Last weekend the events list for the 2017 Eastern Canada's Natural Strongest Man (ECNSM) - qualifier for Canada’s Natural Strongest Man - was released. The competition takes place on May 13 giving me about 3 months to get ready for it. Much better than the 2 weeks I had last year!
I'm looking forward to the longer prep time I have this year, as I'll be able to more realistically set goals ahead of the competition and then work towards attaining them over the next couple of months.
Part of the strategy and sport of strongman is the design of your training leading up to a competition when you know what events you will be facing. Since I have to plan out my attack anyway, I thought it would be helpful for newer athletes to see the breakdown of the process when you have a competition in your sights that you want to do well at and are striving to win.
You never fully know what your fellow competitors will bring on game day but you need to have a plan in order for your best chances of success.
A brief note about coming in to contest prep:
If you aren't just a casual lifter and training is one of your top couple of priorities in your life, you should always strive to make progress in one way or another, so even in the offseason the transition to competition prep should flow pretty naturally. Once the new season rolls around and you have the expected events for your upcoming competition you can start to narrow your focus to the particular events you will be performing.
Using the upcoming ECNSM as an example, here's how I would go about predicting your performance in an upcoming competition and then setting the goals to get you there.
Estimate your Winning Numbers
Talk with fellow competitors or predict on your own the numbers that will win each event as well as an over-reaching number of what you'll do by competition day based on how long you have to prepare. The numbers that will win any given event on the day of competition are totally up in the air. It is possible to predict what could win, but if you are striving for the winning number, always be prepared to do better; you never really know who will show up at a contest and how they are going to perform.
Competitions aren't supposed to be a walk in the park and so you may not go in to a competition expecting to come out on top, but one of the best parts about competing is having the competition adrenaline bring out performances in you that you didn't know you could possibly do. Set goals that are lofty, but fairly realistic to reach in the amount of time you have to prepare. You're practically never going to win every single event in a competition, but if you prepare well for all the events you're going to perform really well.
Using the upcoming competition for example, this year we have the same 495 lb. Deadlift on a conventional bar that we saw last year. Last year I hit 9 reps, which was pretty good as my all time best was either 9 or 10 reps before that competition. I saw that the number to beat was around 14 or 15 reps last year, so I know that I should strive for 15 reps this year. As athletes make improvements, it might not be the number to beat again this year, but hopefully it will do pretty well and I won’t be at the bottom of the pack again.
There's also an axle clean and press with 225 lb. for reps in 60 seconds. I'm sure that this is warm up weight for some of the athletes and we may see mid-to-high teens being hit in 60 seconds. This weight is quite heavy for me, but I have been making good pressing progress in the last year, so I might strive for 7 or 8 reps by competition time, which would hopefully not be at the bottom of the pack of athletes either.
Work Back to where you Currently are and Plot out Monthly Targets to get you to Your Goal
Given where you currently stand and where you have to get to, set monthly goals to make sure you are on track to where you need to be and base your training around that.
Deadlift training has not been extremely heavy for me over the past year, so I'm not even sure if I could hit my 9 reps from last year at this point in time, but let's assume so. If I can currently hit 9 reps and I want to get to 15 reps I would want to aim for somewhere around 12 reps in one month and 14 reps in two months which would leave me with a few more weeks to get a little bit better before recovering for the competition. Now hitting high rep sets above 10 like that on deadlifts, even if only once per month, may impact recovery to such an extent that progress wouldn't continue forward so well. So it may be that testing out progress is more of a matter of perceived effort on sets up to 9 or 10 reps only so that you aren't burning yourself out with an all-out maximum effort each time you go to test your progress. If you hit a set of 9 or 10 reps without it feeling like it was everything you’ve got, then you know you’ve made progress and can hit more reps come competition day.
Similarly with the axle clean and press. While not as taxing as deadlifts, going for a maximum effort set on progress checks might impede further progress too much, so if I'm testing out my progress after a month or two, I may be trying to hit a couple of sets to 5 reps with a rating of perceived effort (RPE) of 7 or 8, but certainly not 10/10.
N.B. This article is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to the particular nuances of training cycles for strength. If you're dialing in your training for the competition events and working on increasing total volume, you should be making progress towards where you need to be.
Fill Out your Training Plan with any Assistance Movements to Strengthen your Weaknesses
While the majority of training during a competition prep phase should be focused on the competition lifts or the closest thing that you can simulate in your gym, if you're striving for numbers that are drastically different from what you can currently hit, you'll need to incorporate enough assistance movements to fortify yourself enough to give you the chances of hitting your goals.
If I want to hit 15 reps on the deadlift, I'll likely need to significantly improve lower back strength and hamstring strength to be able to handle it while also preventing injuries along the way. I will need to be sure to do enough volume for hamstring and lower back exercises to increase strength and likely even muscle size in these muscle groups.
Similarly with overhead pressing needed to continue to improve, I'll need to hammer enough tricep exercises to improve, as I find that this is where my limiting factor on overhead pressing is.
Strategize and Execute
Don’t just go into your next competition hoping to set PRs and perform well if you don’t have a plan in place. Strategize on what you need to do once you’ve got your sights set on a particular competition and then execute a training plan to get you to your goals. Competition is a rewarding way of assessing the improvements you’ve made over the months and years and I find it to be that much sweeter when you clearly demonstrate to yourself that the training plan you put in play payed off.