By Dave Whittington
Strongman is a sport growing rapidly in both the USA and the UK, but as they evolve are they growing apart at the same time?
While all strongmen are united in the love of the iron, it has been a fascinating exercise to engage the differences between the nations and the way we approach training, competitions and our attitudes to the sport.
First of all, let me introduce myself. I’m Dave Whittington, a strongman competitor from the UK with two England’s Strongest Man finals under my lifting belt. I’m also a personal trainer and strength coach, working within the University of Birmingham. I have been competing for almost five years and am a keen strength sports fan. I love it and the part it has played in my journey from 142lb weakling to 300lb+ strongman.
Both nations, on either side of the pond, have a rich history in the highest level of strength competition.
The USA boasts legends such as Bill Kazmaeir in the early days, up to the first American WSM following a 24 year drought in Phil Pfister and then on to modern day giants like Brian Shaw and Mike Jenkins. There has been a raft of great strongmen filling in the gaps along the way like Jesse Marunde, Jonny Perry, Don Pope, Derek Poundstone and Dave Ostlund just to name just a few!
That’s not to say that the British contingents haven’t had their share of excellent athletes as well!
Geoff Capes from the Kazmaeir Era, WSM champions Jamie Reeves and Gary Taylor all were great strength athletes of the past leading up to the contemporary greats of today in Terry Hollands and Laurence Shahlaei. We have seen athletes of superb quality over the last 35 years of WSM, lifters such as Mark Felix, Darren Sadler, Rob Frampton, Ade Rollinson and Glenn Ross.
WSM 2012 saw several new faces coming through the ranks from both nations with competitors like Eddie Hall and Graham Hicks, Mike Burke and Jerry Pritchett.
The question that came to my mind was, “What exactly is bringing through these athletes with such great potential, and what are they doing differently?”
As I can call it ‘work’ and get away with it I end up spending a lot of time reading various resources and training sites on the Internet. A high number of differences in the approach of the athletes either side of the Atlantic are become very apparent to me in regard to training the more that I research.
The common difference I see often is the structure, or programming methodology of lifters. Here in the UK I am a little unusual in that I follow quite a regimented programme (my own Forced Entry Method) with a very specific structure. Now obviously plenty of strongmen use programmes, but it is far more common in the UK to see a more casual approach, such as a ‘heavy weights low volume’ or a ‘lighter weights high volume’ strategy loosely applied depending on how the athlete feels. I see even more frequently the approach of ‘max out on everything every session’ and must admit to having gone through phases of this myself in the past! There is also a tendency to invoke a one-size-fits-all- type programme applied to one particular part of an athlete’s game. For example: running the Coann / Phillippi deadlift programme, or Smolov squat cycles for the different lifts.
It appears to me that the American lifters often seem to follow much more regimented routines with Westside type principles applied, various band, chain and assistance work being included.
This is something which in the UK has only relatively recently been filtering its way out of powerlifting circles and into strongman. That said, what I see from my laptop screen over in England is possibly not representative of the whole USA cross section of strongmen. It certainly appears that more of a sports science approach with a strength and conditioning type attitude is applied to the training methods.
Just a casual look at Ironmill Strong, Juggernaut and DeFranco website illustrate an avocation of a more compete ‘athlete’.
As part of my role I work with a variety of athletes in a wide range of sports of all different abilities and requirements. It is easy for me to see where techniques more advanced than ‘go heavy or go home’ can be utilized. I am always keen to introduce strength athletes to various principles of dynamic effort work such as plyometric, conditioning techniques and other ‘non standard’ methods.
It is rare I see prowler or sled work outside of Crossfit training in the UK, yet it seems a staple in a lot of American lifters programmes!
I think Geoff Capes put it best when he said,“First you should become an athlete; then develop your strength.”
Too many guys fall into the trap of trying to get too big and strong too quickly, often to their detriment. Unfortunately, I think this is always going to be the case wherever you find a barbell.
Strongman in the UK is still seen as very much an underground sport, with many competitions being held in pub car parks and the like. Outside of televised WSM, most non-lifters over here aren’t really aware that the sport exists where the US Strongman is slowly creeping into mainstream magazines and exposure!
Thanks to the tireless work of some UK promoters the sport IS growing with the U105kg and U90kg classes in particular seeing a large surge in both competitor numbers and standards. In terms of participation this is a really good way to get people into the sport, as not everyone starts out as 130kg+ monsters!
This new weight group allows progression towards the “Open” class, as the system currently in place (novice, intermediate and open) is very unclear and not highly regulated. This is primarily down to the lack of a governing body or federation in the UK.
This is where the structure in the States really shines in my opinion, with clearly laid out routes for progression of amateur and professional bodies in the NAS and ASC. This can only have a positive impact on the sport, legitimising it as an athletic pursuit and not simply a circus sideshow by outlining the levels of competition (Silver, Gold and Platinum) and the requirements for competing in and progressing from each class.
Here in England, having trained and competed with some of the best guys in the country (and indeed world) I have a good understanding of what the UK strongman ‘scene’ involves as far as training and competition goes. Once you get past the high profile shows you will actually see that a lot of the sport is trained with rusty kits (implements) in industrial or farm units.
UK Strongman involves eating everything under the sun without worrying about losing your abs and being held together with ever increasing amounts of neoprene, wraps, straps and an eye watering quantity of liniment. All of this just to drag some rusty, battered implements around a car park in front of 50 people and a charity bucket shaker!
You know what?!
I wouldn’t want it any other way. Strongman is not a sport that just anyone can do and to be perfectly honest we like it just that way.
Everyone should lift, but not everyone is cut out for this!
That’s not to say my love for the UK Strongman scene would keep me from the opportunity to experience the other side of things in America and to see if all the athletes live the rock and roll glamorous lifestyle it looks like to us over here!
Yet even with all the differences in our two variations of the same sport there will always be a few things that will always remain the same. There are still universal similarities no matter where you find a yoke or log.
We all love what we do because there’s no way we would go through so much pain and effort day after day, year after year if we didn’t. One major point that stands out the most to everyone in our worldwide sport of strength is the support and camaraderie we give to each other as athletes. It is a uniquely special trait of our sport in either country.
I have lost count of the times I have seen athletes cheering on a competitor even to the extent that they may lose an event because of it!
If you had a kit malfunction, you would immediately be offered a dozen belts, wraps, tubs of tacky or chalk. No competitor I know would ever see one of the athletes run out of water, bananas or sweets without sharing their own.
These principals of sportsmanship that are lost on other sports are the exact qualities that unite strongmen no matter where you may train.
Nowhere else have I witnessed such camaraderie and support for your rival competitor. But then again, No where else do we all have the same painful opponent..the weight!