To call it merely a log – nearly 10 metres long, weighing 650 kilograms – is like calling a giant redwood a tree.
Technically accurate, sure, but not quite doing it justice. Like a giant redwood, the record for carrying this monstrosity has stood for 1000 years. Legend has it that, after 50 men helped him get the log in place, the record-holder, fabled Viking Orm Storulfsson, managed three steps. On the third step, his back broke.
To call Hafþór Björnsson – over two metres tall and weighing 185kg – just a “man” doesn’t quite do him justice, either. But stood there, the mountainous Icelander looks like an ant beneath a matchstick. He screams to the assembled onlookers – to the gods, to himself – and grasps the thick ropes that bind the log. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the log rises from the scaffold, as a pressure that could grind most vertebrae into dust transfers to Björnsson’s spine. He takes three steps. He feels like his back is going to break. Nevertheless, he takes a fourth step. And then a fifth.
All at once, Björnsson releases his grasp and effortlessly vaults the scaffold with an athleticism that belies his frame, crying “history” over and over again at the top of his lungs. He has taken his indelible place in the strongman sagas. But his eternal spot in the dining hall of Valhalla, alongside the Norse god-king Odin and those fallen Viking warriors deemed worthy of honour, will for now remain unfilled. In the meantime, Björnsson’s stomach must be sated with a kilogram of steak, and the histories updated.
This being February 2015 and not 1015, chief among those is Instagram. “Nothing Can Stop Me!!” he posts alongside a picture of him tearing his T-shirt in two like a bearded, anaemic Incredible Hulk. “Nothing Can Break Me!”
Despite the absence of any previous acting experience, Björnsson’s credentials to embody Game of Thrones’s “The Mountain” are obvious. Nevertheless, when the professional strongman was contacted about taking the role, he wasn’t sure. “When I saw the email, I thought it was a joke,” says the 27-year-old father, whose daughter, we assume, wins all dad-based playground arguments.
“I was already a big fan of the series; I’m an even bigger fan now, because I know how much work goes into it.” Björnsson thus became the third actor in four seasons to play the hitherto minor role of Ser Gregor Clegane. (GoT has almost as few qualms about recasting characters as it does about killing them.) An almost two-and-a-half-metre-tall brute, Clegane is dubbed “The Mountain That Rides”.
Although in Björnsson’s case, you suspect his steed would suffer the same fate as Orm Storulfsson. The program makers were looking for an expanded actor to replace the two previous beanpole incumbents for a pivotal fight scene. They needed someone who would dwarf his opponent horizontally as well as vertically. They needed someone who could (lunch spoiler alert!) crush a man’s skull with his bare hands like an overripe melon. And they also needed someone who could swing a broadsword the size of a human. (Not only was Björnsson the only one on set who could lift it, he wielded it one-handed.) The audition was therefore somewhat unconventional. “They asked me if I was strong enough to pick one of the guys up,” says Björnsson. “I gave it a try and he felt very light. They were surprised at how easily I lifted him overhead.”
Aside from his prodigious size and strength, Björnsson had another attribute: “I can move well for a big guy; that would look more awesome on TV.”
Since thumbing his opponent’s eye sockets like a bowling ball, The Mountain – wounded and poisoned – has only been seen in glimpses. At least Björnsson won’t have many lines to worry about: when you’re new to acting – and English – dialogue can be more daunting than a 650kg log.
“I was definitely more nervous with acting,” says Björnsson. “But I did my homework. If you’re dedicated, it’s going to pay off.” While he’s bulking out his filmography, with both Swedish zombie film Zone 261 and British gangster film Devilish Deeds slated for later this year, he’s not trying to become the next Arnie just yet. “It would be a great honour,” says Björnsson. “He was the best-ever in bodybuilding. I like acting but I still have something to prove. I want to win the World’s Strongest Man title. That’s my priority.”
Björnsson wasn’t always so mountainous. Although he ascended to his current altitude by age 16, his physique was more basketballer than behemoth: indeed, he represented Iceland at U17 and U18 level.
But he was reduced by injuries, some of his own making. “I was a bit crazy and trained a lot, probably three times a day,” he says. “Before school, then afterwards, plus I was lifting at night.” A spell as a pro baller in his homeland’s first division was curtailed at 20 by surgery on his ankle.
“I was very sad. I wasn’t sure what the next step was,” he says. “Then I started training more in the gym. I’ve always enjoyed lifting heavy; I saw extremely good results.” He ran less and ate more: “I just got hooked, seeing how strong I got and how much my body changed.” In two years, he almost doubled in weight.
Nevertheless, he can still dunk and the NFL’s Indiana Colts once tried to sign him.
Björnsson picked up being a strongman like he does everything else: all too easily.
“Two of my friends were competing so I decided to give it a try,” he says. “In my first competition, I realised I had a lot of potential.” That was at Iceland’s Strongest Viking. Björnsson rang up organiser Magnús Ver Magnússon, a four-time World’s Strongest Man winner in the Nineties, the day before and asked if he could join; Ver Magnússon agreed. Without specific training, Björnsson won one event and set an Icelandic record for stone carrying.
That’s more impressive than it sounds: although Iceland has a population of just 323,000, no other country can boast two four-time winners of the World’s Strongest Man contest. Björnsson has finished on the podium for the past four years, finishing second in 2014 and third in 2011, 2012 and 2015. He’s been crowned Europe’s Strongest Man for the past two years. Björnsson now trains at a gym in Reykjavík run by Ver Magnússon called Jakaból. Literally translated, it means “nest of giants” and is the locus of Iceland’s huge strongman culture.
The gym was previously operated under the name Gym 80 by the other four-time World’s Strongest Man winner, Jón Páll Sigmarsson, who died there of a heart attack while deadlifting. A sign on the wall reads “no pussies” in Icelandic. Located in a supermarket car park, it’s not the sort of place where you sit on the spin bike for half an hour browsing Facebook.
“It’s more of a raw, powerlifting gym,” says Björnsson. “It helps to have guys around you who have the same goals.”
You might imagine that, like Mike Tyson at his peak, Björnsson would struggle to find volunteers. “Not really,” he says. “The best training partner isn’t the guy who is the strongest; it’s the guy who motivates you and helps you to get better.”
Mind Over Matter
For Björnsson, strength is the priority, more so than size. (“I’m 185kg now; I’ve been up to 205kg, but I didn’t feel good.”) He’s in the gym six times a week, occasionally more. “Sometimes I go in the mornings and I do stretching or cardio as well,” he says. “It depends on what I’m training for: do I need to have more endurance, or be stronger?”
Björnsson’s training sessions can last anywhere between one hour and three, depending on how he feels. For that reason, he doesn’t have a “routine”. “You have to mix up your training,” he says. “When people ask me about my routine, it’s hard to say because I change it every week.” This ad hoc approach has helped The Mountain avoid plateauing. “If you always train the same way, your body gets used to it and you stop seeing results after a few weeks.”
It’s a principle that he and Arnie apply outside the gym. “It’s the same with life,” says Björnsson. “If you get stuck in the same routine, you’re never going to get better. So you have to do something else to be more successful in life.” He’s certainly not afraid of life’s gauntlets, whether it’s throwing down against the Red Viper or UFC star “The Notorious” Conor McGregor. A video of the pair sparring did the rounds on social media a few months ago. “I was in Ireland shooting for Game of Thrones and my friend (Icelandic UFC fighter) Gunnar Nelson was training in Dublin with Conor,” explains Björnsson. “I asked if I could check out a session.”
Despite the kind of glaring weight category mismatch not seen outside of Rocky films, McGregor appears to come off better. “I knew he had a big fight coming up, so I was gentle with him,” says Björnsson, modestly.
Perhaps it’s the genetic inheritance from Viking warriors that explains why Iceland’s athletes dominate strongman competitions and the CrossFit Games. Or why its menfolk live longer than any other – an average of 81.2 years. “My father is tall and strong, so is my grandfather,” says Björnsson. “Although I’m the only actual athlete, my family is very athletic.”
Possibly it’s the effect of the fight for survival on the psychology of those early settlers and subsequent generations, rather than their physiology. “When we want to be successful at something, we work really hard,” says Björnsson.
Or, perhaps a proverbial environmental factor is the source of their collective strength; of Björnsson’s mythical power.
“It’s something in the water,” he adds. “It’s so clear and powerful. I believe we get extra energy from it.”
A Mountain of a Workout
Björnsson doesn’t have a set routine: this is what he did the day MH met him. Remember that he’s a professional strongman – we’d advise you to start very light and work up
1/ LOG LIFT
4-5 SETS OF 2 REPS
Drive through your heels to lift, then pull the log into the crook of your hips. Lift it to your chest, then press overhead. Work up to using your eight-rep max.
2/ LOG CLEAN AND PRESS
4-5 SETS OF 2 REPS
Similar to the previous move, but this time you want to lift the log explosively, ending with it in a rack position across your shoulders. Press overhead.
3/ MILITARY PRESS
3 SETS OF 5 REPS
From your chest, press overhead. Your hands should be wide, so your elbows are bent to 90º at the midpoint. Björnsson adds resistance bands.
4/ DUMBBELL SHOULDER PRESS
2 SETS OF MAX REPS IN 30 SECONDS
Stand or sit with your back supported and ask your spotter to help you position the dumbbells as shown. Press up until they touch, then slowly lower.
5/ OVERHEAD TRICEPS EXTENSION
4 SETS OF 10 REPS
Hold the end of a dumbbell with both hands. With arms extended overhead, lower until your forearms touch your biceps. Use your tris to lift back up.
6/ TRICEPS PUSHDOWN WITH BANDS
4 SETS OF 10 REPS
Attach a high resistance band and grab the other end. With elbows tucked in, pull down and apart so your hands finish up by your sides. Return and repeat.
7/ PULL-APART WITH BANDS
4 SETS OF 12 REPS
Targeting the rear delts and rhomboids, this is great for strongmen and salarymen
alike. Pull the band apart, squeezing your shoulderblades. Return to start position.
8/ LATERAL RAISE
4 SETS OF 15 REPS
Start with weights by your side, palms in. With arms bent and a forward tilt in your hands, raise to shoulder level. NB: legends use muscle, not momentum.