UAE Strongman Competition takes weight training to a whole new scale

Two-day competition in Dubai attracts men and women from across the Emirates and proves it takes more than just bulky muscles to win, writes Ali Khaled.

Dana Shamlawi pulls a 4x4 car during the final day of the UAE Strongman Competition in Dubai. Delores Johnson / The National
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Mention of a “strongman competition” usually conjures images of huge men pulling trucks by a rope with their teeth. This was nothing of the sort.

With not an ounce of fat in sight, this was no place for anyone with an inferiority complex about their fitness. Or, more importantly, their strength.

The UAE Strongman Competition, held at Ahdaaf Sports Club in Dubai over the weekend, is the brainchild of Olivier Lamoureux of Fast Sports Performance.

“The idea came to us when we were thinking about promoting the benefits associated with strength training and trying to demystify the idea that it is associated with big bulky muscles,” said Lamoureux, head strength coach at Fast. “To show that strength training has health benefits, such as hormonal balance and overall improvement of life, we were trying to find an idea to communicate that.”

Day 1: 10 tasks, 10 stations. A minute at each challenge, tackled in the same order. No one gets an advantage.

The competitors were divided into four categories: men under or over 90-kilogrammes, women under or over 60kg. While this leaves scope for entrants of all shapes and sizes, there was a surprising uniformity to their leanness, even if body shapes invariably differ.

It is about the kind of training that Lamoureux preaches.

“Your body is not made to work on single muscles, it’s made to work as a single unit,” he said. “When you are in the gym training, keep in mind that you are trying to recruit as many muscles as possible and that is when you reap the most benefit from your training. We are talking about dead-lifts, squats, any kind of push, any kind of pull like chin-ups or bench-presses.”

The 10 challenges were tailored accordingly. Some are self-explanatory, others needed a little explanation. All, for the uninitiated, seemingly back-breaking.

Trap Bar Deadlift, Tire Flip, Overhead Ball Throw, Log Press, Sled Pull, Sandbag Carry, Wheel Barrow, Farmer’s Walk, Torch and Prowler.

Increasingly, accumulative strain would become a factor. Ball arcs became lower, laps slower, lifts more laboured.

The competition was open to athletes across the UAE, and there were some brave efforts across the board; but it became clear that some athletes were simply better conditioned than others.

The field of six competitors in the “women under 60kg” particularly thrived.

“I really enjoyed the whole experience, especially yesterday, for me, at least, because it [involved] the things I usually train for,” said Maha Nasrallah from Lebanon, who finished top of the leaderboard on Day 1.

“It was more mixed strength and endurance, while today was all about weights and that’s not really my thing. I’m more about endurance and stamina. I would say that’s more my strength.”

Day 2 consisted of four events: Yoke Walk, Dead Lift, Conan’s Wheel and a final event typically associated with strongman competitions. The winner of each round posted 10 points, the runner-up eight, with third, fourth and fifth getting six, four and two points.

Lamoureux described the second day as “more of a last-man-standing competition”.

“The weights will keep being increased over and over until one competitor remains, and at the end of the day the UAE’s strongest athletes will be crowned.”

Considering the previous day’s exertions, it was a monumental effort. Watching supremely conditioned athletes lift double their body weight was inspirational. At least, for those of us tucking into our hotdogs on the sideline.

Inadvertently, a spectator finds himself grimacing on the behalf of the athletes.

So, just how quickly do they recover from the previous day’s aching muscles?

“Honestly, I was dreading that. Yesterday, I had a cold bath, hot shower, cold bath, hot shower and ate lots of carbs and proteins,” said Nasrallah, 28. “I took lots of vitamins and slept for about 10 hours. This morning I was thinking I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I guess that’s why it’s challenging.”

She was being humble. Nasrallah, like the rest, displayed remarkable powers of recovery and commitment after the noon start.

For Ryma Ma’hon, the eventual winner of the competition, it was pay-off time for endless hours spent at the gym.

“I love training and I’m so used to being there, it’s easy for me to recover, so I was fine,” the 21-year-old Pakistani said. “If I could train every day I would, and even when I shouldn’t I still end up going almost every day.”

Ma’hon, who walked away with the winner’s cheque for Dh2,000, conceded the second day’s four challenges suited her exercise regime perfectly.

“My endurance is not that great. I’m not a big fan of running or anything that requires repetitions,” she said. “So going at something for a minute, after a while, even if the weights feel easy, it just tires you out. For me that was quite difficult, and doing it over and over again was exhausting. Today, the tasks were short and strength based.”

With only the six top competitors in the under 60kg category taking part on Day 2, Ma’hon was pushed all the way by her rivals. Especially by the Greek-Palestinian Samia Kallidis, who finished second, 10 points behind the winner.

“I just wanted to enter to see how far I can push myself,” Kallidis said.

“In competitions you are always surprised about how much more you could do. You get that adrenalin rush and it’s awesome. I watch who’s going before and I just want to push myself even more. We were sore from yesterday and a lot of these exercises [worked] the back, so you have to use your core, really use technique to make sure you’ve got everything right.”

Despite the nature of the event, an unmistakable sense of camaraderie existed between the competitors, shouts of encouragement often carrying them over the finish line when muscles threatened to give up.

“I think that was great. I am really competitive but try and have fun with it as well and cheering each other on makes it better and more fun,” said Kallidis, 25. “It was a tight competition. We were all pushing each other, but we all wanted to win, of course.”

And it did seem everyone was enjoying themselves, the perfect advertisement for physical exercise. For the organiser, it was vital that came across.

“You know when you’re a kid and you watch these strongman competitions, these big men carrying big rocks and pulling trucks? We decided to use such a competition and make it a fun event,” Lamoureux said.

The second day’s last task was something none of the women had attempted before: yes, a truck pull. Though, thankfully, not with their teeth. Armed with a back harness and rope to pull on, whoever dragged a 4x4 car across the designated finish line in the shortest time would win the final round. “I’d definitely not pulled a truck before; that was interesting,” Kallidis said. “A lot of it is mental and you have to be in that place where you push yourself, but the truck was really hard.”

It was fitting the eventual champion, Ma’hon, won that round, too, in an impressive 28 seconds.

“It feels amazing. I put quite a lot of effort into it. I spend quite a lot of time doing powerlifting strength training,” she said. “Usually, I train just because I love training, but when something like this comes up, it becomes more focused on the tasks, just to get the techniques down and to work on my strength.”

Never mind winning strongwoman competitions. It seems a mantra for a better, healthier life. Enough to make someone give up hotdogs for good.

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