The Land of Giants

A behind the scenes look at the world of the strongman

Categorized under Training

As bodybuilders, powerlifters and just guys who like to chunk around a lot of iron, it’s hard not to watch those strongman competitions on TV. There’s just something impressive about a guy pulling a semi or carrying around a rock the size of a Pinto. The functional size, strength and complete lack of necks always makes for a cool show.

But where do these giants come from? How do they train and what “special” European supplements do they use? To get the inside scoop, we talked to Chad Coy, a strongman competitor, contest promoter, and gym owner.

Testosterone: Let’s cut to the chase. Is drug use as rampant in strongman competitions as it is in other aspects of the iron game?

Chad Coy: As with any of the iron sports or any sport that has money involved in it, there’s plenty of drug use in strongman. Most guys at the top use drugs in order to win the big money and make a living. I’d say that drug users make up 70% of the international competitors. About 30% of Americans are users and some would argue that is why Americans haven’t done so well over the last fifteen years.

T: Is there any drug testing at all?

CC: The only show that drug tests is the World’s Strongest Man. They only check for speed.

T: What kinds of drugs do these guys use?

CC: The guys I know that use stick with Test, Dianabol, Anadrol-50, and Deca. Some guys use a little growth hormone but not like in bodybuilding. I know of no one that uses insulin or IGF-1. I’m not saying any names because these guys are friends of mine and I must compete with them year round.

I choose to be drug free for myself and that has nothing to do with the way I think of the guys I compete with. The guys don’t use huge dosages like many of the bodybuilders I know! There are stories, however, about one of the top guys spending over the average household income on drugs in a year.

T: How do they cycle? Or do they?

CC: Again, from talking to the guys I know, they rarely come off. They stay on year ’round and just take more during the competition season. Here’s what one top pro told me he did: Each week he takes 200 mg of Deca with 600 mg of some type of Testosterone. During the season (we start competing in March and end in October), he takes one or two Anadrols a day for added strength. Then a day before a show he’ll take three milliliters of water based Test and half a dozen Halotestin tabs in order to be pissed off. He usually is extremely aggressive. He also uses HCG every few weeks.

T: Has anyone ever died from crazy cycles?

CC: No one has ever died directly from the cycle they were doing , but several have died from heart disease that I think is exacerbated by drug use. Most guys just tear tendons, the most prevalent being the bicep. Shoulder injuries are quite common as well.

T: You mentioned that some use speed to get jacked up for contests. Tell us about that.

CC: Some guys use speed to get jacked, but for the most part the ECA stack is most widely used. I prefer a combination of thermogenics and Power Drive myself. The guys that use speed get over-stimulated and tend to lose concentration. I’ve heard of one guy who was so loaded on Nubain that he had to take speed to do an event, but that’s not common.

As I said, the WSM (World’s Strongest Man) now tests daily for speed use because it would be bad for ratings if a guy died on TV. They’ll show Mark Phillippi getting hurt a dozen times in one episode; I guess people want to see the bad stuff, kind of like car crashes in auto racing.

T: It seems that these days, most pro bodybuilders don’t limit their drug use to anabolics. Party drugs are popular too. How about strongmen competitors?

CC: For the most part, guys might drink and some guys may use GHB and get high, but nothing harder than that, at least not that I know of.

T: Are any of the top guys drug free?

CC: Many of the top Americans are drug free. Phil Pfhister, Brian Schoonveld, Brian Neese, Karl Gillingham, Mark Phillippi and myself are clean. There are guys that aren’t and they aren’t shy about it. Many of the European guys juice. Last year when I went to Finland on a trip, one guy asked me why I even competed since I didn’t use. That just tells me that they think success equates only to winning. Most of the Americans have families and are successful in there jobs. The sport for them is fun and yes, winning is great, but not at the expense of health or freedom!

T: Tell us about yourself, Chad. What are your stats and how did you get involved in this crazy world?

CC: I’m six foot tall and weigh in at 265 pounds, around 15% body fat. I’ve been competing in strongman exclusively since October of 1998. I’d been watching the World’s Strongest Man for years on ESPN and thought it might be fun to try the sport out, but in 96 there were no shows in the states. So I promoted the Central USA Strongman Challenge and did it.

That show itself is now the longest running and largest show in the USA. The Central USA got me involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization and last year we started promoting the American Hercules. All the proceeds from the show go to the charity. This year’s show will be the US Championship. It’ll be held on the 7th and 8th of July in Kokomo, Indiana.

Others get into the sport for a variety of reasons. Magnus Ver Magnusson got into the sport in 1991 after having a tremendous powerlifting career. He went on to win the show four times. Magnus Samuelson was a farmer and got into the contests coming from arm wrestling. Phil Pfister, one of the top Americans, got his start in 1998 and shot right to the top with a fourth place finish in WSM and he’s been at the top until the past six months.

Brian Schoonveld of Demotte, Indiana, got into the sport in the 1999 Central USA and is now considered the sport’s fastest rising star. Brian works construction, so many of the things we do in competition he does every day . Brian has risen to the top in only eighteen months winning the America’s last year. Bryan Neese, the 1999 America’s Strongest Man, is a school teacher and he got his start as a teen bodybuilder. From there he went into powerlifting and Highlands games. Schoonveld and Neese are my training partners.

T: Hey, no offense, but tell me this. Why is the sport dominated by Europeans? From what I’ve seen on TV, the Americans get their asses kicked regularily.

CC: Like I said before, there really were no shows in the US until 96, but Europe has these types of shows every weekend somewhere. Europeans have had the upper hand because they have the experience, but that’s changing now!

Another advantage that the Europeans had was that they trained for the events with the actual equipment. Now, thanks to Mastiff Strength, Brian Neese’s company, we now have access to every piece of equipment seen on TV. It’ll only be a few more years until an American brings the title home.

Plus, there’s the drug advantage that I mentioned earlier.

T: Were you involved in any other sports before you got into strongman?

CC: I was involved in football and powerlifting. I captured two national drug-free titles and a world championship before coming to strongman full time. Svend Karlson was an IFBB pro bodybuilder until 1995 when he came to strongman. I’d say most guys have a powerlifting background, with some coming from Highlands games and bodybuilding. Being strong in the core lifts surely helps you succeed.

T: Sounds like most of these guys are pulled in from other sports. What’s the draw to strongman? Why do you compete?

CC: I compete in the shows because it requires the competitor himself to be an athlete. Powerlifters can stand still to demonstrate their strength. Bodybuilders must be shredded and look athletic. But strongmen must be in shape and mobile while maintaining functional strength. One of the other draws is the friendships that are built. Only in strongman do you see your fiercest rival cheer you on.

T: What was you first competition and how did you do?

CC: I did the Central USA in 1996 and placed second to Doug Ahr, my former training partner. Doug could have been one of the best ever if he could’ve stayed motivated. He’s 6’8″ and weighed in at around 400, but he was surprisingly agile and incredibly strong. He’s now a school teacher.

T: Bet no one chews gum in his class. What’s your favorite and least favorite event?

CC: My favorite event is the stones of strength and my least favorite is the bus pull. The stones for me are a great event because you must be fast and have a strong back. I also like any type of medley event where you have to do several events together. I hate the bus pull because I’m too short and too light to do well at it.

T: Wait a minute, you’re 265 and six foot tall! What do you mean “light”?

CC: Yeah, it’s not often that someone my size is considered small, but in most shows I’m the smallest competitor. Personally, I use this to fuel my fire to do well because no one expects anything from the “little” guy.

T: How big a role do genetics play? I mean, you’ve got to be born a big freak to really excel at this sport, correct?

CC: I think genes play a huge role. Look at the top guys. They’re all 6’3″ and over 300 pounds! Ahola isn’t much bigger than I am, but he was unbeatable because he trained harder than anyone else.

T: When you’re competing, what goes through your mind? How do you psych yourself up?

CC: I try and concentrate on the proper form and technique of the event that I’m doing at the time. Before I begin an event, I pretend that if I don’t succeed my family will be killed or something; this helps me tap into some inner strength. I also pray a lot and in events that have a lot of pain involved, I think of Christ hanging on a cross for three days and, well, I figure I can go a few more seconds! I know it sounds nuts, but I guess some stuff from my football days just never filtered out.

T: Let’s talk training. What do you do in the gym?

CC: I focus on the big movements like squat, deadlift, power clean, push press, chins, rows, inclines, bench, etc. Plus I do a lot of neck, ab, calf, and grip work. My training consists of speed work like Dave Tate suggests and max effort. Because I train specific events every weekend, I break my training up into a Monday and Thursday session.

Monday I do speed squats (10 sets of 2 at 60%), and speed deads (3 to10 singles at 70%) followed by a vertical press like a two-inch bar push press or log press (2 sets of 3 to 15 reps). Then I do some type of vertical pull like chins (2 sets of 3 to 15), then a snatch or power clean type movement (one drop set).

I then go to a horizontal pulling movement like rows (2 sets of 3 to 15), followed by a horizontal press like bench (2 sets of 3 to15 reps). With time permitting, I do accessories. Thursday I flip flop the speed vertical press and max effort squat or dead. Each week is different but I’m always breaking new PRs.

The reps change every two weeks. This way I’m strong in each type of strength all the time. Once I know what the next event calls for I can change my training to better fit the next show. I plan time off every twelve weeks or sooner; it all depends on how I’m recovering. I also incorporate a lot of restoration.

T: How do you train for the events themselves?

CC: Every weekend I train four to eight events. It really depends on the show that’s next, but we may do super yoke, farmers walk, stones, Conan’s wheel, crucifix, bus pull, car flip, truck lift and walk, arm over arm pull, keg toss, keg loading, etc. The key to training is doing it with a stopwatch so that you know how fast you’re doing things. Then you can work the technique so that you get faster. It’s easy to overdo things so monitoring intensity and volume is a must.

T: How important is it to train with the actual equipment? Like, do you have an old car or tractor tires in the backyard to flip around?

CC: Actually I have a warehouse where we store all of our equipment. We have several tires ranging from 640 pounds to a thousand pounds. Yes, we do have a car for flipping, a truck for the truck lift and walk event, two sets of stones and stands, Conan’s wheel, Viking press, a crucifix stand, farmers walk implements, logs, and kegs.

T: How important is grip and real-world strength compared to “gym strength”?

CC: Grip is important in almost everything. Today’s farmers walk implements weigh around 330 pounds (that’s in each hand) and you have to walk 200 feet with them. Grip is crucial.

Real-world strength is needed when you flip 800 pound tires and sling 250 pound beer kegs as a normal guy would an empty one! You have to be able to move with great amounts of weight. It’s much different than lying on your back and pressing. I know several guys that can squat 800, but couldn’t go ten feet with an 800 pound super yoke on their back!

T: Do you train your grip just practicing the event or do you do special grip work? Give us a good training tip for grip.

CC: First off, I pitched my straps years ago. If I can’t hold on to it, then the weight is too heavy. I also use thick bars from Mastiff to do all my pressing and curling. The thick bars really pound your grip! I do pinch grip holds with two 25 pound plates. I also like timed holds either with a thick bar or a regular bar.

Editor’s note: See our Short Topic article on these exercises here.

I use the grippers from Ironmind at least once per week. My favorite grip buster is to put a bar atop the power rack so that it rolls. Then I just grab on and hang tight until my grip gives out. My personal best is 45 seconds with an extra 100 pounds attached to my body. By training grip you’ll be able to handle heavier poundages and thus force the growth of larger muscles.

T: What do you do outside of strongman? What about the guys you compete against?

CC: I own Powerhouse Gym in Kokomo, Indiana, and I work in the supplement industry. Jouko Ahola is an actor and carpenter. Svend Karlsen owned a gym at one point and is sponsored by a supplement company and Valeo. Bryan Neese teaches school and owns Mastiff Strength Equipment.

Gary Mitchell is an executive for Ford, Odd Haugen is the main guy at 24 Hour Fitness in Europe, Magnus ver owns a night club, and Magun Samuelson owns a farm and distributes supplements in Sweden. Mark Phillippi is the head strength and conditioning coach at UNLV. Phil Pfhister is a fireman and Karl Gillingham is a purchasing agent and owns Jackal gym, a web page to buy strongman gear.

T: Sounds like no one is really making a living as just a strongman. Can you do this as your sole career?

CC: The top guys can make great money. Svend, Magnus ver, and Magnus Samuelson all make over $50,000 per year. They all have sponsors that allow them to just focus on training. I made about three grand last year with my sponsor (Bioenergy, the makers of Ribose) paying all my expenses. Most Americans pay their own expenses. Traveling all over the world isn’t cheap so most guys look for sponsors.

As for prizes, Schoonveld cashed in at the Showdown for a $10,000 first prize. Most pro shows in the States average $4,000 for first prize.

T: The sport seems to be growing in popularity. Why do you think that is?

CC: People can understand a guy pulling a semi and flipping a car, but they have no idea how difficult squatting 800 pounds is or that the super heavyweights in the Olympics snatch over 400 pounds. Pressing a tree trunk overhead is very visual. I think most guys see the primordial strength and it gets them going. I loved strength as a kid and I wanted one day to be like my favorite superhero.

T: Can a strongman contest be fixed? I’ve heard stories….

CC: If you really wanted to it could be. Buying off the timers would be one way. Paying off the head judge might work. Other than that it would be next to impossible to fix a show. As a promoter you could tailor your show to favor one type of athlete. Having all static events would help the slow powerful guys, and having a show with all loading events would help the small fast guys. I prefer to do competitions that show all types of strength.

T: Does anyone cheat in order to win?

CC: The Europeans know every way to bend the rules, and we Americans are catching up rather quickly. For instance, the Pfhister rule of farmers walk says you must wait until the whistle is blown before standing up and walking. Last summer we did a show and Phil stood up at “get ready”; he won the event but it was within the rules as stated. He didn’t cheat, but he bent the rules and he won that event. Trust me, if you can get away with something you will.

T: What legal supplements are hot on the strongman scene?

CC: I use about anything that could possibly help my performance, and is legal. I like creatine, glutamine, MRPs, Problend-55, thermogenics, ZMA, MSM, essential fats, and joint formulas. I do use Tribex-500 and Power Drive from Biotest; they both work well. I double the dosages for that extra little kick. Lately I’ve gone to three or four dosages of Power Drive daily and that has sent my strength up that much more! I guess I can’t kill that “more is better” attitude. I also use transdermal prohormones.

I know that Svend and Magnus Samuelson are both sponsored by Twinlab, Schoonveld is sponsored by Champion and Neese is sponsored by HDT. Everyone I know uses some sort of protein and most use creatine.

T: Bodybuilders tend to get a lot of groupie action. Are there groupies in strongman?

CC: Yes, and they are either butt ugly or really hot. One of the more well known competitors has a different woman at every show, and some time several. I’d mention his name but I think his girlfriend would be pissed. Many guys are married and have their wives with them where ever they go, but the ones that aren’t married always go out after the show and have a good time!

T: Let’s talk about getting your grub on. Tell us how these giants eat. What kinds of calories are we talking about per day, grams of protein, etc. Is nutrition important or do most of these guys just inhale everything in sight?

CC: Most of the guys watch what they eat as far as protein goes and the rest just takes care of itself. 5,000 calories a day and over 300 grams of protein would be on the light side for most guys.

A year ago I was training with Schoonie and before we trained he ate three-fourths of a pound of roast beef, half a pound of cheese, three big hoagie rolls, half a gallon of milk, and about a dozen cookies. He weighed in at 330 at Worlds last year. To be more competitive he needed to cut some fat, so he’s now a very fast 290. The better guys are the ones that are not fat!

T: Some of these guys do look pretty fat, though obviously there’s a lot of muscle under there. Is this extra size helpful or is it a hindrance?

CC: On some events, like the bus pull, it helps. On loading events it hurts. Last fall I got up to 275 and I was stronger than ever, but I was too fat and it hurt my cardio. So I trimmed down to 250 this spring and I’m now back up to about 265.

T: What staple of a strongman’s training program should the average guy adopt and incorporate into his training?

CC: Do finishers, log clean and press at the end of your training, farmers walks, sand bag carries, harness pulls, sled drags, and car pushes. Nothing beats functional strength!

T: What could the non-competitive guy learn from a strongman about training or diet?

CC: Train with heavy weights and eat enough protein! Use the awkward stuff to lift. Do your finishers and do some form of cardio! Read King, Poliquin, Tate, etc. Never quit reading and trying new stuff. Some works and some doesn’t, but the journey of learning is much sweeter than the success of ending up at your goal.

T: Good advice, Chad. Thanks for talking with us.

CC: You bet. I hope to see a lot of Testosterone T-shirts at the US Championship in Kokomo this year.

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Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow Chris Shugart on Twitter