Strongman training a family affair in home gym

Saturday, September 14, 2013 | 8:48 p.m. CDT; updated 11:21 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 14, 2013
Ted Collins and his wife, Heather Leidy, converted a garage into a gym where they train for strongman competitions. The family has opened up their gym to fellow competitors.

COLUMBIA — Rain Collins, 6, and her parents, Heather Leidy and Ted Collins, don't have any cars in their garage.

What they do have is a strongman training facility.

If you go

WHAT: Show-Me Strength Strongman and CrossFit Challenge

WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 5 at 11:00 a.m

WHERE: CrossFit Fringe, Columbia

WHAT ELSE: Registration is $50. Proceeds will help support the MU Health Sciences Graduate Student Association.

Rain's parents, Heather Leidy and Ted Collins, are strongman athletes. They compete in events that require immense strength, like pulling a firetruck.

"A strongman is a man or a woman that displays superior, almost superhuman strength and stamina through brute strength" and the ability to carry massive weights over a long distance, Leidy said.

The couple dead lifts weights over 500 pounds, which is equivalent to a small adult male grizzly bear.

They carry upwards of 15o pounds — the weight of a baby giraffe — in each hand over a distance of 100 feet in under 60 seconds (an event called the farmer's carry).

They pick up giant, rounded rocks, called atlas stones, and throw them over a 4- to 5-foot bar. The atlas stones weigh anywhere from 130 to 500 pounds, and they're covered in a pine tar "goo" that helps the athletes grip the "boulders," Leidy said.

They speed walk a yoke — a square, variable-weight metal frame you hold on your shoulders — up and down their driveway. The yoke weighs anywhere from 300 to 700 pounds and is carried a distance of 50 feet in fewer than 20 seconds. Think of stacking all of your living room furniture together and unloading it all at once from the back of pickup truck.

The couple does all of these exercises out of their garage.

In their garage, you'll find lawn equipment in the far corner and some toys scattered about. And you'll also see Rain's Disney "Jake and the Never Land Pirates" beach ball — that rests inside a massive 749-pound, 5-foot-6-inch-tall tractor tire, a piece of strongman training equipment.

The 25-by-35-foot space is stocked with atlas stones, farmer carries, a yoke and a station for the dead lift. Ornamental swords and other martial arts paraphernalia —  trophies from past strongman events — adorn the walls, accompanied by an American flag and a U.S. Army windsock.

The lone clock in the room, which hangs over the door that leads into the house, looks like a 25-pound disc weight and is labeled "Pump-Time." Tunes from Chicago, Fleetwood Mac and Jimi Hendrix play from the stereo that rests on a shelf opposite the clock. On top of the stereo sits a strongman figurine (actually another trophy), grimacing as he struggles with an impossibly heavy dead lift.

Like the figurine, Rain's parents and their fellow strongman competitors Laura Ortinau, Anthony Belenchia and Steve Douglas strained as they took turns with their own dead lifts.

Leidy — a faculty member of nutrition and exercise physiology at MU — and Collins — an experienced strongman athlete and former semi-pro football player — open their garage to athletes several times a week for exercise and event training. Their training sessions have a "family" feel to them, something that's thematic in strongman culture on the whole, according to Leidy. The athletes are training for the upcoming Show-Me Strength Strongman and CrossFit Challenge, an event Belenchia is organizing.

The Leidy-Collins gym sees action four times a week, according to Belenchia, who explained the group does strength training during the week and strongman event training on Sundays.

Leidy said she assembled a home gym so she could hang out with Rain. "A lot of gyms don't have strongman implements, and I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible," she said.

Rain is a fixture in the gym, and her presence is just one element that gives the workout sessions a family feel. While Rain has "no idea" if she'll ever compete in a strongman event, she loves to play on the monkey bars that line the middle of the garage. Rain, pointing at the monkey bars, says the coolest thing she's ever seen in the gym is, "Me going across those four times (in a row)."

The athletes encourage each other just as much as they pick on each other. They strive to have fun while they're working out, so some light joking is in order, Leidy said.

The workouts, though, can be pretty intense, and the competitive athletes have a "protective mechanism" — in the words of Belenchia — that ensures the joking doesn't get out of hand. The mechanism is a painting of a bull, on which Collins has inscribed the phrase "No bull in the gym."

The bull means "you can't show up and complain about a headache or being tired," Collins said.

"Or you can't say you're too tall to do a dead lift," Leidy jokingly added, referring to the taller members of the crew, Ortinau and Douglas, and the increased difficulty that height adds to the dead lift.

"It means there's no smash talk in the gym," Collins elaborated. He said that if things get too intense, the athletes can point at the bull to end any excessive picking.

Picking aside, Leidy explained how their gym mirrors the family atmosphere of an actual strongman competition.

"Competitors come with their families," she said. "Their kids play around together," she added, remembering one competition in Arkansas that had a bouncy castle for the children.

Rain has been to her fair share of strongman competitions, and she remembered "long ago ... daddy pulled a firetruck."

The firetruck-pull is one of the most popular events, Belenchia said, and one that he hopes to have at the Show-Me Strength Strongman and CrossFit Challenge. Belenchia, a graduate student at MU, is president of the Health Sciences Graduate Student Association, the group that's organizing the competition.

The association is using the event as a fundraiser for graduate students' professional development, Belenchia said. The students hope to generate money so they can travel to academic conferences where they can present their research.

In addition to the firetruck-pull, the strongman portion of the Show-Me Strength Challenge will showcase the log clean and press, the farmer's carry, the yoke walk and the 18-inch max dead lift. Belenchia added that the CrossFit portion of the event will be equally intriguing, as CrossFit Fringe of Columbia is hosting the contest.

There are 24 people registered for the CrossFit competition and 16 for the strongman competition, Belenchia said. He added that he was aware of several others who would be registering soon.

Registration will be open up to the day of the competition, and participants can sign up online. The event will take place on Oct. 5, beginning at 11:oo a.m. at CrossFit Fringe of Columbia.

In the meantime, the Leidy-Collins gym-goers will continue to train and support each other. "We're really just a bunch of kids playing," Leidy said. "We praise each other and we root each other on. That's lifting."

Rain will be right there in the mix, swinging across the money bars and yelling, "C'mon! Pull!" while the big kids lift their big weights.

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