By Josh Dean / Photos by Peter Yang
The hardest thing about trying to become the world’s strongest man is definitely the eating.
Sure, picking up and carrying two refrigerators weighing over 900 pounds is difficult, as is chucking a 50-pound keg over a wall and pressing a 220-pound dumbbell overhead with one hand.
But what really pushes Hafthor “Thor” Bjornsson to his human performance limits is his sixth large meal of the day.
The two-time World’s Strongest Man runner-up stares at the bowl of rib eyes and rice cradled in his enormous hands like a child with a pile of spinach standing in the way of dessert. He sighs and swallows a forkful.
“I need to force-feed myself,” he says. “I’m fighting to stay the weight I am.”
Hafthor is one of the largest physical specimens you could possibly encounter. In the attempt to describe his extreme physiology, metaphors fail.
You could say his arms are like tree limbs, but that would not do justice to his arms. His biceps are 22 inches, his waist 46 inches, his chest 65 inches. The 29-year-old Icelander is most famous for playing Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane on Game of Thrones.
He stands 6’9″ and is currently in the process of trying to add power. He’s after the two major titles that have eluded him–the Arnold Strongman Classic and the World’s Strongest Man–so he’s bulked himself up to 431 by shoveling steak and rice into the hole in the middle of his Viking beard.
This morning, like all mornings, began with six eggs, bacon, and oatmeal, followed two hours later by steak and rice. Four more times, at two-hour intervals, he ate steak and rice, occasionally with vegetables.
Some days he’ll mix in chicken, but never fish because most fish is too lean.
He knows that the best meal for gaining and maintaining weight is steak and rice–and only white rice, because his body digests it more quickly than brown rice or pasta, which means he can start eating again sooner. “You learn these things,” he says.
Hafthor is sitting at a long dining table in the modern two-bedroom house outside Reykjavik that he shares with his normal-size girlfriend, Andrea, an engineering student.
Nearby is their vivacious Pomeranian, Asterix, who has an affinity for chewing pant legs. “He is a champion like his daddy,” Hafthor says proudly.
He met Andrea at a gym called Jakabol, which translates to “Nest of Giants” and has a sign on the wall that reads “No Pussies” in Icelandic. It’s owned by Hafthor’s mentor, the Icelandic strongman Magnus ver Magnusson, and it’s where Jon Pall Sigmarsson, the first-ever four-time World’s Strongest Man winner, died while working out.
Hafthor points to a Sigmarsson quote tattooed in Icelandic on his right shin. “It says, ‘There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift,’ ” Bjornsson explains. “He said that while he was deadlifting, setting a record.
Then he died at a very young age.” While deadlifting.
Hafthor got his first tattoo at 16 and has been gradually covering himself with ink ever since.
His right arm, from shoulder to wrist, is a mural of Viking imagery–Thor, Odin, Valhalla, a warrior on a horse. There is a woman’s face too. “That is my girlfriend,” he says, and chuckles, making it clear it’s not his girlfriend.
“When you get the first tattoo, you think a lot about it,” he says. “Then you have 20 and you don’t f**king care!”
It’s February, when the Icelandic sun doesn’t rise until 9 a.m. and the weather is best described as the worst day of the year in Seattle, every day: some combination of stiff wind, gray clouds, and freezing drizzle.
But weather has no effect on Thor. He is always hot. “I don’t feel very well at this weight,” he says. “I feel tired, because I have to move more weight.” He also has trouble breathing and, according to Andrea, snores louder and more often.
Hafthor has won Iceland’s Strongest Man six years in a row and Europe’s Strongest Man twice, but he has yet to capture the Arnold and World’s Strongest Man titles, and that bothers him.
His best finish at the former is second, and he’s nearly won the latter twice–including a half-point loss in 2014. This year, he says, he’s more prepared and doing less acting. “I’m being selfish,” he says.
“I’m thinking of myself. I want to focus on training, eating, and sleeping. I can do commercials later.”
He lifts four days a week at Thor’s Power Gym in Reykjavik, usually with the second and third strongest men in Iceland as partners and spotters.
Some days they lift the super yoke; other days they chuck kegs out in the parking lot. Occasionally someone will attempt to press the matte copper 129-kilo Cyr dumbbell. (That’s 284 pounds.)
Only Thor has actually pressed it and he likes to trick visitors into attempting to pick it up by lying about the weight. “It’s 64 kilos [141 pounds],” he said to a recent guest, and when the man strained and barely raised the weight an inch over the floor, Hafthor guffawed.
“You can name your hernia Thor.”
In the back corner, a poster of him spattered in blood from his iconic Game of Thrones scene–when The Mountain popped Prince Oberyn’s head with his bare hands–looks down on a list ranking the best times on the Concept2 rowing machine.
The leader, of course, is Thor. His time in the 500-meter row, 1:19, is only 9 seconds off the world record. “I don’t train on this,” he says. “It was the third time I ever tried it.” (He also holds the gym record for the 1,000, at 3:21.)
Between his attempts to win international strongman titles, Hafthor is piling up other ridiculous records.
He is the unchallenged world champion of throwing things, holding the record for both weight over bar (100 pounds over a 15-foot bar) and keg toss (33 pounds over a 23.5-foot bar), but his most impressive feat came in 2015 at the World’s Strongest Viking competition.
Hafthor broke a 1,000-year-old record when he shouldered a 32-foot, 1,433-pound log. According to legend, the famed Icelander Orm Storulfsson once carried a log that size–a ship’s mast, actually–for three steps.
Depending on the version of the story you hear, it took between eight and 50 men to lift the log onto Storulfsson’s shoulders and, after those three steps, his back broke.
“He was never the same after,” Hafthor says. Hafthor was the only contestant to attempt the log; he carried it five steps, which counts for shattering the record.
With every step, he recalls, he could feel his spine compressing under the crushing weight. “Pain everywhere,” he says.
Pain is just part of the job when your job is hoisting boulders and pulling cars and dealing with the relentless onslaught of steak bowls and smoothies packed with whey protein, amino acids, fish oil, and calcium.
Related: The 10 Best Power Foods For Men
Hafthor thinks that when it’s all finished, when he’s undeniably the World’s Strongest Man, he’ll cut back on the calories and settle in at a more normal weight. “I think I would stay around 375 pounds,” he says.
Outside, it’s dark and drizzling–again. Any minute, the rain will turn to sleet. Andrea has retreated to the bedroom to study, and the home is now filled with enormous Vikings–five strongmen who are giants by any measure, except in comparison to their friend Thor, who towers over everyone.
The chef’s kitchen was a selling point of the house, but what convinced Hafthor was the unfinished backyard. He planted grass, installed a trampoline for when his 8-year-old daughter visits, and put in a patio and two enormous tubs.
One is for Iceland’s geothermally heated water, which comes out of the ground at nearly 100°F; the other is filled with freezing water. Hafthor alternates between the two most nights as part of his recovery, and welcomes his friends.
By the time Hafthor has grudgingly swallowed the final bite of his sixth and final meal of the day, all five men are already out in recovery on the patio.
They rotate clockwise around the hot tub until someone reaches the back corner nearest the cold tub, at which point that Viking stands up, steps over the side, and plops into the frigid water, always with the expression of a man who has just been kicked in the testicles.
Hafthor removes his 5XL tank top and sandals and shuffles out the door to take his place. “Watch out for the flood!” one of the Vikings yells. “Big boy is coming!”