Why I don’t believe in competing any more

I had aspirations to compete nationally in the sport of Powerlifting.

Over the last few months, my training – and my approach to my training – has changed.

There is no one specific reason for the change. Rather, it’s been a cumulation of things that I’ve picked up along the way.

I have struggled to articulate all of these changes and how they have impacted my training.

But I listened to episode  Ep. 145 – Powerlifting & Strongman Training Before Social Media. (ft. Chip Conrad) from the Iron Culture podcast, which I ‘ve been following for several years. It encapsulated what I had been struggling to put into words. I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

I am going to share my journey, why and how my training has changed, using snippets from this podcast to help explain. 

As much as I’ve found powerlifting rewarding and still do it 4 times a week, I’ve learned more about the limitations when focusing training purely on powerlifting.

I believe that you will find there is a lot that can apply to your own fitness or strength journey. Especially where it relates to questioning some of the assumptions that we all tend to accept as true, rather than make our own.

Within powerlifting circles, you’ll find a lot of the same advice repeated. But coming across odd aspects of Strongman that made me question my training and the assumptions that underlie it. Some of these I thought were just examples of outliers, but the more I came across, the more I realised that there is something missing.

Early seeds in this process were videos such videos as Alan Thrall’s Rounding your back is OK! and Is it OK to Lift With Your Back? and Dr. Stuart McGill – the world’s foremost expert on spinal mechanics – talking about his work with professional strongman lifting stones weighing hundreds of kilograms with bent backs and how they get away with it in here: How To Lift Atlas Stones: Should You Flex Your Spine?

This post is about what I’ve learned about the sport of strongman training, what makes it so unique, and why I’m incorporating it into my powerlifting training. I also talk about why I don’t feel like competing any more, in general.

The takeaway points are;

  • “Move in many ways for many reasons”
  • Too much specificity and overuse injuries 
  • Your best vs THE best
  • Transference
  • Neat categories vs what works for you
  • Why is Strongman different?
  • Strongman and Highland Games

“Move in many ways for many reasons”

if our workout is the sum total of our movement, I think we’re missing the point. I think we should be training to go move to get out of the gym. The gym is simply to give us the ability to then go explore how much we can do with our lives. 

Training shouldn’t be the end goal. Training is the journey to be able to use your body and try new things and be adventurous outside of where you train. 

If you just squat, deadlift, bench press or you just clean jerk, and snatch. Then you’re actually limiting your body and what it can do. And it’s going to fall apart eventually because it’s going to be ground down into those patterns of movement, move beyond those patterns, it’ll actually help you to be able to do those patterns better. do other stuff besides what you’re doing, you don’t have to excel at it. You don’t have to thrive at it. You just have to move in different ways for different reasons, and it’ll help where you want your movement to be.

A good example of move for other reasons, is Stan Efferding – who I’ve written about before – with the importance of daily 10 minute walks.

Although much more on the competing side of things, Laird Ross is an example of moving in ways outside of the strict confines of the movements in the sport to be better at the sport and outside it. He presses tree logs overhead does a variety of natural stone lifts and even does push ups and pullups.

Brian Alsruhe is also a notable example – althrough a strongman, he does long jumps, climbs ropes does does hiking trails and is out there is in nature processing dead trees and building log wood cabins, he also does an impressive amount of calistheics for a strongman. Enkiri Elite Fitness is another example of a high level of strength but moving in many ways, doing sprints and odd lifts.

Many people want the fame or status of being the ‘best’ but I’d rather be able to move and do the things that these guys can do.

Specificity and Overuse injuries 

There has been so much written on this, debated and discussed. But there aren’t many examples of people who can “move in many ways” and are healthy, but who stuck to only doing around 3 lifting movements. Or who stuck to only running or cycling. You want to be able to be resilient in life. You want to be able to pick up a big bag of soil from a nursery without worring you are going put out your back. To do this you will need a lifestyle of moving in different ways, and doing strength training.

 

YOUR best versus THE best | 800lb squat syndrome 

It used to be that we would squat, to get yourself better. You’d use the squat to make yourself better, you’d squat to get stronger so you can do other things. Now, you squat to make your squat better. So instead of the squat making you better, you make the squat better and it become this whole product and now people can sell that. 

Movement is now a product it’s not it’s not a desired outcome.

People have lost sight of why they are training. Of what the squat can do for them. Someone who can squat 4 plates vs 5 plates, for example – at a certain level, there isn’t a meaningful difference of what you can actually do with your body in different contexts. John Danher has discsussed this here. More strength, endurance with make you a better grappler but only up to a certain point. 

With BJJ, being able to squat two times your bodyweight will give you an advantage over someone struggling to squat bodyweight will. But when you get to a 4 or 5 or 6 plate squat, you put in so much sacrifice, and you put so much of your life into it. But besides beating someone at a competition, you’re not really getting anything out of it.

Chip has a background of competing in numerous strength sports and acknowledges that competing can be a fulling way of pushing ourselves. But at what cost and what are we missing? I see healthy competition as something you do at different seasons of your life but not something you do consistently for decades.

This view – that you don’t have to be the best, is not given enough room in a society that constantly encouraging us to be the best. What opportunities are we giving up by choosing to specialise so much? What are we sacrificing – health, family time, etc? And why is competing so important to us, and does it resonate with our values and what we want to get out of our strength journey? 

For a lot of people competing in strength sports, it is a form of voluntary discomfort that they’ve chosen. To push themselves to their limits – and there is a relish in that. Evolutionarily, we are wired to compete and to enjoy winning. For some, it’s a distraction from work and the rest of their life. But for others, competing is a way of maintaining their own self-worth by way of beating and crushing an opponent. Some people feel they have to prove something to be comfortable in their own skin.

Transference

There are many world record holding powerlifters who at their prime would be out of breath walking into a room, and struggling to tie their shoelaces. They became so ‘narrow’ in what they did excellently, that they became so mediocre in almost everything else.

Firemen and military personnel – these are people who have bodies that can do many things and move in many ways, and still have strength. Maybe we should be moving towards a body with this functionality – rather than a body that can move the most weight on a few exercises. Tactical trianing is argubly more useful to your averge perosn than powerlifting or strongman.

When you start specialising.When you become more and more aimed towards one thing, it does not have the crossover, we want to believe it does and you actually lose those potentials of other things…And it goes beyond just the physical. They’re actually sacrificing more than just potential of other movement they’re sacrificing their health. They’re sacrificing relationships they’re getting rid of all other things that it doesn’t really matter – except that they have something to prove. 

Neat categories vs what works for you

There’s book after book after book about the what and the how not too many people talk about the why.

“We’re so quick to want an identity that we drop our individuality but I believe that you can have a community, a tribe, and you can be very individual within that tribe and bring your worthiness to it, that way. 

We should consider what we are possibly missing out on or even losing, by pursuing a sport so narrowly (i.e. trying to compete at a high level).

Powerlifting and the big three have enourmous value and utility, which is why they have been around for long (in comparison to the silly exercises you’ll see on Instagram). But the negatives of pursuing these to a level where you are the best – while admirable in the discipline, and grit needed – takes away from the benefits  the sport or exercises provides in the first place – for your average person.

Instead of being a strong person that does many things outside, you become just a strong squatter.

The industry promotes the extreme, rather than the ‘good’. What’s a good amount versus what is the most you physically can do just before any more would break you, both mentally and physically. I still watch the sport, and follow athletes in the sport, because I have grown a lot from my very short and limited experience doing powerlifting. But it’s important to be aware that it’s very much a competing to your limit sport.

Strength training should be pursued purely for the benefits of strength training. Not just to compete or for status.

If competing is more con than pro for you then clinging to the label, ‘powerlifter’, ‘cyclist’, is buying its limitations, not its empowerment.

The industry sells the lie that the better you get at whatever particular sport you happen to be doing, the more it benefits the rest of your life – enter and run marathons, it’s good for your heart (but leaving people ignorant of all the benefits of having more muscle mass and the medical problems of conditions like Sarcopenia).

Look at firemen or military personnel who use the squat, bench, and deadlift in their training. They are getting the benefits from those movements without the limitations of someone who takes those movements to a highly competitive level.

Why is strongman different?

Strongman isn’t magical or without it’s faults, but it’s a sport that is probably the most well-rounded of the strength sports. It challenges the athletes’ weaknesses the most, and is the hardest to specialise in. There is a deliberate randomness built into the events – changes to exercises on the day, events that are only announced on the day etc. Some exerices in strongman favour endurace rather than strength, and vice versa. Some favour taller athletes. And then there is the awkwardness of oddly shaped objects – the list goes on. Strongman keeps athletes on their toes and to excel they have to move in many ways.

Strongman and Highland Games

A lot of strongmen individualise a specific movement based on their specific preference. There is a lot more room for individuality.

I’m not the best at any one of these events, I have to be kind of good at all of them.

– Derek Poundstone

Strongman has a lot more camaraderie, fun, and a more supportive community than many other strength sports. While powerlifting is a sport that has a lot of support, it doesn’t have the same level of support within the competitions.

It’s common to see direct competitors help each other beat each other. Or if one competitor loses, to cheer on their competitor that will beat them. In strongman there is support and a sense of fun while still competing at the highest level.

I can only be my best if everyone else is at their best. 

Going Forward

For the time being I’ll run powerlifting programs with more of an emphasis toward moving in different ways. 

I’m going to make Saturdays an ‘implement’ day and have “strongman Saturdays” which seems like a common thing in the community. There are so many creative ways in how to work out either following a Strongman training program, or modifying a powerlifting program. The challenge is to put it all together in a way that makes sense. So far I’ve done some natural stone lifting and farmers walks, and it’s been some of the most fun I’ve had in my training.

At the end of the day, I still think that any strength sport is inherently valuable. Strength has real-world utility in your day-to-day life, to yourself and others, and is instrumental in how independent you’ll be in the tail end of your life.

This really made me relook at the way I was training and explore some of my why’s. I hope it also helps you with your journey.