I have often remarked at the irony that I initially took up exercising as a way to become healthy and now pursue it with such obsessive and relentless dedication that it has resulted in several unhealthy side effects, so at this time I feel it would be apt to further explore exactly what sort of unhealthy habits I’ve developed. Note that this is in no way a cautionary tale advising people to avoid competing in strongman (or strength sports, or sports in general); competing is awesome. These are simply the habits I’ve developed as someone with a poor ability to engage in moderation. Your mileage may vary.
1: I don’t rest when I’m injured; I train around or through it
Anyone that has followed my writing for any degree of time knows that in Oct of 2015 I suffered an ACL rupture (coupled with a meniscus tear and patella fracture). They also know that I went walking through the aquarium for 4 hours on that same knee the next day, and was squatting on it a week later. 2 days after my ACL reconstruction, I was performing dips and chin ups with a fan blowing on me in my garage in the middle of winter in sub-freezing temperatures so that I wouldn’t break a sweat and have my stitches get infected. I used seated chain suspended good mornings to train my deadlifts while my knee was healing, and figured out all sorts of creative solutions to not miss a single training day while recovering from surgery. Oh yeah, also, I once set a deadlift PR 24 hours after being released from a hospital for severe dehydration due to gastroenteritis and got up to bench in the morning after dislocating my shoulder that night rolling over funny in my sleep.
These stories probably sound hardcore, but they’re pretty mild in my sport. Most of us are lunatics, and simply don’t have a great understanding of when to stop. This is pretty cool for competing, but absolutely in no way, shape or form healthy. You will find no doctor that advises training 2 days post op, and my surgeon’s advice regarding competing after surgery was “don’t.” Rest is how you heal from injuries; everyone knows this, but it just doesn’t enter my mind as a viable solution. Part of this is because of point #2, which is…
2: I have no reasonable understanding of my limits
My knee injury came as a result of trying to quickly pick up and scoot a 775lb yoke 6”. I had carried it 29.5’ up until that point, and when I dropped the yoke just short of the finish line, I figured I could make up some time by trying to do a quick pick up. To anyone else, that sounds absolutely insane, but in my mind, it sounded totally viable. Prior to this point, I had deadlifted cars, pulled a semi-truck towing a pickup truck with a harness, pressed a fire hydrant over my head, and performed enough absurd feats of strength to me that I ended up buying my own hype and thinking I was invincible. It turned out, I was wrong, and I learned that real fast with a loud pop followed by a bunch of crunching and grinding followed by the sound of my own yelling. And, of course, I bounced right back after a year, got back into competing, and went right back to doing the same things that got me injured in the first place.
Competing is great because it forces you out of your comfort zone and gets you bigger and stronger. However, constantly being out of your comfort zone eventually makes you accustomed to that as the norm, and soon you forget exactly how to stay within your limits and not always push yourself. I found out my fight or flight instincts are all jacked up during a zombie run this past October, as I found myself constantly running directly INTO the zombies rather than away from them. My brain is too conditioned to seek out challenges and overcome and finds taking the easy way out a foreign concept. This is super cool if you want to be a competitor, but absolutely unhealthy in terms of survival instincts. Our ancestors that went toe to toe with grizzlies ended up dying off before they could pass on their stupid genetics to future generations; survival of the fittest sometimes dictates understanding that discretion is the finer part of valor.
3: My relationship with food can at best be described as “bizarre”
I have no idea what normal people eat, nor when they eat it. I get up at 0445 to train and eat something carby for energy. I don’t mind it being junk food or “healthy” food, as long as it’ll give me an energy spike. I then eat another meal after training, with lots of carbs and protein (usually breakfast cereal mixed with skim milk and protein powder). I then eat a bunch of greek yogurt with protein powder an hour later. Which of those meals was supposed to be breakfast? Now it’s 0945 and I’ve been awake for 5 hours and I want some meat, so I’ll be eating a steak at my desk. Yeah, it seems crazy to them, but if I had gotten up at 0700 it would be noon at this point and “lunch” for the rest of the civilized world. The steak is paired with veggies, as is everything else that I eat after that greek yogurt because I only eat carb sources around training because I found that this allows me to train hard without putting on much fat. bread? What is this, my birthday? Eat something because it tastes good? What sense does that make?
Food is as much a social experience as it is a physical one. People share meals all the time as a way to build bonds and strengthen alliances. When you’re eating weird meals at odd hours, you miss out on this experience, and when you DO join someone, you spend most of your meal explaining your deviant dietary choices. Additionally, this sort of obsession with performance-based outcomes for nutrition can easily manifest itself into an eating disorder if left unchecked. This is the exact opposite of moderation, and not at all the manner of a healthy relationship with food. A balance needs to be struck between nourishment, enjoyment, and sociability when it comes to eating, but in my pursuit of being a better competitor, I sacrifice the last 2 to support the first one.
4: The idealized image I hold for myself is entirely unrealistic
I compete as an amateur strongman. I’m not particularly good at it, but I do ok for myself. The professionals in my sport are on a whole other level, to the point that most of them no longer resemble humans. Men walking around at 6’9 and 400+lbs look like an entirely different race of people, and yet I see it as a goal rather than an abomination. I know people who look onto these folks with disgust, whereas to me I hold them in awe. In turn, I push myself hard in my training to try to achieve an objective that is literally impossible for me to ever obtain. Aside from being simply too short, as a natural athlete, I will simply never be able to accumulate as much size as those that are assisted.
This chase towards the impossible can serve as a strong motivator, but for others, it can have an incredibly unhealthy effect of forcing people into unreasonable decisions. I had to recognize this in myself early in my lifting career. When I was 21, I decided I wanted to get as big and strong as possible, and quickly ate my way up an extra 30lbs in bodyweight. I stayed that way for about 3 years before deciding to finally peel away the fat and see just how big I had gotten…and ended up losing that same 30lbs. I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to get huge in the span of a few months of binge eating, or really at all. I could definitely get big for my height, and big for a natural athlete, but “huge” just wasn’t in the cards.