To outsiders, Michael de la Pava’s life can look strangely, literally Sisyphean. Week after week, the 29-year-old rises in the dark, shuffling into a dim warehouse to hurl concrete boulders, over and over. He raises the spheres, weighing hundreds of pounds, then drops them with a thud, over and over again.
And after that’s done, muscle stores depleted, sweat pooling on the floor, he might decide to carry some filled metal kegs. Or hoist a log over his head, pressing it in the air over and over. Or, maybe, singlehandedly pull a truck, with some extra weights thrown into the bed to make the task even harder.
Once upon a time – well, just over a year ago – de la Pava’s daily routine followed a more quotidian path. At first a devoted nine-to-fiver, he first dedicated himself to a career in social work. But a niggling feeling of discontent slowly grew, until one day, he chucked it all for a surprising dream: to open a gym in exurban Southwest Miami-Dade County devoted to strongman training.
Strongman is the form of freakish strength competition best known in the mainstream through the annual televised World’s Strongest Man competition. Drawn to the sport for its extreme feats and near-total obscurity, de la Pava set about to compete – and then evangelize for the sport.
“It was very intimidating to me to open a strongman fat guy gym,” he says. “When you actually want something really bad, it doesn’t matter what happens. I’ve put a lot of money into this. I’ve taken loans out, I barely see my family sometimes, I’m here sometimes 16 hours a day. I sleep five hours a night. I will literally kill myself to make this gym and me better.
These days, he runs a small but growing facility dubbed the Battle Axe Gym, so named thanks to an admitted obsession with vikings.
“I’ve always been fascinated with warriors, samurais, Spartans,” he says. “I just feel like that whole Viking-esque or warrior outlook is to go out there, sail and travel, take what you can get by force, and then come back and make yourself better.”
Strongman stands apart from slightly more mainstream strength sports. It’s not quite like Crossfit, where sometimes-shirtless competitors often run through fast, cardio-centric metabolic workouts. Strongman, though it has its explosive moments, is decidedly for the thicker and slower. (De la Pava does, however, train a growing number of Crossfit athletes looking for extra strength and a competitive edge in their own games.)
It’s not like powerlifting, which involves three main lifts, performed on standard barbells, over and over. Strongman events use odd objects – cars, barrels, fake logs, strange and jumbo dumbbells — And it’s definitely not like bodybuilding, which is all about aesthetics – strongman is about what you can do, not how you look doing it. Throw some kegs, then go eat a burger; it’s all good.
“This is not a gym to be like, here just looking around on your little treadmill. It’s got beer, it’s got water, it’s got dirt, it’s got blood, it’s got tears, it’s got angry big dudes,” says de la Pava. “The world can look at this gym and be like, ‘What a bunch of dumb meat heads.’ I don’t care.”
Recently we got the chance to go inside the world of strongman with de la Pava. We followed him from a practice day in the gym, to the culmination of all that training – a regional strongman competition that included events like a sandbag carry and a truck pull. Check out the video above to see how that turned out.
Visit facebook.com/thebattleaxegym to learn more about de la Pava’s facility.
The music in this video is “Superior” by metal band Nixa. You can download the song for free on the group’s Bandcamp page.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.