During this installment, Adam talks about bodybuilding, how he got into feats of strength, and why he thinks training information should be shared, not guarded.
Josh: Like a lot of people, I originally got into weights during a bodybuilding phase. How do you feel about bodybuilding?
Adam: Positives: okay, the first thing is that most people who think of bodybuilders are not thinking of bodybuilders as I see it. True bodybuilders, in my opinion, are the people who are going out and competing, which means there’s a lot of dedication put into it. A true bodybuilder is evaluating everything he puts into his mouth. He’s measuring out his time and training intensity. They’re trying to maximize their performance in the context of their sport, which happens to be how they look.
Someone could prepare very hard for a bodybuilding contest and lose because of an opinion, versus performance. It’s not a point scale where they can do something to increase performance. It comes down to: Does the judge like how they look? They have to work very hard.
In the bodybuilding community of people who are non-competitive individuals who lift in order to look a certain way, it seems that the knowledge flow has stopped. They have breakthroughs that the rest of the functional fitness world has known for years. One of them may finally figure out that “Hey, I make better strength gains and can therefore build more muscle mass if I would quit doing 80 sets of bench press today.”
It has stifled information in that context. To me, the thought of looking a certain way, without being able to do the weight…looking like I’m strong but not being strong would like if I sold you a Ferrari with a two cylinder Honda Civic engine in it. You’d be very upset with me the very first time you took it out on the road. You’re driving a car that looks like a Ferrari but cannot perform like a Ferrari.
I don’t understand why people think they’d have to choose between looking good and being physically active.
Josh: So you can become less athletic while looking more athletic.
Adam: Absolutely. And what comes with that, when you start to sacrifice the athleticism, you sacrifice things that are, in my opinion, very important for development. If a person says, “I don’t look better on a stage by doing certain key mobility things,” then they may start to pick up nagging injuries. They get a bad shoulder and say, “Well, that’s just part of the life.”
They get a bad knee and say, “Well, that’s just part of the life.” Eventually they get to a point where they’re a functional cripple in terms of their athleticism and you look at them and say, “Man, I just don’t get it. Here’s a guy who supposedly trains all the time and he’s a walking train wreck.”
That is where the negative part of bodybuilding comes in. If you take away the performance element of it, you take away a lot of the physical benefits of training.
Josh: Feats of strength and old time strongman stuff is about as far away from this idea of bodybuilding as you can get. How did you get into feats of strength?
Adam: The amazing thing is, there was a time in the world when the two were highly connected. During an exhibition somebody would demonstrate, in addition to how good they looked along with their physical talents. Early strongman-type competitions held in this country used to feature both physical contests of ability as well as how they looked. You could not show up and just look good. You would get beat out because there were guys like John Grimek who were every bit as strong as they looked.
It’s only been in the last 30 years that a major separation came out.
I had been deployed out to a base…was supposed to be there seven months…got extended to a year. I had just become so bored with what we did day to day. I really just needed something new. I liked to armwrestle. I started thinking, “How can I get better at armwrestling?”
During that search, I came across the idea of, “Hey, I’m going to try to bend steel. That seems like it would make me stronger.” So I started to work on that. I got used to it pretty quick. By the time I got back to Okinawa I had picked up, probably, six or seven different feats. Some steel bending…I used to do a lot of nail driving. I don’t do it anymore because it really causes me some problems.
From there, it’s really just exploded with me. The more that I look for things, the more things I find. I tend to progress quickly with them because I’ve built a body that allows me to try to do these things. I have really really strong tendons because of training I used to do, which allows me to progress faster with a lot of the feats that involve heavy forces put on the wrists and the elbows.
I’ve never had an elbow injury, or a wrist injury, even though I do all these different things to myself. It’s just one of those things. Success brings on more success. You try it out, you find out you’re good at it, it makes you feel better…if something makes you feel better when you do it you’re going to keep doing it. The things I do, the pain it causes me…it’s all inconsequential to the reward it brings me.
Finger-lifting the other night, I tore a piece of skin off my middle finger about the size of a nickel. It bled for a whole day and has been a big pain in the a** the last few days. But I don’t care because I can lift more weight with one finger than most people can deadlift. It makes me happy.
Josh: A friend the other day watched me do a kettlebell workout and said, “You know, I look at you and I don’t think you’re any different than those mopey teenagers that cut themselves. You’re doing this because part of you just enjoys pain. It’s weird.” It’s hard to communicate to someone who isn’t doing it that the pain isn’t the point.
Adam: Absolutely. Like marathon runners. I have no interest in ever running a marathon in my life, but I understand why they do it. The average person would say, “Oh jeez, you want me to run 26 miles? There’s no way!” And they automatically jump to all the negative things that would come out of that. And they probably never once considered what it would be like if they successfully ran a marathon.
In a show, I always have people try out certain feats of strength. I do it to help them understand what I do. I think for some people it helps them appreciate the difficulty of a feat. For example, horseshoe bending…if someone gives horseshoe bending an honest go for the first time, they will get some very serious pain in the side of their hip from pulling on the shoe, because it has to be braced against the side of the body.
So most people feel that immediate pain and they want to quit. They don’t understand that first of all, that’s not the real pain, because it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. They say, “Oh man, that really hurt!” They probably don’t consider what if they really could pull that horseshoe open. What is someone could snatch 250 reps in ten minutes? Yeah, your lungs and your heart are about to take a beating…you’re probably going to be sore for a couple of days afterwards, but you also just accomplished something that only the tiniest percentage of human beings on the planet can do.
Josh: So if you want to learn to do this stuff…some feats are obviously riskier than others. How do you go about finding someone to teach you to do it right? Assuming you aren’t lucky enough to stumble across a nice guy on a forum.
Adam: A lot of this information has become highly guarded. I have become a problem in that community because I don’t feel a need to hide information. It’s like a guy who squats 1000 pounds has no problem telling someone how he squats 1000 pounds. He’s not worried about other people doing it. And that’s how I feel about feats of strength.
If something requires a secret—there is a secret piece of information that would enable other people to do it—it’s not a real feat of strength. It becomes a trick. So I have no problem telling someone how I bend a piece of stainless steel that’s six inches long, because I know that it is a genuine thing. It’s not like there’s anything I can tell them that will magically allow a man off the street to bend that piece of steel. There is no trick.
If people want to learn legitimate feats of strength and they want good instruction, there are a couple of people who have made some information available. Jedd Johnson from Diesel Crew has put out a couple of excellent pieces of information related to card tearing and nail bending. We’re working on some more stuff for that. Dennis Rogers has made a lot of information available over the last couple of years with his Old Time Strongman Training School.
Josh: So when you say a lot of the information is guarded, do you mean it’s guarded unless you pay for it?
Adam: No. Because there are people who specifically would not share the information…period. For whatever reason, the just would not share it. Like finger lifting. I had a hell of a time getting anyone to tell me anything about it other than: “You lift the weight with your finger.” Nobody wanted to explain the setup. Because there are certain things you might want to know, like how high should I be striving to lift the weight? How long do you hold it? What is the optimum training frequency? What are the things you need to look out for?
Those are pieces of information that you would easily share for kettlebell training, but for some reason, when it becomes How To Be A Good Plate Curler, nobody wants to tell you. Some information is very transitive. A good training program for squats is very similar to a good program for nail bending, but the techniques differ.
There are people who are very insecure with themselves who do these kinds of things. There are people running around calling themselves strongmen, and they are so afraid of anybody coming up who does these things easily. So they control the info. I have guys who I know for a fact are very worried about what I do because I don’t feel a need to hide how to bend a wrench. Either someone’s going to work out how to eventually do it, like me, or they’re not.
Josh: And even if they knew how to do it, it’s not like the majority of the people out there are going to want to do it. I don’t see any danger of it not being cool or impressive anymore because everyone can do it.
Adam: Exactly. And you just hit a key point. If a lot of people can do something, it doesn’t diminish its value. Doing 20 pull-ups is an incredible thing to see. If someone can do 20 pull-ups that impresses me every time. There aren’t a lot of secrets about hwo to do 20 pull-ups, but most people just can’t do it. But let’s say a lot of people suddenly could do it: would that diminish its value?
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