The StrongFirst Tactical Strength Challenge returns around the world on Saturday, October 26. The TSC is a personal challenge held twice a year, but the October instalment also sees men and women in the Competition Division vie to be crowned annual TSC Champion.
What does it take to reach the top of the scoreboard? Someone who knows—14-time TSC winner, Derek Toshner—caught up with Jackie Michaels to find out how she’s been preparing to defend her title.
You’ve won the ladies’ TSC three times. Tell us a little about how you got started and what brought you to the TSC.
I was a hurdler in high school. After that, I kept running, starting with 5km, then half-marathons, and then I started running marathons. It was when a group of us wanted to do a Tough Mudder, we decided we couldn’t just be runners, we needed to start lifting. So, we did some trail running where we would carry a log. One of the guys on the team owns a gym in Campbellsport, so he invited us to come in and try some kettlebells and that’s how we got started, back in 2009.
So, you’ve been training with kettlebells for 10 years now. Were you immediately addicted to it?
Oh, yeah! I love the feeling of being strong. Running marathons hurts in a different way and I had a lot of pain. I like to be able to come in and get a really good workout and then still be able to function the next day. It was cool feeling stronger and that carried into my running too. I became faster as I started lifting.
How did you get into competing at the TSC? And how did your first one go?
I was training at TNT in West Bend and Steven encouraged anyone who wanted to do the TSC.
My first ever max deadlift was 275lbs; I still have it written in my journal, “275, felt strong!” with a big heart and a smiley face. I was so excited. That was the start of my deadlift training, then at my first TSC I pulled 335lbs. You were there and told me, “That’s not your max.” I had already done my three lifts, but I asked to do a fourth lift just to try, because there was a guy on the scoreboard with 350lb and I wanted to beat him. So, I lifted 355lbs, even though it didn’t count towards my score for the TSC.
Was it your first TSC that motivated you to get StrongFirst certified and open a gym?
Yes, it all started with just hearing about how amazing the certification is— from the many who did it in Chicago—and I wanted to be part of that. I was running a few classes here and there when the trainer was away, so I wanted to go and learn more about being a StrongFirst instructor. I wasn’t sure if I was going to use it for much more than just an experience.
I went down there to Chicago and it was just an amazing weekend, such a good time. I learned so much and I came home with my SFG I certification, so I decided I wanted to use it. I just went back there to get my SFL as well, and in April of this year, we opened THE GYM WB.
I saw online you started your TSC training 17 weeks out. Why so long?
With my deadlifting, I feel I can only lift really strongly one day every week. Even with that, it still takes a lot out of me. What I do is take an eight-week deadlifting program with two sessions a week and split that into one session per week, spread across sixteen weeks. Then the 17th week is the week before the TSC and that’s when I do your ‘100 fast pulls on Monday’.
You talked about it on the StrongFirst Podcast, so you revealed the secret: 100 fast pulls at 17% on the Monday before the TSC. It works—I treat every one like it’s 420lbs and hit it hard and fast.
Talk us through your deadlift training progression—is it linear or varied?
Week A starts with 5×5 at a light percentage that builds up slowly to 4×4, then 3×3, then eventually up to a 2×2 that’s super-heavy. That part builds up every other week. Week B is heavier; you’re doing triples, doubles and singles with much heavier weight. So, week B is heavier while week A has a little higher volume.
We know it works because you pulled 420lbs at the last TSC. Didn’t you try heavier too?
I tried 441lbs, which is three times bodyweight, so that’s my goal for this next TSC. Fabio Zonin gave me some great tips at the SFL.
That will be a great lift. And you’re deadlifting conventional or Sumo?
Sumo—I had been lifting conventional up until the beginning of 2019. I just wanted to try Sumo as I had some people I was training who wanted to learn more about it and I had never done it myself, so I figured I had better learn it if I wanted to teach it. The last TSC was the first one where I pulled Sumo. I’d lifted 405lbs conventional at the previous TSC, then changed and hit a 15lb PR. It works for me; I recover better, it puts less stress on my back, so I feel I can go again sooner.
What about pull-ups? It’s the lift where I see the most versatility in training; some favour high volume, some low volume. What works for you?
Pull-ups are the hard one for me, the one I wish I could improve on the most. At the TSC, I’ve hit 16 bodyweight reps, which I don’t think is an impressive number for me. I’ve hit 17 in training and I really want to hit 20. I’m not sure I’ve figured out what works best for me. I can do weighted pull-ups pretty well, but when I go to bodyweight reps, I feel the number I can get doesn’t correlate.
You’re an Iron Maiden, so heavy pull-ups are obviously no problem. What training are you trying for this TSC?
This time, I’m doing the Fighter Pull-Up Program for the first month, plus some weighted pull-ups. I used Grease the Groove a lot to get high volume pull-ups in when training for the Iron Maiden. I work on a dairy farm during the day where we have a cow exit lane with a pipe that goes across. We wear knee-high boots and coveralls, so with all this extra weight, we’ll hit a pull-up every time we walk past it.
Maybe that’s what it takes to win the TSC: lots of milk and lifting cows! The secret is you lift the baby cow on day one, then keep picking it up every day until it weighs 2000lbs.
Snatching is another strong lift for you. What’s your highest number at the TSC?
Snatching the 16kg I was able to hit 158 in practice, but now it’s the 20kg, I think I hit 143 in the Spring TSC, which was a PR. My aim for the TSC is always to hit three PRs.
If you’re hitting PRs your plan obviously works. What’s your approach for snatching?
For me, just to get a lot of snatching days in. I don’t feel like it really matters what I’m doing, just as long as I’m snatching. If we come in and I don’t feel 100%, I’ll just go a bit lighter. We do try to follow a program of 10/10 on the minute, every minute for as long as we can. Once I hit 10/10 on the minute for 10 minutes, I’ll move up a bell. This week, I hit those 200 snatches in ten minutes with the 20kg, which was intense, so next week I’ll start training with the 22kg.
My challenge is to do it all with the 24kg—that’s the ultimate goal, but the baby step is to use the 22kg. I was close last year with the 22kg; I made it to seven minutes, then dropped to 5/5 for two minutes, then finished the final minute back up at 10/10, so I was only a few reps away. Once I hit that, yes, the ultimate goal is the 24kg.
Another snatching protocol we love is 3 minutes on/3 minutes off, 2 minutes on/2 minutes off, then 1 minute on. That one will send you to the floor too. I like to use the 22kg for most of my training; I’m trying to make the 20kg feel as light as possible. For speed, some days I’ll grab the 16kg and just fly.
Do you ever snatch for long durations, such as 30 minutes?
I don’t do a lot of that, no. I like to get my snatching and pull-up training in, then still do workouts in my classes, so I still hit some of the other things everyone else is getting in, like front squats or farmer carries. I like to keep those changing, so I usually just have my 10 minutes of snatching, hit my pull-ups, then jump in a class.
Looking around your gym, there are barbells and kettlebells, but do you add any running training, rowing, ski-erg, or anything like that?
I don’t. Well, maybe a little bit of trail running here and there, if I can fit it in. I love trail running and would love to add it in for my snatch program, but it’s tough finding any extra time.
Are you completely TSC-focussed, or are you still doing obstacle races and other things too?
During the 17-week program, I’m pretty much focussed on TSC training. Part of doing well at the TSC is that laser focus. My number—like my 441lbs goal—is in my head from the beginning. You focus on that, you envision it, you picture yourself lifting it; that’s a huge part of doing it on the day.
No workout ADD—that’s one of the reasons you’re the champ. That said, how do you offset all the pulling that’s involved in the TSC?
Jumping in the class workouts helps add variety. I also include a lot of recovery. If I’m not feeling awesome, I’ll simply take it easier that day. After the TSC, I definitely take a full week of not doing much at all. Then, something that works for me is I like to do a back squat and bench press program for five weeks, just to change things up. After that, I’ll take a week off before starting the TSC training period.
It sounds like you mostly follow specific training, but with little bits of variety added for fun.
Even in our TSC-specific training, we make it fun. Every Wednesday night, when I deadlift with Ray, my fiancé (who also rocks the TSC), we come in, turn the music up, lift heavy, then we go and get a burrito bowl. Maybe that’s another secret—burrito bowls! It’s got to be fun, or you’re not going to stick with it.
Good advice. Anything else you want to share with the StrongFirst community?
Simply, don’t be afraid to do the TSC. It’s really beginner-friendly. One of the great things is you’re competing against yourself. People will always ask me, “Did you see what that girl’s deadlifting?”, or “Have you been watching this girl snatching?”, or “Are you worried if someone’s going to snatch more than you?” I don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. All I need to do is beat my numbers. This is my goal, my focus. If I do what I want to do and the numbers put me in first place, so be it. If someone else puts up better numbers, but I still hit my 441lbs goal, I’m going to be just as happy.
Check the rules, find a venue near you, or register for the Tactical Strength Challenge before October 26. You’ll also find lots of additional information in the dedicated TSC section of the StrongFirst forum.