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Magnús Ver Magnússon has built a powerful body of work. Though it’s been a while since he officially held the title of World’s Strongest Man, he’s been carrying the competition on his massive back and reputation for nearly three decades. The 53-year-old may not have been the biggest man in the competition—but he certainly had the biggest impact.
“I like being appreciated for what I did,” he admits.
With an unprecedented four WSM titles, including three in a row—only Mariusz Pudzianowski has more total wins with five—the rugged Icelander was the Incredible Hulk in a universe of Herculeses, and his name was as synonymous with his sport as Michael Jordan’s or Babe Ruth’s had been to theirs.
And it all started on a small farm, somewhere in rural Iceland—which is somehow the land of the giants in the sport—and Magnús would soon tower above them all.
“I was always stronger than the rest of the kids,” he admits. “I was working on my grandfather’s farm when I was really young, and I was throwing hay bales around like they were nothing. This being Iceland, a powerlifter moved to my village—which only had about 1,000 people—and he started a sports council with weightlifting equipment, and it didn’t take long for me to get hooked.”
Ver Magnússon opened up the Jakabol gym—now a breeding ground for Strongmen including Hafthór Björns- son—with his own handmade equipment in 2009 in Iceland’s capital and only real city, Rekjavik. There, he met his predecessor as Iceland’s premier powerlifter, Jón Páll Sigmarsson, and began training with him and quickly surpassed him as the country’s strongest man.
“He taught me quite a bit,” says Ver Magnússon, and from 1989–91 he won medals in the European Power Lifting Championships and placed third in Iceland’s Strongest Man in 1985, with Sigmarsson taking the top spot.
“I got a taste and wanted to be the best, so I started training more and got invited to the Scottish Highland Games, and I beat everybody,” he recalls. “Sigmarsson got hurt, and I got invited to take his place. I left powerlifting and knew I’d found my path in Strongman.”
It was a path of destruction as far as his competitors were concerned. He won his first WSM championship in 1991, and when he came in second the next two years, personal frustration weighed on him heavier than the trucks he pulled.
“The first time I won people might have thought I was lucky,” he says. “Then I got second in ’92 and ’93, and I realized the only reason I didn’t win was that I wasn’t prepared properly.”
So he revolutionized the training process for the competition and ripped off an unprecedented three titles in a row. Only American Bill Kazmaier had completed this feat (1980-82).
“We used to train like powerlifters, but we kind of changed our training so that it would better fit the competition itself,” he explains.
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Thing like pushing his muscles to the limits in training to be able to overcome the lactic-acid buildup that occurs during competitive Strongman challenges, which include tossing poles and kegs and the traditional overhead circus barbell press.
“You’ve gotta get your body used to going further,” he explains.
That came from working out a minimum of five days a week for two to four hours a day.
“So a lot of basic lifting—but a lot of repetition as well,” he says. “A leg day would consist of squats, step-ups, and leg presses for one minute at a time; you’d do 25 to 30 reps on that. My training was about more than strength—it was about being more prepared for lactic-acid buildup than your opponent. That’s brains over brawn.”
He also believes today’s competitors have a tremendous advantage when it comes to training techniques and equipment over the men he vanquished in the ’90s. That being said, he still thinks he’d kick ass if he were competing today.
“I never trained with the [Atlas] stones when I was competing,” he says. “But I was the best in the world at it. So yeah, I think I’d do pretty well with today’s training.”
Ver Magnússon stopped competing nearly 20 years ago, but he still travels the world officiating at Strongman competitions. As far as today’s competitors go, he respects breakout American Brian Shaw, but the guy he’s got his eye on is his up-and-coming protégé and fellow Viking Jón Valgeir Williams.
“He’s the only one who could keep up with me in training,” he unashamedly admits. As for the proliferation of Icelanders among the strongest competitors in the world, he’s got a simple explanation.
“It’s in the genes, man,” he says. “We’re Vikings! This was not an easy place to settle! You had to be tough, man. Only the strongest survive!”