The Strongmen Speak
Written on January 31, 2008 at 3:09 pm, by Eric Cressey
An Interview with Brad Cardoza and John Sullivan
By Eric Cressey
Walk into any gym and you’ll encounter some really big guys. Heck, you might even find a few who can move some reasonably impressive weight on the bench. Rarely, you’ll see people who actually deadlifts. And, once in a millennium, you might encounter someone who smokes a crisp 400-lb. butt-to-heels squat that brings a tear to your eye. I can guarantee you, however, that you’ve probably never encountered someone who can do what Brad Cardoza and John Sullivan do regularly in their training. That’s not to say, however, that you should simply discount what these guys have to offer; chances are that some Strongman training methods could take your performance and physique to all new levels. You’ll probably learn a few new ways to frighten the old ladies in your gym, too!
EC: Tell me about yourselves to set the stage, fellas. Please omit anything related to your criminal records, favorite colors, and Sully’s weird rash.
BC: I’ve pretty much run the gamut in terms of participation in strength sports. I lifted in high school and threw the discus (some school and conference records), then went on to have a successful career at Division III UMASS-Dartmouth, where I was ranked #1 in the country in the hammer throw and held the UMASS-Dartmouth school record in the 35# weight throw. As a result, UMASS-Amherst offered me a D-I athletic scholarship, so I gladly accepted the opportunity to be involved with a program that had good coaching and a solid strength and conditioning program. I wound up going to D-I Nationals and still hold the UMASS school record in the hammer throw.
I got away from competing for a few years after college, as I was busy trying to start a career www.pinnaclestrengthandfitness.com as a personal trainer in Boston. While working at Boston Sports Clubs for two years, I met quite a few people, most notably Sully. It took a little while, but he finally convinced me to give Strongman a try. Needless to say, I’m very happy he did; it has become the most important part of my life these days. This is one thing people have a hard time understanding about me: when I am involved in a sport that I love, it comes before everything else in my life besides loved ones. At UMASS, track came before classes, and now strongman comes before work, sometimes even my health. This attitude has lead to a lot of improvement, as I earned my pro card in the International Federation of Strength Athletes (IFSA); had some success in powerlifting during 2003 (575 squat, 375 bench, and 650 deadlift without much specific preparation); and received sponsorship from AtLarge Nutrition www.atlargenutrition.com and APT Pro Wrist Wraps www.prowristwraps.com. Then again, my approach has led to some frustration at times as well; I’m now dealing with my third major injury in only two months (a record for me); this time I’m going to need surgery (Editor’s Note: at publication time, Brad has not only had the surgery, he’s back in the gym already!).
JS: When I originally started becoming more focused on strength sports, I was interested in powerlifting. I began to learn more and more about the Westside system of powerlifting, and began to use their methods in my training. In 2002, I met the owners of Total Performance Sports in Everett, Mass., who were running the Mass. State Strongman Championships. They convinced me to come down to their place and give it a try. I did, and loved it. I wasn’t sure I was going to enter the contest, but after about a month of training there, they basically said, “you’re entered”. I was kind of nervous, but in retrospect it was the best decision that was ever made for me. I won my division, and I was hooked after that. Later that same year I started working for Art McDermott, training clients at Highland Strength & Fitness in Andover, MA. I have trained there for all of my subsequent Strongman competitions. My last competition was NASS Nationals, where I placed 5th in the 200 lb. class. I’ve also been involved in Olympic lifting of late.
EC: Those answers once again reaffirm my belief that lifting heavy stuff is more addictive than any drug – even Viagra on a trip to the Playboy mansion. Anyway, what does a typical week of training look like to you?
BC: When I am healthy and preparing for a competition, my typical week would look something like this:
Monday – Max effort overhead pressing day (maybe a little thick bar bench or something to keep the bodybuilder in me happy!)
Tuesday – Max effort leg day. This would include squat and deadlift variations as well as my single leg support stuff (my favorite)
Wednesday or Thursday – There are usually two event days per week when preparing for a competition. This would usually be one of them; the other falls on Saturday. Usually, you are training for 5-6 events, so I prefer to do three of them on Wednesday/Thursday and three of them on Saturday.
Friday – Upper body pull day. This includes all of my back work as well as any direct arm or grip stuff that I might need.
Saturday – Event day #2
I should also mention that I usually mix in some Olympic movement at least once a week. Sometimes, I’ll do it on a day off, or possibly just throw it in wherever I feel it fits best.
JS: A typical training week is a little tough, since the nature of the events in a Strongman contest can vary so widely. That said, here is a template similar to the one I used to prepare for the 2004 X-Treme Strongman Showdown, where I placed second. Keep in mind that this template reflects my personal strengths and weaknesses, and may not necessarily be optimal for someone else.
A) Heavy Pull/Good Morning (DL or DL variation once every 14-21 days)
B) Harness Front Squat or Olympic Squat
C1) Lunge Variation
C2) Core Work
A) Jerk Variation
B1) T-Bar Row
B2) Close grip Bench
C) External Rotation Work
A) Power Clean
B) Box Squat
C) Core Work
I don’t do much overhead or grip work because I tend to do very well in those types of events. I focus on exercises that will bring up exercises like stones, which are a weakness for me.
EC: As sweet as training Strongman-style to prepare for Strongman competitions is, it stands to reason that the overwhelming majority of our readers have other goals. How can the ordinary fitness enthusiasts integrate Strongman training into their programs? Bodybuilders? Powerlifters? Other athletes? Regular weekend warriors?
BC: What people have to realize is that Strongman training means nothing more than integrating explosive, compound movements into your workouts. I am actually quite impressed with how many guys at my gym have taken my advice and started doing a lot more squat and deadlift work. I even see guys attempting 1-leg reverse hypers, pull-throughs, etc. It all comes down to wanting to be athletic and strong – not just big or buff. I will admit that when I first arrived at UMASS and my coach told me that I wouldn’t be bench pressing again during my collegiate career, I was heartbroken! No more than two years later, when it was time for max day and everyone on the team was doing benches, squats, and cleans, I was no where to be found. I maxed on front squats, snatches, and behind the neck push presses! At this point, I was convinced that these were the lifts that were turning me into a successful hammer thrower, so “missing out” on the others was of absolutely no frustration.
As far as strongman events are concerned, there are usually a limited number of things you can do at a traditional commercial gym. One the most beneficial and rewarding events is the farmer’s walk. These were tough to do at the gym until I realized I had two of these guys at my disposal:
Throw some tape in the middle of the handle to make it a little bit thicker, and it is probably the best farmer’s simulation you will get without the real implements.
Besides farmer’s, there aren’t too many events you can replicate in the gym, and this is when you have to use the imagination a little bit. Zercher holds (Conan’s wheel), stiff leg pull-throughs (stones)…there are lots of things you can do that will be great for you and maybe even amp you up enough to try a competition sometime!
Grip is the only other thing about which you ought to worry if you’re thinking about competing. Sully covered that one pretty well in his article last month, though, didn’t he? All that you have to remember is that most people’s grips suck; I know mine did. The more heavy pulling you do on a weekly basis, the more rapidly your grip will improve. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt to add the grip-specific stuff as well.
JS: I think certain athletes can benefit greatly from Strongman training. Strength athletes like powerlifters can expect greater hip, back, and abdominal stability, strength, and power from using Strongman equipment like the super yoke, stones, tries, kegs, and sandbags. Bodybuilders can fill the sandbags with chicken breasts to make sure they get their 1200 grams of protein a day, and use the kegs to stock up on posing oil! For combat athletes, I think it can also be extremely beneficial. Lifting oddly shaped, uneven objects will tax your body in a way you don’t normally encounter in the weight room. On top of that, strongman medleys are an unbelievably effective conditioning method. Summarily, I’ve had great utilizing these methods with my football, hockey, wrestling, and baseball clients (just to name a few).
EC: Any tips on improvising home versions of various Strongman implements? I’ve heard that the Strongmen are the closest thing to a freaky big and strong Bob Villa that one can imagine!
BC: This depends! If you live with Art McDermott at Highland Strength and Fitness (www.highlandstrength.com), then yeah – just bring the stones into the driveway, pull out all the tires, and get to it after warming-up with a keg for height in the back yard! Most people don’t have these luxuries, so it really depends on what you have at your fingertips. If someone was really interested in training Strongman without spending any money, I would probably tell him to get the following
Kegs – There are a lot of things you can do with a keg, and many of them you will see in competitions. First, it’s ideal to get as many as you can so that you can have a variety of different weights. You will have to fill each keg with different stuff like water, sand, lead, and shot. Once you have all the kegs you can do the following:
1. Overhead presses- (strict, or clean and press)
2. Carries- (much like a Husafell stone) Try doing sprints while holding a 200 lb keg.
3. Loading – If you have platforms, you can load kegs just as you would load stones. A little bit more awkward, but it gets the job done.
4. Keg throw for height – This may be my favorite. It feels very similar to a snatch to me, and will build explosive power like you can only imagine!
Tires – Many people assume that tires are just for flipping, but different size tires can actually come in handy with:
1. Tire flip- Okay, so this one is pretty self-explanatory. This might be one of the most beneficial exercises I have ever done – inside the gym or training events.
2. Tire throw for distance – If you have ever seen someone throw the discus, this one might make sense to you. Start with a tire from a smaller car, something like Sully’s Sentra. If you can throw your flipping tire, give me a call. This would mean that we need to bring you straight to the Olympic training center to start throwing the discus.
3. Drags – If you don’t have a sled, tie some tires together and drag those. This might be a pain, but it works, and dragging on grass will make it much tougher
Odd-shaped stones – Once again, not too many people have Atlas Stones or Husafell stones on hand, but if you have a quarry of any kind or even a cheap or generous mason in the area, you’re in luck. Your options with this implement include:
1. Loading – This is just like the Atlas stones you have seen; if you have a platform or even a keg onto which to load them, you’re all set. These may hurt and be a little bit more awkward than it real Atlas stones, but it does the job.
2. Throwing – Instead of throwing the stone like a discus, you would throw either for distance like a shot, or for height over a bar.
3. Carrying: Nothing beats a true Husafell stone carry. If you are lucky, you might be able to find a somewhat triangular piece of granite or something similar. As long as it sits in your arms comfortably, this could be on of the best free training implements of all.
You’ll notice the similarities between the odd-shaped stone and keg exercises; this just underscores the importance of variety!
Anything heavy on which you can get you hands – Last but not least comes everything else. You name it: blocks of wood; cars or trucks for pushing and pulling; sledgehammer swings; etc. If you are familiar with the events you will be able to pull it off. Just remember that it takes a very special (read: crazy!) person to be able to go out into the cold and be excited about running around holding onto kegs and rocks. Once you start seeing results from integrating workouts like this into your weekly routine, you will be hooked, I promise. Just have fun and if you feel like your isolating a muscle, stop immediately (just kidding). All that I ask is that you stop doing day purely for arms!
EC: Whoa, Brad covered a lot. Say what you want, Sully, and then we’ll make up the difference with a photo of you picking up a car.
JS: Personally, I feel that for most of this stuff, you need to find the actual implements. As Brad mentioned, however, kegs, tires, and sandbag aren’t too difficult to come by. You can also probably find a quarry or construction site and “borrow” some heavy stones. Or, you can just pick up cars.
EC: Okay, time to play the “glass is half empty” game. What are the downsides of competing as a Strongman?
BC: My top four answers would have to be:
1. Injuries – I have had more injuries in the eighteen months than I have had in my entire life. There’s been a hernia, broken foot, pulled hamstring, disk problems, and pec tear… and the list is still growing!
2. Convenience – I have to drive a total of three hours just to get proper equipment and training partners.
3. Getting beat – This is pretty much applicable to any sport, but I hate it when I don’t win.
4. Nuisances in the Gym – Specifically, I’m referring to all of the attention that “strong guys ” pay to you at the gym. Ever since I started competing and word got around, I constantly have guys lifting next to me and trying to show me up. At times, it gets ridiculous and I have to say something.
JS: It really tests your mettle, both mentally and physically. Plus, it’s lots of fun to train and compete. There really is a great camaraderie in the sport.
EC: Okay, now that you jerks have depressed our readers and killed the enthusiasm we’d built beforehand, let’s finish on a positive note and highlight why being a Strongman competitor rules. That is, unless, of course, you’d like to club some baby seals, set a kitten on fire, or make fun of the handicapped. Got any good party tricks or cool stories?
BC: How about another list?
1. Personal satisfaction – I have never been more excited with my accomplishments and training than I have been over the past 1.5 years. I am doing things that I thought (assumed) I would never be able to do. That keeps me going.
2. Being called one of the strongest small people in the country isn’t half bad either.
3. The people – The individuals involved in Strongman competitions are some of the friendliest, most helpful people I have ever known. Ever since Sully introduced me to the sport, I am constantly amazed at how cool all of these people are.
4. When it comes down to it, I am just happy to have a successful career in the best sport in the world. People can try to argue this if they so choose, but I have never seen more talented athletes in my life. I am constantly amazed at some of the feats of strength and athleticism I see on a regular basis.
5. I wish I could say party tricks, but there’s not much I can pull out my sleeve in that regard. Actually, I take that back. When I was in Vegas for Olympia this year, I spent a bunch of time doing overhead presses with a couple of girls in the hot tub. First they asked me to pose, so I figured I would go with the second option so that Sully wouldn’t give me a hard time for acting like a bodybuilder. I guess that could be considered a party trick. I also like to throw things far at parties; I used to do this a lot in college, but not so much anymore. Usually, “things” consists of kegs, people, or whatever else is lying around.
JS: My family and friends automatically assume that I want to help them move, since I compete. Also, people look at the cuts and scars on your arms from doing stones and think you have some kind of weird rash. And, by far the worst, people ask, “Oh, you compete in bodybuilding?” Crushing full cans of soda and ripping phone books are always good times, too.
EC: Way to try to explain that rash, Sully. Unfortunately, it isn’t on your forearms… On that sickening note, it’s time to wrap this up. Thanks very much for your time, guys, and best of luck.