, if possible, just train hard and show up strong and conditioned.

If the weight for the event is a max event (max log press for example) you’ll want to peak your overhead pressing strength for competition day. But, if it’s for reps then you’ll need look at the weight for your class and compare it to your overhead pressing strength. If it’s light for you, you’ll benefit more from working up heavy, then doing some back-off sets for reps. If it’s heavy for you, you’ll want to increase your maximum strength here, even though it’s a rep event. This same rule applies to deadlift events as well.

Carry events are usually the yoke walk, farmers walk or a combination of these with a carry (sandbag for example). While the number of combinations are endless, speed is king on these events. The fastest time wins. If the weight is heavy for you you’ll want to work on getting stronger carrying the implement. A simple linear progression model may work great here to help you peak for the contest weight. If the weight is lighter you’d benefit form a combination of speed work and heavy work. But remember, speed is king.

Medley events can be a combination of many things. Conditioning is important here, but typically these events are 60-75 seconds max. So you need to prepare yourself to go hard for 60-75 seconds, not 3-5 minutes or longer. The rest of these events typically come down to speed, being strong enough to pick up and carry implements, and quick transitions between implements.

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Atlas stones will vary, but are typically a load over bar or to a platform. Sometimes it’s the same weight stone for reps and sometimes its stones progressing in weight. These should be trained similar to the contest setup, but with varying weights and times. Doing the contest weight, week after week, can really beat you up if the stone is heavy. Not only that, but sub-maximal stone training helps build technique and explosiveness needed to load heavy stones.

Sample Split (excluding supplementary and accessory work):

Monday – Overhead press

Wednesday – Deadlift and Front Squat

Saturday – Carry Event, Medley, and Stones

For the bigger picture of how I look at programming for strongman, check out this previous article: An Annual Overview of Basic Strongman Programming & Periodization

Should You Cut Weight For Your First Contest?

This needs a heading of its own, but the answer is simple: no. You should not cut weight for your first contest. Train hard and show up ready. Weigh-in at your natural weight and go out and have fun. Cutting weight for your first competition is a lot of added unnecessary stress. And it’s just not worth it. I only recommend cutting weight for big competitions (Nationals, World’s) or in order to qualify for big competitions if necessary or to set a record. Other than that I say just don’t cut.

Go to Set PRs

When you go out to compete at your first contest your main goal should be to try to hit a PR on as many of the events as possible. If you go out and set a PR on every event, but don’t place very high, that’s still a success. As your PRs keep increasing so will your placement. When your PRs are better than everyone in your class, you’ll win. Now, I’m not saying to disregard the numbers and times that other competitors are hitting because if you want to be at the top you’re going to have to see what top competitors in your class are hitting. But put more emphasis on hitting PRs and eventually you’ll get there.

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What to Pack in Your Gym Bag?

This will vary depending on the contest and the events. But for most contests this is what I pack:

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What/How to Eat the Day/Night Before the Contest? And the Day of?

I’ve tried a lot of different ways of eating the day and night before a contest. A lot of guys like to load up on junkier foods like pancakes, waffles, pizza, pasta, Mexican, etc., and I did that for a while, too. But the best I’ve felt is when I eat clean leading up to a contest. Ideally, you want to stick with foods your body is accustomed to. The only difference is, you really want to load up on the carbs here.

Here’s a sample day before the contest:

Breakfast: Eggs, Bacon, Hash browns

Lunch: Steak, Double Potatoes

Mid-Afternoon: Burger, Fries

Dinner: Steak, Double Potatoes

Before Bed: Simple Carbs and some fats. Stick with things you’ve eaten before that your body handles well.

You’ll also want to consume plenty of water.

The day of the contest:

About 2-3 hours before the contest is scheduled to start, you’ll want to eat a light breakfast similar to the day before, but with less overall volume of food. Eat until you’re content, but not full.

Breakfast: 3 eggs, 3 strips bacon, ½ order hash browns

During the contest you’ll want to drink water and can add some BCAAs if you’d like.

My go-to foods are:

Trail Mix

Mini Snickers Bars

Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich

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The majority of your contest day fuel is actually coming from the day before you compete. So remember that and be smart with your nutrition leading up to a contest. I’ve heard there’s nothing worse than having a bad case of diarrhea on competition day because you decided to eat like crap the day before. It’s hard to do well on an event when you’re sitting on the toilet every hour.

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Explanation of the Points System

You don’t even have to win a single event to win a strongman contest. Sounds crazy doesn’t it? It’s better to be consistently good on events than to be great on a few and suck on the others. I’ve seen many contests won by someone who didn’t win any events, and the more competitors in the class, the greater the chances are of this happening. For example, let’s say a contest has ten competitors and five events. Since there are ten competitors we have a total of ten possible points to be allotted to the competitors. If a competitor “zeroes” an event, that means they didn’t complete the event or didn’t complete at least one rep, they get no points for that event. So, let’s say the first even is log press and you take fourth place out of 10. You’d get seven points.

1st- 10 points

2nd – 9 points

3rd – 8 points

4th – 7 points

5th – 6 points

6th – 5 points

7th – 4 points

8th – 3 points

9th – 2 points

10th – 1 point

And so on. Say in the second event you take 2nd place out of 10, you’d get 9 points. You now would have 16 total points (7 + 9). This continues on each event. At the end of the day, the athlete with the most points wins. So let’s say a competitor finishes:

4th, 2nd, 3rd, 2nd, 3rd – 41 total points

He would actually place much better than an athlete who finishes:

1st, 8th, 1st, 10th, 9th – 26 total points

Even though they didn’t win any events and their opponent won two, their opponent’s lower placing in other events cost them a lot of points.

To be good in strongman you’ve got to be consistently good across the board at all events. This is why it’s so important to work on bringing up your weakest events to improve as an athlete as you continue to compete in the sport.

Last Thoughts

I will leave you with one last piece of advice. No matter how nervous or anxious you get, it gets fun after the first event because your nerves get settled and you find a balance between relaxed and amped up. You can’t be “on” all day or the contest will fry you. Relax after that first event. Get your mind right for the next one, but don’t be that idiot that’s marching around the parking lot with his headphones in, head-butting windows and hitting ammonia when his flight doesn’t go for another 30 minutes. Yes – I’ve seen guys act like this before.

Now go out, set PRs, have fun, and do it again. If you have any questions regarding strongman, shoot me a question in the Q&A.

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