In the book "All the President's Men," it was written that G. Gordon Liddy, the mastermind behind the Watergate burglary, would occasionally, at parties, hold his hand over a candle flame until his seared flesh started smoking. When someone asked what the trick was, he'd reply, "The trick is not minding."
Next to Matt Kroczaleski, Liddy is a poseur, a piker, a punk. Kroc's feats of mental toughness — his "tricks," if you will — will either inspire you or repel you.
Here's a guy who sticks nails in his arm, squats over a grand, and laughs when his nose starts bleeding after a heavy bench press. His intensity is legendary.
But he's not just a powerlifter. And even though he recently competed in a bodybuilding show — "Just another challenge," he says — he's not a bodybuilder either. He's not crazy. He's not a freak. And he's certainly not hardcore. In fact, he hates those labels.
He's a man who lives by a code — a code that drives him to do extraordinary things.
And it's my job to crack it, find where it originated, and learn how it works.
A Stick and Cement Start
Matt is six years old and working out with his dad's cement-filled Sears weights on the "back porch," a run-down addition connected to his family's trailer that sits on the edge of the woods in Michigan. He's not allowed back there. He picks up a 10-pound dumbbell and does 100 reps on each arm as quickly as he can, then sneaks back through the hallway, arms pumped, making sure to stick close to the wall. One wrong step and he'd fall through the floor.
A couple of years later he will make his first weight set out of milk jugs filled with sand, using a stick as a barbell, and a two-by-four laid over cement blocks as a bench.
"I haven't had more than a week off from training since then," he says. "I don't know what it's like not to train."
What Darkness Teaches
To a child, the woods are a scary place at night. Coyotes, rustling leaves, and scurrying animals can play tricks on your mind. You think about getting eaten. Kidnapped. Whatever.
Matt grabs a lawn chair and forces himself to sit outside at night. Every day for weeks. He learns the sounds, gets used to blackness, not being able to see his hand. His eyes adjust, and he stays out there for hours.
"Fears like that can inhibit you," he says. "You have to expose yourself to whatever scares you till it becomes normal."
Real Mind Control
A freshman in high school, Matt weighs only 118 pounds. Everyone in his grade has had a massive growth spurt, but he's still scrawny. The confidence he built in middle school by being a top athlete takes a nosedive. Athletics don't mean shit when it comes to high school popularity.
"In elementary and middle school, I always wanted to be the best at something. Then high school came and I lost my drive. I got made fun of because I only had one pair of jeans. I was shunned by all my friends. I'd walk on the [wrestling] mat with the hope of not getting embarrassed. I didn't have the mentality of beating the guy. I just did enough to get by."
Then, in shop class, Matt watches the star football player, a kid two years older than him, stick a huge safety pin into his own arm. The kid doesn't flinch.
Matt goes home after school, finds a safety pin, and heads to the bathroom. He hesitates, then sticks it in deep, right into the meat of his biceps. When he pulls it out, blood is trickling down his arm.
"Mental toughness is making your body do something your mind doesn't want to do," he says.
That day he learns an important lesson he'll keep with him forever: if you can override your mind, you can do anything.
20 Staples to Respect
Fresh out of high school and into the Marines, Matt enters a powerlifting contest.
"I knew the guys I was competing against, and I remember doing the math. I ran the numbers at least fifty times and was in disbelief that I could win it."
Of course, he wins it.
"That's when I realized what I was doing. Why have I been striving to just do well ? I should be going to the top."
His confidence is back. So is his competitive attitude.
One day, Matt is sitting with a group of fellow Marines in the office when he notices one of them has burn marks on his arm. "Apparently these guys liked to get drunk and hold cigarettes to their arms to 'see who's tougher.'"
Matt is unimpressed.
"Oh, what, you think you're tougher or something?" the guy says.
Matt suddenly snatches a stapler off the guy's desk, and, without a word, quickly puts 20 staples into his own arm. The rest of the guys can't believe it. Then, one by one, he starts to pick them out. "A couple of the staples had hit veins, so when I pulled them out, blood just gushed down my arm."
He doesn't do these things because he's crazy, he says, but for mental toughness.
"If you can do something that's painful and uncomfortable, you can withstand anything."
The Kroc Row
The camera is still, fixated on a red EliteFTS bench and a huge dumbbell on the floor. It's a garage gym, and a well-equipped one at that. Chains hang from the wall in the background. A shovel rests in the corner. Music blares from an unseen stereo.
Matt walks into the frame, positions himself on the bench, shakes his head, and lets out a high-pitched growl. He grabs the dumbbell — 175 pounds — and starts to do single-arm rows without wrist straps. He busts out ten easy ones and keeps going. 10 reps quickly turn to 20. At rep 25 he begins growling. 29, 30, 31, 32...33. He drops the dumbbell on the final rep, and walks off camera.
The "Kroc row," as Jim Wendler dubbed it, has caught on. Its purpose, Matt tells me, is to help grip strength for deadlifts and build upper back size.
But everyone wants to know: why so many reps?
"Because I ran out of weight. And because no one else will do it."
The Wolverine in the Room
Matt's backstage at a powerliftng competition — any competition — and he looks relaxed.
This isn't the same Matt Kroc you see in the videos.
He's laughing, joking, smiling.
But when his weight class gets called up next, a switch flips.
He stops talking. His eyes narrow. He recedes inside.
"I start thinking of all the reasons why I want and need to achieve this. I think about the training I did. I think of all the doubters, the haters, the people who told me I wasn't born to do this. The adrenaline flows and I'm ready to prove people wrong."
He also knows he's gonna have to lift the weight twice.
He feels the knurling of the bar in his hands. He smells the chalk. His heart rate increases. And he completes the lift without even stepping onto the platform.
This is mind control and Matt Kroc is a master.
"I always do the lift first in my mind. It's not something I just do for the hell of it. I've analyzed this. I've put a lot of work into the psychology."
When his name is called, he walks to the platform. The adrenaline is boiling to the surface but he has to contain it. He can't let it out. Not yet.
He grips the bar, takes his air, and becomes the Matt Kroc you know: unstoppable.
60 seconds after the bar is racked, the flip is switched back. He's laughing again. Smiling. A completely different person.
Playing Hard Ball
It's 2004. Matt's doctor is walking out of the room, but turns over his shoulder to ask, "Is there anything else?"
A hardened testicle, Matt says. He almost forgot about it. Maybe the doc could take a look if he had a minute?
The doctor orders an ultrasound. Matt looks at the face of the girl who's operating the machine. She looks very serious.
He knows then it's cancer.
Matt goes back home and e-mails his friends: "The cancer may have found a place to stay, but I'm going to sign the eviction notice and get back to life as normal."
Walking into the oncology department, Matt can't believe he's a patient. He doesn't belong here. He feels fine, really. He has his testicle removed and goes through 20 sessions of radiation.
Radiation makes people sick. Most people stop on their drive home from the hospital to puke. They sleep all day and into the next.
Matt gets a weird taste in his mouth, but that's about it.
Luckily the cancer doesn't spread. But if it had, Matt wasn't too worried. "I wouldn't say I was looking forward to it, but I was up for the challenge. I went in saying, give me the worst and I'm going to beat it."
Still, Matt doesn't think he deserves any respect to talk about cancer.
He didn't go through chemo multiple times. He didn't lose his hair or any bodyweight.
He got off easy.
The Hidden Bodybuilder
He's back from the gym, standing in his kitchen pan-frying tilapia, and talking to me on the phone. He's 15 weeks into his diet and two weeks out from a bodybuilding show, the first one he's done in over 14 years.
I ask him about his diet.
"It's not fun but it does what it's supposed to do. That's all that matters."
Matt, I can tell, is incredibly intelligent. More philosopher than powerlifter, really. Every sentence is straight to the point and honest. He's an open book, he tells me. Ask him anything.
Are you excited to get oiled up, put on bikini bottoms, and flex your muscles?
"No, but it's all part of the challenge."
Bodybuilders and powerlifters get along just fine (mostly), but it's relatively unheard of for a top athlete to switch sports for no reason other than, "I wanted to see if I could do it." But going from a strength athlete to a physique athlete — from lifting incredibly heavy weight to focusing on aesthetics and abs — is yet another way to push himself, a step out of his comfort zone, and, of course, a way to prove people wrong.
They say he'll be too thick in the waist or that he doesn't have the right physique for bodybuilding. They question his discipline to stick to the diet.
Matt doesn't understand that last one at all.
"When I put my mind to something there is no other option. It's not a question of if I'm going to do it but how long it'll take me."
But how is he handling the training?
"I'm still benching and squatting, but I'm just now starting to do direct arm training. They have a lot of catching up to do."
He trains six days per week, working every body part twice per week. The frequency is nothing new. What's testing him, though, are the sets of 10 and 20 reps. He can't bring the same intensity.
"When you're trying to pull 800 pounds for a PR, you're mentally in a different place than when you're going for a set of 20 with half that weight. Still, I'm training hard and busting my butt on every set."
And while it's a good change of pace — his joints are feeling better, for one thing — he can't wait to get back to powerlifting.
"I'm expecting when I get my weight back up I'll be stronger than I've ever been."
And when he does, he's going for the 242-pound powerlifting record. The total is currently 2630. He's not far behind at 2551.
A couple weeks after our talk, Matt wins first place in the heavyweight category at the NPC Michigan State Bodybuilding Championship. He takes second in the Overall.
"I really enjoyed the entire process and the actual competing, and I'm looking forward to next year's junior nationals," he says. "As far as how the results ended up, I was extremely disappointed in not getting the overall win. But bodybuilding is a subjective sport and you just have to accept that going into it."
Nice words, but something tells me Matt just won't "accept" anything.
What's Wrong With a Little Blood?
Back when the bodybuilding show was still a few weeks away, Matt was going to this commercial gym — a "normal people gym," as he calls it — a few times per week.
He loads 405 pounds onto the bar in the power cage and proceeds to do squats. Halfway through his set of 20 reps, his nose starts to bleed.
It doesn't bother him — hell, it's happened before — so Matt just finishes his set with blood running down his face.
When he racks the bar, there's a guy standing behind him with a towel and a horrified look on his face.
"He asked me if I needed to go to the hospital."
Normal people, it seems, just don't get it.
Have No Fear
He's sitting at his computer checking e-mail. Or he's in the gym and talking to a group of young guys. Or he's at a fitness conference shaking hands with anyone who wants to shake hands.
He knows what it's like to look up to people, and he takes his fans' admiration very seriously.
"I think about it when I'm training," he says. "I don't want to let them down. I want to continue to inspire people."
Matt Kroczaleski — Kroc, as his friends call him — is 37 years old and an Elite-level powerlifter. He has squatted 1014 pounds, benched 738, and deadlifted 810. But most of all, he's a good guy who lives by a code: to get what you want, you have to override your mind and be willing to take things further than anyone else.
"I'm not afraid of anything," he tells me. "And if I was, I'd fix it."
Like Matt told me earlier, fears can inhibit you. They can make you weak. "You have to expose yourself to whatever scares you till it becomes normal."
Essentially, you have to own it — whatever "it" is — and not the other way around.
And no one practices what he preaches more than Kroc.