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When M&F uses the term “strongman,” it typically refers to a large, burly man who pulls trucks, does atlas stone carries, yoke carries and other events that are featured in international competitions. Chris “Wonder” Shoeck is a little different. He’s an “old-time strongman,” a dude not known for physical stature but for circus-like strength performances such as bending steel bars and ripping phone books. The 5’7” 155-pound New York natvie has been a personal trainer for 18 years but the recent buzz surrounding his performance in the documentary film “Bending Steel” has fueled a will to be a full-time old-time strongman. Bending Steel follows Shoeck as he develops mental and physical strength to bend a steel bar that’s 30 inches long, two inches wide and 3/8 inches at New York’s historic Coney Island. M&F recently spoke with the “Super Bender” to talk how he trains to bend thick ass steels bars and how he get involved with the art that is old-time strongman.
M&F: How did you start get into strength training?
Chris Shoeck: I was doing Olympic weightlifting somewhat competitively and the first person to hand me a trophy was an old-time strongman named Joe Rolino. I was told he could bend quarters with his teeth and lift 600 pounds or more with one finger yet he was a small guy. All my life I was interested in atypical strength, things you’d only read about in comics. The people who did those things were superheroes to me and now I met one. I purchased different lengths of steel and spikes, started pushing on them, trying to bend them and nothing gave. Ultimately, one day something bent a little bit so I brought the items to the gym and nobody could do anything with the metal. I had this unusual strength, I thought.
I did research and called an old-time strongman named Greg Matonick. We met at his welding shop in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, where I bent a steel bar around my leg and he said to me “Kid, you have something special there.” That was in 2010. He suggested I contact Chris Ryder, another old-time strongman to be my coach. Ryder and I trained together every 5-6 weeks and during the sessions I had the luxury of meeting other strongmen. I perfected my techniques, it became a bigger part of my life and I started to embrace the journey.
MF: What is an old-time strongman?
CS: When I talk about old-time strongman activities, I’m referring to feats including bending steel bars, coins and horseshoes, breaking chains, card deck-tearing, license plate tearing, and sledgehammer levering, where you hold a sledgehammer out at arms length by the handle and lower the handle down to your brow then raise it back up with a stiff arm.
What is your training routine like throughout the year?
Most of my training consists of isometric training, applying force to an item that doesn’t necessarily move. I pick up a piece of steel or horseshoe, place it over my leg and push or pull. The thing about isometric training is you will develop strength only within 15 degrees of that motion. You need to practice isometrics in different degrees in order to completely strengthen muscle. I also use apparatuses such as IronMind’s Heavy Hammer and Captains of Crush grippers a couple of times a week for wrist, finger and grip strength.
Aside from isometrics, I do some running and a fair share of barbell training. I used to do a lot of squats and deadlifts. What you do in the gym has some carryover to bending steel-it strengthens your tendons and ligaments-but you can be a monster in the gym and not be able to bend anything.
MF: How do you prepare for a strongman performance?
CS: Before I get out in front of a group of people, I know a week or two in advance what I’m going to do. Therefore, I try to exceed that in my personal training (except for the steel bar in the movie). That way, when I get on stage, I’m confident I’m going to be able to do the feat and I can do it with finesse. When preparing for a show, I do a 100% or more of what I can do.
What are you favorite objects to bend?
CS: I really love bending steel bars. They have become my signature feat. I wonder if it had something to do with Matonick’s coaching or maybe I just have a lot of strength in the crouch position. The bar I bent in the film is something I’ll always treasure because that was a pivotal point in my life.
How did the idea of the documentary come about?
CS: I had been living in my building since 2010 and I met [director] Dave Carrol in December 2011. I was training using my implements downstairs at my cage, which is a unit the property owners rent for storage. Carrol’s dog heard the steel clanking and came over. He whisked the dog away but on our second meeting Carrol and I spoke about what I was doing down there. We spoke about doing a 10 minute vignette for his portfolio which turned into 20 minutes and I asked him to come to Pennsylvania to watch me train and meet other strongmen. After that experience, they realized they had enough material to create a feature-length film. We wound up with 225 hours of usable footage.
Bending Steel is available now on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant Video, and bendingsteelmovie.com.