"I can't even touch my shoulders, so that makes muscle ups difficult," the owner of CrossFit Gamma in Hershey, PA says as he shows us his shoulder immobility and outrageous biceps, noting the three inches of space between his fingertips and shoulders. A ‘muscle-up’ is a pull-up that transitions into a dip, requiring vast mobility and stability through the shoulders. The skill is a staple for elite CrossFitters (though in the actual sport of gymnastics, it's simply the preparatory movement that athletes use to get on top of the bar or rings to begin their routine.)
An impressive man (for a multitude of reasons), Mike Jenkins stands 6 feet and 6 inches, weighing in at 375 lbs. (he's walking around pretty lean these days). The first time we shook hands I was sure I felt my metacarpals begin to fold in half. My 172-lb. weightlifter's frame looked like a delicate flower next to his—to be clear, no one has ever compared my likeness to that of a delicate flower.
The proud owner of one Hershey's newest affiliates, Mike comes to CrossFit from the world of Strongman. The 30-year old's Strongman career began in 2007 when after only one month of training, he took the title of Maryland's Strongest Man. After sealing up the amateur circuit with his win at the Amateur World Championships in 2010, he was awarded pro Strongman status and a competition seat among the strongest athletes in the world.
In 2012, Mike took first place at the Arnold Strongman Classic, setting three world records. A week later, he outdid himself once again setting another world record and winning the international contest, Giants Live, re-qualifying him for the 2012 World’s Strongest Man where he placed 5th overall. Most recently, Mike placed 4th overall at the 2013 World’s Strongest Man.
Hearing Mike talk about Strongman is pretty awesome, but what trumps his excitement for manipulating heavy objects is his passion for working with young people. We stepped into his facility (outfitted appropriately in green and purple, the signature colors of Marvel's The Incredible Hulk and the inspiration for CrossFit Gamma's branding) and amidst all of the atlas stones, one of the first conversations we had was about his career at the Milton Hershey School running afterschool and weekend programs, along with special athletic events. We jokingly asked if the kids were afraid of him. His eyes got huge and his smile (just as big as his muscles) got wider as he informed us that the kids were not afraid of him, they adored him.
It's not difficult to see why—Mike's enthusiasm is contagious and the size of his heart matches his superhero-like presence. He is obsessed in the best way possible with what he does and confident in the ability of fitness and sport to transform the lives of young people as well as adults. Sports have more or less molded Mike into the man he is today.
“Without sports, I wouldn't have my education,” says Mike. “It's just like anything else out there, it's an outlet in so many different ways for so many different kids. You find that kid who might not be the next Michael Jordan, but maybe sports help him get to go to a good school and he winds up changing the world."
Mike didn't quite blend in when he was young. He was 225 lbs. in the 6th grade; too big for football, he adapted to soccer where there were no weight restrictions. He found that while he was twice as big as many of the boys he played with, he was just as fast. He began weight training in middle school and by the end of his freshman year of high school, he was cleaning 225 lbs., bench pressing 315 lbs., and back squatting over 400 lbs.
I asked Mike what he would say to his 12-year-old self, or any young person who was struggling with fitting in and navigating their way through sports.
“I would tell that kid that the things that come easy in life probably aren't worth doing. Everything of value in life comes with hard work, and if you're working hard and negative people are constantly telling you that you can't do something, you probably won't do it. Sometimes it's not easy to walk away from the cool crowd, but trust me when I say to ditch the naysayers and surround yourself with people who believe in you.”
Seven years ago, folks laughed when Mike told them that he had his sights set on the title of Strongest Man in the World. Well, there are less than a dozen men on the planet who can give Mike a run for his money. No one is laughing now—except for Mike.
To see Mike Jenkins, along with 72 other athletes, perform great feats of strength, head over to the Fall 2013 Liberty Box League Championship on Saturday, November 2 at Spooky Nook Sports in Manheim, PA.
Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.