Longevity in Strength Sports

My first strongman competition was on August 23, 2008 in Cleveland, Ohio.  I watched the Lions play the Browns in a preseason game just after the Lions drafted Matthew Stafford with the #1 pick following their 0-16 season.  Walking up and down stadium stairs after your first contest (or any contest) is exact as fun as you’d expect, but I digress. I’ve done over 100 more since then (lost count, honestly), never competing less than 10 times in any given year from 2009 until 2017.  I’ve competed in 17 states and Australia. I tore my left rotator cuff in 2017 and had surgery to repair it… and still competed 3 times post-surgery. At the request of my wife, I finally started keeping it under 10 the last couple of years. I think the high water mark was 16.  I did 4 in the span of 5 weeks. That was every bit as stupid as it sounds. I started promoting contests in 2013. I’ve promoted over 20 since then, including the first strongman contest for athletes with disabilities ever held in the United States and the largest single venue competition in the history of the sport (at least at the time of this writing).  On that last one, we got 400-odd athletes through 5 events in 9 hours flat. Suffice to say, I have been at this for a little while and done a thing or two.  

In the 11 years and counting that I have been competing and promoting, I have seen a lot of people come and go.  Of the training crew I started with back in 2008, I wouldn’t need both hands to count the number of guys who are still training.  I wouldn’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the guys who are still competing. If I had a dollar for every guy who started training and claimed he was going to be on World’s Strongest Man within 5 years (or less more often than not), I could own my own private island and be sipping pina coladas while I’m writing this.  

I don’t have anything against the people who wash out of my beloved sport for whatever reasons.  I get it. It’s a tough fucking sport. You’ll get bruised and battered and occasionally broken. Life happens and sometimes that requires a change in focus.  That being said, I have a much greater affection for those who stick around. You will want to quit every good thing you ever do in your life, at some point. At some point, everything gets difficult.  Persistence is rare. So in this article, I will give you some tips on how to be one of those people who sticks around.

The first and most important point…don’t take the sport too seriously.  For 99.99% of the people who ever have, ever will, or are involved, this is a hobby.  The earning opportunities as an athlete are limited at best. Let’s say you’re the best in the world and are able to win both the Arnold Pro Strongman and World’s Strongest Man.  That total prize money comes out to a little over $100,000USD, which is great money. Three men in the history of the sport have ever won both contests in the same year and no one has done it more than once.  The odds are prohibitively high that you will not be number 4. If you had the audacity to be born with a vagina, you’d be lucky to net $20,000 if you won every major event. Even if you’re a super unicorn who has the ability to consistently win the big contests, score the big sponsorship deals, and stay healthy enough to compete for a long time, how long could you maintain that, as the crop of up and coming athletes who are strong as hell and equally athletic come chasing those same titles?  Point being, the people who wash out the quickest are ALWAYS the ones who come in thinking they’re going to find fame and fortune quickly.  

Another thing about hobbies…they are meant to add enjoyment to your life, not be another thing to drag you down.  The biggest single thing I see in people who wash out of the sport is they start treating it like a job.  It becomes a drudgery. Always remember, this is a place you go to get away from the drudgery! Social media has really shined a bright light on this one.  You see someone posting about “the grind” about “doing the work their competitors won’t”…basically, the “I hate this shit, but I have to do it to stay ahead” kind of vibe. You can start playing Taps because it’s just about over for them.  You’ll run into them in the mall in a year, they’ll have dropped a bunch of muscle and gained a bunch of fat and be limping around and telling anyone who will listen how strong they used to be. If you don’t love it, find something else or figure out what you’re doing differently that’s taken the joy out of the sport for you.  Work your ass off to get better and be the best you possibly can because you love it and never forget to have fun.  

Sub-point on this one.  Your main competition is, was, and always will be yourself.  Use where you used to be as a measuring stick, not someone who is the best in the world at something you suck at.  Case in point: I suck at farmers. Always have. It comes from having short fingers attached to thick palms and just being too lazy to consistently train my grip.  Hey, at least I am honest. I do not watch people who are awesome at farmers and beat myself up about not being their equal. Use the performance of others to show you what may be possible for you, but keep the comparisons against your own past performance.  That way, what they do pushes you forward instead of beating you down. Personal example on that front. I was struggling to get past 650ish on the deadlift and had a contest with a max deadlift in about a week. I saw a video of Rob Kearney pulling in the low 800s.  I know Rob pretty well and thought, “He’s not THAT much stronger than me in pure brute strength. If he can pull 8 something, I damn sure should be able to pull 7.” I pulled 700 for the first time at that contest, almost solely because I believed I was capable of doing so after watching Rob’s video.  Had I beaten myself up about him pulling so much more, I feel confident that the 700 pull would never have happened.  

Since we have already beaten this horse to death, let’s just go ahead and beat it some more, shall we?  It is not, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be necessary to sacrifice every other thing in your life to “get to the top” of the sport.  Brian Shaw and Nick Best spring immediately to mind as guys who are good husbands and good fathers while still competing at the highest level.  Jesse Marunde, though I never got to meet him before he passed away, is another example by all accounts. I could name many others if I took the time to think about it.  The only people who say that are either selling something “hardcore” or using it as a pathetic excuse for their shitty behavior.  

While we’re talking about kids, don’t use them as an excuse to stop doing something you love.  You do not have to quit doing something you love simply because you have children. Will you need to make adjustments?  Absolutely. Will you need to make some compromises? Absolutely! I’ve never understood the silly idea we seem to have in the US that we have to make the kids the center of the universe.  They need to feel loved and valued, but where the hell did the idea that everyone else’s needs get thrown on the back burner come from? My parents did this really weird thing…they made me make choices.  We didn’t do every damned thing I wanted to do…oftentimes the needs or wants of the other family members trumped mine. It taught me that the world didn’t revolve around me and that you don’t always get what you want in life.  Struck me as a good life lesson at the time and my opinion hasn’t changed in the years since. I also believe very strongly that there is huge value in kids seeing their parents working to better themselves. Kids need to see their parents work for something, fail, pick themselves back up, and work again to eventually succeed.  Plus, it’s fun when some rando kid tells your child that his dad is stronger and one of your kid’s friends says, “His dad would eat your dad for lunch and laugh while he was doing it.” Life goals.    

Second important point…stay involved.  This seems kind of obvious, but people frequently wash out of the sport through attrition.  If you really like something, you work at doing it as often as possible. Seriously, what happened after the first time you got laid?  Any time I hear someone say they are only going to compete once or twice to focus on big shows, I know there’s a 99% chance they aren’t long for the sport.  Imagine saying that one about sex. I’m only going to bang my wife a couple of times a year to save myself for the big occasions. If you’re not going to the contests a lot, you lose touch with the heartbeat of the sport and you’ll fade away.  Do you have to compete 10-12 times per year? No. Promote contests yourself, help other promoters run their contests (pro tip – promoters ALWAYS need extra help), just show up to be a spectator and hang out. Plus the contests are just fun as hell and a great chance to catch up with friends you don’t get to see that often.  

Last point. Injuries.  Physically, strength sports of any kind take a toll on your body.  That’s a given. Not that your body isn’t going to degrade over time anyway.  There are roughly 700,000 knee replacements and 400,000 hip replacements done in the US every year.  I’ll go out on a limb and say the majority of those are not because those people did too many deadlifts, squats, stone loads, or yoke runs.  This is an argument to take care of yourself and again, to not take the sport too seriously. To someone who has deluded themselves about being the next big thing in the sport, an injury crushes their dreams.  If you have the proper perspective, you can come back, possibly even stronger, and still have a blast. Eventually, you will no longer be able to compete at the level you’d like to and that’s just a fact of life.  So enjoy the ride for as long as you can and as mentioned above, if you truly love the sport, find other ways to stay involved so you can still enjoy it after your body finally says, “Fuck this shit, I’m out.”  

So that, in a nutshell, is how you stick around for a decade and then some in strength sports.  May you take it to heart and I hope I see you still around in another 10 years.  


Lift heavy, laugh often.

 Chris Vachio      instagram logo

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