Interview with Magnús Ver Magnússon

This month, I had the privilege to speak with Magnús Ver Magnússon, the legendary strength athlete with four World’s Strongest Man titles.

It was a challenge matching my schedule in America with Magnús Ver’s in Iceland. He’s as busy as you’d expect him to be – quite! – and our e-mail exchanges were brief. So, I was excited to learn he would be saving time for us to have a conversation by phone. On Tuesday, September 15th, 2015, Magnús expected my call as he drove across the eastern United States and into New Hampshire to support a strength competition. The phone rings…

MVM: Hi, how are you?

DC: Good, how are you? Are you still on the road?

MVM: Yeah! Yeah.

DC: Is this [still] a good time to talk for you?

MVM: Yes, it’s fine. It’s fine… Ask the questions!

We share a brief laugh.

DC: First of all, congratulations on your recent marriage.

MVM: Thank you.

DC: You’re currently in America, and heading to the New Hampshire Highland Games?

MVM: Yes, yes.

DC: Are you expanding into America? Are you going to be holding any competitions here yourself?

MCM: [No.] I’m just helping out with the games, by making appearances, viewing the shows and what not. Sometimes it can be to referee, but it all depends on what’s going on up there…

Magnusson’s call quality suddenly and quickly fades away. Before he can finish his thought he loses service on the New Hampshire highway. This will not be the only time we lose connection, but we pick things up where we left off a few minutes later. I move the conversation to the next topic.

DC: Obviously, you were the dominating force of the 1990s for World’s Strongest Man. Nobody disagrees.

Magnus gives the verbal equivalent of a head nod, taking no time to boast or revel in past accomplishments. But this humble man won WSM titles in 1991, ’94, ’95, and ’96, with additional second place finishes in ’92 and ’93.

DC: In your era, the “Log Lift” event required you to lift real logs with uneven weight distributions, not machine-balanced iron weights. There were smooth Atlas Stones, but also real stones of challenging and awkward shapes. Do you think that today’s strongman competitions are easier?

Magnus laughs with incredulity.

MCM: No. No, I don’t think that, because a lot of the things have gotten heavier! All the athletes are better trained, you know? [They are] better prepared as strongmen – as strength athletes.

In the older days we were more just like ‘lifters’. We mostly trained in the gym. Nowadays, everybody’s got strongman equipment; everybody’s got a set of Atlas Stones, everybody’s got a log.

I never trained the Atlas Stones! I never trained the log!

Noting Magnusson’s triple-threat sudden-victory in the Atlas Stones event during the 1994 WSM Final, I’m dumbfounded to hear it was a skill he never cultivated in training.

DC: Wow. How were you so good at it if you never trained for it?

This laugh we share is much bigger than our first.

MVM: Well, actually I did a lot of competitions and shows. And for most of them, I looked at it as training. I only got serious for the major ones [like World’s Strongest Man].

DC: So you would do smaller competitions just to get your hands around some Atlas Stones?

MCM: Yes.

DC: Let’s talk more about your training, then, which takes place in Iceland. Did that hurt you when you were competing in so many hot, arid or muggy climates for World’s Strongest Man?

MVM: Well, not for Mauritius, but when we went to Bahamas for example, or even Sun City, [South Africa], I asked to be flown in like two days earlier than most of the other guys. Just so I could acclimatize. I just asked for one or two days in the beginning. I said, ‘I’m coming from a cold country, and I gotta get used to this!’

DC: So it can definitely hurt you in some ways.

MVM: Yeah.

DC: Then, in what ways does it help to be training in Iceland?

MVM: In what ways? Hahaha. Well, we can walk into a volcano. Just plug into a volcano and get our power.

DC: I suppose that is one advantage! When I told my friends I would be interviewing you, they wanted me to ask about Jon Pall Sigmarsson and Hafthor Bjornsson. Did Iceland create the Icelandic strongmen, or are these rare individuals?

MVM: They are rare.

[Yet,] I do think a lot of things are genetic. See, in the beginning, when the Vikings were sailing and people first started living in Iceland, you know – the strongest survived. When people were sailing [to Iceland for the first time], a lot of the weak – they died along the way.

DC: So, because of this genetic pool of talent and the improvement of training facilities, do you think that you have more potential to see?

I flubbed my question here. I meant “you” as in the strongmen of Iceland in general, not “you” as in Magnusson.

MVM: Well, I have got a lot of mileage. In the beginning I learned a lot from Sigmarsson. And I started picking up my own things, and I started experimenting with my own type of training – what would fit for me.

You see, when I was training in the gym I wasn’t training with the equipment or the stones, but I was doing movements that would be similar to what I’d need to be doing.

DC: What was Jon Pall’s style of training like? How was yours different?

MVM: His training was basically kind of normal gym training: squats, bench press, and deadlifts, and overhead lifts…

Dreadfully, we lose cell phone service again. But Magnus never loses his train of thought, and we’re right back at it on the next call.

MVM: What I did was very similar to what he was doing, but I did alter more things and add more variations into it. I brought in more of the power cleans from Olympic lifting. High pulls. More variations of overhead lifts…

We lose another call. Fortunately, Magnus is a level-headed professional.

DC: Five more minutes, Magnus, and we’re done!

MVM: Hahaha. I keep dropping in and out of signal.

DC: I understand. We spoke a bit about Jon Pall, so what about Hafthor Bjornsson? Do you train with him at your new gym, Jakobol?

MVM: Yes. Well, basically, I started building some of my own equipment to be able to [compete in] contests in Iceland. So, when I retired from competition, I had all the equipment I needed to run my own contests. And I’m still building and inventing some, today.

Then, several years ago, I decided – because we had this place where we were doing lifting in this gym together [with Hafthor and others] and it closed down. So, we’re all looking for where we can continue training. What can we do now? And that’s when I decided I had to find a place and I’d put all my stuff in there.

DC: So you found Jakobol!

MVM: And I found Jakobol! Of course I’ve still got some more equipment to put in there, and I’m still improving it bit by bit. But it’s been really, really good. We have a little place of our own, now.

Magnus Ver Magnusson struck me as a highly intelligent man, whose brain was equally well-represented as his famous brawn. I found him to have appropriately equal measures of pride and humility, complete with patience and a good sense of humor. It’s no wonder he is able to completely fill his schedule with training, refereeing, inventing and building gym equipment, managing his gym, organizing his own strength competitions, supporting those of others, and can still find time for this interview.

Magnusson is one of the rarest kinds of role models who completely walk their talk. And he does it without being a braggart, as I found each of his answers thoughtful, and not reactionary. With such a balanced perspective, and an incredible work-ethic, it is no wonder this rare individual earned our most coveted title: The World’s Strongest Man.

Magnusson is now 52-years-old. He continues to train at his gym Jakobol, in Reykjavik, Iceland.

This post was written by Dane Curley