the joy of strength training


December 2nd, 2009 at 12:07 am

Strength revelations: what I’ve learned from strongman

Photo credit: Chris Barclay

Often trying something new can make certain movements, concepts or sensations really click for you. Recently I had a go at a Strength & Power event – inspired by strongman but scaled for all weight classes. I turned out to be the only female in the event, competing against the guys in the sub-75kg weight class.

Aside from being a fun day, I discovered in the training and then on the day itself  a number of things I’d never fully grasped before about strength. Part of the fun in fact was these ‘light bulb’ moments, things that perhaps people have told you or you’ve read about, but until you actually experience them you don’t really grok what they mean.

So here are some of my strength revelations from that day.

Pushing through the sticking point

There are events in strongman – and in powerlifting – where, when you start pulling, the load just does not move. It’s tempting to give up at this point and think that you are not able to move it, but if you keep pulling you can eventually overcome that inertia and get it to shift.

I had never before experienced so completely the difference between pulling hard for a second or two and pulling hard for several seconds, despite the fact that I’ve been deadlifting for years.

It is similar to the experience of learning to push through the pain barrier when running. Years ago when I first started going for runs, I would basically run until I got really out of breath and felt like I couldn’t run any more and then I’d stop. The point at which I got really out of breath got further and further away, so I thought I was doing okay. Only when I started training with British Military Fitness did I learn how to keep running past the point that I thought I couldn’t possibly continue.

The mind always gives out before the body. You’ll pass out before you die.

The same applies to lifting very heavy weights. Most people, naturally enough, will try to lift a weight and if they can’t shift it within a second or two of trying they will assume that it is too heavy. But it takes time to develop the kind of force you need to shift that weight. You don’t have access to it instantly.

One of the starkest examples of this is in the truck pull. Overcoming inertia and getting that truck moving is one of the most prolonged efforts in strength sports. You dig your toes into the ground and push and strain for what seems like an age and just when you think you are never going to manage it, someone calls out – oh joy! – “It’s moving!” and you have that Beethoven’s Fifth moment at last (towards the end of the 3rd movement going into the 4th movement; listen from when it goes really quiet and you’ll see what I mean: it’s the orchestral expression of a truck pull).

A max deadlift is also a perfect lesson in this force-time curve. There is the isometric phase, where you are exerting force but the load remains static, then eventually it starts moving.

I realised that I hardly ever pull for long enough in the deadlift.

Travelling with weight

This is something I discovered while training for this event and I’ve mentioned it recently. Moving from A to B with a heavy load is an awesome workout. What it does to your heart and lungs is akin to hill sprints – I kid you not.

Shouldering a very heavy sandbag (close to bodyweight, if not more) and running even a few metres is punishing.

How many times do we actually travel with weight in the gym? We tend to do all our lifting rooted to the ground like ancient trees. Become Ents! Start moving.

Incidentally, how many times do we actually travel with weight in everyday life? All the time! We rarely pick something up only to put it back down again in exactly the same place. I mean, where’s the use in that?

So is strongman starting to make sense now? Dan John has been talking about this for years but it sounds a bit strange and a bit too simple so most people, including me, have ignored it. Dan’s “things that I believe can help anyone improve on the road to health and fitness” are:

1. Pick stuff off the ground
2. Put stuff overhead
3. Carry stuff for time and distance

I’d gradually made forays into the first two but for me, number three was the missing link.

Here’s an important point though. This stuff has to be heavy. Picking up a sandbag that weighs the same as your briefcase and running with it won’t have the same effect. That’s just like commuting. We’re all at different stages along the road of strength but don’t be afraid to make it challenging. You won’t die, really.

(There’s a fun workout on Bodytribe’s Strength Rituals DVD that involves shouldering a sandbag filled with your bodyweight from a prone position, then standing up with it and running across the room. Really tough, and a great lesson in how conditioning workouts don’t have to be ‘light’.)

Your deadlift isn’t your biggest lift

Most people think that the most they can lift off the floor is what they can deadlift – right? Well, that’s what I used to think anyway. But the powerlifting deadlift is not the strongest position for the body to be in.

One of the events in this Strength & Power competition was a farmer’s walk with 65kg in each hand. This was more than twice my bodyweight and equivalent to my lifetime best deadlift (which I had not done for several months) and not only did I have to pick it up but I had to carry it 15 metres.

I honestly thought I would not even be able to pick these bad boys off the ground, and I approached the event with this attitude in my head.

But lo and behold, that farmers walk position is way stronger than the deadlift position. Dare I say it, it was easy carrying over two times my bodyweight across a car park! Or at least, by far not the most difficult thing I did that day.

It is in fact possible to deadlift more with one hand than half of your two handed deadlift – something else I’ve mentioned recently. And great fun to try!

The one handed deadlift used to be a popular competition lift and is still done in some circles. In fact in the days when feats of strength were popular spectator sports, all kinds of lifts were performed which makes today’s range of standard lifts look extremely limited. One handed lifting is hardly ever done and yet it is possible to move a great deal of weight if one has the training and the technique. One handed lifts of over 1000 lbs have been recorded.

The secret of core stability

Well, one of them anyway. If you aren’t sure where your core is, stand up and press something heavy overhead. Your torso will either engage or collapse. That’s your ‘core’.

Once again, I refer you to Dan John’s three pillars above.


If there’s one strength sport even more male-dominated than powerlifting, it’s strongman. The name says it all.

I don’t particularly mind about the name (Germaine Greer strike me down for saying so!). Just because its known as ‘strongman’ doesn’t mean it’s not for girls; strongman is just a technical term. I’m not even that bothered about using the term ‘strongwoman’ since this could imply that its something different from ‘strongman’.

In his latest DVD, Dan John says “There’s no right and wrong; never put a moral dimension on strength training”. I’ll add to that by saying “never put a gender distinction on strength training either”.

My recent event was called a ‘Strength & Power Invitational’ and I competed against the guys in the appropriate weight class. Gender wasn’t an issue at any point. Long may it continue.

More from gubernatrix

Photo credits: All photos by Emmie Bates apart from the first photo which is by Chris Barclay

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  • 1

    Well done, Gubes. Whether you call yourself a Strongman, Strongwoman, or simply strong, I’m impressed.

    If my car ever gets stuck, I’m calling you- and since it’s a wee bit smaller than that truck(isn’t lorry the native term?) I think you’ll be able to lift and carry it, over your head, with ease.

    Steven on December 2nd, 2009
  • 2

    Pulling or pushing a heavy vehicle (or any heavy object for that matter) on an unforgiving surface is certainly a revelation! What really sucks is that you never, ever seem to get going, time stands still, and you’re hoping it will end soon…

    Good stuff Gube.

    Boris on December 2nd, 2009
  • 3

    @ Steve, what we would call a lorry is much larger. I’d love to have a go at pulling a lorry!

    @ Boris: it was raining as well, which added to the fun

    gubernatrix on December 2nd, 2009
  • 4

    I appreciate the mention, but this is one the best articles/blogs I have ever seen. The honesty and the insights are beyond noteworthy, truly inspiring. I, with your permission, would like to use this in my Girls Fitness class.

    Maybe have a Gubernatrix Olympiad?

    Dan John on December 3rd, 2009
  • 5

    Cheers Dan, it means a lot that you appreciate this post. You’ve inspired me to be honest and insightful with regard to strength training, and so it comes full circle!

    Please use this post in your class; I hope it opens a door or two.

    gubernatrix on December 3rd, 2009
  • 6

    Awesome! You continue to rock, G.

    lelak on December 3rd, 2009
  • 7

    Gubes, another inspirational post. Until recently I secretly thought that being a strong woman was (oh blasphemy) rather a nuisance instead of a gift. Now I and kind of envy you because there are no events like the one you took part in around where I live. I also got a clear view of the direction I would like my training to go into.
    And if you’re ever having a Dan John inspired Gubernatrix Olympiad, count me in!

    Lieke on December 3rd, 2009
  • 8

    @ lelak: cheers!

    @ lieke: to be fair, there are no other events like the one I did recently. That event was put together by some friends of mine precisely to allow those of us who are not 6’5” and 20 stone to get to do some of this stuff. There will be more where this came from, so keep an eye on the site (and the newsletter) and perhaps you will be able to come over for an event. We are planning a similar one in May/June 2010. When there’s a date, I will let people know.

    Hehe, I’m also considering a Gubernatrix olympiad now!

    gubernatrix on December 4th, 2009
  • 9

    Well done Sally

    Yet another excellent in-depth article from the lady who experiments on herself, so that we can all benefit from her experience and wisdom.

    We’re not worthy!!…

    Paul Rutherford on December 8th, 2009
  • 10

    Thank you so much. You’ve really inspired me.

    I’ve had some real problems with my deadlift the last few weeks and while I’m convinced that part of this is from stress at work and subsequent muscle tightness/form problems. I suspect that a lot more has been to do with giving up too easily when it hasn’t moved. You’ve made me question whether I’ve just not been straining for long enough or hard enough. I’m determined to make that weight move when I’m next in the gym now (which is probably the mental attitude I’d lost in the last few weeks)!

    Ammi on December 19th, 2009
  • 11

    Hi Ammi, I sometimes get ‘mental focus’ problems with lifting too. It’s all part of the challenge when you approach the bar; in a way I like it although it can be so frustrating!

    gubernatrix on December 19th, 2009
  • 12

    It worked! I did a max effort test on my deadlift just before Christmas, and while it wasn’t spectacular, I kept at it after failing once or twice on each of the bigger weights and managed to squeeze out a PB.


    Ammi on January 3rd, 2010
  • 13

    Nice work, Ammi! I should really take my own advice more often…

    gubernatrix on January 4th, 2010
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