Mind Of Steel
Story and Photographs By John Murray
Some might think that genetics and large muscles are the key to Derek Poundstone’s stunning rise to the title of America’s Strongest Man.
They would be wrong.
While having a body like a Rhinoceros is important, the secret to Poundstone’s success is the strength of his mind. Everyday in the gym he tortures himself by lifting more weights, more times, than anyone else on the planet.
“I obliterate myself in training,” Poundstone said. ‘The competition is not as difficult as my workouts.”
Poundstone is a huge fan of the late long distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who was feared across the globe for his punishing style of racing.
‘He wouldn’t try and outsprint someone at the end of a five mile race,” Poundstone said. “He would set a blistering pace on the first lap and dare anyone to try and keep up with him. I love that sense of front running, it came down to “if you beat me, I’ll make you bleed’, and that’s my mind-set.”
During a recent “easy” day of training at Waterbury Fitness at 1074 Wolcott Road, Waterbury, CT, Poundstone targeted his workout to tone his arms, and sharpen his mind. “We really don’t do a lot with arms in the strong man competitions,” Poundstone said. “The important part of my training today is to strengthen my mind.”
He began his workout seated on a slightly reclined bench and lifted a 45 pound bar overhead in a reverse curl. It was only a warm-up, but he lifted the bar 100 times. Then he lifted 65 pounds 100 times, 105 pounds 55 times, and 135 pounds 20 times. The pain of the final repetitions was etched on his face as he struggled towards his goal of self imposed agony.
“Nobody does what I do,” Poundstone said. ‘I work my muscles beyond their capacity. I’m not trying to make my muscles bigger, that’s not the issue. I’m trying to see how far I can push my body. My capability is only limited by my mind.”
Mike Amici is a frequent training partner at Waterbury Fitness and said, “Derek’s strength and intensity is inward. Some guys yell and scream when they are working out, but not Derek, his motivation is all inside.”
Poundstone is incredibly approachable in the gym and will stop and pose for a photograph, or assist other lifters with their training. Brian Richard of Wolcott was a recent training partner while Poundstone completed a sequence aptly called “Triceps of Death”. Richard has been power lifting for four years and approached Poundstone for some strongman tips 10 weeks ago.
“Derek is very knowledgeable about technique and he’s been an incredible help to me these past few months,” Richard said. “I equate it to going to Alex Rodriguez to learn how to hit a baseball.”
Although he is currently the #1 ranked strongman in the world, Poundstone takes nothing for granted. “Every day I push myself,” he said. “I’m training for the unknown guy in the mountains of West Virginia that no one knows about yet.”
Half way through each set of reverse curls Poundstone said his mind screamed at him to stop. “I’m working against human evolution,” he said. “Damaging muscles makes them grow back stronger, so I try to overwhelm my entire body with a pain I can’t express in words, but it’s a beautiful thing.”
It is the mental exercises that Poundstone endures that set him apart from other strongmen around the world. “It is the essence of my training,” he said. “The number one thing I focus on is strengthening my mind.”
It must be working, because during the last three years Derek Poundstone has exploded onto the international strongman scene and is arguably now the strongest man in the world.
Last year he came within inches of capturing the title of World’s Strongest Man, but with victory over the five-time world champion, Mariusz Pudzianowski, within his grasp, he made a shocking mistake in the final event when a 400 pound rock slipped from his hand, and he finished second.
“The loss has only increased my motivation,” Poundstone said. “I am in the best shape of my life right now.”
Poundstone is often asked whether he takes steroids to perform his amazing feats of strength, and the answer is no. He piles protein into his body like coal into a furnace. He also spends a lot of time being a goodwill ambassador for the strongman sport. Derek defines a strongman as the person “who can perform the most amount of work, in the most efficient way, in the least amount of time.”
Strongman competitions are nothing new and they have a rich and colorful history. In America, the roots of the sport can be traced back to a time when the main event of a travelling circus wasn’t the lions and elephants, it was the strongman.
“The circus freaks were really big guys who could lift big objects,” Poundstone said. “The circus was the heyday for strongmen in this country.”
While the sport has yet to gain mainstream traction in America, the strongman competitions have developed a huge following in Europe. “The strongmen in Sweden and Poland are treated like rock stars,” Poundstone said. ‘They make a really nice living just focused on being strongmen. I can’t do that in America, I have to work a full-time job to support myself.”
Iceland appears to be the historical epi-center of strongmen competitions, which were used by Vikings to determine who the strongest warrior was. “The Vikings did a lot of events with rocks,” Poundstone said. ‘Instead of throwing objects they would carry stones or press them over their heads. It’s typical guy stuff, and the common theme was – I’m stronger than you.”
Poundstone is a very large man, 6’1”, 320 pounds, but he’s considered small by strongman standards. He recently competed in a World’s Strongest Man qualifying event at the Mohegan Sun, in Uncasville, CT, and demolished the competition winning five of the six events, and placing second in the other event.
At the casino Poundstone trounced men 6’8”, 400 pounds, and some even heavier.
‘The cool thing about strongman is that you can take the biggest and strongest guy and put him under an 800 pound yoke and he can’t move it,” Poundstone said. “It’s not all about size.”
And for anyone who witnessed Derek Poundstone crush a field that had 14 of the top 16 strongmen in the world competing – one thing was crystal clear – Poundstone was the fittest man at the event.
Most strongmen are behemoths who would have trouble jogging down the driveway. Not Poundstone. “I have a unique combination of fast and slow twitch muscles,” he said. “That gives me both power and explosion. I can thank my parents for that. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Poundstone said he is not the biggest and strongest in most competitions, “but whoever is the most capable and most versatile athlete will win the title of World’s Strongest Man.”
At the competition and in almost every interview, Poundstone comes across as humble and soft spoken. He never says anything negative about an opponent because “I don’t want to give anyone extra motivation to beat me.”
At the Mohegan Sun his main competitor, Travis Ortmayer, of Texas, referred to him as Derek ‘Poundcake”. Derek smiled, said he would do his best, and then mopped the arena floor with Ortmayer. Poundstone was so dominating that he could have left the building before the final event and he still would have won.
“I get tons of motivation off other people’s comments,” he said. “ I play a psychological game. I’m not going to say I’m better than you. I’ll wear a bulky t-shirt before the competition and won’t let the other competitors see what I look like. I’m trying to change a fraction of one percent to take a little wind out of my opponents sail.”
This year Poundstone set an ambitious goal for himself. He had his eyes set on three specific competitions – like the major championships in golf and tennis. He won “The Arnold Strongman Classic” in March and was the lightest man ever to do so. He defeated 440 pound Mark Henry, a legendary American strongman, to take the title.
His next goal was the Fortissimus World Strength Challenge in Quebec on June 26th and 27th. ‘That is the most brutal competition in the world,” Poundstone said. “it’s twelve events spread out over two days and whoever wins earns the title of “Mightiest Man on the Planet.”
Days before the competition Poundstone fell ill, lost 15 pounds, and still led most of the way until finishing second to Zydrunas Savickas, a 6′ 3″. 385 pound strongman from Lithuania. The final goal for 2009 is to win the World’s Strongest Man contest In Malta in early October.
“It’s almost impossible for one athlete to win all three events,” Poundstone said, “but that was my goal.”
It will be his goal again in 2010.
Poundstone lives in the Town Plot neighborhood. “Waterbury is a hard core place,” Poundstone said. “It’s extremely diverse and I love that I live in a place that had the nickname Sin City.”
Often when you are the best at anything, you become a marked man. Do people ever want to challenge the Strongest Man in America the way the quickest draw was always called out in the American West?
“The best thing is that I am a police officer,” Poundstone said. “Everyone is scared of cops.”
Some guys challenge him to arm wrestling and Poundstone turns it into a joke. “I’ll laugh and say they’ll kick my ass,” he said. “I don’t need to prove myself to anyone, I do it in competition.”
Poundstone lives in a three family home he purchased several years ago. Derek said he doesn’t go out much, and often the extent of his fun is playing Guitar Hero at home. He lives with his girlfriend, Kristin Nelson, a physical education teacher in Branford.
Poundstone and Nelson met each other through mutual friends, both of whom were police officers. Kristin is uber organized and plays many roles in Derek’s life – girlfriend/nutritionist/coach and huge supporter.
“I couldn’t do it without her,” Poundstone said, and a recent school trip Kristen went on bears this out. She was out of town for a week and Derek suddenly ran out of some of his nutritional supplements and found himself struggling to maintain the immense 6000 to 8000 caloric intake he needs a day to fuel his body.
During a recent visit to their home – after one of Derek’s absurdly challenging workouts – Kristin had a huge dinner prepared for him, and had boiled four chicken breasts prepared for the protein shakes Poundstone drinks while working at Naugatuck High School. While Derek answered questions during an Observer interview, Kristin opened a large shipment of nutritional supplements and tucked them away neatly in the cupboards.
Derek Poundstone may get all the media attention, but for anyone who understands human relations, Kristin Nelson embodies the statement “Behind every great man, there is a great woman.”
Poundstone’s childhood was scattered across the world. Derek’s father was in the Air Force and the Poundstone family spent the first ten years of Derek’s life living abroad in Spain and Italy. They returned to the U.S. when Derek was 10 years old and lived in South Dakota for six years. Derek’s parents divorced when he was 16, and when his parents moved apart, he was emotionally split in two.
Derek moved to Woodbury when he was 16 and eventually dropped out of high school to work full time, going on to manage a GNC Store in Southbury. Poundstone earned his high school diploma by attending Waterbury Adult Education in the evenings. Poundstone has competed in 30 amateur and professional strongman competitions, and at the age of 27, is entering his prime.
Some experts have speculated that the future of the sport rests on the massive shoulders of Derek Poundstone. But just a few short years ago it appeared his career was over. On October 26, 2006, two weeks before the World Championships, Derek severely injured his lumbar spine during training while attempting a 805 pound dead lift. Derek had a lumbar disc herniation and a massive spinal cord hemorrhage. Doctors told him that he would never lift again due to the severity of the injury.
Poundstone’s mental toughness drove him forward. “It still catches me sometimes when I twist,” Poundstone said. “And it really gets me when I sneeze.”
In the next few years there is a distinct possibility that Derek Poundstone will win his coveted Triple Crown, and be declared the World’s Strongest Man. It is within his grasp.
“I don’t do this for money or women,” he said. “I do this because I enjoy lifting heavy stuff. I look forward to the next workout, to the next day in the gym. I love my sport. I love knowing that I am absurdly strong. It’s a cool feeling knowing that any room you walk into you are the strongest guy. I love that.”