Ben France, or ďTHE FLASHĒ, as he's been dubbed by his training peers, has achieved something quite rare, by being perhaps the first natural in Britain to have succeeded in the three sports of Bodybuilding, Powerlifting and Strongman.
We caught up with Ben a few weeks after he nailed a massive 290kg deadlift in competition. Now heís chasing 300 kilos. Letís put that into perspective. Itís the equivalent of lifting 661 one-pound bags of sugar, or maybe six, trim figure girls (mmmm), or itís about half the weight of a Lotus Elise sports car. Or even Ė bear with me Ė roughly 0.000000000000000000005 percent of the Earthís mass. Whichever way you slice it, thatís a lot of iron. And, before you assume he must devour a dozen steaks a day to maintain that kind of strength Ė he doesnít. Heís vegetarian. Letís find out more about this 35-year-old drug-free lifter from Carnforth, near Lancaster.
So Ben, a great start for you in powerlifting and strongman. Howís your year been?
Thanks Jon, 2008 has been a great year for training and competing!
Of course, many of us remember you as a successful bodybuilder not so long back; a former BNBF British Novice champion no less. So, why the switch over?
Well, as much as I love bodybuilding, I did find that dieting down for a show would impact quite heavily on my life. When I won the Novice Britain in 2003 I was single and lived alone, which was fine. After that, I was in a serious relationship and found it harder. I went to watch my friend Helen Isaac compete in a powerlifting competition (the annual Lancaster University club meet) and really enjoyed the atmosphere, and decided to give it a go Ė if I could get strong enough not to look too out of place (I felt the same way about my first bodybuilding show).
I always wondered if the ideal qualities for bodybuilding (small joints, narrow hips and low bodyfat Ė which you had) werenít really compatible with powerlifting or strongman, yet you seem to have done well at all three?
I think those factors can be overstated. You only have to look at the builds of the lighter Olympic lifters who are incredibly strong, explosive and powerful to see that big weights can be shifted with the qualities you describe.
Letís talk about your deadlift. Currently, I believe itís sitting at 290kg? How did you train up to that massive lift, and do you think you can crack 300? Surely, the British and World records cant be too far around the corner?
Yes, my deadlift is currently at 290kg, and 300kg is coming soon! This year Iíve begun to develop the confidence to move away from mainstream training methodologies, widely held beliefs and traditional bodybuilding protocols. As such, my training may look somewhat random, and didnít actually involve very much deadlifting, really. I spent more time on strongman events and squatting than anything else, both of which have had a great carry over, and I gave a lot more attention to recovery. If my training continues to go well then I donít see why I canít break a few records Ė someone has to!
How do you psych-up for a big lift, and what kind of stresses does lifting those huge weights put through your body? Describe the feeling!
I have actually reduced the amount of psyching up I do for a big lift, as I felt I was wasting a lot of energy! In the past I would slap myself about the face to get fired up for a lift Ė if I felt flat, but I later realised the reason I felt flat by the time I was about to hit the lifts was that Iíd expended so much nervous energy through the day and during the warm-up.
So now I focus on staying calmer until just before the lift, and just visualise and repeat a mental affirmation that the lift will be successful. I have done this at my last two meets and nailed 17 lifts from 17 attempts; 12 of them personal bests. That said, I donít seem to be able to prevent myself from letting out a guttural roar as I lift a challenging weight, particularly on the deadlift. Itís embarrassing, but as the lifts keep going up I wont worry about it too much for now!
Heavy lifting certainly stresses your body, which is why I take my recovery so seriously now. Sometimes, you feel every bit of the strain of a big lift and just have to grind it out. At other times though, as with many sports, you can achieve those perfect moments whereby they become almost effortless. The elation of hitting a personal best is just the same either way though, and thatís what keeps us coming back for more.
I suppose youíve suffered your fair share of injures?
Yes, though most of them came when I was bodybuilding. I think the process of isolating muscle groups and hitting them with high volume can be a greater risk than compound exercises with higher weight and lower reps. I do have an ongoing shoulder problem, but again, its origin is from early on in my bodybuilding history, from behind the neck pressing. One of the most painful injuries was when I was trying to emphasise the vastus lateralis to improve my quad sweep with narrow stance squats. I must have succeeded, as after a couple of weeks I managed to tear it quite badly, though thankfully not off the bone. This injury made me begin to rethink the value and safety of such strategies.
These days Ė and I admit that age is a factor Ė I pay much more attention to injury prevention, and have started paying attention to all the boring but invaluable stuff about mobility, pre-hab and re-hab. Iím also much more sensible now with regard to halting a training session, taking time off to let injuries heal, and reducing the load or changing the exercises when I need to.
So, howís the squat and bench coming along, and your current total?
Iím happy with what I achieved with the squat this year. I spent a good few months giving it a lot of attention, and hit a raw PB of 215kg after failing 200kg several times in 2007. I was also very happy with the 180kg x 9 reps I managed for the Challenge Board (even if only 8 of them were captured on film!)
At 130kg my bench press continues to lag behind my other lifts. Long arms and a dodgy shoulder do not help (I was unable to bench press for most of the year), but Iím not making excuses, and will endeavour to bring this lift up throughout 2009. Towards the end of 2008 I changed my grip to a narrow, shoulder-width variation to protect my shoulder and emphasise my triceps involvement. It was this change that allowed me to go from 120kg to 130kg. Iíll continue to work with the new grip and look to hit 140kg by the end of 2009.
I did a 625kg total at the Lancaster University meet towards the end of the year, and have added 10kg to my deadlift since then. That was actually only my third ďfull powerĒ meet incorporating all of the Big Three, so hopefully thereís more to come.
When and where is your next meet, and what are your targets?
Iím currently trying to map an exact course of action, as the start of 2009 is very busy with a variety of comps (IAWA Stone Lifting and Powerlifting, BDFPA Powerlifting qualifiers and U105kg Strongman events). I may just put in a token qualifying deadlift at the BDFPA North West qualifier, as itís the day after the IAWA Stone Lifting competition, then go for bigger lifts at the British and World Championships. There will be opportunities to register totals at the IAWA British Powerlifting and the annual Lancaster University meet.
Letís move onto the strongman stuff Ben. How did you get involved in that?
Like most of us, Iíd always watched Britainís and Worldís Strongest Man on the telly and been inspired or in awe of it. When I lifted at my first BDFPA contest I approached Mark Haydock who had organised the first BDFPA Strongman event the previous year. He told me he was setting something up for strongman training, and couple of months later I was down at his unit getting stuck in. It was exhausting and incredibly challenging Ė even with the lightest equipment he had, but I loved every minute of it. Since then Iíve made the eighty-mile round trip as often as possible, usually at least once a week.
Of course, you won your first comp this year; must have been a great feeling!
It was an amazing feeling Jon! To know that all the training and hard work had paid off, and that I could actually be competitive in the sport at some level. It was my fourth contest and was at novice level, but it became known as The Fitlike International, as three or four nations were represented. I also won a sword as first prize, which made me even happier Ė Iíd always wanted one of them as a trophy!
Where do you train for strongman, and talk us through a typical weekís prep.
I mainly train at Mark Haydockís place between Preston and Blackburn, which we affectionately refer to as Haydockís House of Horrors Ė or HHH for short. I also sometimes train near Bolton at Jonny Millís Dungeon, as he has some different kit and Jonny is a great U105kg competitor.
There is so much variety in strongman, and we can be limited for space depending on the weather, so itís hard to give a typical session, but I always try to start with some overhead work on either the steel log or the 2Ē axle. I will then likely move onto a medley such as farmers walk, immediately followed by tyre flips, or some other specific work if thereís a competition coming up. It could be yoke carry, sled drag etc., and we will usually finish a session with some atlas stone loading.
I usually train events on a Monday, then if I feel suitably recovered Iíll squat and bench press on a Wednesday, and then maybe on Friday do speed deadlifts and shoulder re-hab and pre-hab exercises. If the Monday session was particularly gruelling, I probably wouldnít train until Thursday. Iíd drop the deadlifts, but do everything else, and then rest again until Monday.
What are your best events? Are there any weak ones youíre looking to improve on?
My best events tend to involve movements such as the carry and load, carry and drag, or the straight forward carry for distance. The exception to this is the deadlift, which is also quite a good event for me. Iím fairly consistent across the rest, except for any overhead event Ė which is my real Achilles heel. Iím slowly improving on the log press, but itís still a definite weakness. Also, the atlas stones are a strength if the platforms are low, but a weakness if theyíre high. I have a strategy to improve upon this though, so there should be a marked improvement in 2009!
What, in your opinion, makes a good strongman? Do you need brains as well as brawn?
You definitely need brains as well as brawn. Technique and strategy can be crucial in strongman. I know Iíve beaten a lot of people who are actually stronger than me. Iím still learning though, and when I enter the U105kg scene this year I expect to be taught a few lessons!
A good strongman needs to be a good, all-round athlete, statically strong, but also mobile, and posses good cardiovascular fitness. You also need to be able to endure a full day, and go into the final event as strong as the first.
As a natural athlete, youíve been able to compete in drug-tested bodybuilding and powerlifting comps. Whatís the deal with strongman? Are drugs a big issue?
Drugs are certainly prevalent at the top level of strongman, and evident even at novice level. However, Iíve competed at non-tested strongman events and been quite confident that most of the guys are clean. If youíre going to enter non-tested events you canít let it bother you that other guys might be using steroids or other performance enhancing drugs; it will only distract you and give you a negative mindset. As with any competition, you just have to go into it looking to perform at your absolute best.
Fortunately, for those wishing to compete on a more even playing field, there is IAWA, who take drug-testing and long-term natural status very seriously. There were two IAWA strongman comps in 2008, and there should be at least two in 2009. The weights used in these comps are challenging, but not too intimidating to newcomers, and even though everybody uses the same weights, there are separate awards for the best under 105kg, over 105kg, master and junior competitors. I have competed at three IAWA strongman events, placing seventh at my first, then two overall second places, but first as an U105kg competitor. I would highly recommend these contests to any drug-free lifter.
Youíre not doing too bad competing against the "big boys", and no doubt your huge deadlift has raised a few eyebrows in the gym. Of course, the bigger and stronger a natural gets, the more people start to ask questions. Is this an issue for you Ben?
Yes it is, though itís something that bothers me less as I get older. I used to be furious if anyone mentioned my name in the same sentence as steroids! These days it bothers me less, as it is just more negativity, usually from people who are too lazy to make the changes required to succeed themselves, or so stuck in a rut with their training that they cannot understand how someone can still make progress.
Another thing that makes me less concerned about the opinions of others in this matter, is that I have been a member of one drug-tested federation or another every year since I began competing in 2003. I also train with the former BDFPA and now IAWA Drug Testing Officer, so could be out-of-competition tested during training at any time (this was done on one of my training partners a few months ago). Just for the record, I have had two BNBF urine and polygraph tests and one BDFPA urine test, so far.
Whatís your current bodyweight sitting at? Do you think all the powerlifting and strongman training has added much muscle to your frame?
Iím currently around 103kg. I will look to drop to a shade under 100kg for the 2009 season, so I can powerlift in the U100kg class, but not give too much weight away at the U105kg strongman competitions.
Iím pretty sure I have added some muscle, but given that Iíve added quite a bit of fat too, itís quite hard to tell how much! My calves have finally started growing again after years of stubborn behaviour, and I donít do any isolation work on them at all now. My lower body Ė overall Ė is bigger and my back certainly looks thicker.
Whatís the diet like these days?
Itís a long way from perfect! Iíve added a lot of weight in 2008 just by increasing my overall calorie intake without worrying about the source too much. Iíve called my diet ďThe Flapjack DietĒ, as they featured heavily throughout. That is on top of my usual vegetarian diet; the main protein source being free-range eggs. I eat to recover, and to make sure I have enough energy to perform well at my next training session or competition, I drink protein/carb/creatine blends before, during and after training. Iíll look to improve my diet in the New Year, now I have finally hit the bodyweight I was looking to reach.
Do you think youíll make a return to bodybuilding Ben?
Yes, Iíd like to have one more go and try and replicate my 2003 condition, but with greater size, and show some overall improvement. If I can do this and display my physique well, then Iíll be happy, and can call it quits (well, at least until I reach the masters age). I donít know when this will be though; the desire and motivation to compete will have to be very strong.
Whatís the next strongman comp youíll be competing in?
My next strongman competition is the Midlandís Strongest Man U105kg in March. Itís a qualifier for Englandís Strongest Man U105kg, and hopefully Iíll be in the mix for a top-five qualifying spot.
Before that though, I have the IAWA Stone Lifting contest in February, which should be interesting. Natural stone pressing, carrying, loading, throwing, and of course Ė atlas stone loading. It will be very challenging.
How is the future looking for the sport? Is there a market for Natural Strongman?
The sport as a whole is expanding, and the level of competition is increasing rapidly. The U105kg scene, which has been quiet for a few years, is back in a big way, and there are now more novice and Ė slowly but surely Ė intermediate level competitions, which will help develop the sport in the long-term.
I believe there is a market for natural strongman comps, but itíll need people to get stuck in and enjoy it, rather than worry about their results too much when they first compete. Last year, the IAWA West Sussex event was full with 16 competitors, but the Northern contest was cancelled as not enough people were willing to put their money where their mouth is. The reality at this stage is that until more sponsors are willing to get on board, drug-tested competitions will cost more to enter if people actually want there to be some testing at each event.
I hear youíre promoting your first comp next year, give us some details on that Ben. Can spectators just turn up?
Yes, Iíll be running the 2009 Northern Englandís Strongest Man U105kg competition. This is a qualifier for Englandís Strongest Man U105kg. It takes place March 15th at Salt Ayre Sports Centre in Lancaster, and spectators are very welcome to just turn up Ė thereís no charge. Weíre already in double figures for competitors, so it should be a good day.
The first event will begin at 11.30am. The log press, axle deadlift and atlas stone events will be held indoors in the sports hall, while the yoke and farmers will be outside. Anybody wanting further details or wishing to enter should e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Is this comp for novices? What advice would you give to someone reading this who had no experience, but wanted to give strongman a try?
Well, as itís a national qualifier, it certainly isnít aimed specifically at novices. There will be some very good strongmen competing; youíll be amazed at the speed and strength of some of these lighter guys. Expect to see some go 25m in under 10 seconds with 300kg on their backs in the yoke event!
That said, the weights are not too intimidating, as theyíre for reps and distance, and there has to be room for them to be increased at the England and Britain U105 competitions. There will definitely be some first-timers and novices entering too, some who are there for the experience, but some who might be considered dark horses Ė and might cause a few upsets!
I will also be introducing a ďPlayers PlayerĒ type award, as voted for by all the competitors for outstanding effort. This is to reward not only the best strongmen, but whoever is willing to give it a go and give everything theyíve got.
Anyone wanting to give strongman a go should try and find a local group or training centre, but be prepared to travel a bit if necessary. Every strongman group Iíve encountered has been very welcoming and supportive. Thereís great camaraderie between strongmen, and youíll be respected for giving it 100% Ė regardless of your strength level.