With Arnold’s just around the corner Patrick Castelli explains how a Strongman competition can be like losing your virginity.
Stepping into you first major competition
While I’m writing this article particularly from the perspective of preparing yourself for a major strongman competition, I feel like most of it still applies to other sports like powerlifting and weightlifting. This article is far from the most science-based piece of literature I’ve ever written, however, I believe many will still find it informative, even if it’s mostly drawn from opinion and experience. Experiences from coaching at multiple universities and competing around the world on some of strongman’s biggest international stages with some fair success. Let me save you some time and agony and learn from some of my failures and mistakes. Especially if you’re about to compete at your first major event.
How is a strongman competition like losing your virginity?
A major competition can mean different things to different athletes. For some it might be a first time at the state or regional level, for some a national championship, and for others perhaps your first internal event or world championship. Usually every step up in competition is in some way regarded as “a big deal”, and I’d like to help. Excuse my crude analogy, but these “first major contests” is a lot like having sex for the first time. You’re really excited about finally getting your chance, but you’re a bit nervous because you have no idea what the hell is going on, and one way or another, it’s over far too soon and you can’t wait for a second opportunity. I suppose it could also go horribly wrong leaving you mortified and scarred for life, apprehensive ever to try again…but hopefully this article helps you avoid that.
The mental prep
Two things I encourage you to do before any competition is outline your goals for a contest and define its success. While these two are not mutually exclusive, it is important to define some parameters of success that aren’t simply achieving your goals. One staple definition of success of mine can easily be done without accomplishing any goals in a contest. Allow me to explain.
I think this to be an almost universal truth across all strength sports and it was one that passed on to me by Zack McCarley, a 6-time US National Champion at 105kg and a World Champion at 90kg. He and I were having a discussion in the middle of a two-day contest, I think it was in Norway, and it was just after an event when he told me, “hey man, a PB is a win.”
That may seem like an obvious statement, but it followed an event that although I hit a new PB, I didn’t place as high as I hoped to on that event. It was clear that while I didn’t reach my goal for that particular event, I still managed a new PB and was simply out-matched that day on that event. That does not mean the event was unsuccessful. So, mentally prepare yourself, what do you define as a success showing in competition, what are your goals, and then work to determine what you need to do to achieve those goals and be successful.
Another suggestion takes a bit of digging, but I recommend you do your homework. Typically, before every contest you know the players and you know the game. The events and the rules a provided, and competitor list is posted. The work comes in when you look at the list of names and events and start predicting. Who is capable of what on each event and what placings will that put people in? Then (while being totally honest with yourself, your current ability/PBs, and how much better can you really be on game day) ask yourself where you fit into the mix. I’ve been around the top u80kg guys in the world long enough and the top ten know each other pretty well that I can usually fill that table in pretty confidently. In most cases it’s best to do some homework, dig through the internet, social media profiles, and previous contest results to get some information.
The point of this is just to give you some perspective. It should help remove some doubts and some false confidence and force you to look at what are the probable outcomes. Once you’ve done this look back over your goals. Are your goals realistic? Are they achievable? Are they time-sensitive? This isn’t meant to be a negative exercise, on the contrary, it’s to write down what happens if everyone else has their best day, how will I compare, and most importantly, what I can control?
Once all this homework is done you should feel relieved with the idea that nothing anyone can do will take you by surprise, and their performance is out of your control anyway, but you can control your attitude and effort with respects to your preparation for the contest, and the outcome of your personal results against your previous bests. In a round-about way, this helps me get out of my own way. I know what they can do, I know what I can do, I have my goals, and I’m ready to be successful regardless of the outcome now that I can focus solely on myself.
The last mental queue I want to provide is auto-regulating your emotions, specifically arousal. No, I’m not talking about sex again, I mean arousal as in the feeling of how amped up and/or nervous you get before events. I see it all the time in training and even more in competition, people trying to get themselves amped up for a big lift, the “smackers” who need to get physically abused by their handlers, the “jammers” who need to hear that one song for the 18th time today with the headphones so loud everyone can hear it, the “nose-torquers” sniffing on ammonia like coke-fiends…..I get it. You’re just trying to get pumped up, whatever floats your boat. My only issue is when it takes you ten minutes to get jacked up for an event that in strongman is usually 60 seconds or less.
This is a bad example of regulating your arousal. If you want my advice, and it will take practicing before every big set in training for a while for it to work, but find a better, faster, less-dependent way to “get hyped”. Ask yourself this: how long does my pump-up ritual take, am I depending on something external like a particular song or a special blanket from your childhood, and most importantly, how much energy are you wasting before and after the actual event? My thoughts on the subject; practice auto-regulating so you get as high of arousal levels as possible in as short of time as possible at the flip of a switch, make it internal so you don’t have to worry about losing something or your battery dying, and once the event is over, shut it down. Don’t waste time and energy before an event that can be better used elsewhere. Like the next event.
The physical prep
This article is not intended to discuss how to physically prepare for a competition in terms of coaching, programming, tapering, or peaking. I want to address smaller thinks like, is your weight where it should be for the weight class you’re competing in? Are you taking care of your body outside of the gym to recover? Are you getting enough sleep? These are super simple, novel ideas that I’m sure everyone’s heard before, but half of you never do.
The first one is, do you have a standard warm-up routine? Find one that you like and works for your, in another article I can talk more specifically on the more advantageous ways to warm-up, but for now find one you like that makes you feel good and ready. My only caveat is, try to plan one that requires as little equipment as possible, because you’ll never know what you’ll get to warm-up with at a strongman contest. That’s, if, you get to warm-up. Generally speaking I try to have most of my warm-up focused around body weight and the use of bands (since they’re easy to pack and travel), and then I’ll try to snag a barbell or some plates to use afterward.
One area of concern I have is people putting in weeks and weeks of training and then just before the contest they start making appointments with chiropractors and for a massage when they haven’t done any up until this point. It’s always the last few days just before a contest, which is one thing if you’re just going to unwind and get a relaxing massage…. but if it’s not something that’s been a regular part of your prep, getting deep tissue sports massage just before the contest might flare up a bit more inflammation that you expected. Don’t even get me started on getting a bunch of adjustments from a chiro you’ve never previously worked with before two days out from contest. Here is a great rule of thumb, if you haven’t been doing it for weeks before the contest, don’t try it for the first time the week of the contest. That goes for new techniques, manual therapies, new equipment, new belts or wraps, etc. This is also a big point for me as far as the day before and the day of contest.
The contest, from warm-ups to celebrations
At this point we’ve lightly covered the concept of practiced warm-ups, but now to apply it to a competition setting. One thing I carried over from my experiences in powerlifting is my warm-up time. My last few sessions in training I record the time it takes me to do my general warm-up and the time it takes to get up to contest weight, or in powerlifting, my opening attempt. If you know that time, and your division is the first to go, no dramas, just execute like normal. If you’re in a later heat or division, time the first few heats of the first division, and try to roughly gauge how much time until you’re up to bat. The idea is, you don’t want to warm-up too early and then sit around for 30 minutes, but you also don’t want to be rushed and then panic that you only got up to 70% of the weights you planned to hit in warm-ups (this also means, you should have at least a rough plan of what you want to hit during the warm-ups, so write that down).
Personally, my cool-down after an event consists of walking around for two- to three-minutes, lightly moving through the full range of motion (specifically to avoid hamstring cramps), and then replenishing nutrients, that’s means eating and drinking. I usually pack a range of foods and beverages to have available, mostly depending on how much time I have before the next event. Competition day is mostly carbs, some protein, and a little bit of fat. I prepared three shakers, one just water, one with a fast digesting carbohydrate like heaps of Gatorade powder or Karbolyn (my absolute favourite, “strawberry strike”, shout-out, sponsor me please!), and a third with fat free milk and protein powder (Zack taught me long ago, fat-free milk is the way to go at contest because it won’t go bad during the contest).
Foods I’ll pack include sugary snacks and other quick digesting carbohydrates (like yellow or yellow/brown bananas, not the green ones, too startchy not enough sugars), some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and some turkey sandwiches with cheese. The closer before the contest and immediate after, it’s all about the fast, sugary carbs. If there’s a long window of time between events, then I’ll have some protein and fats then.
Going back to my rule of thumb, contests aren’t a time to introduce new things. That includes new foods or foods you haven’t had in a while. Especially for people who have been dieting for some time to get into their weight class. If you’ve been eating clean for weeks, maybe stick to some fast-digesting carbs you have been eating lately. Getting a bunch of gastric distress in the middle of a contest because you smashed a dozen donuts for the first time in months just before a heavy stone series is a recipe for disaster. One that can lead to a really embarrassing performance if you catch my wift…. Whoops, I mean drift. When the contest is all said and done, go crazy, have fun, eat the junk food, skull a few drinks. The patience to hold it together one more day won’t kill you. I promise.
One of the last important rituals I practice that I’ll share with you is actually the night before I start traveling to the contest, and repeated again the night before the contest. Take some time to write out your goals again. Then write down your definitions of success. Look back over your training and write down your performances on the first week of training for this contest, and then next to it, write down your more recent, and best performances. See how far you’ve come and appreciate the progress you’ve made. Be happy about the process, regardless of the results of the upcoming competition. Save all that you’ve written down and have them to look over after the contest and add your competition results to this list.
Next, at the top of a fresh sheet of paper, write down each event across the top of the page. If you take nothing else from this article, learn this, as it may be the simplest, most important tip I give you.
Under each event title, list out every piece of equipment you need for that event. Everything from tape, to belts, to wraps, to tacky. Everything. Repeat this for every event, and even if you need your “Cerberus Strength Dual-Ply Knee Sleeves” for every event, write it down each time. Then, go through the list and pack those items into a carry on. This bag of goods does not, I repeat, does not get checked. You carry this on to the plane with you and clutch it for dear life. Shorts, underwear, socks, shaker bottles…. that can all be purchased at most cities. If you need to check a back, check that stuff instead. The night before the contest, repeat this equipment list process and make sure it’s in one bag to bring with you to the contest. Don’t be the athlete who forgot their belt in the hotel room.
Learn from my mistakes
It’s with this that I finish this article by saying, learn from my mistakes. Learn to love the process, appreciate your progress regardless of the results, and remember, if this is your first big show, it’s a lot like your first time having sex. More than likely it’s all over way too soon. Take some time between events to look around. Meet and befriend your fellow competitors, and as soon as it’s done think hard about the whole day, and the whole prep. Enjoy the moment you’re in and what you accomplished to get there. And remember, “a PB is a win” and if you ever have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me and ask. Worst case scenario it takes me a few days to reply, but when it comes to strongman and the community, I will always provide my honest attempt to help any way I can.
-Master of Sport Science
-Bachelor of Exercise Science
-Major area: Kinesiology – Sport Phycology.
–2017 Official Strongman Games World’s Strongest Man u80kg.