How Mitchell Hooper Went From Marathoner to World’s Strongest Man
The 27-year-old athletic chameleon, who won the competition in just his second appearance, could usher in a new strongman era
When Mitchell Hooper lifts boulders or hoists tree trunks, he doesn’t think of it as pain, more as a kind of tension or effort. “We get so used to [what you might call pain] in training. People who don’t train at this level see muscle soreness as a deterrent, but for me, not having some kind of soreness is a deterrent,” he laughs. “It’s such an odd feeling to me not to have it that it’s become comforting in a way.”
Hooper was just named World’s Strongest Man for 2023, besting 29 other giants from 14 countries in that world-renowned strongman competition in April, so he’s familiar with a type of pain most of us would prefer to avoid.
“When you’re doing the walking stone event and have 150 kilograms going through your thumb, it’s adrenaline that carries you to the end, and when you drop it the pain sets in,” he tells InsideHook. “But the most pain I’ve ever felt was when I broke the Dinnie Stones record. I was thinking the record is 25 seconds, and at 20 seconds I [felt I was] done, but I’d decided I wasn’t going to feel all that pain to not break the record. I wasn’t going to go through that shit to not succeed. I can tell you that if you feel pain and fail, that’s substantially worse than feeling pain and succeeding.”
This kind of “tension,” “effort” or, yes, plain old pain comes with strongman events: lifting, throwing or walking with staggering weights. How staggering, you ask? For Hooper, we’re talking a 1,047-pound deadlift, 408 pounds in the log loft, hefting a 511-pound Atlas stone over a four-foot bar and carrying a 432-pound shield the equivalent width of a soccer field.
Hooper is 6’3” and around 320 pounds, which means he’s not even that big compared to his competition. He is, as he jokes, “only relatively huge.” And he’s just 27 years old. Despite these stats that may seem meager on paper, the Canadian beat 2022 champ Tom Stoltman and four-time winner Brian Shaw to win World’s Strongest Man. That’s the competition that, it claims, now draws a global audience of 220 million people and which, since its inception 45 years ago, has slowly taken feats of strength out of the sideshow and onto a professional footing.
“I think it’s important to point out that I am the best strongman in the world [right now], but I’m not necessarily the strongest man in the world. Of course, to be ‘strong enough’ [to take part in the competition] is still a very high bar,” he chuckles.
Although Hooper is barely out of his rookie years, what we may be seeing here is the strongman equivalent of Michael Jordan just before he joined the NBA. This year in South Carolina, a star was born, too. Remarkably, this was just Hooper’s second time competing in the World’s Strongest Man competition. Earlier this year, he also took first place during his debut at the Arnold Strongman Classic, another event bringing in athletes from around the world.
More remarkably still, Hooper — who has a masters in exercise physiology — was competing in bodybuilding competitions of the deep-tanned and dehydrated, almost-no-body-fat, vein-popping, strike-a-pose variety just a few years ago.
“Of course there’s an aesthetic perspective to it all, but the thing is that as your body is capable of more, you tend to give less of a shit about what your body looks like,” he suggests. Before that, he was a serious golfer and marathon runner. In short, he’s a veritable barbell-hefting chameleon, with the stache of a Victorian strongman to boot.
The secret to that immense strength isn’t, it turns out, so secret either. It’s partly down to genetics, Hooper concedes. He also believes there’s a perfect height range for the strongman discipline — too short or too tall and you lose the leverage that’s so important to lifting stupidly heavy things off the ground; and that it’s advantageous to be older, rather than younger, when your joints have formed and tendons stiffened. “There’s a very lucky combination that you then have to work hard to expose,” he says. That’s why he needs the necessary commitment too.
“I never miss a day of training, never miss a set, never miss a rep. That’s just not a psychological effort for me — I can just persist at things for a long time,” he says. It’s as much a mind game as a physical one. “I have no problem intimately focusing on what I’m doing in an event,” he says. “The Atlas stones, for one, is too precise a movement to ever let your mind wander.”
“Technique is everything,” he adds. “That’s because once you get to the top level [of strongman competition], the only way you’re getting 5 or 10% stronger is through refining technique, in having those motor patterns groove properly. Do deadlift for reps and let the bar get away from you, and you’re going to put 10 or 20% more effort through your lower back and posterior chain and that’s going to take a couple of reps off your total. Become inefficient and that has a massive [negative] impact.”
Hooper is the thinking man’s lifter. He loves the science of it all. “The science interests me more than the sport itself,” he admits. “Finding out what your body is capable of may be a masculine thing, but it’s an amazing human feeling to know you’re objectively improving.”
Maybe that’s why he’s somewhat perplexed by the fascination with strongman diets, because it’s not about that, he insists, somewhat countering received wisdom that they eat 50 chicken breasts and a couple of dozen pizzas at a sitting.
“Diet is just so uninteresting to me,” says Hooper, snacking on — of all things — some mini rice cakes. “People tend to be surprised at how little I eat because they expect me to be gorging all the time. But I know you can become the best in the world on a fairly reasonable diet: a few protein shakes, a smoothie, three or four normal meals, and that’s my day. It’s not complicated.”
He concedes that may have been less true of past champions. “The Brian Shaws and the Hafthor Bjornssons were well over 400 pounds, so it would take insane calories to maintain that,” says Hooper. And that’s his point. He isn’t that heavy for good reason. “The fact is that you have mates who are as heavy as me by accident and they’re not gorging either,” he says. It’s precisely that this human mountain is more Mont Blanc or Mount Kilimanjaro than Everest that sets him apart as a new breed. Hooper can move. He’s fast. He’s a ballet dancer with tree trunk biceps.
“[In World’s Strongest Man], you have to be able to put 500 pounds above your head. But a lot of the time it’s not as simple as that — it’s about putting 400 pounds above your head multiple times or putting an ascending load above your head with as much speed as possible,” Hooper explains. “Or take the shield carry: that’s when it’s beneficial to have a smaller torso so the implement is closer to the muscles acting on the implement. These days to win you need your strength to be agile. You need to be efficient.”
“I think that’s the future of strongman too,” he adds. “I don’t think we’re going to see competitors succeeding who are overly large, immobile, relying on their static strength. You’re going to see incredibly strong people who are also athletes, who train like athletes too. You know, hopefully the days when seeing strongman as a lazy form of exercise for overweight people is done.”
Hooper — articulate, forthright, dry-humored, knowledgeable and now with an agent — could well be the face of that shift. He should be. His enthusiasm for getting people exercising is infectious (as evidenced by his Instagram follower count, nearing 100,000). But he knows that shift needs to come with more spectacle, more feats of the impossible, to hold our attention. On the plus side, Hooper argues that the draw of strongman compared to, say, Olympic powerlifting — with its complicated measures and categories — is in its directness and visual appeal. As in other sports, the ball goes in the hoop or it doesn’t; it goes over the net, or it doesn’t; so in strongman, you lift the boulder or you go home.
“Unlike most sports, you can digest ours in a 10-second clip: you can see a deadlift happens or doesn’t, and nobody needs it explained that more plates means more weight,” he enthuses. “Push, pull, carry, overhead press, squat and deadlift — that’s everything [anyone watching is] going to do in everyday life.”
But will that shift be enough to bring what we as spectators also want to see, which is records consistently broken and by wide margins? After all, some suggest that we’re at the limits of human strength. Hooper isn’t so sure.
“If we look at the historical data and track improvements over time, then we’re not [as a species] anywhere close to what’s possible,” he argues. It was not until 70 years ago this year that the first 500-pound bench press was achieved. This year saw a new record of an incredible 1,350.3-pound set.
“I’m blessed to be competing now because I think in 20 years time there will be 10 versions of me all capable of destroying anything I’m capable of,” Hooper adds, quite pleased at the thought. “Part of that will come through sports science, partly exposure of athletes to strongman as a discipline — I think if we looked we could find 20 or 30 World’s Strongest Man competitors in the NFL right now — and partly because [greater strength] is, I believe, what we’re psychologically capable of.”
And what about Hooper? Is he at his limits? “I’m incredibly surprised to be doing this. If you’d have told me five years ago I’d be the World’s Strongest Man — if you’d have told me two weeks ago — I’d have thought that was insanity,” he says. “Anyone would have to be naive to say they could be the strongest man in the world, though it’s not until you try that you realize what you’re capable of.”
“But I’m around four years into my strength career, and we can see that strongmen don’t really peak in their strength until they’re eight to 10 years in,” he adds. “The only thing that’s going to stop me from going a lot further is what I believe is possible for myself. And I know I’m nowhere close to that at the moment.”
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.
Suggested for you