An interview with former America’s Strongest Man – Karl Gillingham
Thank you for taking the time to allow my readers to get to know better the life and philosophies of a multiple Worlds Strongest Man competitor, former America’s Strongest Man and pioneer in the Strongman retail business!
A bit unique to most blogs… my readership is a more diverse group composed of runners, triathletes, weightlifters, powerlifters, Strongmen/women, steel benders, bodybuilders, fitness and nutrition enthusiasts and Scotch aficionados. I write this because while many will know you and your prowess in strength athletics, some of my readers may not and so…
Chris: Could you tell us about your upbringing, background and any details about your life before lifting and Strongman that you would like to share? My readers enjoy learning about the person behind the “name” and how their history has played a part in making them who they are.
Karl: I grew up in Little Falls, MN and Green Bay, WI being the son of a NFL Offensive Lineman for the Green Bay Packers. As a child I had to switch schools halfway through the school year every year up through sixth grade when my dad went to training camp. That was unique as I developed two completely different set of friends as a child. As kids, we loved to hunt, fish and snowmobile in MN. Activities I still love to this day. We had both sets of grandparents growing up and got to spend a lot of fun times with them as well. My grandma Gillingham helped form the Charles Lindbergh state park and was a big part of my development to the person I am today. My Grandma and Grandpa Hoglund ran a dairy farm that we helped do chores at in the summer. Both were extremely hard workers as well. Dad also always had chores for us and lumberjacking was a big part of summer and fall work. We burned wood for heat in our house and worked clearing trees on several plots of land. I loved basketball as a teenager and achieved success as a player in high school and got college scholarship offers post high school for academics and athletics. I also met and eventually married my high school sweetheart Pam. After high school I started lifting weights more seriously and look to continue to compete in something. I started out powerlifting and advanced through the ranks eventually winning six consecutive state championships before switching to strongman full time.
Chris: You are a part of a very unique “family” of strength. Can you provide a brief summary of your father and brothers accomplishments for us? How has the influence of having world level strength athletes in the family had an impact on you?
Karl: Dad was a 5 time Pro Bowl NFL offensive lineman and Super Bowl winner with the Green Bay Packers. He was the strongest lineman in the game and a real advocate for weight training. He trained in an old garage building that was sometimes heated and sometimes not. He has some of the biggest power rack lifts ever recorded.
My youngest brother Wade powerlifted and was a pro strongman as well. Wade is known as a real pioneer in grip strength and has several world records to show for it.
My brother Brad is a 4 time IPF World Champion in Powerlifting. He is the current IPF World Record holder in the deadlift. Brad is also in the IPF Hall of Fame.
We have been known as the First Family of Strength.
Chris: Below is a link to your Wiki page which details your long list of strength accomplishments. Which of these are you most proud of and why? Also what are your current bests in the grip and bending strength area? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Gillingham
Karl: The biggest thing I am proud of is the longevity in the sport. I have seen many come and go over the years. The other thing would be being able to stand toe to toe with the strongest men on the planet and still find success. There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this sport and all who have competed are true modern day gladiators.
As far as grip I was one of the first 20 to ever close a #3 (editors note: #3 Captain of Crush gripper a landmark gripper close in the field of strength). I was the last of the four in my family to do it. I only certified because the oldman said it would be nice to have all of us on the list. I also have done a 300# Rolling Thunder lift with the old style handle during one of our Family Thanksgiving Festivus Grip contests and tied for second in the Rolling Thunder World Championship at the Mohegan Sun a few years ago.
Chris: Where you involved in other athletic pursuits growing up? Did you find yourself naturally driven toward strength related sports and training? At what age did you start to weight train and when/where did you begin your career in Strongman?
Karl: I loved playing basketball as a kid. We lived 10 miles from town when we were getting into basketball and my brother Brad and I used to ride our bikes a minimum of 40 miles per day to the gym and back. We would play basketball morning and night and swim during the day. I explain this to my kids but I don’t think they ever believe me. We were in unbelievable shape as teenagers. Dad had us lifting weights by age 5. I have a cool picture of a 65 lb squat and 35 lb military at age 5. We had access to a home gym our whole life. Dad was always training for the NFL and happy to help us out with the lifting. When were young it was hard to figure out why dad was always preaching about weight training and we were a little reluctant to train regularly. After high school we were totally hooked on weight training. I started strongman in 1998 at the AFSA Nationals in Las Vegas run by Manfred Hoerbel. My friend Mark Philippi had been invited the year prior and I had wanted to give it a go. I was fortunate to win the Nationals in my first show.
Chris: Did you feel support when you started the serious commitment that is commanded by high level athletic pursuits?
Karl: Strength sports are part of my family’s culture so we all had support from immediate family. My wife Pam came into this culture from the outside and has helped my continue to compete and has been supportive in my pursuits. Balancing a family, job, kids etc is always a challenge but you make the best of it and use all those commitments to make you a stronger better person.
Chris: When you were progressing did you have a mentor in the sport? Or anyone that you looked up to as example?
Karl: My mentors were my brothers and dad first and foremost. Most of everything I learned was through them and through trial and error. In strongman my closest influence has been Dave Ostlund who has been a training partner from time to time for 10 years. Also, my good friends Brian Schoonveld and Chad Coy. Of course all the old pro strongman, Svend Karlsen, Magnus Samuelsson, Magnus Ver Magnusson, Janne Virtanen, Mark Philippi et all were influential through there actions and professionalism.
Chris: Who are your favorite competitors (past or present) either personally or competitively?
Karl: Too many to list them all. But I always enjoyed the efficiency of Janne Virtanen, the intensity of Travis Ortmayer, the athletic ability of Mariusz Pudzianowski, and the power of Big Z (Zydrunas Savickas).
Chris: Where do you currently live and what is your current family situation? How has your family influenced your direction and success in the sport?
Karl: I have been married for almost 25 years. My wife Pam and I have two sons Tyler and Alex.
My family is the most important part of my life. My wife and kids have enabled me to pursue my athletic career without any barriers. They are very understanding!
Chris: Where do you train for Strongman and Grip work? What type of implements and equipment do you have where you train? How were they made or where were they purchased?
Karl: I train by myself in my home gym. I have purchased, traded for, or built my equipment I use for training.
Most of my early implements were custom fabricated by myself and others as there were not any strongman equipment suppliers at that time.
Chris: Have there been points where you struggled during your athletic career in any way (physically, mentally or otherwise) and how did you handle it? Do you have any general advice from your experience that might help us non World Champions when we are struggling?
Karl: There are four keys to success. Each is equally as important as the other. Intensity, technique, routine and nutrition. Look at the weak spots and correct them. It will help keep you on course for the long haul.
Chris: Was there a specific point in your career when you knew you had a bright future in the sport?
Karl: After winning Pro nationals in my first strongman contest I thought this was a good sport for me. It allowed my to use my athletic ability as well as strength. The sport allows you to express strength in more ways than just squat, bench and deadlift.
Chris: Are there any aspects of the sport that you feel could be improved?
Karl: Yes, too many to list… Safety being first and foremost. To many promoters out there not looking at the welfare of the athletes as a consideration.
Chris: Do you see any impediments to the sport growing stronger and gaining an even broader audience?
Karl: Financial and lack of vision. Ie. Need a Joe Weider, Pete Rozelle, Dave Castro, etc…, Someone to do for the Pro side what Dione Wessels did for the amateur side. Terry Todd has done a great job promoting his big Arnold Classic, but we need that on a national or global level. The things that Dave Castro is doing with the Crossfit games are amazing. The production is on par to a NFL Football game. It shows it can be done.
Chris: Is gaining greater exposure something that you would like to see?
Karl: I think it is a great sport with a lot of potential for success if a few things fall in place.
Chris: A major contribution you have had to the sport is your elite gym and retail website http://www.jackalsgym.com. Can you explain its history, your mission and your future plans? Could you also detail your relationship with the company Rehband and how their products benefit strength athletes?
Karl: My brother Wade started the website in 1997. I had him add my business to the store shortly after. Our future plans are to continue and expand the growth we have seen in the past. Our target market is the ambitious amateur and professional athlete. We sell to the majority of sports in the world with the target being strength and crossfit markets. I introduced Rehband to North America in 2000. It is the primary product we offer. Rehband is by far the highest quality athletic supports available in the world. It has been a great partnership.
Chris: A part of my blog is bourbon and scotch reviews because I enjoy sampling for my readers and believe that with all of the hard work that we put in to becoming our best, we also should take the time to celebrate. Do you have a favorite drink to celebrate with?
Karl: Budweiser beer, VO Whiskey, or a good Grey Goose vodka and tonic. Always in moderation…
Chris: Thank you so much for your answers to these questions. I guarantee that my followers have enjoyed reading and will benefit from your responses!
If you would be willing, I would like to do a second interview where we can go into detail on your thoughts on training methods and philosophies, nutrition, supplementation and competition strategies?
I am certain you have much to share on these subjects.
Karl: Sounds great!
It has been an honor.
Thanks Chris for this interview! We go way back and it is always a pleasure.
Take care my friend!