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The way Mike Johnston figures it, you can wander into to any public gym and watch guys (yawn) lift weights.
But where can you see someone hoist a car or bench-press a refrigerator? Or toss a 400-pound rock? Or tug a truck? Or jog with a log?
Johnston’s American Strongman Competition, that’s where. Founded in 2004, the ASC emulates an English Strongman version that began in 1977. The oddball events were carried on the BBC and eventually picked up by U.S. television.
“In the mid-1990s, ESPN ran a lot of the old Strongman footage, and it took off from there,” says Johnston, vice president of marketing and athletic development for the St. Louis-based organization. Dione Wessels, who has been promoting Strongman events for more than six years, serves as president.
“We are very emphatic that this is a sport, featuring legitimate athletes,” Johnston says, “but obviously there’s also an element of showmanship.We aren’t interested in another routine strength competition.”
“The first time I saw Strongman on TV, some guy was running down the street with a refrigerator on his back, and I thought, ‘These guys are freakin’ crazy’ — and now I’m one of them,” says Nick Brugal, a 23-year-old policeman in Bartlett, Tenn. Brugal competes in five to six Strongman events a year — some as far away as the Ukraine — and says he thrives on the challenge.
“I was a wrestler in college and a former bodybuilder,” he says. “But who wants to be a bodybuilder and stand up there on the stage in your underwear? This is a lot more fun.”
The Strongman disciplines range from lifting refrigerators to pulling heavy trucks from a standing start. There’s also the popular automobile lift and a log run, which involves running with a 420-pound log on the shoulder.
Don’t forget the Atlas Stone, a giant chunk weighing as much as 450 pounds, which the competitor lifts and throws.
“One of the popular events is Conan’s Wheel,” Johnston says. “You remember the movie Conan the Barbarian? That’s where the name comes from.” The competitor trudges around and around a sundial-shaped wheel carrying an object — say, a motorcycle — over his head.
There’s also the Giant Chain Drag, Steel Beam Run and the Timber Carry. “I like the log press,” says Brugal, “but I hate the anvil carry; I can never seem to get a good grip.”
Such feats of brute strength date back centuries. Early European Strongmen used to meet on the moor to lift giant logs and hurl huge stones. They didn’t have barbells in those days and had to make do with whatever was handy. From that evolved lifting refrigerators and pulling trucks.
Johnston says that every year hundreds of aspiring Strongmen (and Strongwomen) turn out in local and regional meets around the country, hoping to advance to the nationals. Why? For gold and glory, naturally.
“The champion receives cash prizes and a chance for endorsements,” Johnston explains. “Last year’s winner got a lucrative car commercial out of it.”
Contestants range in age from 20 to 40 — there’s no limit — and come from all walks of life.
“We’ve had roofers, truckers, steel workers, gym owners, lawyers, chemists, engineers and cops,” Johnston says. “Just about every profession has been represented.”
Phil Pfister, 2006 World’s Strongest Man champion, got involved through weight-lifting.
“I’ve always been interested in strength competition,” says Pfister, a 6-6, 370-pound energy company spokesman from West Virginia. “I’d seen the Strongman events on television and decided to give it a try to see how I could do.”
Pfister says, “All the events are hard, but the toughest for me is the truck pull.” The boulder lift isn’t a piece of cake either, he adds.
The 2006 title was the crowning achievement for Pfister after eight years of competition. During that decade, in addition to finishing first, Pfister also posted several 3rd and 4th-places.
At 37, he plans to try again.
“I stay in shape,” he says. “I can still compete.”
Pfister says TV coverage has raised awareness of the Strongman competitions. “We get a lot more recognition than we used to,” he says. “But I won’t say that we’re ‘celebrities’ — I don’t get stopped on the street or anything like that.”
Still, Pfister says winning the title changed his life because it led to his introduction to some people. “Those introductions led to my present job. So from that standpoint you could say that yes, in my case it was a big deal. But in general it doesn’t lead to a whole lot of attention.
“If you’re not happy before you win the Strongman title, you probably won’t be happy after you win it. It’s just something that’s fun and challenging and not a lot of people can say they’ve done it. That’s good enough for me.”
Who’s That Hercules?
Keeping your Strongmen straight is not easy.
The American Strongman Corporation (ASC) is the governing body for the sport in America and works with a number of international organizations.
North American Strongman Inc. (NAS) is the amateur division and the governing body for the sport of amateur strongman in America.
World’s Strongest Man (WSM) is a TV contest that airs in December on ESPN, but is not affiliated with any strongman organization.
Where do the profits come from?
“Sponsorships,” says Mike Johnston, VP/American Strongman. “We work to leverage our product/fan base to provide an interactive forum for companies. Our entry fees are limited, and generally at events we do not get a share of the gate. However, we are often able to retain a talent fee.”