About a year ago, Brenda Eckstein was a constant at CrossFit and powerlifting meets throughout the Northwest and even won a handful of competitions.
But now the 34-year-old La Grande resident and Elgin native has qualified for nationals in an entirely different style of lifting.
Eckstein won her weight class in the Oregon Feats of Strength competition March 17 in Prineville, which garnered her a spot in the Strongman Corporation Nationals competition Oct. 27-28 in St. Charles, Missouri.
It was actually through a CrossFit competition in Bend about two years ago that she met the coach, Tom Benge of Redmond, who she said convinced her to start competing in Strongman competitions.
Eckstein, who started CrossFit training about a year earlier, was taking part in the Best of the West Winter Games in January 2016, and was entered in the Yeti Division, which Eckstein described as a “CrossFit-based” Strongman. She won the competition that day, beating out Erika Drinkard, a former Strongman national champion and a two-time placer at the Arnold Strongman Classic, who Benge coached. Afterward, Eckstein said, she was approached by Benge.
“He asked me who my Strongman coach was. I said, ‘I don’t have a Strongman coach. I’m a CrossFitter,’” Eckstein said. “He asked if I would be interesting in getting into Strongman.”
Eckstein initially turned down the offer, sticking to her commitment to CrossFit.
About a year later, Eckstein contacted Benge, now wanting to learn more about Strongman.
“I reached out to him and just kind of felt it out a little bit. I wanted to learn more about it because I like lifting heavy. I lift heavy at CrossFit, so I wanted to find something that fed my competition side,” she said.
After a couple more CrossFit competitions, Eckstein decided to take the plunge into Strongman, and started training with Benge in October 2017.
Benge, who has been coaching Eckstein remotely via text, email and videos, called working with her “a match made in heaven for a remote coaching client.”
“I write all of her programming,” he said. “She takes videos (of herself) and sends them, then I check on things and make comments to send back.”
The coach said he is impressed with Eckstein’s work ethic.
“She’s extremely meticulous. She follows the coaching well,” he said. “It feels like we’ve been in a coaching relationship for years. She’s very respectful, very diligent about any and everything I tell her to do.”
The biggest change for Eckstein was acclimating to some of the different lifts in Strongman, and adjusting her lifting form.
“I was always a heavy lifter in CrossFit, but (when I started) in Strongman, we went back to the basics and broke my form down a little bit and critiqued some things, which has really improved my lifting ability,” she said.
Fortunately, she said, she already had a solid base from previous trainers, Jon Wick and Erin Creech, and according to Benge, she had the tools because of her combined CrossFit and powerlifting background.
“He said what makes the best strongman is the combination of a powerlifter and a CrossFitter,” Eckstein said.
The March 17 competition in Prineville was her first Strongman ever, and she didn’t disappoint.
She scored 28.5 points to win a tight competition over six others in the women’s middleweight division. Jessica Putland, who scored 28 points, was on her heels for second.
The two were close throughout, as well.
Here are the events and Eckstein’s results:
Yoke carry: The yoke is a piece of equipment with two vertical beams on either side of the competitor and a horizontal beam that rests on their shoulders. Weights are then added on a frame at the bottom. In the yoke carry, the competitors lift the yoke, which Eckstein said weighs 410 pounds, and carry it 100 feet as fast as they can. Eckstein was second, completing the task in 18.52 seconds.
Viking press: This is a variation of a shoulder press, only with a bar over either shoulder of the competitor that then runs to a weight on the ground. Competitors were judged on the number of repetitions. Eckstein churned out 19 reps at an unspecified weight to take second in an event she said she was unsure of going in.
“I wasn’t very familiar with (it) and it was the implement I was most worried about. My overhead is kind of my weaker point,” she said.
Frame deadlift: Just like it sounds. Competitors get in a frame placed on the ground and attempt a deadlift. Eckstein said they do one repetition at a time, starting at 320 pounds, and add 10 pounds after each rep until reaching 370, at which point competitors try to max out. Eckstein recorded 23 total reps to tie for first.
Overhead log carry: Competitors take a 120-pound log, lift it above their heads, and carry it as far as possible. Eckstein achieved a mark of 258.8 feet to take second.
Atlas stones: Eckstein called this the toughest event for her. It involves lifting a large stone (beginning weight of 150 pounds) from the ground over a bar 48 inches in the air. Competitors move up in weight to as many as four other stones (165, 185, 205 and 215), attempting to put as many over the bar in one minute as possible. They start with the stone on the ground, move it to their laps and hold it in a squat position (called lapping).
“From there you’re going to stand up with it and it’s a triple extension clear up on your toes to get it over the bar,” she said.
Eckstein managed three stones and took fourth, which gave her just enough points for the win over Putland, a competitor who reached nationals a year ago.
“Brenda has gone against somebody who competed at that level and held her own,” Benge said.
Now, Eckstein is preparing not only for the national event but for the Washington’s Strongest Apple competition in July, which she hopes will serve as a measuring stick for nationals. Her training with Benge includes three days a week of strength training doing bench press, back squat and deadlift. Saturdays are a Strongman day, when Eckstein does various events such as Atlas stones, Farmer’s carry — carrying a weight in either hand along your side — and yoke carry, to name a few.
Her ultimate goal, of course, when she gets to the national competition, is to win and earn a spot in next year’s Arnold Strongman Classic, which takes place from Feb. 28 to March 3, 2019.
“I can prepare her the best I know how, (and) she can execute the training plan,” Benge said. “What we can’t control is who (else) shows up.”
Besides that, Eckstein just wants to enjoy the trip and plans to “leave it all out there and see how I stand up against everyone else in the U.S.,” she said.
Her coach, for one, thinks competing, and even winning, at nationals is a realistic goal.
“I feel comfortable in saying I wouldn’t be surprised if she takes the top two at nationals,” he said. “That would not surprise me.”
Taking it a step further, he said he believes she could truly make a mark in the sport.
And he would know, having coached a national champion prior to Eckstein.
“If she stays in the sport, she potentially has all of the tools to be one of the best ever in the middleweight division,” he said.