Medicine plays role in strength contests

Historically, the earliest competitions among humans were feats of strength. Biblical and mythical figures are often admired for their physical prowess. George Costanza, of Seinfeld fame, popularized the “feats of strength” as part of his Festivus celebration.

Over the past 30 years, strength athletics has grown under the banner of World’s Strongest Man.

World’s Strongest Man and World’s Strongest Woman competitions are international events. Each competition consists of lifting, pulling, pushing, and running with tremendous amounts of weight. The weight is in the form of vehicles (usually buses or cars), large stones, tires, or concrete blocks.

There are approximately 400 active participants in strength events like those that appear annually at the Mohegan Sun Arena. They range from 22-56 years old. The youngest strength athlete is Massachusetts resident Kevin Nee, who began his career at the age of 18.

Liane Blyn is a certified athletic trainer and strength coach who works with many strength athletes.

“Principal injuries include torn tendons which result from overuse and the increased pressure on joints. Average active longevity is only 4-6 years,” Blyn said. “Training for these competitions consists of performing each event to gain strength and better technique.”

Strength athletics is very interesting from the standpoint of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular physiology, thanks to an Italian anatomist named Antonio Valsalva.

In the 18th century, he described what has come to be known as the “Valsalva maneuver.” It occurs when a person forcefully contracts their muscles against a closed airway. This increases pressure in the chest and middle ears. Due to the increase in pressure, blood flow to the heart is diminished and the pulse slows. Subsequently, blood flow to the brain also decreases, followed by a loss of consciousness. When the muscles involved relax, pressure diminishes and the heart rate speeds up, thus restoring adequate blood flow.

This maneuver can be seen sometimes during prolonged coughing or defecation, and in the case of strength athletes, when lifting large amounts of weight. Participants will try to divert blood flow from their muscles to their hearts and brains by wearing very tight neoprene suits during the dead-lift competition.

Since 1977, World’s Strongest Man competitions have attracted the attention of millions of fans around the world, including the watchful eye of the sports medicine physician in attendance.

If you wish to learn more about World’s Strongest Man events, listen to the podcast at Norwich Bulletin or Backus Hospital.

Originally published January 22, 2008.

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