Taking a long term approach to training is crucial for big-time success in strongman. Understanding the importance of the current training cycle and how it fits into your long term goals allows you to achieve greater success in the future. One of the most important aspects of being a successful strongman competitor is to actually compete in the appropriate weight class.

Speed, endurance, technique, power, and conditioning all play a role in competition success, but strength is paramount if you want to be successful at a high level. Generally, the more weight you gain, the more muscle you can put on, and the stronger you can be. That is why there are weight classes in the first place.

A 300lb man has a greater capacity for strength than a 150lbs man. Weight classes make competitions fairer and more competitive. If you are in this sport for the long haul you should map out your long term goals. Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What level do you want to compete at? What will you have to do to achieve these goals?

Chances are if you have any serious goals you’ll have to get much bigger and stronger than you are now to reach them. This will include gaining weight and moving up weight classes as your body physically develops over time. This article will serve as a blueprint for a strongman athlete to use along the way.

Assessing Your Current Weight Class and Strength Levels

Assessing your current strength levels is the most obvious tool in deciding if you belong in your current weight class.

This is a pretty straightforward process. Compare your deadlift and overhead press to the top results at the most recent nationals. Ask yourself if it is realistic that you will get close to those numbers at your current body weight within a few years of hard training? If you are great at moving events, high rep events at local shows (with lighter weights), excellent at light medleys, but suffer on heavy deadlifts and overhead presses you need to get stronger.

Putting more muscle mass on your frame will be the easiest way to do this. Chances are you are not putting 100lbs on your deadlift without putting more muscle mass on your back, legs, and glutes. Letting your body grow and physically develop to maximize strength should be your top priority when first starting out in this sport.

If you are crossing over from a high level of power lifting or Olympic lifting, this may not be the case. In order to put on the size, you will have to eat in a caloric surplus and in turn, you will accumulate a higher body fat percentage at first. Psychologically this may be tough coming from a lighter weight class.

Losing your abs or not being able to ration your weak lifts as “strong for my body weight’ may be a tough adjustment, but it will be worth it in the long run. Your placings and results at competitions may suffer at first, but eventually, your strength will catch up and you’ll be much more competitive in a
heavier weight class down the road. This leads to the next point.

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Your Body Composition and Your Weight Class

Taking an honest look at your body composition is a crucial assessment to find your optimal weight class as well.

The goal should be to be as big, muscular, and lean as possible in your weight class (unless you are an SHW). Being too lean will affect your strength if you are too restrictive on calories and will hurt your performance goals. Strongman is an anaerobic sport and carbs are king for high-intensity exercise. On the flip side of it, being too fat won’t help you in many events and will push you up to a more competitive weight class unnecessarily. In turn, you’ll have to lift heavier weights against bigger, stronger, and better competition.

Most top competitors (excluding SHWs) fall somewhere between 10-20% body fat. Lighter weight classes are generally leaner. A natural progression would be to gain weight, pack on more muscle, get stronger, move up a weight class, get as strong as possible in that weight class, improve body composition in offseason, start to plateau, gain more weight, and then move up to the next weight class.

If you are well over 20% body fat, improving body composition is one of the easiest ways to become more competitive in the short term by losing excess body fat and moving down a weight class. I see guys cutting water 24 hours before a competition all the time when they clearly could have dieted down to a lighter weight and not lost any strength.

There is a time and a place for strategic weight cuts and this is not one of them. Why put your body through the stress of a weight cut and severe dehydration when you could easily diet down and just dropped extra body fat?

Is Your Height Your Secret Weapon?

Height is an underrated tool to use when deciding your optimal weight class.

Generally lighter weight classes are dominated by shorter lifters and heavier weight classes are dominated by taller lifters. Taller athletes have larger frames to fill out compared to shorter lifters. Having a larger frame allows for the body to fill out more. Compare a 5’6’’ 181 lifter cutting from 200lbs to a 6’1 lifter at the same body weight. The shorter athlete has more muscle mass from the same amount of lean body mass.

The natural career progression of a shorter lifter is to start as a lightweight, physically develop, and transition to the middleweight class (<231) with the goal of earning their pro-card. A taller lifter may start out as a middleweight early in their career and eventually, fill out and make the move to the heavyweight class over time (a common route for <231 pros). There are always outliers, but taking height into account is a good tool to use when mapping out your long term training plans. Look around at your next competition, if you are the tallest one in your weight class it may be time to move up.

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Weight Class Cuts Come Into Play When…

Weight cuts come into play due to the fact that both strongman federations include 24-hour weigh-ins. This allows for athletes to cut carb and water intake to reduce bodyweight temporarily for weigh-ins. After they weigh in they can rehydrate and actually compete much heavier than the weight
they weighed in at.

At times you may be competing against athletes 20lb+ over the weight class the day of competition. Take this into consideration when picking a weight class to be competitive in. In my first year at nationals, I competed for 10lbs under the weight limit and I did not realize guys were cutting an additional 10-15lbs to make that weight.

You can’t afford to give away 25lbs of body weight to anyone on that level. There are pros and cons of weight cuts. Reasonable weight cuts can be a great tool to be competitive on the national level or international level. They will allow you to excel in heavy static lifts, but may also affect endurance events depending on the competition and your rehydration protocols. The best course of action is to use weight cuts to bridge the gap from one weight class jump to the other.

Get as big and lean as possible, keep growing within that weight class until you have to cut more than 5-8%, eventually you move to the next weight class and it’s a much smaller jump. An example of this is spending 2-3 years in the 198lb weight class. Year one you maybe 188lbs, year 2 198lbs, year 3 208lbs (cut to 198).

The next year you can move up to the 220s (a much more modest and healthy jump). Make sure not to fall in love with massive weight cuts that stunt your long term goals of getting bigger and stronger.

Compete in Both Federations. Compare the Weight Class

Another useful tool for settling into your ideal weight class is to compete in both federations. Because USS strongman and Strongman Corporation offer different weight classes, it is easier to let your body grow naturally and find the right weight class.

USS divisions and weight classes include:

  1. Lightweight (148, 165, 181)
  2. Middleweight (198, 220)
  3. Heavyweight (242, 275)
  4. Superheavyweight (308, 308+

NAS divisions and weight classes include:

  1. lightweight (150, 175)
  2. Middleweight (200, 231)
  3. Heavyweight (265, 300, 300+)

Matt Cooney Circus CDB

The master’s division and novice divisions are also options as well. There simply are more options now. Moving from the 200s to the 220s, then the 231s, then the 242s is straight forward and direct path as your body continues to grow.

Years ago they only had one federation (NAS), fewer weight classes, and no real subdivisions. At one point there was just lightweight <231 and heavyweight > 231. Today there are weight classes 10-15lb within each other if you cross over. You may like your federation or want to compete internationally where the 90kg, 105kg, and heavyweights are all that matters.

Regardless, you now have more options. Competing up in a heavier weight class once you’ve already qualified for nationals is another great way to get experience against stiffer competition and heavier weights throughout the year. It gives you feedback on where you stand or whether a weight class jump is plausible and you can stay competitive.

If you can hang with competitors who are at a huge weight advantage, chances are you will excel once you put on more size. I like to qualify for nationals early in the year and then compete against better competition and heavier weights (similar to what you’ll see at nationals) later in the year.

What Do You Recommend?

You have to remember to be focused on long term strength development as your main priority. Let your body physically develop, get bigger, get stronger, and get experience competing. Use your current strength, height, and body composition to map out a long term plan. Use significant
weight cuts for high-level competitions only and to bridge the gap from one weight class jump to the next.

Don’t be afraid to switch federations or compete up a weight class for more experience. Stick with this for 5 years and you’ll achieve a lot of success in the sport of strongman.

Matt Cooney

Matt Cooney

Matt Cooney is currently the head strength and conditioning coach at Holmdel High School and operates Cooney Strength and Conditioning LLC. He holds CSCS credentials from the NSCA, USAW level 1 sports performance certification, and is an ISSA certified trainer. He has competed in over 20 strongman competitions including placing 2nd at the 2018 USS strongman national championships and was a member of Team USA at the 2018 Team World Championships.