If there’s an underdog story in the sport of strongman, it’s about Martins Licis—and he just had his Rocky sequel comeback.
Despite training for the sport since his teens, the 31-year-old raised a lot of eyebrows when he won 2019’s World’s Strongest Man competition. At “just” 6'3", he was going toe to toe with monsters like four-time winner 6’8" Brian Shaw and the 6’9" defending champion Hafthor Bjornsson, yet he decisively won by a huge eight-point lead, the widest in years.
Then came the injuries: nerve damage in his neck, hip and knee pain, wrist and elbow tendinitis (“I couldn’t even lift a 200-pound stone”), and then a car accident that damaged his tailbone and shoulders. Add in a fractured thumb and burst appendix this year, and nobody would have expected him to place at Rogue’s first Strongman Invitational this October—and yet he came first, beating the reigning World’s Strongest Man Tom Stoltman and earning a cool $133,351 in the process.
We recently caught up with Licis about his training program, recovery, and his thoughts about what his sport needs to continue growing into the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This comeback is nothing short of astonishing. How did you manage to build back so decisively while you were rehabbing injuries?
While I’m recovering, I’m training a lot. I don’t just sit on a couch and wait for injuries to heal themselves, and I feel like a lot of people have that approach. I’m evaluating what my deficiencies are and improving those, improving ranges of motion as well as I can, and even though I’m not directly working on my brute strength I’m working on the quality of motion my body can achieve.
Then when I start lifting heavy again my strength can increase that much more quickly. It’s almost like tuning up an instrument I’ve spent that last 18 months tuning my body up to be able to perform better.
Something that's often said about you is how damn immaculate your form is. Everyone knows they should drop the bar as soon as they can't complete a perfect rep, but in practice it’s awfully hard to do so. How do you manage to have such great form at such heavy weights and high intensity?
I lift light a lot. A lot of people tend to make fun of me in my videos, like, “Oh, Martins can’t win another competition, look how light he’s lifting.” They keep comparing the weights I do in my training, but I spend a lot of time just reinforcing the quality of my motion. I spend a lot of time practicing the way I want my lifts to look and then I very slowly start increasing the weight with a focus on quality. When it’s a couple months out from competition I’ll still grind my way through some ugly reps because I don’t want to teach my body to shut down when quality is compromised. But most of my training I’m very adamant about making things look as crisp as possible.
What accessory exercises do you find yourself doing the most often?
Oh, I have way more accessories than I do main lifts. Something I’ve been doing a lot for my knees is touchdown squats, you can see them in Squat University. It’s a very short range single leg squat just to build stability and health in the knees, and it helps reinforce the quad and patellar tendons to be able to take more load and go heavier.
I do a lot of hip airplanes to build stability in the hip, a single leg hip stability drill where I’m basically balancing on one leg and opening and closing my hips.
Beyond that, a series of accessories I use to increase range of motion in my shoulders so my scapulae can move and adapt to whatever motion I’m doing overhead. If you’re pulling a lot, your scapulae can get stuck and that can lead to shoulder stiffness and that’ll hold you back from using your full strength.
We've spoken before about your core training, how you usually combine your core movements with other exercises to get the most bang for your buck. What are your go-to moves these days for a strongman core?
My favourite core movement so far, and it has been for many years, is hanging leg raises and holds with double arm or single arm. I just hold with my legs out in an L-seat, or even just do leg raises or kickers.
Another thing I do that’s very valuable is doing all my training raw. I’ll go beltless and I’ll do tempo work with a slow movement style. Let’s say I’m practicing stones without a belt, I’ll bring the stone all the way up to my chin and hold it there, and that puts enormous pressure on the core but also is very functional because it directly trains my stone and my abs to be able to handle a stone clean. I do the same thing for log, I’ll clean it to the neck then squat and pause with it so I can get used to stabilising that weight throughout the motion.
If a young buck had a 500-pound deadlift and was thinking of getting into a strength sport—CrossFit, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, strongman—what's your case for picking strongman?
I think out of all the strength disciplines, strongman is the ultimate expression of strength because it truly involves all movements. Strongman is so excessive and varied that all other strength sports eventually become accessories for strongman. In strongman you cannot have any weak points in strength and ability in expressing strength.
And it’s not just numbers on a barbell, which is ergonomic to conveniently fit in the hands. Strongman often needs you to lift rocks or pulling things or flipping things. You are truly trying to lift things that are not convenient or ergonomic, so your strength has to be adaptive to whatever object you’re lifting, and no other strength sports do that—they’re very specific to the lifts included in the sport and don’t go beyond that.
In strongman you need to be able to lift whatever’s in front of you; I’d go as far to say it’s the only true strength sport.
OK, you've convinced me. What's the first piece of advice you give to guys who want to take up the sport?
Learn the motions; don’t rush lifting heavy. Heavy comes down the line.
I learned this from legendary powerlifting coach Tom DeLong, who passed away recently, he put it into words what I’ve been doing for years: learn the motion and all the mechanics of it, learn to do it accurately and well, learn where your deficiencies and tightness may be, and then control the motion. Lift slowly and smoothly, making sure there’s no gaps in your strength.
Let’s say you’re doing a squat and halfway up your knees cave in—control it so every single angle of it feels strong and looks right so there’s no point where your form collapses.
Then load and explode the motion. Once you have control and you’re confident in every single angle of the movement, start adding weight and start moving faster and faster to achieve explosive power and motion.
To summarize: learn, control, and explode. There couldn’t be a simpler or more beautiful approach to lifting well.
Your confidence in your abilities has always stood out to me. What does your mental training look like? Do you do visualizations, meditate, do you have a life coach?
I definitely meditate a lot. I am seeing a sports psychology consultant as well, Joar Svensson, that helps me stay on track in my visualisations, he’s helped me a lot.
But I mean I’ve been doing this since I was a kid: meditating, visualising, and coming up with a battle plan. A lot of competitors just train strength in general then jump into a competition, I like to pick the competitions I want to win.
Even if I’m doing multiple competitions in a year I can only focus on two or three competitions where I’m obsessing over the event, breaking them down, and finding ways to win those events. So I give myself targets to hit in training that I know could either win the event or place me in the top, and I try to have no holes in the competition.
Every single event I need to be good at. I’ll train the event I’m weakest in.
I feel like for you, having your supportive team of (trainer and veteran strongman) Odd Haugen and (manager and best friend) Romark Weiss is a core of your training as well. Your team certainly seems more emphasized in your social media and YouTube videos than a lot of other athletes.
I absolutely believe my team has made a huge impact. When I get competition ready I get into a tunnel, and I’m not really good at handling life stuff. My team has helps me stay fed and fill in the holes where my focus doesn’t naturally go.
Then I get moral support, they help me set up weights and set my training so I can go from event to event without thinking about the setup or exhausting myself with it. I also go to San Pedro physical therapy and see Squat University’s Aaron Horschig—they help me find out where I’m moving well and where I can use improvements.
On that note, I think you've said your closest friend in the sport is Hafthor "The Mountain" Bjornsson. What’s a valuable training lesson you've learned from the man?
I actually learned the one-motion stone lifting from Thor. I didn’t actually learn it from him directly, but I watched all the videos of how he one-motioned stones: how he rolls them and the timing for when his hips push through and extend, and I started mimicking that.
I give him the credit, I’ve never told him this but I give him credit for my effective stone one-motion, where you do not lap the stone you just roll it into your chest and lift it right over the platform
You've also said your ultimate goal is to win World's Strongest Man, the Arnold Strongman Classic, and World's Ultimate Strongman in Dubai. Are you still pretty confident in that plan?
Right now my sights are set for the 2022 Arnold Classic and World’s Strongest Man competitions. I’d love to win World’s Ultimate Strongman as well, it just depends on where my body’s at after Arnold and World’s. Those two I want to win the most right now.
Most of your competitors are significantly taller than you. How would you say your training differs from the bigger guys?
A lot of the bigger guys put all their emphasis on brute strength, and I try to build range of motion and stability so that way I can get into uncomfortable positions they can’t. Because they’re stiffer or bigger it takes them that much more energy to complete some of these motions.
I’ll directly train the portion of the lift that’s the most difficult. For example, the stone pick. I’ll spend a lot of time just picking stones, not even lapping them or lifting them, just lifting them off the ground and holding them. This way my wrists, forearms, shoulders, and pecs, get used to that tension of the stone pick so that when it comes to contest time, I don’t slip or hesitate to get them off the floor and I don’t tear a bicep. I’ve seen a lot of biceps get torn lifting stones off the ground, but I believe this approach to spending extra time working on the most difficult portions of the motion helped me win those events.
Let's talk nutrition What are your staple meals now?
I’m eating a lot of fruits right now. A regular meal would be carne asada, spinach, and some fruit for carbs. I also eat a lot of potatoes, and a lot of eggs in the morning.
Are there any micronutrients you're particularly mindful of? I know strongmen tend to talk a lot about sodium and potassium.
Yes. Especially when training gets heavy or I get hot and start sweating, I need to get an abundant amount of potassium and electrolytes in. I’ll oftentimes even eat straight up mustard in my training just to get the electrolytes I need. I’ve also been known to eat six to eight bananas during training, I found that to be very effective, and lately I’ve been eating a lot of spinach for potassium as well.
What's one fact about you that surprises people?
I think if people ever see my paintings they’d be surprised. I have a semi-secret painting hobby. Once in a while I’ll dive in and binge on a painting or two and I find it therapeutic. Before a competition I can’t bear to look at a painting because my mind is in chaos war mode, but when I’m away from competition I like to get in touch with that side of myself.
You still hold the 565 pound world record for the Steinborn Squat, and you’re a world champion at Mas wrestling, both very impressive and pretty obscure records. Are there any other unorthodox challenges you'd like to dominate?
I’ve wanted the bent press, but my shoulders have gotten stiffer with age. I used to have great range of motion in my shoulders but since getting hit by the car and tearing my left lat and right pec, it’s been significantly more difficult than it used to be to get the range of motion in my shoulders, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the bent press world record.
But at this point I’d love to break the Steinborn world record one more time and win some more strongman shows, then I’ll be very content. And as a personal challenge—I can’t be too confident in this one. The log press world record would be a dream. If things go really well I’ll be gunning for that.
Are there any feats outside of strongman that you'd like to accomplish some day? A four-minute mile, shredding to single digit body fat, something like that?
Outside of strongman I’d like to get into MMA. It’s not a hard goal right now, it’s just something I’m teasing in my mind, but when I’m done with strongman I’d like to do something that’s more cardiovascular and something I could do better in if I lost weight. I don’t want to be this heavy for too much longer, just to take care of my health I‘ll want to go down in weight and do something a bit more athletic and cardiovascular.
You’re also getting into acting, right?
I’m loving acting, I’m only doing commercials but I have some potential movie offers. I was supposed to do them this summer but Covid and some strikes pushed them back. But in 2022, I’m crossing my fingers that everything goes well, I’ll be in a Netflix Western movie.
What's else is next for you, outside of competing?
I’m building up my gym, Wreck-It Gym, and the app, Wreck-It Power. What we’re offering now is my own training program, if you to the app you can personally follow my training and it’s updated every week with the workouts I do to get myself healthy and ready for contest. Very soon we’re working on prepackaged programming so people don’t have to follow exactly what I’m doing, they can do a simpler version or a barbell version or more introductory strongman workouts. We’re going to be adding other coaches as well.
Strongman Corporation also just recently got bought out and they’re going to be up to some really cool things that I’ll be a part of, competitions that’ll change the way strongman is done so we can get more viewers and better prize money for the athletes.
What are you planning to change about strongman?
Every competition should be livestreamed—and livestreamed well. There needs to be a standard for how the sport is portrayed so we get quality viewing every time.
In person, we want it to be more spectator friendly as well, to stop having competitions in parking lots and put them on in arenas, to market them better. I remember competing at America’s Strongest Man, for example, and the locals had no idea it was going on, plus it was happening in a convention centre with no possible seating to view the contest. So there are all these opportunities to make it more approachable that are consistently getting missed. That’s my big goal right now: to grow the sport and make it more entertaining and accessible to watch.
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