A big part of my life since about 2010 has been strength training. I was always drawn to self-improvement and physical training was something I’d always been interested in. I did martial arts for a number of years, enjoyed running and playing rugby, but the big thing for me was being introduced to lifting weights by a friend & coach on my engineering dragon boat team.

I fell in love with lifting weights for a number of reasons. I was at the time in my third year of a very challenging engineering program at the University of Toronto and wrestling with depression. The weights didn’t help with depression (only therapy did), but they did help a lot with the stress of school. Even when my mental health wasn’t great, weights provided a great outlet for my emotions.

As I finished school and reached a better place mentally, I continued to lift weights, but also started to compete. I’ve competed in three of the big strength sports now and at least know people that do two of the other big ones, so I thought I’d write up a sort of description of what the big sports are (and maybe why you would care).

Sports I don’t do

The two most popular and well-known of the strength sports are also the sports I don’t do (I’m a contrarian), Olympic weightlifting and bodybuilding.

Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding is probably the first thing most people think of when they hear “strength sports” – Giant ripped monsters in little underwear on stage.

Competitions are basically beauty pageants – the competitors hit their required poses, judges compare them, and decide who looks best. There are more details as to exactly how they compare and what they’re looking for, but it essentially comes down to who looks like they have the most muscle and least bodyfat.

Bodybuilding is the sport of discipline. While the other sports also require lots of time in the gym training, bodybuilding takes that as a given and additionally demands an obsessive, 24-hour-a-day lifestyle adherence. To reach the contest-ready levels of bodyfat1 while maintaining as much of their hard-earned muscle as possible necessitates a demented level of attention to detail over every aspect of one’s life – not just meticulous meal prep, but supplementation, sleep, hydration, and even sodium levels must be micromanaged.

There is somewhat of a dichotomy in bodybuilding between “natural” – meaning drug-tested – federations and, uh, “otherwise”. If you’ve ever seen a bodybuilder in a magazine or whatever, they are probably in the latter camp. Professional bodybuilding has kind of become an exercise in seeing how far various pharmaceuticals can take the human body – at this point, steroids are virtually a given (in, if rumors are true, gargantuan doses at the higher levels) and the current frontier is in peptides (e.g. human growth hormone, insulin), diuretics (to get as shredded as possible), and who knows what else.

For professional bodybuilders, the highest honor is the Olympia, an annual competition created by Joe Weider. There a number of other competitions such as the Arnold (at the eponymous festival in Ohio, which also features (among many other things) strongman and powerlifting competitions) but the Olypmia is the pinnacle.

There is a great deal of politics in the sport, since judging winners is an inherently subjective thing, but I am very unqualified to talk about that.

Most athletes in the other strength sports take their cues from body builders when it comes to dieting to stay in their weight class or when trying to put on additional muscle mass in their off-season. If you want to learn how to get huge and/or lean, bodybuilders are the people to consult.

Olympic Weightlifting

Olympic weightlifting is, as the name suggests, the weightlifting people do at the Olympics. It has the distinction of being the most legitimate of the strength sports, because its Olympic sport status means it has one governing body, one consistent set of rules, and one ultimate goal for all competitive athletes – to lift at the Olympics.

Olympic lifting consists of two lifts, the snatch and the clean & jerk. There used to be a third lift, the clean & press, but it was removed in 19722. Both lifts are very technical and performed at very high speeds.

The snatch is “simply” bringing the bar from the ground to overhead in one smooth movement.

The snatch

The clean & jerk is two movements – in the first part, the bar is brought from the ground to the shoulders in one motion (the clean), then the lifter dips under the bar and “jerks” it overhead.

The clean and jerk

Both these movements, while requiring a great deal of strength to do with very heavy weights (which is obviously the goal), also necessitate incredible speed, mobility, power, and technique to do them at all. While most other strength sports will let you substitute strength for technique to a certain extent, or muscle your way out of a bad position, in weightlifting being off by a centimeter can mean the difference between easily lifting a weight and completely missing.

Weightlifting competitions involve each lifter taking three attempts at each lift and trying to get the highest total – i.e. the sum of their best snatch and best clean & jerk. The weights for subsequent attempts must increase on success and can stay the same or increase if failed. Attempts in Olypmic lifting usually increase by fairly small amounts, typically a kilo or two.

While I don’t do Olypmic weightlifting myself (it is way too frustrating for me – barely missing lifts not for want of strength, but for minor technique errors is not my thing), I do use some of the movements in my training. For throwing, the snatch and clean are very useful for training power development and transfer of force from the lower body to upper – exactly what you need to throw things far!

If you want to develop power & explosiveness as well as mobility, learning the Olympic movements is a great idea. You probably will need a coach though, as these are movements that are very difficult to learn on one’s own.

Sports I do do

Over the last couple years, I’ve competed in powerlifting, strongman, and highland games (also known as the Scottish Heavy Events), getting into the sports in that order.

Powerlifting

The first strength sport I became involved in is powerlifting. It’s a fairly common one to learn about when first getting into lifting weights, because it’s essentially the sport of doing three of the most popular/important lifts: The squat, bench press, and deadlift.

In the context of strength training, “the squat” refers a barbell back squat (although there are other variations that athletes sometimes use as well). It entails putting the loaded barbell across the back (either high on the trapezius or low on the rear deltoids), bending at the knee and hip until the hip joint is at least below the knee cap, then coming back up. The squat is typically the most difficult lift for beginners to master, as it is a somewhat foreign movement for most people. It is a movement that is very commonly trained across all strength sports, as it is one of the best exercise for overall development of strength and musculature – although neither bodybuilders nor Olympic lifters compete in the squat, athletes of both sports typically have extremely strong squats.

The Squat

Of all lifts, the bench press in the one people are probably the most familiar with. It’s the lift that all the cool kids did in high school and the one that you’re most likely to see if you walk in to a commercial gym. The powerlifting bench press is a little more strict than the common conception of the lift though. The rules, although there are some details that vary between federation, generally look something like this:

  1. The lifter unracks the bar (optionally with the help of a spotter) then waits, holding the barbell with elbows locked, until the judge gives the “begin” command.
  2. The lifter lowers the bar until it touches their chest, pauses with the bar motionless on their chest.
  3. When the judge gives the “press” command, the lifter lifts the bar up until their elbows are locked out again. Because it primarily involves the upper body, the bench press is the lift that people can usually move the least weight with.
The Bench Press

The deadlift is simply reaching down to a loaded barbell and standing up until the knees and back are straight and the hips are locked out. While most people can learn the technique fairly quickly, it is often the lift people dread training the most, since it is both the lift that people can typically move the most weight with and is known to be fairly taxing on the nervous system. Unlike the squat or bench press, there is no eccentric or lowering phase of the lift – the bar is lifted from a “dead” stop, hence the name – making it very difficult to start the weight moving without the benefit of momentum or a stretch reflex.

The Deadlift

Like Olypmic weightlifting, powerlifting is about trying to make the highest total by adding the best successful squat, bench press, and deadlift, with three attempts allowed for each lift and the same rule about weight increases as weightlifting.

Unlike Olypmic weightlifting, the lifts are far less technical. While there can be a great deal of depth when it comes to mastering each lift, one can get started in powerlifting pretty quickly, especially if one is already doing basic strength training – it is a pretty beginner-friendly strength sport.

Powerlifting is a great sport for people just getting interested in any sort of strength training even (or especially!) if they have no athletic background. The sort of training that is typically recommended to beginners involves primarily doing the powerlifting movements and, in my experience, the atmosphere at most powerlifting events is very welcoming and friendly.

While powerlifting was my first sport, became less interested in competing in it after the meet I did at the end of 2015 (Ontario Provincials). I did alright, but didn’t have the meet I wanted to and felt a little burned out. I was starting to feel bored with my training and how static it was – since powerlifting is just about maxing out in three lifts, training is very focused on those three lifts. So, I decided to focus on other sports for a while.

Strongman

I got into strongman in 2015. I’d been interested in it for a while, because it looked like so much fun.

The strongman competition people are most likely to be familiar with is “World’s Strongest Man”, which is the most prestigious competition in the sport. Strongman competitions are somewhat unique among strength sports, as competitions are not set events, but are always varied. There are some events that are common – Atlas stones are a signature event, there is often some sort of overhead pressing event – but every competition will be different.

Hafþór Björnsson doing the Atlas stones
Axle press -- note the axle is much thicker than a normal barbell & doesn't rotate

Even for the events that usually show up, the exact parameters of the event will often change, so even if there’s always, say, a log press event, sometimes it will be trying to work up to one rep, as heavy as possible, sometimes it will be doing as many reps as possible at a certain weight in a certain amount of time, sometimes it might be a medley (e.g. lift a log, then a circus dumbbell, then an axle).

Because of the variety, training for strongman can be challenging. I approached it by generally just doing standard barbell movements (e.g. back & front squats, overhead press, deadlifts) and trying to build my general strength. To compete at a high level though (I only compete at a local beginner level), one requires specific event training, which requires a fair amount of space and money for special implements.

Strongman is in some ways the apex of absolute strength. Because, unlike weightlifting & powerlifting, it typically has no weightclasses, it is the sport of the very very large and exceptionally strong. Many great powerlifters (like Žydrūnas Savickas) and Olympic weightlifters (like Mikhail “Misha” Koklyaev) have gone on to be top-level strongmen (Žydrūnas (or “Big Z”) has won World’s Strongest Man many times).

Although strongman is very fun to do, I didn’t see much of a future in it for me. While I could do alright at the level I was competing at just doing general strength training, I knew that to get better, I would need to do more event-specific training. I was also fairly concerned about the level of injury associated with such training.

Highland Games

The journey has led me to the sport I currently enjoy the most, highland games. Also know as the Scottish Heavy Events, highland games are the traditional Scottish throwing events. Competitions take place at Scottish festivals (of which there are many in Ontario), which are very fun environments to be in3.

Highland games consist of the following events:

  1. Braemar stone: a 20-26lb stone is thrown as far as possible without an approach (like shotput, but your feet can’t move before throwing)
  2. Open stone: a 16-22lb stone is thrown as far as possible, approaching however you like (so, like shotput but with a rock instead of a nice sphere)
  3. Light hammer: a 16lb weight on a long shaft is spun around the head and thrown as far as possible (similar to the Olympic hammer, but typically thrown with feet planted, instead of spinning like a top)
  4. Heavy hammer: like light hammer, but with a 22lb weight.
  5. Light weight for distance (often abbreviated LWFD): a 28lb weight on a chain is thrown as far as possible. Athletes typically take a spinning approach, somewhat reminiscent of Olympic hammer throwers.
  6. Heavy weight for distance (HWFD): Like the LWFD, but with a 56lb weight. It hurts a lot.
  7. Weight over bar, or WOB. Throwing the same 56lb weight (but with a shorter chain) vertically over a bar.
  8. The signature event of highland games, the caber. A long log is balanced on the end in the hands, then the athlete tries to make it turn perfectly end-over-end. Unlike the other events, this one is about accuracy, not distance.
  9. The sheaf (not sheep!) toss. Throwing a 20lb bale using a pitchfork for height. I believe this is exclusively a North American event.
Heavy weight for distance. Staying balanced while spinning with 56lb is a bit of a challenge
Sort of highland games hammer. This is using a training strap, real hammers would be a metal sphere at the end of a PVC pipe

For all of the events events except WOB and sheaf (and kind of the caber4), each thrower gets three attempts and whoever gets the best result across their attempts wins. On the vertical throwing events, each athlete gets three attempts at each height, where if they get it they stay in (and don’t need to take any more throws at that height), and if they miss all three, they are out. The height keeps increasing until there is one winner, with second place being whoever got the second furthest, and so on. The events are typically scored where the winner of the event gets one point, second gets two points, etc, with whoever has the lowest point total at the end of the day being the victor.

It is interesting to note that the implements lifted in highland games are the lightest of all the strength sports discussed – the heaviest thing is the caber, which is usually (significantly) under 200lb. However, high-level highland games athletes are very large and very strong people (i.e. on the order of pro strongman size – in fact, the aforementioned strongman Mikhail Koklyaev is also a high-level highland games athlete) as it takes a great deal of strength to throw the weights as far as they do (and, although they are light compared to what someone might squat, trying to spin & throw a 56lb weight is much harder than it might seem).

One thing I’ve found that I really like about training for highland games is that I actually feel like an athlete again. I think I’d gotten to used to fairly static, slow movements, so needing to move explosively and with coordination was a pretty fun thing.

Coda

I have really enjoyed participating in strength sports over the last few years. While I love training for its own sake, being a competitive athlete really gives me much more motivation and gives me more concrete goals.

I highly recommend strength training for everyone – it is a very efficient way to make pretty much everything physically better – and if you enjoy strength training, I think you’d enjoy competing as well. All the events I’ve competed at have been delightful to participate in and everyone I’ve ever met there – even people I’m going head-to-head against – have all been very kind and helpful people. Give it a try!

  1. which is somewhat hard to nail down with an exact percentage, but generally thought to be in the 3-5% range for pros 

  2. It was removed due to difficulty in judging, since the rules required the press be “strict”, which could be very hard to objectively determine. 

  3. Especially compared to powerlifting meets, which are typically fairly dour things held in grungy gyms and attended by no-one but other powerliftings and maybe family, if you can convince them. 

  4. Athletes get three attempts to turn the caber, but often that will qualify you for the challenge caber, which you get another three attempts on.