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I Trained Like a Strongman for Four Months. Here’s What Happened

How competition prep improved my strength, both physically and mentally.

Andrew Gutman competing at a Strongman competition
Erica Schultz

My descent from fit to flabby started after I met a woman in late 2016 named Thirsty (obviously that’s not her Christian name). Though fun and funny, outgoing and erudite, she never hit the gym and dined out nightly—and regularly encouraged me to do the same. I quickly found myself adopting those habits as a result of sticking with her and lost myself in the process. Well, I gained some things, too—an empty wallet and about 30 pounds.

After about six months of off-and-on again chaos, I broke it off. But losing the girl didn’t lose the weight, and I didn’t ditch the bad habits right away, either. In the aftermath of the breakup, the weight gain and my inability to snap out of bad habits began to pile onto my psyche and take its toll. My focus at work—and in general—faded. I stayed home more and more, neglecting the gym, sleeping too much, watching YouTube, and lying in bed staring at the ceiling. I stopped returning texts and calls to my buddies. My drinking became less social. I felt stuck.

It wasn’t until last September in LaGuardia Airport, as I was waiting to board a plane for Las Vegas to cover the Olympia Weekend (think Comic-Con for the uber-fit) that I impulsively made the decision to force myself out of my rut. I was chowing down on a bacon, egg, and cheese, feeling my waistband expand with every grease-drenched bite. Bloated, tired, and mildly depressed, I scoured the internet for local Strongman events in or around NYC. I found one scheduled for January 20 and signed up before I had a chance to talk myself out of it or process what I had just gotten myself into. Naturally, I knew training for the event would involve lifting heavy stuff, but as I’d come to find out, it’s way more involved (and expensive) than that.

SLOVENLY TO STRONG

The realization that I had just four months to go from pudgy to powerful hit me hard, so I wasted no time and turned to my two friends, Ian Engel and Andrew Triana, both of whom are strength coaches and competitive Strongmen. Engel would handle all of my training, and Triana took care of my nutrition and lifestyle changes. But before I could dive into my Strongman-focused training, Engel suggested that I build up my base strength before really digging in—yes, I was that out of shape.

There are three main strength sports. Powerlifting, where lifters test their absolute strength by maxing out their bench press, squat, and deadlift. Then there are Olympic weightlifters, who train to be supremely powerful as they have to drive weight from the floor to overhead in the clean and jerk and snatch. Strongman, on the other hand, requires a more diverse arsenal of assets, including conditioning and coordination.

In any given contest—which consists of five events—you may have to work up to a one-rep max deadlift, then press a 200-plus pound log overhead for as many reps as possible in a minute, and then load five increasingly heavy stones to different height platforms in succession for time. In other words, you have to be both athletic and strong. And I had barely seen the inside of a gym in months.

To get my strength up to par, I followed the Hepburn Method, performing only the bench press, front squat, deadlift, and overhead press for two months. No cardio and no accessory work. Here’s how the program works: I’d perform six sets of two reps and two sets of three reps with 85% of my one-rep-max (1RM). Afterward, I’d reduce the load to 60% of my 1RM and perform three sets of seven. Each week, I’d add one rep to two of my main sets until I was performing eight sets of three with the same weight, and then one rep to my lighter sets until I was doing three sets of eight. Out of the gym, Triana implemented a series of guidelines I was to follow:

  • No technology 30 minutes before bed (this one was tough. I love me a YouTube rabbit hole.)
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
  • No alcohol outside of social situations (and I can’t seek them out) or inside of my home.
  • Consume two sources of probiotics per day (kombucha or kefir) for gut health.
  • Eat three meals per day—consisting of healthy carbs and fats, and 35 grams of protein.
  • Consume a pre-workout, intra-workout, and post-workout shake, consisting of whey protein and fast-absorbing carbohydrate powder like Dextrose.

After two months my weight stayed the same, but I resembled the letter O a little less. I felt mentally clearer, was sleeping like a damn baby, and had a regimen that forced structure—something I realized my life before was lacking. Of course, complete change doesn’t happen overnight, and I’d be remiss not to mention that I occasionally caved and chowed-down on junk food and imbibed on a few brews.

Once Engel gave me the nod of approval, I started his program, which you can find here. My back felt like it was walloped by a baseball bat the day after my first session, but shit didn’t get real until I started training my actual Strongman events. For me, those were the max deadlift, max clean and press reps with a log, a farmer carry and duck walk medley (for time), a max hussafel carry (for distance), and keg over bar (for reps). Unsure what most of that means? I was, too.

To get acquainted with these foreign objects, I hauled my ass to Mt. Vernon New York once per week for eight weeks to train at Mount Vernon Barbell. Between the travel and the gym fee ($10), JUST training events over the course of eight weeks cost me $208 and 32 hours of time. It was a real kick in the Atlas stones. After my first day of loading kegs over a bar, pressing a log, and performing all sorts of brutal loaded carries, I was toast.

The next day I learned that Strongman brings on a different type of pain. I woke to find my inner arms covered in deep, painful purple bruises, and that my shins and ankles were cut up from the dangling plates of the duck walk. Bonus injuries: Both my Achilles tendons hurt to the point that I walked funny, I felt unrelenting pressure in my lower back, and my nose was banged up from pushing the log too close to my face when I drove it overhead. Concerned, I consulted Engel. His response: “Dude, it’s Strongman. Stop bitching about it.” Cool.

Despite my initial concern, I’ll admit that the attention I got from co-workers and friends regarding my battered physique made me feel badass. To me, it was the first sign that I was shedding my soft, weak exterior and budding into an actual competitor. After that first day in Mt. Vernon, I couldn’t get enough—it was love at first bruise.

JUDGMENT DAY

The rest of the training passed pretty quickly, and before I knew it I was in the musty basement of a convention center in White Plains, NY waiting for my competition—NY Strong-est Man & Woman 5— to start. Excited, full of egg sandwiches (what goes around comes around), and wearing more spandex than should be acceptable, I warmed up for my first event: the max deadlift. For my third and final attempt, I gave 485 a go, which was 50 pounds heavier than my all-time best. Hyped up by the atmosphere and the presence of my friends and family, I managed to move the bar. As it ascended closer to the lockout position, the pressure in my head was so great that I felt as though I was going to pass out—I couldn’t see a foot in front of me. The lift was good and enough for fifth place (out of 21 competitors).

I failed to get the 205-pound log overhead, but I did go on to place top five again in the farmer carry (250-pound per hand)/duck walk (300 pounds) medley, moving both implements 120ft in 21 seconds. Better than two top-five placings, though, were the people I was competing with. All of my fellow competitors were altruistic dudes who were happy for me when I did well, always down to offer form pointers, and supportive as hell when I underperformed. Case in point: I bombed during the hussafel carry, which had me lugging a 250-pound steel coffin-shaped implement back and forth until failure, first place going to whoever covered the most distance. Pissed off and caught up in wanting to crack the top three, I stomped around in a bad mood until one of the other guys slapped me on the back and offered me some constructive criticism along with a handful of gummy bears.

Andrew Gutman after the Strongman competition
Erica Schultz

After that, I was ready to tackle my last event—keg over bar. I’ll keep it short: I placed in the middle of the pack and ended up in 13th place. I wasn’t thrilled. But on the bright side, I set personal records in every event, made a few new friends, turned my dad—who initially thought this whole venture was a big waste of time—into a fan of Strongman, and unearthed a passion for competing that, honestly, I never thought was in me.

I’ll admit that diving headfirst into this challenge scared the crap out of me. I was worried that, in giving up happy hours and my nights out with friends, I’d lose what I perceived to be my freedom to have fun. Committing to the process, though, made me realize that the things I associated with fun were the very things that stopped me from experiencing growth—both physically and as a budding adult. The reality is that indulging in those “fun” events only brought short-term enjoyment. And in the long term, they brought on a dwindling bank account and a growing gut. Both of which weighed heavily on my mind, and, as a result, I lost sleep. I lost friends. I lost sight of who I was.

Now I’m in the midst of preparing for the same show but a year later, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve lost even more weight, strengthened my friendships with my fellow strongmen, and found balance in my life. And if you’re wondering—yeah, I still hit up the occasional happy hour or throw back some brews with my buddies. The only difference is that now I’m strong enough to handle it.

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