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Fitness & Health

03rd Oct 2016

How this soldier shot seven times went on to become Britain’s Strongest Disabled Man

This is true grit...

Ben Kenyon

Some people are just born strong.

But strength is more than just how much you can bench or squat – it is the mental toughness to carry on in the face of insurmountable odds.

No man sums up the word more than Mark Smith. The former British solider was shot seven times in a horrific live fire training accident as he prepared to deploy to Afghanistan in 2011.

Lesser men would have died. But not Mark. He lost his leg from the bullet wounds and it took two years to learn how to walk again, but he came back fighting.

The 1st Battalion Grenadier Guard went on to become one of Britain’s most successful disabled bodybuilders – even sharing a stage with the legendary Phil Heath in America.

But even that wasn’t enough of a challenge. The 10-year Army veteran can now call himself Britain’s Strongest Disabled Man after winning the title in his first ever strongman event.

JOE spoke to Mark to find out the diet, training and sheer determination that turned him into a strongman athlete as his prepares for the World’s Strongest Man competition later this year…


How did the army give you a good fitness base?

When I was injured, doctors said that with this kind of trauma if I wasn’t so physically fit the heart would not have been able to cope with it.

Being fit and healthy played its part in keeping me alive. I owe a lot to being physically fit and wanted to carry it on. After losing my leg I said I would do something that would keep me active

How did you lose your leg?

It was in July 2011. We’d gone out to Canada for pre-deployment training before going out to Afghanistan. We were due to go back out in 2012.

It was whilst we were going through a live firing range ‘compound clearing’ exercise in a purpose built Afghan village.

This one day the regiment I was helping went in to clear the ‘compound’ and a young lad went in and fired at a target on the wall – but I was the other side of the wall.

The buildings were only MDF (wood) buildings and they’re only quite thin. The shots came right through the wall and hit me.

I took six rounds to my right leg and one to my right shoulder.


How did you survive that?

I had died a few times. The biggest concerns was that one of the rounds had hit the femoral artery in my leg. With an arterial bleed it usually only takes four minutes to bleed out. It was purely down to the experience of the lads I was on the ground with at the time who managed to clamp off my artery and save my life.

Over the next few days I was resuscitated a few times with the defibrillators and I was on life support. I am a lucky bloke.

My biggest concern was that I had not long since become a dad – my son was only four or five months old, so I’d only seen him a couple of times before I flew out to Canada. That was the thing that kept me going. It gave me a fight.


How did they start helping you recover?

They woke me up after I was off life support and the first thing they said was ‘we amputate your leg today, or you don’t make it through until tomorrow’.

It didn’t really concern me about losing my leg, because I’d had mates in the past that had lost limbs who had gone on to do really well for themselves.

It was more that I was going to lose my Army career. I flew back to military ward at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Birmingham and was there for nine weeks and had close to 20 operations.

Then I went to Hedley Court and spent two years there learning to walk again and to run. I went through a lot of physio and I did a lot of PT there.

While I was there from day one, even though I was in a wheelchair, the first thing I said was ‘where’s the gym’.

I had lost so much weight. I dropped to eight or nine stone – for a 6ft 2ft bloke, I was pretty ill. So all I wanted to do was train and eat and not look like that again.

I spent all my spare time training. I was trying to build the strength back up in my left leg to make walking easier and build up the power to run.


Was this your first step towards bodybuilding?

When I first left the army, I struggled a bit.  I needed a focus to give me some drive back. I read about a competition in Colchester and it was the first one to include a disabled category for lads like me – amputees.

It was almost like I was meant to read this. My gym is a spit and sawdust gym – made up of bodybuilders and powerlifters and I got talking to them and started the diet side of it. Then I found there was another disabled competition in November 2014. I entered it and it gave me five months to train for it.

I trained as hard as I could but the hardest part was the dieting – I don’t cope well with hunger. I was having six meals a day – little and often.

The closer you get to the show, the less carbs you have to try and get rid of any body fat you’ve got left.

With that comes tiredness and irritability. I was a nightmare to be around.


How did it go?

I won my first show. My photos were floating around on social media and they caught the eye of the NPC – a big US bodybuilding federation. He said I should come over to America to compete in the adaptive division for disabled lads.

I went ahead in March last year to Houston and did the Phil Heath Classic at a sold-out 5,000-seat arena.

Phil Heath was there doing a guest pose, but I didn’t expect to get the nod to go up on stage and joint him. It was a big turning point – when I landed back at Heathrow I had offers of sponsorship and big bodybuilding magazines wanting to speak to me. It was surreal.

I did a few more competitions when I got back. I won my next couple of competitions. Then I got the opportunity to guest pose at BodyPower at the Pro Show. I was the first ever amateur to pose on the pro stage – they bent the rules for me. I opened the show. It was unbelievable.

I had a couple of months off after that because I was so wiped out with the dieting. I did a few more competitions after that – with a few seconds and one win.

But that’s when I started to look into strongman. I was becoming a nightmare to being around, around the house because I’d been dieting all year. My social life was on hold.

With bodybuilding I was never really in my comfort zone. But I still wanted to do something where I train…but eat a bit more.

Going from being a squaddie where you’re on the piss most nights, to living like a monk – nothing but water to drink and spinach and chicken to eat. I became a bit isolated and lost the enjoyment of it.


How did you start strongman then?

I had never really considered myself strong.

I was in my off season training for bodybuilding this year and four or five lads had mentioned my strength. I just thought they were being polite.

I was eating big again, so I was happy. Then there was a taster day for disabled strongman to go and try the events out. I was thinking about it for next year, but I was bitten by it. I really enjoyed it – and then decided to go fully into strongman.

What lifts were you putting up before you went into strongman?

It was more my bench pressing and my back sessions. I was wide grip pulling down 100kg. I would be on the decline bench press pushing 160kg.

I always imagined everyone else was stronger than me in the gym.

I had never touched an Atlas stone before. I picked up the 40kg, the 50kg and they were all comfortable. I ended up doing the 100kg stone on the first ever try.


Why strongman?

The thing with bodybuilding is it can be very opinionated with people marking you. There’s always different opinions on who should have won, who looked better and who looked bigger.

But with strongman there are no grey areas – it’s not based on the judges’ opinions, it’s based on pure strength, speed and determination. The strongest wins.

Nobody has had a bitchy  remark to say after my first strongmen competition. The atmosphere at bodybuilding comp, everyone keeps themselves to themselves. But at the strongman comp everyone was taking the piss out of each other and they have a good time.

Some of the lads that had competed before were helping give me tips. It was so refreshing. Even though you’re up against them, they’re cheering you on to do well, hold the weight a bit longer or pull the truck a bit quicker.

Everyone wants each other to do well and it’s such a positive environment. That’s what I’ve been looking for since I left the Army.


How do you train now for strongman?

I still do my normal bodybuilding training, but a lot heavier. But while I do my normal gym training, two or three times a week I do more even-specific training. Once a week I go down to my old barracks in Aldershot and they let me practice truck pulling.

I pulled two Land Rovers at the same time and then I’m going back down to practice pulling one of their seven-ton military trucks.

I go to Northampton to a strongman place to get hands on with the log lifting, the stones and deadlifting. I’ve bought a few Atlas stones myself too.

I can do the shoulder pressing and deadlifting in the gym, but I have to get out and about to do the other events.

Do you have to adapt your training because of your leg?

Before I started strongman, because of my leg and my balance, I wrote off things like deadlifting.

But then going into this, deadlifting is done seated. You’re strapped to a bench and the weight is underneath you, so it’s all upper body. It takes your legs out of it and I can do something again, that I never thought I’d be able to do again.

I have learned different ways to adapt my training. There’s pretty much nothing in the gym now that I can’t adapt, so I can train how everyone else does.

Strongman you need to develop a lot of power through your hips and legs, how do you train your lower body?

I was always really conscious when I was bodybuilding because there’s always people who take the piss out of people who don’t train their legs.

I didn’t want to be one of those blokes who stepped on stage and because I’d lost a leg, people were drawn to my lower half.  I needed to make sure my leg was impressive from the moment I stepped on stage.

I can’t squat normally because of the balance, but I use a Smith machine to squat because it takes away the balance issue.

I will do single leg pressing and I use a hack squat, which is all single leg.

I did it last year with my prosthetic leg on, but I’d felt a bit of a click in the foot so I went to the limb fitting centre and the leg I’m on is restricted to 150kg, including bodyweight. But I was hack squatting 160kg at the time, so they told me it was over 100kg more than the leg could take. I broke the foot and they said if you do it again, you’ll have to pay for it. So now I just train single leg.

I will train my leg once or twice a week. Calf raises, leg pressing, hack squatting, Smoth machine squatting, leg extensions, leg curls. I look a right stated trying to get down the stair after that.

Back (3)

Do you do explosive power-based training?

I do normal bench pressing and more sort of lower reps and higher weights. Coming down under tension, but where you’re getting that explosive power is forcing the bar up quicker.

I tend to do my chest sessions for more explosive power.

Bench press is more to get your muscle fibres fired up. It helps with the Atlas stones, being able to have that grip on a weight that’s not supported by anything other than you.

I have also tried to mix the two of high volume training, but heavy weights as well.

So when training for the truck pull, I knew I needed more endurance in my back. I needed to do heavier rows. So where you’d normally do eight to 12 reps, because you want to mimic a truck pull, you’re looking to go heavy, but for 20 reps. So you’re getting used to being out of breath, but still being able to pull.

With bodybuilding, my training was based around breaking up weaker body parts – and I’ve done the same with this really. I look at the events coming up and then train specifically for them.

Knowing what the weights were going to be, I always trained above that so on the day it fees slightly easier. I think that helped me a lot.

Back (2)

What’s your diet like at the moment then?

I worked it out last week and I’m probably eating around 8,000 calories at the moment. I’ve definitely notice my strength has been helped by the increase in food intake.

In the run up to a bodybuilding show there were times when you went as low as 1,500 calories. You feel like you’re running on empty and you have the strength of a five year old.

Now I’m sleeping better because I’m not hungry and I’m having the right things. Every night I will have a whole tub of ice cream just so I’m getting those extra calories in.

I’m having seven meals a day. Breakfast is the biggest meal a day. It’s a bowl of oats, a piece of fruit, a protein shake, a yogurt, two bagels – and then I will go and train.

My meals after that I have a big bit of chicken, jacket potato and greens. Then I have rice pudding and some fruit.

I try to keep it interesting – so one day I’ll have rice instead of potato, or extra oats. So everything is meat, carbs and then greens.

Then I’ll have a whole cheesecake or ice cream every night. They allow me to rest properly and recover over night.

It’s all for performance now – and what’s going to give me the most energy. So I’ll have a hand full of cashew nuts or peanuts every hour.

I still have the bodybuilding style diet, but just a lot more of it and I think it really helped me at the weekend.

Breakfast (2)

How did Britain’s Strongest Disabled Man competition go?

Truck pull was first. It was 3.5 ton and you had to pull it about 30m. My children were there and cheering and I felt like I could pull anything then.

I pulled the van in 21.03 seconds, which put me in first. The next two events were shoulder-based so I knew I’d struggle because of the gun shot to my shoulder which always affected my stability.

I managed 13 reps on the log lift and came seventh of 17. It was more than I’d managed in the gym.  Next was the Hercules Hold – holding two 80kg columns to the side of you. I used a special grip a powerlifter told me at the gym.

Second place got one minute 50 seconds. But I got four minutes 10 seconds. I only let go because the girls at the side said ‘you’ve still got two events left’. I felt I could have stayed there all day.

That was the moment I thought ‘I could qualify for the worlds here.’

I then went last in the car deadlift. The bloke before me set 27 reps with the car which was going to be tough to beat. I just looked at my dad, blocked everything out and just go until the whistle went. At the end they said 31 reps.

The last one was the Atlas stones which was in a wheelchair. I did the first four stones easily, but the fifth I stopped too short and I was too far away to push it on. It was 90kg, but I got it up.

I had won it. I couldn’t believe I was the strongest disabled man in Britain.

So what next?

Now I’m going to be representing Great Britain at the World’s Strongest Disabled Man in Manchester.

The weights have gone up – so the truck pull will be a nine ton cab, so that will be a big step up. The Hercules hold I will be pushing for five minutes.

The deadlift is a maximum, so just keep lifting heavier until you can’t lift any more. The most I’ve lifted in the gym is 330kg – I matched the world record. I feel like I’ve got 350kg in me for the competition.

The other events are the dumbbell medley – from 45kg to 65kg on one shoulder – so that helps because I can use my good shoulder.

Then the Atlas stones are going up to 120kg. I set myself the goal of the worlds in five years, but it’s come a lot quicker.

It’s going to be tough. But even if I come last, to have got to that level so soon I’m just on a high.