There’s something oddly appealing about lifting ridiculously heavy stuff, strongman-style. Thing is, most of us take one look at the man-mountains in the top ranks of competitors and think, ‘What’s the point even trying? I’d have to max out my bathroom scales to even get started with those atlas stones.’
That’s where the fiercely contested sub-90kg and 105kg categories of the sport raise an intriguing possibility – you don’t have to be a monster to be a strongman. Since Brit Rob Ward’s brother got him into the sport he’s taken national titles, and the 2016 European Championship at Bloodstock, and recently got onto the podium at the World Championships. RISING asked him to reveal the steps to lifting like a strongman…
RISING Your sport is growing fast – what do you think the appeal is of strongman weight category competitions?
ROB WARD ‘Pound for pound, I think the weight categories are sometimes more impressive. Maybe not as impressive as Eddie Hall's world record lift, but on the whole, more people are impressed by lifters being 90kg because they can relate to being that bodyweight and can’t believe what they can lift at that bodyweight. My best deadlift? It’s 320kg (705lbs). I don't think anyone's found the limit yet – the world records are going every single year in all weight categories. We’re all pushing to be better than the last, really.’
RISING What kind of strength do you need to compete as a strongman?
RW ‘You've got to be well-rounded, picking up absolutely anything from hand bells to flipping tyres, picking up logs, chain drags, car pulls. I've loaded washing machines and rolled cars – the list goes on. Anything heavy to pick up, they put in a comp. It's manhandling more than technique, in most cases.’
‘Beating a one rep max is immense – the adrenalin rush is huge and you feel unstoppable for a while’
RISING It’s funny because people do functional workouts in the gym, lifting weights to lift things back in the real world better, but that’s strongman, basically!
RW ‘Yes, I think so. I mean, you get weightlifters and they can put more above their head, but it's through technique rather than strength. Yes, I think strongman really does show the strongest man! Grip strength is massive too – there’s quite a few events where you can't use straps or anything and you're relying on your grip.’
RISING So what kind of things do you do in training, to get that kind of all-round strength?
RW ‘I use just a normal barbell during the week, when I train at the gym, for my deadlifts, squats and overhead push-press. It's a lot of compound movement. At weekends it's a lot of explosive power, a lot of strongman training: tyre-flipping, log-pressing and car-pulling. That sort of stuff you can't do in a normal gym.’
RISING So we could all get into the basics of strength training in the gym then – what’s your normal gym barbell routine?
RW ‘At the start of my programme I'll be doing four or more sets of six reps, and bumping up five kilos every week – that goes for squatting, deadlifting and pressing. And as the weeks go on, as it gets heavier, you do four sets of five, and then four sets of four, and then four sets of three. I quite rarely go over five or six reps in training. If you do, say, 10-12 reps, you'll get stronger, but you'll be sort of getting fitter with that weight – you’ll never hit your top end.’
‘People try to jump 5-10kg to hit a new personal best – I’m happy to add a kilo to it because I won't fail’
RISING What do you think the golden rules of progressing are for you?
RW ‘Consistency – you can't miss gym sessions. I think confidence is a massive key to strongman. As long as you’re not failing lifts, it doesn't matter if you’re under your best – if you're not failing, your confidence will grow, and leading into a comp, that's a massive plus. That's better than being stronger. Psychologically, you can win a comp in your head.’
RISING How do you build up belief and self-confidence in training?
RW ‘I beat my best by tiny amounts in the gym to keep the confidence going. A lot of people will try to jump 5-10kg or more to hit a new personal best, whereas I'm happy to add a kilo to it because I won't fail. Whereas jumping 10-20kg and missing the lift – that will knock your confidence. As well as your PBs you've got to get your four sets of five reps in every week. They're just as important, and so I have to sort of psych myself up and make sure I hit them every week. Don’t fail a single rep – that builds confidence up. If I'm not feeling as strong, I'll make sure I get my working sets done but I won't go for PBs because I don't want to fail a lift. I want to keep that confidence of not failing a lift.’
RISING How does it feel to smash a PB?
RW ‘The feeling of beating a one rep max is immense. It’s why I do the sport. Sometimes personal bests are better than winning comps. The adrenalin rush is huge. You feel unstoppable for a while.’
RISING You have to really try when it comes to lifting heavy – how do you get psyched up enough?
RW ‘I find it quite easy to psych myself up. I try and stay as calm as I can in the lead-up to a competition, then I'll psych myself up just before I'm lifting. Listening to heavy metal does the trick – it really gets your heart going. Gets you fired up for lifting. It's good to hear that sort of music in the background while you're competing. You don't get that everywhere. In my training I listen to a lot of Rammstein – my girlfriend's a big fan of them, so that's what tends to be on, and it gets me fired up for my training.’
RISING Eddie Hall famously popped an eye out on a lift once – how far have you pushed yourself?
RW ‘When I’ve pushed myself to the limit I’ve had quite a few nosebleeds and nearly passed out a couple of times. Recently I was loading a 160kg stone for reps in a competition and after a few reps I knew my legs were going to give way. But I kept going anyway – my legs did give way and I ended up with ligament damage in my ankle. Sometimes you have to push yourself even though the risks are high.’
‘It's power of the mind, I believe – if you tell yourself you can lift something, you can lift it’
RISING Do you have a method of staying in the zone when you’re actually competing?
RW ‘You have to talk to yourself! Telling yourself “you can lift that”. You will lift it. If there's any doubt in your head, then you won't lift it. It's power of the mind, I believe. If you tell yourself you can lift something, you can lift it. I always do a bit better in competition than I have in training.’
RISING You’ll be competing in the British sub-90kg Championships at metal festival Bloodstock this August – what are you aiming to achieve?
RW ‘Obviously I'm trying to defend my British title, but I’m really looking forward to the log lift – I'm aiming to set a new log world record at under 90kg. My PB is 162.5kg, and the world record is 165kg. The festival itself is just a great atmosphere – the crowd is amazing, it really spurs you on!’
RISING What would your advice be to anyone inspired to get into the strongman scene?
RW ‘In the gym, I'd say stick to your compound movements. So train your deadlift, train your squat, train your overhead, train your bench. If they want to compete, there's plenty of novice comps – strongman's one of the friendliest communities I've been in. There are a lot of gyms running novice comps so just find a strongman gym, there'll be plenty of people willing to help. There’s the weight categories in the men's but there's also women's with different weight categories, and you get first timers' comps, you get novice comps, you get intermediate – there’s something for everyone!’
WHAT NEXT? The Farmer’s Walk is a classic strongman move and it’s also one you can do in the gym with minimum bother. It will help you to condition your core for heavier lifts and improve your grip strength. Just hold a heavy dumbbell in each hand and take short steps with your shoulders drawn back. ‘I'm doing 130kg-140kg in each hand so you won’t find many gyms with those, but for a beginner, a lot of gyms go up to 40-50kg, which is a good starting point,’ says Ward.
Head to Bloodstock to catch the 100%CA Strongmen, and women competition, and see Rob Ward defend his Europe’s Strongest Man u90kg title, on Saturday 12th August. A day later XPLOSIVEAPE’s Strongest Man will see Graham Hick, current log press record holder, battle England's Strongest Man, Paul Smith, among others…
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.