June 3, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 65°F


Students test their limits at local strongman competition

On the outskirts of the Wood Street Skatepark lay six stones of progressing size and mass, a hand-me-down weight bench, a cinderblock and a small group of friends looking to test their strength in ways they never have before. 

On April 22, Ithaca College senior Leo Baumbach was finally able to bring his vision to life. “Stoned by the Creek” was a three-part event that Baumbach organized in hopes of introducing a non-traditional strength sport to the Ithaca community: strongman competitions.

“There are some larger, state-level competitions in bigger cities like Albany and Utica, and I’d like to one day compete at that level, but I’m just some guy, you know?” Baumbach said. “I wanted to be able to do something local and casual and fun, but there was nothing like that around here.”

Strongman competitions date back to the early 1800s in the Scottish Highlands. There, local power athletes would come together and compete in different “heavy events” — including the shot put, caber toss and hammer throw — that can often be seen in modern strongman events as well as in sanctioned track and field competitions.

What makes strongman different, however, is the sensationalism of its modern adaptations. Today, athletes competing at the World’s Strongest Man competition exhibit outstanding feats of strength in events like the atlas stones — a series of spherical stones increasing in weight — and vehicle pull. 

Baumbach said it was his background in powerlifting that piqued his interest in other strongman practices. 

“I’ve been seriously lifting weights for about three years now, and there’s always been this running joke about the powerlifting to strongman pipeline,” Baumbach said. “I’ve gotten really into the history of it and stone lifting in particular.”

Baumbach’s event included three classic strongman challenges: an overhead press, a stone ladder and a timed pinch grip. Baumbach said he largely wanted to give people an opportunity to try something they have never done before.

“How many times have you just gone out and picked up a heavy rock, right?” Baumbach said. “I don’t think it’s something that many people do in their spare time. This is a decidedly weird thing that I do, and I think it’s pretty cool to be able to share that.”

Olivia Notaro ’22, a participant at the event and friend of Baumbach’s, said their relationship with Baumbach extends back to when he initially gained an interest in stone lifting.

“It was during my senior year that Leo texted me ‘Hey, lifting is too toxically masculine for me. We need to go back to our roots and start lifting rocks,’” Notaro said. “I said ‘Bro, I am so in.’”

Notaro — who topped the overhead press with a high of 65 pounds — said that since Baumbach has introduced them to the practice, stone lifting has provided them with a more comfortable medium of staying active without having to go to a gym. 

“Exercise should not be limited to going to the gym because that can be embarrassing and people can be mean, you know?” Notaro said. “Sometimes you just need to be out in the woods lifting rocks.”

Baumbach said stereotypical gym culture played an important role in what drove him away from powerlifting, and he hoped hosting an event like “Stoned by the Creek” would provide a judgment-free zone for people who want to exercise without any expectations.

“Nobody is here to prove anything except that they were here and they did the thing, and I think that’s really what counts,” Baumbach said. “That’s really what matters here.”

Among the event’s turnout were not only members of the campus community but also Ithaca locals with connections to Baumbach. Tanis Franchi, an Ithaca native and former coworker of Baumbach’s, said he initially attended the event as a spectator, but could not leave without giving the stones a try. 

Franchi successfully lifted five out of the six stones — which ranged anywhere from 50–125 pounds — and said he likely would not have been able to do so without Baumbach’s support.

“I probably would’ve tapped out earlier without Leo as a spotter,” Franchi said. “It’s really nice to have someone who can push you to go further than you think you can. He kind of tells you to just do it, which really helps push you past that mental block.”

Although competitors were sparse — about six people — Baumbach said he is more than content with the outcome of his event and, if he were to host another in the future, he hopes to encourage the same welcoming energy.

“I think strongman competitions are known to be really harsh and intense,” Baumbach said. “This was a lot more relaxed and a lot more casual, which I think made people a lot more comfortable trying some weird things.”

Baumbach said that, above all, it is the obscurity of stone lifting and other strongman practices that makes them so endearing, and the unconventional nature of it should be seen as intriguing rather than intimidating.

“People waste too much time not picking up heavy rocks in their yard,” Baumbach said. “I just want people to know that they can do it. You can do so much more than you think you can.”

Tess Ferguson can be reached at tferguson1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @tessferg