Strong Words: Laurie MacDougall Sookraj

Laurie MacDougall Sookraj is an amazing strongwoman and a wonderful person. I have interacted with her on and off on Fitocracy, first as @lmds and now as @TinyDynamite. Her other social network handles are @tiny_strongwoman_lmds on IG and @lmds on Twitter.

Although I follow her with interest I thought a fellow strongwoman would be better suited to introduce Laurie because I still know far too little about her sport. Laurie recommended Nicolette Ashby who traveled with her to the 2017 World’s Strongest Woman.

Nicolette is a powerlifter competing in the Canadian Powerlifting Federation, based out of Toronto, Canada, and soon to be a competitive strongwoman with CAASA (Canadian Alliance of Amateur Strength Athletes) and you can follow her as @ambushashby on IG.

Photo of Nicolette Ashby in Raleigh
Welcome to the gun show, folks

After Nicolette’s intro, we’ll get down to business with:

  • The dumb guy’s questions. I live in Sweden, and over here you got none of that crap, but I’m French so I could make pretty backward stuff up from the memories of interviews of female athletes I head back there. Sadly, they still sound like something some guy could ask.
  • My daughter’s questions. I’m an amazon feminist (without the Ayn Rand crap) but in the war for gender equality, I’m merely a collaborator. So I let a representative of the next generation of warriors open the salvo: my 14 yr-old daughter Arja (IG: @thatgirlwithanironpair_03) who’s trained powerlifting, weightlifting, and now trains girevoy, and even played around a bit in strongman implements.
  • The Swiss Tank’s questions. Justine Jacot (who goes by @qualia_1 on Fitocracy and @the_swiss_tank on IG) is a national level competitor in powerlifting who holds the Swedish Master I record in the squat (-84kg). I let her pick questions about training in order to cover the important stuff before my biases would get in the way.
  • My questions. A few questions about what I’m interested in.
  • Laurie’s questions. I left Laurie a chance to pick her own topic and she did not disappoint.

And so here we go.

Laurie by Nicolette

Laurie MacDougall Sookraj aka @tiny_strongwoman_lmds is a quite powerful force, but don’t let her smile fool you, she will lift more than you’d think!

Laurie has been competing since 2015 in strength sports, holding a CPF (Canadian Powerlifting Federation) submasters deadlift record at 155kg in the 67.5kg division and getting stronger by the minute. Laurie qualified and competed at World’s Strongest Woman Under 64kg at Official Strongman Games in North Carolina, USA, sharing the arena with some of the biggest names in the game; she gave it everything she had and didn’t blink once dropping 9 seconds off her 400lb yoke time and attempting events new to her in competition, she “died empty”!

Laurie has a no quit attitude and will attempt a lift until total failure. Her love and passion for the sport of strongman is out of this world, she is always promoting, teaching and recruiting in the name of strong(wo)man. Look out for her this season as she drops a weight class and aims for the number one spot at the Canadian Strongman Championships this year.

Laurie (left) and Nicolette (right) with strongwoman legend Samantha DiBois Coleman.         Photo by Scott Lloyd Photography

Getting down to business

The  guy’s questions

How do you manage to stay so feminine with such a guy’s sports? After all, it’s called strongman for a reason!
Do you wear pink when you train?
The other girls at the gym must be pretty jealous, does it bother you? Do you get into fights with them?
Don’t your boobs get in the way, especially with the log press?
Does your strength make your boyfriend insecure? What do you do about that?

LMDS: Ugh. Pass. Pass on all of this. The whole notion of it being rare and unusual to be a woman in strength sports is something that I hope goes away and becomes more the norm as more and more women are taking an interest in it.

Arja’s questions

Arja: Does it bother you that the sport is called “strongman” while there are women practicing it? Why not call it “strongwoman” for everyone? [Note: In Sweden, the sport is now called ‘Strong(wo)man’ (see here)]

LMDS: It doesn’t really bother me overall. It is becoming more commonplace to hear people say “strongwoman” in regards to women’s events vs “strongman” for men’s/everyone’s. It does sometimes feel weird to tell people that I compete in strongman and then they give me a quizzical look and then I say, well, strongwoman, really, but I find them mostly interchangeable.

Arja: When and why did you start training strong(wo)man? Why?

LMDS: I started training for strongwoman two years ago. I would have liked to get into it a little bit earlier, but 1) it was difficult to find local events for women in Canada when I first became interested in it and 2) you kind of have to spend some time building up base strength before you can compete, unless you’re really comfortable with zeroing a lot of events when you start; you can’t just walk into strong(wo)man without ever having learned how to pick up a barbell. It was something that I first heard about a few years ago from a website called Fitocracy; a lot of people in the community there were doing strong(wo)man training and I always thought it sounded super cool.

Arja: Had you practiced another sport before that? If you had, did it help?

LMDS: Before I got into strong(wo)man I competed in powerlifting for about 8 months (just long enough to get strong enough to start doing strong(wo)man competitions), which I think definitely did help in terms of building up base strength that would be useful for competing in strong(wo)man. Before that I’d spent maybe 1.5 years just casually training with a barbell, starting out in my condo’s basic gym downstairs and eventually joining a powerlifting gym (Torque Barbell Club in Toronto) where I would get into powerlifting.

I never touched a barbell in my life until I was over 30, so it was a bit of a late start for me. In university, I competed in fencing for 4 years which made my lunges weird for any kind of Olympic lifting and some of my muscles asymmetrical. Other than that I just kind of flitted from thing to thing, trying out hot yoga and ballet and flying trapeze and all kinds of random stuff before I discovered a love for barbells that I expect to carry with me for a long time.

Arja: Were your friends and family supportive when you started?

LMDS: Nope! When I was powerlifting everyone was worried that I would get hurt, and even more so when I switched from powerlifting to strong(wo)man. Any time my mother watches me compete she’s just horrified the whole time, expecting something to fall on my head and crush me to death. It’s all well-meaning concern but I do wish that my close family was a little bit more supportive.

The Swiss Tank’s questions

TST: Does strong(wo)man requires that you build a base with some physical attributes that are not sufficiently trained by the sport?

LMDS: I think people definitely need to put a bit of time into learning the basics of barbell movements (squats, deadlifts, breathing and bracing) when they first start out; it’s a walk before you run kind of situation. Strong(wo)man is all about lifting difficult things in difficult ways, so if you skip the basics and go right to the weird stuff I’m not sure that would work out as well. It’s certainly possible to do, but maybe non-optimal. I think that strong(wo)man training is excellent for overall fitness, I do feel the most fit I ever have, because it’s a combination of building muscle and moving, which are good for cardiovascular health and fat loss and body awareness and stabilization and all that good stuff. So I think anyone could benefit from adding strong(wo)man training to their general fitness routine, just being mindful to avoid injury by starting with light weights and being careful with technique.

TST:Do you periodize your training? If you do, on what kind of cycle: week, month, etc?

LMDS: I do go through blocks of training depending on what events I have coming up in competition and what weak points I want to bring up through training. In strong(wo)man there is a wide variety of different events, so you have to prioritize the most important things because you can’t make progress on everything at once. For example, if we’re talking about overhead press events, there could be a log press, barbell press, axle press, keg press, circus dumbbell press, block press, the list goes on and on. So trying to train all different variations would be non-optimal, but focusing on one will have some carryover to the others. Typically I’ll get a 4-6 week training plan from my coach, with adjustments week by week based on how my training is going that block. Within that block I’ll have 4 days per week that each repeat the same exercise selection through the cycle with varying intensity, some weeks will be higher volume with less weight and others lower volume with more weight. Throughout the summer that’s when I’m doing the most competitions so it’s very focused on the events coming up, over the winter it’s the off-season in Canada so I’ll work more on building base strength to get ready for the upcoming season.

TST: Do you currently have a coach? Whether you have one or not right now, do you think it’s necessary to have one in that sport even if you don’t compete at the highest level?

LMDS: I do! I don’t think it’s always necessary to have a coach, but I do think that you will progress much faster if you have a good one. When you’re just getting started with all these new implements it’s really nice to have someone that you can ask dumb questions to, and once you’re more advanced it’s really helpful to have someone who knows what you need to focus on to make the best progress. Since I started working with my coach Dain Wallis at the beginning of last season, my progress has been incredible. I went from coming in the last place in local events to competing at Canadian Nationals, and I even ended up somehow at World’s Strongest Woman under 64kg at Official Strongman Games in December. Every month I just got stronger and better and way more competitive. I think a lot of that was mindset stuff and a lot of it was really good programming. Without Dain I definitely would not have gotten as far as I did last season, I really can’t say enough good things about his coaching.

TST: From an outsider’s perspective, the sport looks a bit messy with a lot of different events requiring a lot of different qualities. How does your training put order into that?

LMDS: Strong(wo)man is a bit messy sometimes, but that’s what makes it fun. In powerlifting, you have exactly 3 events, and you know every competition is going to be a squat, bench, and deadlift. In strong(wo)man there are literally infinite possibilities to how you can structure a competition, combining events together in medleys, or varying the distance/time qualities, or coming up with weird stuff to lift that no one’s even thought of yet! That’s the challenge and that’s the fun. Training-wise, it’s a combination of being strong enough to be ready for anything that gets thrown at you, and focusing on the specific events in the weeks leading up to a competition. If I have a circus dumbbell event coming up then I will be drilling circus dumbbell regularly. If I don’t then I might just be working on increasing my pressing strength working with a barbell, which will translate to strength that can be applied to a circus dumbbell when I come back to train that again.

TST: Is there an equivalent to the Wilks, Sinclair, etc. coefficient in Strong(wo)man to compare performance across weight classes and sex assigned at birth.

LMDS: Not officially. This is something that people discuss for fun sometimes, whether it would be max deadlift + max log or some other combination but the truth is that there’s so much variance in strong(wo)man (conventional deadlift vs car deadlift vs axle deadlift etc) that there isn’t really the same comparison as there is in powerlifting where everyone does the exact same three events so it’s easy to compare. But again, that’s kind of what makes strong(wo)man fun, having so much variety in the events.

My questions

TOA: Do differences in sex assigned at birth incur differences in training due to the relative (dis)advantages of women and men in the sport, or does the sport even them out?

LMDS: I really only have my own experience in this, I’m not someone who coaches others or knows what’s optimal training for other people, so I’m not sure if the same training for strong(wo)man would work just as well for men and women or if there are specific ways to optimize training based on that. I do know that personalized training plans targeting your personal weaknesses are going to be the most effective plans to work with, so I’m not sure if the variance from person to person is any different from the variance between a man and a woman.

TOA: How much do you want to know about the science behind your sport? Does knowing more would help you or lead you to ‘paralysis by analysis’?

LMDS: I’d love to know more about the science behind all this, I have terrible body awareness and don’t really know how things work. I think having more knowledge is always beneficial, but on the other hand there’s only so much time in a day and between working a day job and training four days a week and having a regular life if I spent hours pouring over scientific journals I think it would detract from other things, so I’m not as much of an expert on that side as I might like to be.

TOA: In your experience, on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 corresponds to the greatest stability and 5 to the greatest variability, how would you rate the vulnerability of strong(wo)man training to training trends? to diet trends?

LMDS: I think it’s pretty high on that scale. Training-wise there is a huge variety in what people are doing, I think very few people are following the same training plan in this sport. Strong(wo)man competitors love doing fun weird stuff, so if someone starts posting fun weird stuff online everyone else wants to do fun weird stuff too (most recently: Steinborn squats [TOA: I wrote about that, yay!]).

Diet-wise, the most basic thing is about eating in a caloric deficit or a caloric surplus for losing or gaining weight, but lots of people want to go with the latest trend, whether it’s keto or intermittent fasting or whatever because people want something that seems quick and fun instead of something that’s slow and boring. I don’t think that’s something strongman-specific but something that people fall into generally.

TOA: Are there well-identified training systems with notable differences in strong(wo)man (as in Powerlifting or Weightlifting)? If there are, how does your training compare to them? Is it straight out of one of them? A mash-up? Different?

LMDS: There is the cube method for strongman but I think that’s the only standard one I can think of off the top of my head. I’ve never followed the cube method myself. My programming right now is personalized from my coach based on my upcoming events and needs.

TOA: Do you support The Older Avocado on Patreon? If you don’t, what are you waiting for?

LMDS: I don’t (yet)! I am keeping an eye on the content though and will consider adding TOA to my list of Patreons in the future. I’m currently supporting because that has been an incredibly valuable resource to me in getting started in strong(wo)man and I want to make sure that is able to keep going and putting out great information about my sport.

Laurie’s own question

TOA: Is there a question that I did not ask but that you wish I had?

LMDS: Can I talk about Official Strongman Games? It was really cool. If not just cut this part, I can ramble about this forever.

2017 was the first year for Official Strongman Games, which is expected to become an annual event.
Lynn Morehouse did an amazing job organizing the event. They had a full range of weight classes for men and women, as well as masters classes for both. They invited top-level competitors from around the world to fill each of the weight classes, as well as having an open online qualifier where anyone anywhere could submit a video to enter. The online qualifier had three representative events to test: deadlift max tonnage in 30 seconds, log press 3 rep max, and farmers carry for 100 feet with a turn. All entries were ranked by heaviest totals, and the top 20 people in each category were invited to compete at the event in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. It was incredible having so many of the top-level competitors from all over the world together in one place. Every person there was the strongest person from wherever they were from, be it the top national competitor or state champion or otherwise. The atmosphere was electric.

The event was huge, with over two hundred competitors participating in the two-day event. World records were broken in the first event, the max log press, across several different classes. The yoke run had people literally sprinting with incredibly heavy loads on their backs.

The car deadlifts were brutally heavy. The medley at the end of day 1 comprised of 3 challenging carries with a 60 second time limit, many of the competitors didn’t make it through the whole thing. The top 10 in each class moved on to day 2 for two more events: the truck pull and a stone series. The truck pull was not just a truck pull, it was a truck, with a trailer, with other cars on the trailer. It was an impressive feat to watch, with some people breezing through the finish line in record time. The stone series was one of the most exciting strongman events I’ve ever watched, the crowd cheered wildly any time one of the competitors was able to load the full series of stones.

Donna Moore (UK) was crowned World’s Strongest Woman, Kim Derks (USA) won World’s Strongest Woman under 82kg, Christina Bagma (USA) won World’s Strongest Woman under 64kg, and Jennifer Ferguson (Canada!) won World’s Strongest Woman Masters Division. There was no declaration of World’s Strongest Man since that event runs separately, but in the men’s open Charles (Trey) Mitchell III (USA) was awarded an invite to compete at Giants Live (World’s Strongest Man Qualifier Series), and they declared Andrew Clayton (USA) World’s Strongest Man under 105kg, Rob Ward (UK) World’s Strongest Man under 90kg, and Patrick Castelli (USA) World’s Strongest Man under 80kg, with “Big Z” Žydrūnas Savickas (LTU) taking World’s Strongest Man Masters Division. It was really cool to see the full variety of classes represented all at one event, having nearly all of the strongest people from around the world all together in one place was such a cool thing. I really hope I can qualify to go back to compete again this year, the competition is going to be much tougher to qualify the second time around, now that everyone knows how great this event is, but I would absolutely love to be there for round two this year.

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