Sometimes, you look at a guy in the gym and think: Huh, he's got a bit of a gut — bet he doesn't work out very hard. Then, said guy proceeds to lift a 1978 Volkswagen bus over his head with one arm while still doing lateral lunges.
Congratulations, you've just met: The Power Gut.
Of course, this experience raises a bunch of questions: What's the difference between that guy's so-called "power gut" and my carefully-curated beer gut? What makes it so strong? How would I get one, were I to desire such a thing? And what the hell was that Volkswagen bus even doing there?
To answer some of these riddles, we turned to Strong Man competitor Richard Valentine, a man who's quite proud of his power gut.
According to Valentine, "Abs are nice and everything, but when lifting, you're not going to be taking any pressure off of your back whatsoever." In other words, for guys with perfectly chiseled abs, being able to flaunt that ideal symbol of male fitness doesn't change the fact that the main basis of support in their torso is still their back — so while abs look hot, they're not so helpful.
Meanwhile, for those with a power gut, that super-tight concentration of muscle and fat gives the lifter something to really plant them, ensuring they have a much more solid footing to pick up, well, whatever the hell they feel like. "A tree fell down in my yard," Valentine remembers. "So I called the tree removal place to see what it would cost to move it, and they said it'd be like $850. I was like, 'Fuck that!' and went out there, put the tree on my back and carried it off my lawn."
While a good deal of the power gut is fat, it's very tightly packed fat. (When talking about his own, Valentine offers, "It's rock solid.") It's a pretty common feature of strongmen for that reason. As Valentine points out, "There's only so much muscle that bone can support on its own." You'll see this remarked upon in the documentary Born Strong — about the top four strongest men in the world in 2017 — as The Sports Gene author David Epstein opines that, "It's a necessity to put fat on" to compete in those strongman competitions.
This weight also gives you an advantage over whatever it is that you need to lift. Valentine explains that, if you need to move a 500-pound object, it'll take more strength for a 200-pound person to move it than it would a 300-pound person — the heavier guy will need to exert less effort because he has that advantage. This is summed up beautifully in Born Strong by Olympian, wrestler, strongman, powerlifter and power-gut-possessor Mark Henry: "In order to be the world's strongest man, you cannot have abs, you have got to have a keg."
Getting a power gut, though, as opposed to a regular old gut, is extremely hard work. Born Strong begins with a monologue by the eventual winner of the 2017 Strongest Man title, Eddie Hall, who describes it thusly: "It's more than going to the gym. It's waking up at 6 a.m. to force feed, then going to the gym at 7, going back and force feeding again. Then you force feed dinner and force feed your second dinner, then you go training again and then you go back and force feed again."
So, a lot training and a lot of eating. Valentine shares that his diet consists of about 7,000 calories a day, "And in my sport, I'm the little guy," he says. Indeed, for comparison, Hall consumes about 12,500 daily calories.
As for training, Valentine says, "On Mondays alone, I'll do shoulder presses, incline bench presses, single arm dumbbell presses, a whole bunch of back work with dumbells, and then I'll do light event work, because strongmen always need to do event work." For the week in total, Valentine does three days on, one of which includes doing deadlifts, which take a major toll on his back and gut. After that, he'll do a day of active recovery, doing exercises like jumping rope and rowing. Then he'll rest for a day or two, then do another light day, then back into the heavy shoulder work, where the cycle starts again. As you might imagine, this all takes relentless dedication. "In two years, I've probably missed about three days of training, at most," he says.
Now, while many strongmen have always been big dudes, it isn't necessarily a requirement for getting yourself a power gut. Valentine was only 205 pounds until he decided to pursue the strongman sport and put on about 60 pounds in less than two years. It does take time, though, as Arnold Strongman Classic founder Terry Todd warns in Born Strong: "The more quickly you gain weight, the more difficult it is for your body to accommodate itself." So if you've just decided that you want a power gut, you shouldn't start by consuming 10,000 calories tomorrow — you have to build up to it.
As you might imagine, there are also some disadvantages to a power gut, not the least of which are major health concerns. Indeed, the health of the competitors is a running theme throughout Born Strong, since being more than 400 pounds is pretty unsustainable no matter how strong you are. Hall goes so far as to admit, "I'm not going to walk around for another 10 years at this weight, I'm going to die." So concerned was he about leaving his family prematurely that, when he won the title for the World's Strongest Man 2017, he retired from competing at that level at just 29 years old.
Game of Thrones fans will likely recognize this year's winner, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, better known as Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane on the hit HBO show. Björnsson was also only 29 when he claimed the title. That said, you might be surprised at the age of some of the competitors — Žydrūnas Savickas, usually referred to as "Big Z," has been the World's Strongest Man four times and still places high at age 42, while Mark Felix, who regularly places among Europe's strongest men, is 52.
Despite the risks involved, the popularity of the power gut — and the strongman sport it supports — persists. Arnold Schwarzenegger attributes this to a raw attraction to strength, commenting in the same doc, "No matter how civilized we get, we always admire power." And while this may be true, Valentine's take is far more relatable: "I can carry all my groceries in at one time, which is every man's dream."
Now that's a reason to get a power gut.
Brian VanHooker is a New York-based writer and the co-creator of Barnum & Elwood. He last wrote about if you could ever have a healthy relationship with carbs again after a no-carb diet.