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Workouts aren't easy for Columbia strongman

Friday, May 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:07 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 15, 2009
The farmers walk is one of Justin Wheeler's favorite events. The task combines strength, speed and endurance as a competitor must hold the bars of weight and walk as fast as possible for a set distance that varies from competition to competition.

COLUMBIA — Many have watched strongman competitions on television, never thinking they would stand near a man whose feats of strength boggle the mind.

Even more, it might seem unlikely to see such a man in Columbia. Meet Justin Wheeler.

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Wheeler, 27, is a lightweight professional strongman. But you might not reach that conclusion when your eyes first fall on him. He stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 231-pounds with a muscular build, but there are no bulging veins or chiseled physique.

Wheeler shows great amounts of skill and technique as he lifts colossal amounts of weight. The extensive amounts of practices and workouts at the gym are preparing Wheeler for his next competition. He will compete in the 2009 Monsters of the Mall on June 6 in Salina, Kan.

Let’s put what Wheeler does into perspective, though. He can carry up to 900 pounds on his back, the equivalent of a small cow. He can deadlift 360 pounds above his head, the weight of two average American men.

"I've always liked to lift weights, and I got really strong really fast, and I kind of got hooked then," Wheeler said.

He is just one of several men training for a sport few would dare to try. Demetrius Davis and Aaron Bridgeman also practice with Wheeler. The men ply their trade on Sunday afternoons in the basement of a single-level salmon-colored house with a big yard on Pin Oak Drive just off Lake of the Woods Road. It's not the ideal training center, but they make do.

Sometimes, they practice on a black top drive that curls towards the right side of the house and splits off from the main drive way. Other times, they do lifts on a piece of concrete slab off the side of the house. The only lifting done in the basement is the atlas stones.

In strongman competitions, the names of the events can be as befuddling as actually performing them. The yoke carry, axle lift and press, tire flip, farmers walk, atlas stones and log press are some of the taxing tests of strength. Not all of these are in every competition. Some take place in a medley of events.

On this day, Wheeler starts off his practice by working on the axle press and lift. The long, circular axle he uses came from an old junkyard car. The round weights placed at each end of are plates and look like the ones that came with your home gym. He and his training partners lift each end, slide the weights on, put a holding clamp on and get to work.

Wheeler rubs bits and pieces of white chalk on the axle and across the upper part of his chest for added grip on the axle when he heaves the axle upwards. Because the axle is smooth and round it isn’t the easiest to grip, especially if you are lifting hundreds of pounds like he does.

The description of his preparation for a lift is terse, but that's who Wheeler is on the whole. He downplays the brute force he can exude when lifting and avoids drawing too much attention to himself.

After Wheeler has the chalk and weights put on the axle, he steps up to the axle. Squatting down,with his knees resting lightly on the bar, Wheeler locks his grip around the homemade apparatus. He fixes his gaze straight ahead and envisions the lift.

What comes next is violently efficient.

Wheeler's legs explode upward like a geyser bursting from the earth. He lets out a burst of air as he heaves 330 pounds aloft. In a swift motion he flips his wrists, easing the weight momentarily across his collarbone before raising it above his head.

He takes a step backward with his right foot and straightens his arms. Wheeler holds his position and maintains balance, fighting gravity's earthward tug for a few seconds before relenting to one of Newton's fabled laws. For every reaction, there is an equal opposite reaction. The axle slams into the concrete with much force as it took to lift it, a loud clang coming as it returns to its resting place.

"Overhead events are probably my hardest whether its the log press or the axle clean and press, and that is always the one I've struggled the most with and one I feel like I have to work the hardest to get better at," Wheeler said.

He repeats this scene with different amounts of weight before moving on to the next events to practice.

Depending on how Wheeler is feeling that day determines what he will decide to work on next.  Some of the events work more muscles and if he is a little sore, he may not want to practice a certain event and risk injuring himself more.

The yoke-carrying device is a square metal frame with only three sides. The top half can be adjusted with pins depending on the height of the competitor. Rectangular metal plates have been welded to the bottom of each side of the frame and about a foot up from the plates are short bars that stick out from the frame and hold the plates of weight.

“The yoke carry is a two-step process," Wheeler said. "The first step is picking it up and the second is walking. I take a big breath before I lift and hold it as long as I can. I also try to be as stable as possible."

Wheeler carefully takes the pins out from each side and adjusts the height of the apparatus to come up slightly shorter than his shoulder. More of the chalk is placed on his back and he steps under the apparatus and places his hands on either side of the yoke carry. He uses his knees to lift the weight off the ground and begins to walk the 50 feet with the weight resting on his shoulders. 

One of the more striking events that Wheeler does is lifting the atlas stones.  The atlas stones are five round cement balls that are made from molds and can vary in weight.  Some stones can weigh as little as 100 pounds and some can be as heavy as 400 pounds. Each stone is lifted onto homemade wooden podia that stand against the basement wall.  The bigger the stone, the less height it is lifted.

To grip for his lifts, Wheeler opens his jar of elite tacky, which he says is modified version of pine tar. Wheeler takes a glob of tacky and spreads it along his forearms and on his fingertips.

When Wheeler first started lifting stones, his forearms would turn red and bleed because the tacky tears at the skin.  

“My arms now are more resistant to getting cut up, and the pain isn’t as bad," Wheeler said. "My forearms didn’t callous, but the skin got thicker."

With the tacky placed on his forearms, he squats down and wraps his arms tightly around the stone that sits on a cushioned mat. He lifts the stone up off the mat with his teeth tightly clenched and a look of pain on his face as his veins start to pop out on his forehead. He lifts the stone halfway up and rests it on his thighs as he re-grips and lifts the final height up to the center of the podia. A deep breath is extorted as the stone hits the center mark of the podia.


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