From Iceland — Hanging With Giants

Hanging With Giants

Published June 21, 2013

Hanging With Giants

Adjusting the squat rack to cater to his 2.06m height, Iceland’s Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson begins his Friday afternoon workout. The 240kg he adds to the 20kg bar seems to put more stress on the weight rack than it does on his 175kg frame. As he adds 25kg plates to each side of the stressed, bending steel bar, he nearly tips over the now 310kg squat platform. Despite being crowned Iceland’s Strongest Man for the last three year years in addition to placing third at the 2012 World’s Strongest Man contest at just 24-years-old,

Hafþór isn’t even the most decorated strength athlete in the room.

Magnús Ver Magnússon ends a phone call and walks over to watch Thor’s last set. Perhaps not surprisingly, the four-time champion of the World’s Strongest Man contest doesn’t seem impressed.

Between him and fellow strongman icon, the late Jón Páll Sigmarsson, Iceland has taken home more world titles than has any one country. Being one of (if not) the smallest countries competing, the fact that Iceland has managed to win more world titles than any other nation is even more astonishing. If you add that to the impressive 13 finishes in the top three at the World’s Strongest Man and Jón Páll’s induction into the strongman Hall of Fame (as one of only three members), this tiny nation in the North Atlantic has become something of a Mecca for strength athletics.

It’s hard to pinpoint just what makes a nation of only 300,000 so successful, but Hafþór, or “Thor” as he is known internationally, seems to ascribe to Norwegian strongman Icon and Hall-of-Famer Svend Karlsen’s catchphrase, “Viking power!,” attributing his incredible abilities at least partly to his infamous ancestors.

Magnús Ver has a different hypothesis that seems at least somewhat conclusive. “It comes from our background, which is that we’re used to working,” Magnús explains. “Even as a young kid, I was working on farms during the summers when I wasn’t in school. I don’t know how it is now, maybe not so much, but young kids still do go out and work.” In addition to developing strength, this working background also plays into the development of Icelanders’ work ethic, which is exactly what is required in this sport.

Hafþór’s workouts aren’t your average 24 Hour Fitness, after-work aerobics classes or weight trainings. After roughly an hour of pushing himself to dig deep in some of the common powerlifting exercises like the dead lift and the squat, the now covered-in-sweat and out of breath Icelandic giant begins the second half of his workout. Ducking his head to fit through the doorway, Thor makes his way upstairs to an area of the gym dedicated to training for the various strongman events. These events test aspects of an athlete’s strength beyond your standard gym exercises, including things like the Atlas Stones or the Truck Pull, which add enormously to the entertainment value of these strongman shows. It is far easier for a layperson to understand what it means to be able to squat a car, for example, than to be able to squat a 400kg bar.

Unlike many of his competitors who train for these events once a week, Thor trains for at least two of the different events at each one of his workouts. As a routine that Hafþór maintains for five or six days a week, it is easy to see how the working background Magnús Ver described would come in handy.

Hafþór isn’t alone in all of this, however. Arriving to the gym shortly after Thor is his long time friend and training partner, Stefán Sölvi Pétursson. Upon his arrival, Stefán drops his bag in the corner and walks over to the stereo to turn on some Icelandic metal to get the juices flowing. After some warm-up exercises and stretching, he pulls on his knee braces and loads the bar with enough 25kg plates to make his own 160kg bodyweight seem light. The rack needs almost no adjustment from when Thor was using it, however, as Stefán is almost equal in height to Thor at 1.95m. And with the daily routines these two Icelandic behemoths maintain, a good training partner is a must.

“It’s not a life many people would choose,” Hafþór explains as he runs through his schedule. As both a working and a family man, Hafþór has to juggle his strength training with his daily 9–4 shift at Arion Bank where he works as a security guard and spending time with his four-year-old daughter. In the background of all of this, Thor also somehow keeps up with his 8,000–10,000 calorie per day diet, which consists largely of a variety of meats, potatoes and other vegetables.

In case all of this isn’t enough, his schedule is about to become even busier. Starting this June, Hafþór will be competing in strongman shows and events two to three times a month all over Europe. Despite his enormous size, Thor finds it more economical to squeeze himself into a single airline seat instead of purchasing a second one, which is a problem that not many people have. In some ways, though, competing and traveling this often is a welcomed change of pace. “I like to travel and meet new people, as well as hang out with the other guys in the competition. Seeing new places is something I really enjoy,” Thor says. And while winning these contests remains his top priority, Thor maintains friendships with many of his fellow competitors.

Although the friendly strongman culture and tightly knit community hasn’t changed much over the years, the sport, Magnús admits, has. “Today, you have better trained athletes because they are better prepared,” Magnús explains. “Everybody has their own equipment to train with, so weights have gone up in a lot of the events like Super Yoke or Farmers’ Walks because everybody trains for them.” This access and ability to train for the events, Magnús says, is what is making the difference in the sport today. “I didn’t used to do that; Jón Páll didn’t used to do that. We just trained in the gym and were told to do contests. I never trained for the Atlas Stones, for example—I just showed up and did them.”

In response to the evolution of the sport, Magnús Ver opened his own gym in 2008, which gives Icelanders like Hafþór and Stefán a place to train for the various strongman events. The name of the gym, Jakaból, which translates roughly to “giants’ nest,” confirms it—while Iceland may not actually have elves, it certainly has giants. “I had the idea to open a gym like this for a long time—a hardcore training facility, like a club basically. A couple of years ago I finally made it happen,” Magnús says. Opening Jakaból is just one of the many ways Magnús has worked to improve the sport here in Iceland. Organising and hosting strongman and powerlifting contests at his gym as well as refereeing various strongman events also keep Magnús very involved in the sport.

“I’ve already passed the torch to a couple of these guys,” Magnús says, gesturing to Hafþór and Stefán. In addition, Magnús occasionally steps in to give advice to them and to some of the younger guys. “I give them tips when they need them and help out with their form, tell them when they’re doing something wrong or if there’s a way they can do it better,” Magnús says. Maybe he’s just being modest, but whatever he’s doing certainly seems to be helping. Until recently, however, Iceland was without a chance at another world title for almost 15 years.

Before Stefán tore his left pectoral muscle in 2011, he represented Iceland’s first real possibility to win a world title since the ‘90s, finishing fourth at the 2010 World’s Strongest Man contest. He continues to rehabilitate, train, and improve every day, but he doesn’t want to push it. Taking off his weight belt and turning down the metal in the background after finishing his leg set, he elaborates on his current status. “I feel good,” Stefán says, “but I’m not competing yet. I’m going to work on some things and continue to get better and stronger, and come back with a huge splash.” And as his health and physical condition improve, so do Iceland’s chances at another world title.

After placing sixth in 2011, Hafþór’s spot on the podium at the World’s Strongest Man in 2012 alongside two Lithuanians was the closest any Icelander has come to winning since Magnús competed. For a competitor from just about any other country, a third place finish would be a monumental accomplishment as well as an exciting finish. Hafþór Björnsson, however, was only left hungry for more. The title, Hafþór says, remains his ultimate goal.

Despite having won two out of six individual events at the World’s Strongest Man last year and placing second in a third event, Hafþór still has a lot of room for improvement. “I think with me, I just need to improve my overall strength, my deadlift, and my overhead presses. I’m not bad in one event in particular; I just need to improve in everything. I really just need more time,” Hafþór says. It goes without saying that winning a world title does not come easily, but with the exhausting workout schedule he maintains and his dedication to getting better, Hafþór is on the right track and remains optimistic. “There are pretty good guys competing, but if I stay injury free throughout the rest of the year and continue to improve, I believe I can win,” Thor says.

As something of an expert when it comes to judging contests, however, Magnús Ver offered a slightly different analysis. “I said last year that he’ll win this year, but I’m kind of thinking maybe I’ll give him another year,” Magnús laughed as an Hafþór jokingly yelled, “What!?” from the other room as he was mid leg-press. “If things keep going like they have been going, for sure next year. He’ll have a hell of a battle this year,” Magnús says.

Lithuanians Žydrunas Savickas and Vytautas Lalas barely beat out Hafþór last year, and American Brian Shaw was a close fourth. With the point totals at these strongman contests being separated by such thin margins, a single rep or just a few seconds in any one event could mean the title. Being the size he is, however, Hafþór dwarfs many of his fellow competitors and even makes four-time champion Magnús Ver look small. In most of the events, Hafþór’s monstrous stature serves as a significant advantage, facilitating his improvement in the sport and hence strengthening his chances of winning.

Magnús was also quick to note how far Hafþór has come in such a short time. “When he first started out, he sucked at the overhead press,” he says. “Now he’s good at it. That’s the trick, work on your weaknesses—make your weaknesses your strengths.” As the odds begin to stack up in Hafþór’s favour, the question of Hafþór bringing the world title back to Iceland shifts from a matter of “if” to a matter of “when.” Whether or not it’s this year or next, there is no doubt that Iceland finally has a chance to reclaim its spot at the top of the World’s Strongest Man podium.

After such a considerable drought, Hafþór’s feelings about finally bringing the title back to Iceland are simple. “I can see that I can win the competition, and I want to put Iceland back up to the top of the sport. We are the best and I want to remind the world of that,” he said. With Iceland’s résumé, it would be hard to argue that he’s wrong.

Representing a nation with such a successful background in this sport, however, is no small task. “I feel a sense of pride representing the same small country that guys like Magnús Ver Magnússon and Jón Páll Sigmarsson have represented,” Hafþór said. “We have won eight times. To represent Iceland is something special and what I consider a privilege.” With this attitude, Hafþór brings a renewed hope to this tiny nation for yet another world title in strongman.

“Ekkert Mál Fyrir Jón Pál!”
Jón Páll is widely regarded one of the strongest men to ever grace the World’s Strongest Man stage and remains an iconic figure in the sport.

Not only was he Iceland’s first strongman champion, but Jón Páll has also been crowned the World’s Strongest Man (WSM) four times (’84, ’86, ’88, ’90) and has finished in the top three at WSM a total of seven times. In addition to that, Jón Páll was recently voted into the World’s Strongest Man Hall of Fame, where he joins Norway’s Svend Karlsen and Poland’s Mariusz Pudzianowski.

Throughout his career, Jón Páll won countless titles in both strongman and Olympic weightlifting competitions and broke dozens of Icelandic and world weightlifting and strongman records. His monumental performance in the sport led Icelanders to coin the phrase, “Ekkert mál fyrir Jón Pál,” which translates roughly to “It’s no problem for Jón Páll.” When faced with a daunting task, Icelanders simply remember “ekkert mál fyrir Jón Pál” for inspiration.

Tragically, Jón Páll suffered a heart attack while deadlifting in his gym in 1993. He was loved immensely around the globe for his charisma and charm on and off the world weightlifting stage.

In the finals of the World’s Strongest Man, a total of ten athletes compete in six different events, accumulating points depending on their performance. The athlete with the most points accumulated at the end of the six events takes home the title. Though these are ever changing, there are a number of staples that frequently appear on the international stage.

Truck Pull:
No surprise here, this event involves exactly what its title indicates. After an uphill start, the athletes use a rope to pull a 24.5 metric ton big rig over a 25-meter course. The fastest time wins.
2012 Winner: Terry Hollands (42.97 seconds)
Hafþór: Second place (44.71 seconds)

Giant Log Press:
Another largely self-explanatory title, this is a “last man standing” event, which features the athletes pressing logs of different weights (170kg, 185kg, 200kg, 210kg, and finally 220kg) over their heads.
2012 Winner: Žydrunas Savickas, who successfully overhead pressed the 220kg log.
Hafþór: Tied for fifth in this event, maxing out at 185kg.

Rock Lift:
With the giant rock selection to practice with in Iceland, it’s no wonder this event is Hafþór’s specialty. It involves picking up five natural rocks of varying weights (136-169kg) and placing them on different platforms a few meters away. Fastest time wins.
2012 Winner: Our own Hafþór Björnsson, successfully placing all five rocks in a time of just 25.52 seconds.

This is one of the few basic powerlifting exercises directly represented in strongman contests. In the most recent World’s Strongest Man competition, the athletes lifted the giant 360kg barbell as many times as they could in a short, 75-second time period. The person who does the most reps wins.
2012 Winner: Žydrunas Savickas (8 reps)
Hafþór: Seventh place (4 reps)

Power Stairs:
Another one of Hafþór’s specialties, this event involves lifting a giant 225kg weight up a flight of five tall steps. The fastest time wins.
2012 Winner:Hafþór
Björnsson (36.82 seconds)

Super Yoke:
An incredibly painful event to watch, the Super Yoke involves the athletes carrying a nearly 450kg steel weight on their shoulders over a 40m course, 20m up and 20m back. The fastest time wins.
2012 Winner:
Brian Shaw (28.40 seconds)
Hafþór: Sixth place (33.55 seconds)

See also:
Iceland Might Not Have Elves, But It Does Have Giants

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