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Show of Force

After a stunning fitness turnaround, Illinois Staff Sergeant Kellye Brestan is a rising star in strongwoman competitions—tests of brute power where she lets nothing weigh her down
To train for strongwoman competitions, SSG Brestan relies on a structured exercise routine to maintain her strength, including flipping a 450-pound tire at Be Strong gym or pulling a Humvee. The heaviest tire she has ever flipped weighed 800 pounds.
To train for strongwoman competitions, SSG Kellye Brestan relies on a structured exercise routine to maintain her strength, including flipping a 450-pound tire at Be Strong gym.
To her Guard recruits, SSG Brestan is one of the most influential people in their lives. She invests in Soldiers, becoming their mentor and friend, by guiding them through the next steps of their military career.
To her Guard recruits, Brestan is one of the most influential people in their lives.
To prepare for strongwoman competitions, SSG Brestan’s workout requires endurance, agility, flexibility and speed. Through a structured daily fitness routine and nutrition regimen, she maintains her resilience—for the Guard and for the her next dead lift.
To prepare for strongwoman competitions, Brestan’s workout requires endurance, agility, flexibility and speed.

Staff Sergeant Kellye Brestan didn’t think she could do it. She gripped the handles connected to a Toyota Yaris and simply figured she had no chance of lifting it. It weighed more than 500 pounds. The handlebars attached to it required a different grip, motion and stance than a normal dead lift. She didn’t consider herself a good dead lifter anyway. And, oh, by the way, she was trying to dead lift a car.

Brestan, a recruiter for the Illinois Army National Guard, was competing in her first national strongwoman competition last October, and even the most positive thinkers couldn’t blame her for second-guessing herself. The sport of strongman, which includes strongwoman contests and is governed in the U.S. by the American Strongman Corporation (ASC), uses old-school means of testing pure strength and can involve anything from flipping tires the size of large turbines, to lifting boulders tailor-made for hernias, to pulling trucks. Get a sedan off the ground? You try to be cocky about that. In practice the day before, Brestan couldn’t lift the car once.

Maybe her doubts fueled her to perform—she hates it when other people tell her she can’t do something, so it’s possible she boiled over at her own doubt. Maybe it was the opposite, and her doubt caused her to relax and perform better than she thought. Even she can’t say for sure. But the next thing Brestan knew was that she had lifted the Yaris up and set it back down so many times she lost count. She looked at her mom and dad in the audience. “Keep going!” they cheered.

So she did.

With each lift, the crowd went wild. “When she started ‘pulling’ the car, she was more than overjoyed,” says Dione Wessels, the owner of the Strongman Corporation and the judge for the car dead lift event, one of five in the two-day competition. “I was equally excited for her.”

With about two seconds left, Brestan lifted and lowered the car. For the 19th time.

That vaulted Brestan to a third-place finish in the middleweight class in the North American Strongman National Championships, making her eligible to compete in the ASC-hosted Arnold Strongwoman World Championships in Columbus, OH, March 6 and 8, part of the 2015 Arnold Strongman Classic. That event featured more than 40 of the strongest female amateur athletes on the planet. Although she didn't make it to the finals, Brestan tied for fifth place, just 1.5 points out of the finals—so one more rep here, a little faster there, and she would have made it. She was disappointed, of course, but when she looked at the women who made it to the finals, she was proud to be that close. "I can’t really say that I lost—those are all phenomenal competitors,” she says. “I can’t complain to even hang with them."

That competition only provided fuel for Brestan’s ultimate goal: nothing short of someday obtaining the unofficial title of World’s Strongest Woman. In the meantime, Brestan is preparing herself to compete again in the world championships next year.

It has been a startling ascent for a relative newcomer in this competitive sport, especially considering where Brestan was two years ago, when she stood on the brink of getting thrown out of the Guard.


Brestan is accustomed to taking unusual athletic paths. She played first string on the defensive line on the Oswego High School freshmen football team in Illinois. She learned there that mental toughness is just as important as physical ability. Other parents didn’t want her on the team. Her male teammates weren’t sure what to make of the girl lining up with them. Opponents were sure about it, and they didn’t like it, as she found out against rival Naperville.

“The guys on the other team figured out I was a girl and were not too fond of it. The play was completely over, and out of nowhere this guy comes and hits me, knocks the wind out of me,” Brestan says. “My whole entire team at that point—it didn’t matter that they didn’t like the fact I was on the team—[got into] an all-out brawl. You weren’t going to hit their girl. It was pretty cool that they finally accepted I was there, and I could take a hit.”

After graduating from high school early, Brestan joined the Guard because she wanted something more exciting than the typical college route. She spent three years in a military police role in Alaska before moving back to Illinois, where she landed a full-time job as a recruiter.

But soon she faced a problem much like the one she faced on the football field. But this time it wasn’t a cheap shot from an opponent that knocked her down.

This time, she did it to herself.


Her devotion to physical fitness, once a big part of her life, had waned. Fast food became a staple of her diet, and, she says, she got lazy. “I got into the ‘I-don’t-care mindset,’ ” she says.

In May 2013, she was so out of shape she flunked the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) and the accompanying weight test. Her boss, First Sergeant Holly Donald, gave her an ultimatum: Get in shape or get fired. “If you fail another one, you’re losing a $50,000-plus-a-year job and maybe your military career,” Donald told her. “I don’t think you want that. You’re too good of a Soldier, and this means too much to you.”

Brestan was angry. She felt singled out. And in a way, she was. After all, as the first point of contact for a recruit, she has great responsibility to represent the National Guard. How could she insist recruits pass a test she couldn’t pass herself?

Brestan called Be Strong gym in Bloomington, IL. The owner, Drew Whitted, served two tours in Iraq with the Army Reserve. “She walked in at the very last moment I would have even tried,” Whitted says. “[The weight] she had to drop, she barely had enough time to do it. Because of her military training and background, I knew she had the mental toughness and intestinal fortitude to step up to a diet and workout regimen immediately. But it was extreme.”

She worked out the day she met Whitted, and that night she threw out all the food in her house and replaced it with the healthier options Whitted told her to buy—chicken, tilapia, green beans, broccoli and grapefruit. She went to Walmart and bought plastic containers, into which she placed her meals for the next week.

Brestan worked out before work. She worked out after work. She even hit Be Strong at lunchtime whenever she could. Donald, whose office is down the hall from Brestan’s, noticed a physical change in Brestan within a few weeks, and soon there were numbers to back that up.

After weighing in at 208 pounds the day she flunked the APFT, Brestan had dropped to 187 pounds by June 27 and scored 255 on the test. Her body fat dropped from 33 percent to 25 percent. She scored 273 on the APFT that October and walked to the weigh-in with a confident glow that, for Donald, marked the high point of Brestan’s journey.

Brestan’s most recent APFT score was 293. “That’s nuts,” Donald says.

The results were so striking that Donald and other Guard Soldiers from the armory joined her gym.


In 2012, Paul Ryder, now a private first class training to try out for Special Forces at Fort Benning, GA, was a college student who walked by a Guard recruiting booth Brestan had set up. He filled out a form, grabbed the free key chain and didn’t think much of it. But Brestan called him, and the more the two talked, the more he believed that the military was the right place for him.

Ryder enlisted in the Guard that October and now counts Brestan as one of the most important and influential people in his life. She didn’t stop at recruiting him. She invested in him after that. She has been his recruiter, boss, mentor and friend. She encouraged him to apply for Special Forces and guided him through the process of transitioning from the Guard to the Active Army.

“She puts 100 percent of herself into everything, whether it’s work, recruiting, working with new Soldiers, training them, or in her personal life with lifting. She doesn’t put half of herself into anything, ever,” Ryder says. “If you asked me who my hero was, I’d say it’s Sergeant Brestan.”

Brestan’s confidence—arguably a recruiter’s most important trait—has never been higher. Where once she simply sold the Guard, now she sells the Guard with herself as evidence of its benefits.

She has even worked with recruits to help them get in shape to pass the Guard’s entrance fitness tests. “We go to schools and do physical fitness programs with the kids,” Brestan says. “Instead of me standing there telling them, ‘Do this, this, this and this,’ I can actually do it with them.”


When Brestan first started working out at Be Strong, her goals were sharply defined: She wanted to pass the APFT and lose weight. Along the way, she discovered, almost by accident, that she would make a great strongwoman athlete. One day while she was helping Whitted rearrange the gym, he asked her to move a keg weight. She picked it up, loaded it into her lap and carried it across the room, a move Whitted recognized as a “carry” that strongwoman and strongman competitors would have had to train hard to do.

After that, Brestan transitioned into strength training. She won the first strongwoman competition she entered in June 2013, won a state-level event to qualify for nationals and has set more than 10 state records. Whitted believes Brestan’s rapid development means she has a real chance to win a world championship next year.

Wessels concurs: “She’s stronger than what she realizes.”

The car dead lift showed that. But to win a world championship, she’ll need more than physical strength. She’ll need the mental strength to get back up when she gets knocked down.

“She’s a very nice person. But when it comes down to it, she has a lot of fire inside. She’s extremely aggressive,” Whitted says. “If she wants another rep, or if she wants to move this object, or pick up that stone, it’s going to happen. It’s either going to be her or the stone.



Strongman is one of the most functional sports ever invented. There is no real-life application for carrying a ball over a goal line or hitting a ball with a stick. But everybody has to lift and carry heavy things. At the Arnold Strongwoman World Championships, which took place alongside the men’s competition in March, contestants competed in six events:


Circus dumbbell press: The athlete who lifts the weight the most times in 60 seconds wins.

Super yoke: Athletes carry a U-shaped object 60 feet down and back, with a 60-second time limit.

Farmer’s walk: Athletes carry weights similar to barbells, one in each hand, for a length of 75 feet with a 60-second time limit.

Dead lift medley: With a 90-second time limit, athletes lift a barbell once, an axle once and a car as many times as they can.



Last woman standing max log clean and press: A pure power display: Whoever lifts the heaviest log wins.

Mystery event: Details were given at the competition.




Strongwoman competitions aren’t all about strength. They also require endurance, agility, flexibility and speed. Brestan’s routine hits all of those. Exercises in bold reflect strongwoman-specific training.


Warmup, stretching: 10 minutes

Dead lifts: 3 sets of 5 reps

Front squats: 6 sets of 6–8 reps

Glute-hamstring raises: 3 sets of 15 reps

Ab rollouts: 3 sets of 15 reps

Car dead lift: 1 minute for as many rounds as possible (AMRAP) x 3 or break form

Super yoke: 3 runs at competition distance at 75% competition weight (cw)



Warmup, stretching: 10 mins

Overhead presses: 6 sets of 6 reps starting at 65% cw, moving up

Bench presses: 5 sets of 5 at 80% of Brestan’s personal max weight

Rows: 3 sets of 15 reps

Bench dips: 1 minute AMRAP

Curls: 3 sets of 10–20 reps

Face pulls: 3 sets of 10–20 reps



Warmup, stretching: 10 minutes

Cardio: Run 2–3 miles (practice for APFT)

Yoga: 30–60 minutes



Warmup, stretching: 10 minutes

Box jumps: 5 sets of 5 reps

Log presses: 5 sets of 3 reps starting at 65% cw, increasing by 5% cw

Back squats: 6 sets of 6 reps starting at 75% cw and gradually increasing

Chin-ups: 30 reps

Strict presses: 5 sets of 5 reps at 80% of Brestan’s max

Lat pull-downs: 4 sets x 15

Leg raises: 4 sets of 15 reps



Warmup, stretching: 10 minutes

Cardio: 1 hour (run for 60 seconds; then walk for 120 seconds)

Push-ups: 100 reps for APFT

Sit-ups: 100 reps for APFT

Yoga: 30–60 minutes



Warmup, stretching: 10 minutes

Circus dumbbell presses: 80% of Brestan’s max for 1 minute AMRAP x 5

Super yoke: 65% cw x 1, 75% cw x 2, 85% cw x 3, 95% cw x 1

Farmer’s walk: 65% cw x 1, 75% cw x 2, 85% cw x 3, 100% cw x 1

Prowler runs: Half-body weight for 1 minute on and 1 minute off for 10 minutes total



Rest, but Brestan typically jumps in on the Strong Fit class at Be Strong gym

Four rounds total at 3 minutes per round:

Round 1: 10 box jumps, 50-foot farmer’s carry

Round 2: 10 box jumps, 50-foot duck walk

Round 3: 10 box jumps, 50-foot sled push

Round 4: 10 box jumps, 50-foot tire drag




Brestan eats the same food every day. It might sound boring, but it makes life so much easier. She prepares her meals in advance, stores them in plastic containers and never has to think about food again. She says she has applied similar organizational tactics to the rest of her life and adds she has never been more efficient.


Liquid eggs: 1 cup

Oatmeal: 1/2 cup

Grapefruit: 1 whole

Turkey sausage: 2 patties



Protein shake: 2 scoops



Chicken breast: 8 oz.

Asparagus: 5 stalks

Brown rice: 1 cup



Protein shake: 2 scoops

Blueberries: 1/4 cup



Turkey burger: 12 oz.

Sweet potato: 1 baked in skin

Broccoli: 1 cup raw with ranch dressing



Apple: 1 whole

Peanut butter: 2 tbsp.



Water: 1 gallon throughout the day

Total calories per day: 3,759