Going Strong

May 22, 2015
Photographer Herb Ritts.

Photographer Herb Ritts.

This week, Jessica and I started training in the sport of strongman. Despite the name, it is not just for men, nor is it only for strong people. Strongmen events focus on the functional side of fitness, testing the techniques of moving around difficult objects like kegs, yokes, sleds, atlas stones, and chains. Jess and I are both naturally good at it and enthused about adding it to the weekly training schedule.

As good luck would have it, there is a strongman coach here in Venice Beach. Logan Gelbrich is a former pro baseball player and his gym, Deuce, is located in an abandoned auto body shop on a gritty stretch of Lincoln Boulevard. The gym itself is tiny—it might have fit two small cars in its previous incarnation. In fact, it serves as little more than an oversized storage unit for some of the strongman equipment Gelbrich uses in training. Most of the work is done on the concrete parking lot outdoors, in midday heat, mimicking the not-always-perfect conditions one might encounter in real life: say, if your car breaks down, you have to help a friend move a mattress up a flight of stairs, or you need to shovel snow or dig a ditch.

Claudia Schiffer.  helmut Newton, 1988.

Claudia Schiffer, Helmut Newton, 1988.

This week, Jessica and I learned how to move three things: the atlas stone, a heavy pipe, and a sled. An atlas stone is a ball made out of concrete and can be made in different weights. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can make your own; you might have to, since you’ll have a hard time finding someone to deliver a ball weighing 100 pounds or more to your home. Logan showed us how to maximize our grip and friction on the ball. For me, with just nine and a half fingers, the hardest part was just getting it off the ground; then, while still squatting, you hoist it onto your lap. From there, you can actually get your hands under the thing, and using the force of your hips, thrust it up and roll it over your shoulders so it drops back to the ground, guided by your back. I managed to toss #75 pounds while Jess did #95.

I struggled with lifting the awkward and heavy pipe—the diameter is just too large for my hands to fit around. Of course, that is the point. The girth of the axle seriously restricts your pulling power at any weight. Then, as you raise it off the ground, you naturally lose power around the height of the lower ribs, when your arms are fully bent. So at that point you are supposed to rest the pipe on your body by tipping into a swayed back limbo, flip your hands under the bar, and resume the lift from there. I never trusted myself enough at the crux, and twice lost a #95 bar which had been balanced on my chest. Once it grazed my knee on the way to the ground leaving a nice eggplant-sized bruise in its wake.

My favorite was the sled push/pull, not least because I already have some experience: I’ve pulled sleds weighing more than 100 pounds, while wearing skis, on polar mountaineering expeditions. Logan showed us the pulling technique, hand-over-hand on the rope from a seated position, and how to use the power of your legs to push it forward. The chances of seeing a sled event come up in the CrossFit Games this year are good; they’ve been used frequently in the past. I will be ready.

El Mirador, Bill Anderson,  early 1950s.

El Mirador, Bill Anderson, early 1950s.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Rev. Cathleen Cox May 25, 2015 at 10:53 am

    I love following your journey. I picture you out in that concrete lot, grappling with the awkward pipe, ready to haul a mattress up several flights of stairs to a friend’s 5th floor walk-up. I know you would do it if the moment called for it! Always I have appreciated your extraordinary range, and though we cross-cut different terrain, this is a trait we share. Stories I’ve heard make me think our great-grandfather Jayet had it too!
    And what a kick to see a photo from El Mirador. My parents honeymooned there, and we visited several times on our many treks to Palm Springs. It was past its prime – as you, at 60, certainly are not and – again in a different way – I might say me that of myself as well, which quite pleases me). Still, though I don’t by aspire to anything like your level of fitness , you do inspire me to reach for more, and I value the awesome reminder of what is possible!

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