The tyres weigh 150 kilos, but they lift as easily as hula hoops in the hands of this Nordic god. In a puff of chalk, he hugs the rubber rings and scurries quickly through the sand. As he lifts the third and final tyre onto the platform, he turns to the cheering crowd on Venice Beach: Who is the king? I am!
His name is Hafthor Bjørnson, an Icelandic strongman with his own jersey-wearing fan section. But you can just call him Thor—that's what the letters on his neoprene armbands say. He is definitely one of the largest men I have ever seen. When he clutches a litre-and-a-half bottle of water in his hand, it looks as tiny as a baby bottle. Tattoos curl down his biceps as if they were explicitly drawn to highlight their freakishly large contours.
In addition to looking like a giant, he also plays one on TV—he will be taking over the role of Gregor Clegane, known as The Mountain, in the fourth season of Game of Thrones.
I muscle my way to the front for a better view of Thor—which isn't easy, as the arms of many of the people around me are wider than my head. Welcome to the World's Strongest Man.
The World's Strongest Man is an international competition that was started by a group of Scottish athletes back in 1977. The 20 events—ranging from an Overhead Log Lift to the Fridge Carry—might change from year to year (well-catalogued through the DVD retrospective, 30 Years of Pain), but the basic idea remains the same: big bodies enduring lots of crowd-pleasing spectacle.
The World's Strongest Men are an elite crew of a few dozen professional athletes who specialise in these types of competitions, known as "strength athletics." They travel the world together, facing off in several different contests, and they trade titles back and forth from year to year. They are almost uniformly tall but not overly muscular; many look more like basketball players than bodybuilders.
Sometimes it appears they do, indeed, not know their own strength: while warming up, one competitor sat on a plastic paint bucket, only to have it collapse under his weight. He smiled and sheepishly looked around to see if anyone noticed.
For the last two years, the World's Strongest Man has been an American: Brian Shaw is six feet eight inches and weighs just shy of 30 stone. He was raised in Fort Lupton, Colorado, but he only began competing eight years ago, at age 24, when a friend suggested he sign up for a weightlifting contest.
When I meet his parents, Jay and Bonnie, they suggest that it is not his size as much as his drive that makes him a champion. "He's always been competitive," says Jay. "He's always had a desire to be better and to win," adds Bonnie. "So this is perfect for him."
Unlike other weightlifting competitions, becoming the World's Strongest Man also requires a fair amount of DIY knowhow. Instead of simply becoming a gym rat, training for many athletes consists of recreating the bizarre, highly specific stunts at home. Shaw's parents turned his backyard into a sand pit where he can hurl kegs, says Jay. "Those big atlas stones did some damage to the floor of our garage."
During a break, while most of the competitors headed to a tent where they straddled ballroom chairs and stared at their phones, Martin Wildauer wandered down the boardwalk, which was swimming with his fellow body-hackers: the breakdancers spinning on their heads, the skateboarders flipping themselves over concrete, the charmer balanced on a ladder with two snakes wrapped around his neck, the dude wearing nothing but a red Speedo and gold cuffs with skin the texture of tanned leather. He was making a pilgrimage of sorts to Muscle Beach, the open-air weight room that is widely considered to be the birthplace of bodybuilding.
Wildauer is the strongest man in Austria, where he works for the government in construction during the off-season. As he posed for photos, he admitted it was always one of his dreams to come here.
"To have a competition in Venice—that's awesome," he says. Especially because of his connection to one of Muscle Beach's most famous protégées, whom he hopes to meet someday. "Everybody here knows Arnold Schwarzenegger, and knows that he's from Austria."
As a man in a grey sleeveless shirt groans on the weightlifting machine behind him, Wildauer reminisced about some of his career highlights: "In 2009, we pulled a plane, it was about 50 tonnes!"—and got philosophical about what it takes to win.
"To be honest, you just need food, and, of course, genetics," he explained. Wildauer mused that 80 per cent of success is out of your control—it's all about how you were born. But even his genetics seem to have placed him at a disadvantage here. "I'm one of the lightest out there. I cannot be big like Brian Shaw. He is huge," he says. "I have about 320 pounds. Compared to Brian, that's nothing."
What Wildauer relies upon is the ability to watch and re-watch his performance compared to the other men, continuously modifying the way he competes. "I have to use some smarter techniques—like in the overhead. I have to use a weightlifting technique," he says. "But, on the dead lift I am quite good. I can catch up to the other guys."
The final event of the day is likely one of the most ludicrous things I will ever witness. The Keg Toss requires the men to heave kegs up and over a bar that's five metres in the air. The competitors must toss the kegs one-by-one, in order, beginning with the lightest, 40lb (18kg) and ending with a gold keg that weighs in at 100lbs (45kg).
This alone would be a terrifying enough endeavour, until you consider that sometimes the kegs don't quite clear the bar and the competitor must bolt out of the way of a heavy keg that has reversed direction and is now heading directly towards his brain.
Did I mention that a crowd of hundreds of people are only a few, barricade-free yards away? The EMTs on duty stand up for this one.
The 12 finalists take their turns, but it's apparent this is one of the hardest tasks. None of them manage to toss any kegs heavier than 22kg, and almost everyone has to throw at least one keg more than once, which causes them to run out of time. It appears that Wildauer's dead-lifting skills might change the game—he makes a splash by tossing all but the 45kg kegs at lightning speed, but still, he never succeeds in clearing those gold kegs.
Shaw's parents had told me that this is one of his best events, and, as he confidently grips the first keg, there is a sense from the crowd that something is about to happen. 16.5 seconds later, Shaw has tossed each of the kegs handily over the bar, often hoisting one keg into the air before the previous one has hit the sand. It is a new world record.
Ah, but the Icelander cometh. With his signature chest-pounding bravado, Bjørnson takes the stage. The first keg flies so high I flinch in fear. His speed is relentless, and each airborne keg earns gasps from the crowd. When the last gold keg lands, it is clear that we have witnessed something remarkable.
He has broken the record that had been broken only moments before: tossing all eight kegs in a staggering 16.35 seconds.
Two world records had been shattered within a few minutes, but sadly, these records were not enough to claim the title. The next day, Zydrunas Savickas, a stocky Lithuanian, would be crowned the World's Strongest Man in the finals, knocking Shaw off the throne, and Bjørnson out of contention. For this year, at least.
As I headed inland, away from the competition area, the gong of the landing kegs still echoing in my head, I thought about the concept of strength. It was something I had never really thought could be measured before, but it seemed funny to declare someone the strongest by pushing them through this obstacle course of seemingly archaic activities.
But perhaps strength, I considered, is also about the pageantry—about the social role of being a strongman. It is not only about moving objects through space, but also appearing to be larger than life.
World-class strongmen can't reveal their proprietary regimens, so to gather some training tips I went to the Mecca of muscles, the original Gold's Gym in Venice Beach. Josh Squyres has worked with UCLA's football team as a strength and conditioning coach and has also trained Army Rangers. He passed along eight tips to get stronger, faster.
The weight machines might look impressive, but they're not gonna help you gain strength. "When you use a machine, your stabilising muscles are taken out of the equation—the machine does the work for you," says Squyres. Get a trainer or coach to show you good lifting form and hit the weight bench and free weights instead.
When you're lifting, aim for compound movements, which multiple muscle groups. Squyres recommends these four basic lifts: barbell rows, bench press, upper body military press, and back squat. "The more muscle groups that are involved, the more stress on the body."
"The muscles that make you stronger are very lazy—they don't come into play unless you use a lot of weight," says Squyres. He recommends this formula: take the weight of your one-rep maximum and train with 85 per cent of that.
Related to the 85 per cent rule: because you're lifting with higher weight, the number of reps that you can comfortably do should go down—way down. You'll want to be lifting in the five-to-one rep range, says Squyres.
Just like a machine short-changes your strongman quest, it's better to train without weight belts. "Belts take strength away from your muscles," says Squyres. "You want to let your whole body get stronger." Unless, of course, you're attempting to break a world record. Then you should wear a belt.
A good diet is one of the most important parts of strength training, and Sqyures says the key is protein—lots of it. Chicken, fish, eggs, and beans are all good, but steak has natural creatine, which allows your body to replenish ATP (adenosine triphosphate), what your body uses for short bursts of energy. Sqyures also recommends whey protein shakes supplemented with creatine powder.
Sore muscles can benefit from a medicinal touch, so it's worth it to invest in the healing hands of a masseuse or chiropractor. For more serious pain, Sqyures turns to acupuncture. "When I get an injury, acupuncture draws blood to the tissue and helps it repair faster."
Your body needs rest, not just to replenish your energy, but also to actually build itself. "Your muscles only grow when you're sleeping," says Squyres. Eight hours a night is good, but 10 is even better, especially if you're training hard. Think of it as a required part of your workout, just like time spent at the gym.