Image: Golli

Diary of a Powerlifter

 In Interview, Magazine, Magazine Intro

Júlían Jóhann Karl Jóhannsson is a 26-year-old who studies history at the University of Iceland and works part-time at a rehab centre for young teenagers. He also currently holds the world record for deadlift in the 120+ kg class, as he lifted 405 kilograms (893lbs) at the 2018 World Open Powerlifting Championships in Halmstad, Sweden. His approach is a meticulous one. Júlían painstakingly takes notes on every training session and every lift in a little notebook. Radiating stoicism, he simply eats, trains – one lift at a time – and sets world records. In a country with a long history of male strength, Júlían is the newest strongman on the block.

Dear mama

Why does someone wake up one day and decide to become a powerlifter? Júlían thinks for a moment before answering. “I think it was always in the back of my mind, the thought of becoming strong. It runs in the family, as two of my uncles were lifting when I was 10. I thought it was so cool and became completely enamoured,” Júlían says with a smile. “I’m mostly raised by my mother, and this is something she has placed emphasis on, becoming strong. Being a son of a single mother certainly played its part. Then there is also this culture of strongmen in Iceland.” Strongmen have always been a big deal in Iceland, like Jón Páll Sigmarsson or Magnús Ver Magnússon, who won the title of World’s Strongest Man four times each. “I remember I was ten years old when I was with my mother in the Westfjords, and I witnessed the strongman competition the Westfjord Viking. I got all of the strongmen’s autographs, and seven years later I was training with Iceland’s most successful powerlifter, Auðunn Jónsson,” Júlían recalls fondly.


Júlían relaxing between lifts in the gym Camelot

Abnormal is normal

Júlían’s daily routine revolves around powerlifting from dawn until dusk, understandably so. But does being so strong make life easier, or harder? “I’ve obviously never experienced the other side, not being strong,” Júlían laughs. “It certainly makes life harder in some ways, like not fitting into an airplane seat or having difficulty finding clothes. But it can also be easier. Being strong is of use incredibly often in daily life. We moved into a new apartment a short time ago, but I’ve already helped three neighbours with moving. It’s no problem for me, but they have considerable difficulty lifting items,” Júlían observes. It can be difficult for him to find clothing that fits, but he certainly looked his best in a black suit while accepting his Athlete of Reykjavík award in 2018. “It was a Dressman XL,” he laughs. “I’ve worn a size 50 shoe since I was 13 years old. It goes without saying that I haven’t developed a particular taste for shoes. I simply buy the shoes that are available each time,” he states merrily.

We move on to discussing his diet, and it’s clear most people would have some problems ingesting his daily intake. “I eat around 4,000-5,000 calories per day, that’s currently enough for me. I’m currently maintaining my weight and making sure I keep up with the training load as well as recovery. I mostly eat meat, fish, potatoes, rice, skyr and protein drinks. Then, of course, I go for a pizza sometimes on Fridays.” How does such a diet fit into daily life, such as around Christmas? “There’s normally meat at Christmas parties so I’m good. But if I go to a birthday party, I might eat half a litre (17oz) of skyr before heading out. I love smoked lamb and Icelandic food, such as smoked sausage. You don’t get it often, but I’m ecstatic if I get my hands on it.”


Strong start

Júlían quickly found out powerlifting was for him, as his weight jumped from 90 kilograms (198lbs) to 107 (236lbs) in his first six months of training. After a year, 16-year-old Júlían deadlifted 270 kilograms (595lbs), an amount most adult powerlifters would be proud of. “I met a coach and told him I was interested in competing. He said that I was exactly what they were looking for as they needed a 90kg contestant for the future. I remember thinking at the time ‘90kg? I’m not going to stay at this weight for long. I’m just getting started.’ I always wanted to become heavier and stronger. I found it fit me better,” Júlían says with a smirk.

“There was one moment, maybe not a turning point, but there still was no turning back after that. I was walking to school one day and found ISK 15,000 ($120/€110) laying on the street. I walked into the corner store and bought a large jar of protein powder for the money. It pushed me towards becoming stronger.” Júlían went to the junior college Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð, known as a school for creatives – and outsiders. Júlían fit right in. But people certainly raised eyebrows when they saw him feasting on large amounts of whole eggs at lunchtime. “There was a discussion on Twitter after I set the world record, ‘Oh, yes! It’s the guy who ate twelve eggs, two litres of milk, and Skyr for lunch’.”

Heavy lifting

Júlían’s girlfriend Ellen Ýr Jónsdóttir is a powerlifter herself, having won the Icelandic championship in 2017, among other accolades. There probably aren’t many couples out there with this kind of powerlifting pedigree. “It’s incredibly fun, finding someone who shares this passion with me. We train together and that’s great as well. I’ve been thinking that if we didn’t train together there would be little time left to catch up.” Júlían lives a busy life, studying history and working at a rehab centre for troubled teenagers, but powerlifting is always in first place. “My daily life revolves around training. It’s more of a puzzle to fit everything else in around training. I try to have time for everything. Studying, work, friends, and family. But the lion’s share of my time goes into training, thinking about training, and preparing for training. That’s the focus and always has been – number one, two, and three. People have been asking me if I’m going to write about the history of powerlifting for my thesis. I’ll let it suffice to write my name in the history books,” an ambitious Júlían declares.

Words by Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson. Photos by Golli.

This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.

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