Eddie Hall can swim. Yes, he’s enormous – even bigger close up than he looks when hoisting tractor tyres aloft in the World’s Strongest Man competition – but the real shock comes when you see him glide effortlessly down the pool like a sort of cylindrical shark, leaving us lagging limply behind in his (not insignificant) wake. But why is the Stoke-on-Trent native spending his Monday mornings swimming lengths when he could be lifting weights? We went swimming with him to find out.
That was pretty damn quick. You’ve done this before, right?
Most people don’t know it, but I was actually a national champion swimmer as a kid.
Seriously? How did that come about?
My mum’s a swimming teacher, so I was literally thrown in the pool when I was two years old and left to sink or swim. I joined a local club when I was five, and by the time I was ten I was training 14 hours a week in the water and doing extra physio and gym sessions. I had my own coach and nutritionist and I was on a path to being an Olympic athlete.
That sounds like a pretty serious commitment for a ten-year-old.
It really was. I was treated like a professional athlete – I wasn’t allowed to muck about or lay off the diet, and it was very strict. I won the nationals for the third year in a row when I was 13, and then in my mid-teens I suddenly realised it’d become a job. I didn’t have any kind of social life – my mates were off shagging girls and drinking, and I was stuck in a swimming pool. It was one of those defining moments in your life when you think, “Can I be arsed or can’t I?” In the end I just didn’t want to do it anymore, so I quit.
Did you regret that afterwards?
Yeah, it was actually really tough dealing with it. I’d been at the top of my game as a swimmer for so many years, and then suddenly I had to try and blend into an average lifestyle of going out, drinking, smoking drugs, all the things you do as a teenager. I actually got really depressed and ended up getting kicked out of school – which I’m not proud of. But then I started going to the gym and working out, and I’ve never looked back.
How fast can you swim?
I can still swim 50m in 29 seconds at a push, which is only six seconds off the qualifying time for the Olympics. But for training purposes I do it in 40-50 seconds and repeat that every two minutes.
Like an interval session?
Exactly. Strongman events require 60-second bursts of energy, so all my training is geared towards replicating that. Swimming is great for shoulder mobility, and my heart rate never drops below 150-160bpm, so it gives me a good cardio workout too.
You must get some funny looks in the pool…
Yeah for sure, it’s not every day you see a 28-stone [178kg] bloke swimming in the fast lane.
It’s not every day you see a 28-stone bloke, full stop. Have you always been this big?
It’s a running joke in my family that I’ve always weighed my age, so at five years old I was five stone, at ten years old I was ten stone, at 15 I was 15, and so on. I’ve kept adding a stone a year during my strongman career and now I’m 27 and a half years old and I’m pretty much hitting 28 stone exactly.
That’s insane. How much do you have to eat to maintain that size?
On a good day I eat 10,000-plus calories. On a bad day – if I’m travelling, doing a seminar or an appearance – I’ll get through roughly 6,000-7,000 calories.
You realise for most people the low-calorie days are the good ones, right? What does 10,000 look like?
Today for example, I woke up and drank a litre of smoothie, then had a full English breakfast, followed by a quick fish and chips pub lunch on my way to the pool because I didn’t have time to cook. After we’re done here I’ll pick my daughter up from school and go to McDonald’s. Then after my wife gets home from work I’ll have a second tea, like a curry or a spag bol, and then I’ll just keep snacking and grazing throughout the evening.
That sounds exhausting.
Isn’t it pretty pricy as well?
Me and the missus worked it out once and it’s easily £250 a week, just for me. It’s basically the cost of a decent mortgage every month, just on my food bill. I’m not a millionaire or anything, but it’s the only way I’ll ever be big enough to progress in my sport, so it’s money well spent.
Why do strongmen need to be so heavy?
Weight moves weight. If you’ve got to pick up a 200kg barbell, it’ll be a lot fucking harder if you weigh 100kg than if you’re 200kg yourself. You need to have that bulk to counterbalance the huge amounts you’re lifting. So in this sport, the heavier you are the better, provided it doesn’t compromise your mobility. I reckon I could get up to 30 stone and still be fit and mobile.
Speaking of picking up enormous weights, there’s a great video on YouTube of Arnold Schwarzenegger cheering you on as you break the deadlift world record. How did that make you feel?
It was pretty cool and definitely one of those defining moments in your career. He’s someone who I looked up to as a kid – I’d say 99% of the people who lift weights got into it because they saw Arnie on TV and wanted to look like him.
He tried to high-five you, but you weren’t having it…
That wasn’t deliberate – I didn’t even realise he was there till after I’d done my celebration. He was a really sound guy though.
You broke the record again the following month by a single kilogram, raising it to 436kg. How high can you actually go?
I want to lift 500kg at some point in my career. But every time I break the record I get paid, and regardless of whether it’s by 1kg, 10kg or 50kg, it’s always the same amount of money, so I’ve got to be clever about it. People might say I should set the record as high as possible now just for the love of the sport, but I’ve got to make a living. If some huge company want to put their name to it and put big money down – like a million quid – I’d happily pull 500kg right now, but there’d have to be a lot in it for me.
How close to that number have you got behind closed doors?
I’ve pulled 480kg comfortably at the gym, without a weight belt or lifting suit, so I’m fairly confident I could do it with a suit on and a big crowd behind me.
Is it difficult to train hard on a full stomach without throwing up?
My gym sessions can last up to three hours, so I need to eat to the point where I feel sick beforehand or I won’t have enough fuel to get through the workout. After a while you just get used to it. To be honest, it’s the least of the problems you have as a strongman.
What are the worst problems?
The training is so tough, even putting a pair of socks on can be difficult some days because you’re that sore and stiff from training your legs the day before. Carrying so much weight is hard on your joints as well – that’s why it’s nice to come to the pool and float around for an hour to take the pressure off them. If I go out shopping with the missus or go for a walk into town, within a mile and a half my hips will be really sore. There’s basically always something hurting, and you just have to accept the fact that you’ll be in constant pain. It becomes a lifestyle.
That can’t be healthy in the long term.
Of course not. I can’t keep eating and training like this forever. Regardless of how much exercise you do or how good your fitness is, it just isn’t healthy to be walking around at 28 stone.
On that note, former World’s Strongest Man competitor Mike Jenkins died in 2013 at the tragically early age of 31. Given all the risks and hardship involved with being a strongman, why do you still do it?
At the end of the day, every sport has risks involved when you’re competing at the highest level and pushing your body to the absolute limit. You see it with swimmers, marathon runners, rugby players – even football’s had players collapse dead on the pitch in recent years. Don’t get my wrong, I’m not gonna keep pushing myself until I fucking die. My plan is to win the World’s Strongest Man, dominate the sport, then walk away from it, like I did with swimming. I want to give back to my family and enjoy my life with them, but first I’ve go to achieve what I set out to do, which is become the best in the world.
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Between 2010 and 2016, Ben was the deputy editor of Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Ben also contributed exclusive features to Coach on topics such as football drills, triathlon training plans and healthy eating.