How to Train for (and Win) an Oktoberfest Steinholding Competition

You're not going to be the first mug down this year. We've got a plan.

Updated October 6, 2023 12:28 pm
The god of the oceans, Neptune, holds a beer stein in Milwaukee.
Welcome to the strange, slightly insane world of masskrugstemmen.
(Photo by E.C. Kropp Co./Wisconsin Historical Society/Getty Images

The folks behind the U.S. Steinholding Association have a pretty clear mission statement. In their words, the sport is for any fellow “maniac who wants to experience the thrill of holding a beer stein further from your mouth and for a longer amount of time than nature ever intended.”

How long would that be? The founder himself, Jim Banko, once held a stein for 17 minutes, 11 seconds. In 2018, a man named Michael Tyler set the national record, lasting 21 minutes, 17 seconds.

Steinholding, known traditionally as masskrugstemmen, is the most German of Oktoberfest fare. As of late, though, the game has taken off in the United States. There are dozens of “Hofbraü qualifiying locations” throughout the country, and the national championship takes place at Central Park SummerStage each year, as part of the German-American New York City Oktoberfest and Steuben Day Parade.

(Sidebar: a 2019 report by Bayerischer Rundfunk claims the steinholding world record is held by a German, at 45 minutes, 2 seconds … if you can believe that. The U.S. Steinholding Association doesn’t seem to. It’s the only organized governing body for the competition in the world, and it considers Tyler’s 21-minute hold to be the current world record.)

All ESPN Ocho drama aside, the game is a classic, and likely on the docket this month at a microbrewery near you. If you plan on attending, it might be time to give steinholding the old college try. And while lasting 20 minutes is probably out of the question, you definitely don’t want to be the first one out. Fortunately, there are some training steps you can take ahead of the competition to build up your beer muscles.

It’s All in the Delts

According to Daniel Richter, a personal trainer and powerlifting coach, there are a number of muscles that will come in handy at Oktoberfest: “Your upper pec, trapezius muscle and serratus anterior are all active as stabilizers.” That said, there’s one muscle that carries most of the load: “The primary muscles challenged in steinholding are your front delts.”

Banko agrees. And in his treatise entitled “Understanding the Physiology of Steinholding” (yes, that’s a real thing), he offers a helpful reminder: “Even if you lift, the delt is naturally one of the smallest muscles in the body.” Your best shot at keeping that glass in the air is by honing a pair of strong, endurance-minded delts.

For those unaware of where the anterior delts are, here’s a helpful graphic. It’s the front of your shoulder, basically, and it makes sense: hold anything out in front of you for any amount of time, and your deltoid will immediately start to burn. In the case of masskrugstemmen, you’re holding out a one-liter dimpled glass stein. Once it’s full of Bavarian beer, it weighs a little over five pounds.

Gym → Biergarten

Proper form is a sticking point in steinholding. The second your elbow “unlocks” and your arm drops or that mug starts to veer left or right, you’re out. Spilling any amount of beer is also grounds for immediate elimination. It’s a bummer of a way to go out, especially if you were feeling mentally strong enough to compete for another minute or more.

But you don’t have to train for this scenario in a biergarten. Go to the gym. Richter recommends starting with “shoulder presses and push-ups” as a way to build up both your shoulders and the stabilizing muscles in the upper chest. His top tip, though, which is corroborated by Ryan Ernsbarger, a trainer based in San Diego, is to focus on “dumbbell front raises.”

Go to the dumbbell rack — the one right in front of the oversized mirrors — and you can simulate steinholding. Ernsbarger lays out his training plan: “The stein’s five pounds, so you should select an 8- to 10-lb. dumbbell in order to gain an extra edge. Perform 15-20 repetitions of front raises, for five sets, with an isometric hold at the top of the movement (30 seconds to one minute) on the final rep of each set.”

An Oktoberfest stein full of beer.
Big boy: the standard stein weighs in at approximately five pounds.
Alana Harris/Unsplash

Steinholding Strategies

If you’d rather train like the “pros,” Banko’s routine involves timing himself with an actual stein. In short, he advocates training to exhaustion over and over again with 60-second breaks in between sets. It’s sort of like a track workout. Say you know you can get two minutes, no problem. Set a goal for two minutes of improvement and try to get as close as possible to that time. At the end of each attempt, click “lap” on a stopwatch and take a minute break before jumping right back in.

In the end, the workout should be as long as it takes for your “lap minutes” to equal the original steinholding “goal time.” So the guy angling for a four-minute hold would have to attempt it four times. Over time, as you get stronger and your lap breaks get shorter (Banko only takes 15 seconds for a lap), the routine gets a little more involved. Sounds far too painful? That’s just modern masskrugstemmen, man.

Earn Your Pretzel

It should be said that some people are more naturally suited to this contest than others. Taller guys with long wingspans are at a disadvantage due to the sheer gravity acting on the fulcrum at their shoulder joint. Mental toughness is a difference-maker, too. Four years ago, a woman from Milwaukee casually walked up to a regional competition and took home first prize. Eight months later, she was notified that she’d qualified for nationals. She flew to New York and won.

In the long run, steinholding isn’t a recipe for functional fitness. Those static, isometric holds concentrate far too much on one spot of the upper body, so you don’t want to devote all your gym time to front raises. Still, one of the biggest assets you can bring to your fitness routine is a blend of focus and fun. We’ve been beating that drum for a while now.

To that end, we fully endorse strength training your shoulders a little harder come shoulder season. Is the competition itself going to be fun? No, it’s a “miserable hellhole,” according to the U.S. Steinholding Association’s official website. But it’s a miserable hellhole with giant pretzels and a liter of beer waiting on the other side. Prost.

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