The large round stones were arranged in a neat row toward the rear of Fort Worth’s MetroFlex gym. Ranging from 50 pounds to 300, they were rarely touched during the afternoons when I’d train there. Occasionally, I’d wander over myself and mess around with them, lifting them more with my back and forearm than anything else. But despite a sufficient background in powerlifting, I looked pretty ridiculous as I attempted to place them atop various platforms.
One day, Rendy Delacruz, the boulder-shaped owner of the facility and a veteran lifter, lumbered over and corrected my form — as he had done months earlier when demonstrating the 1,200-pound tire flip. “Nah, brother,” I recall him saying. “You gotta get your feet around the stone, lift the stone along your legs, pull it into your lap, get your hips under it and drive, extending your arms and setting it on the platform.” Knowing I had wrestled, he compared the arm position at the top of this lift, when the stone is held up with the arms and resting on the chest, to the arm position for a suplex.
Delacruz easily lifted the heaviest stones, then asked me to do likewise. Their weights weren’t a problem, but they were slippery, the finish was awkward and the damage to my forearms was pretty intense — far worse than the scabs that would sometimes form after I did muscle-ups on the gymnastics rings. There are products to deal with the abrasions, ranging from cheap fixes like tape and tacky to expensive leather “stone sleeves,” but for someone whose legs are riddled with scars from years of deadlifting, it was just another avocational hazard.
And honestly, next to flipping a heavy tire or crushing apples in my bare hands, stone lifting is about as primal as an exercise gets. There’s a reason Rogue Fitness, trademarker of the Strongman designation and maker of high-quality Atlas stones, invested some real money in a trio of high-quality Netflix documentaries about various cultures — Scotland, Iceland and the Basque country of Spain — in which stone lifting has long served as an essential test of strength.
“You see the object, and you want to pick it up,” says John Pankoff, a long-time Strongman competitor who trained me in grip events during my time in Texas. “Can you lift that? You watch someone do it, whether it’s a heavy bale of hay on a pitchfork or a huge load of dirt on a shovel, and you know you’re dealing with someone who is legit. There’s something awe-inspiring about that kind of authenticity. Laypeople are confused by barbells and plates. But objects we see everyday? People know what’s heavy, just like they know a good grip when they feel one.”
Strength, in the historical tradition, was connected directly with work capacity. A stronger person could do more work; a stronger person was more useful. Vikings would premise eligibility for nautical work on the ability to lift a stone to a certain height, and Iceland’s 410-pound Húsafell Stone offered a convenient way of classifying a lifter’s strength: People who could get the stone to their knees were considered relatively weak; people who could get it to their waists were “half-strong”; and someone who could clutch it to their chest and walk around a livestock enclosure was “full-strong.”
As a blue-collar worker, that made sense to me. Strength was always means to an end, and the end was usually ending my shift earlier by quickly dispensing with a physical task. Whether I was competing with fellow heavyweight workers at the Golden Corral to heave containers of trash deep into the bowels of the compactor or using brute strength to quickly unload boxes of bananas from their pallets at the grocery store, I was trying to save myself time. Being able to haul a heavy package up a flight of stairs without the assistance of a second worker or a rented lift might eventually do my back a disservice if I didn’t bother to practice round-back lifting, but it could shave hours from my workday in the here and now.
Which is why, when it came to talking about stone lifting, there was no point merely going back to Delacruz or Pankoff or relying on my own sporadic experiences, such as they were. I wanted to talk to one of the strongest pound-for-pound stone lifters in the entire world, one of the all-time greats. So I went to Liefia Ingalls, one of a handful of legitimate claimants to the title of “World’s Strongest Woman.” Ingalls is constantly setting stone-lifting records, trading them back and forth with rivals like Donna Moore.
“Stone lifting is the thing that drew me into Strongman,” Ingalls tells me. “It’s very different from a lot of other events. It’s one of the most explosive and engrossing lifts to do, which makes it one of the most fun. There’s no other feeling I can think of than when you’re trying to load a giant stone, putting every ounce of effort you have into it, feeling like you’re about to be totally crushed, and then suddenly feeling the gentle release of the weight as you succeed.”
For Ingalls, and anyone else who has lifted a heavy stone or flipped a heavy tire, that’s the real high — the lighter-than-air moment that comes after completing a powerful physical movement and being able to just let that object go, in a way that simply isn’t possible in conventional powerlifts such as the bench and back squat (you have to push them up safely and lock them out) or the deadlift (in competition, you have to return it to the floor rather than dropping).
But what does it mean, in Ingalls’ case, to have reached such an elite level of performance? I’ve interviewed plenty of notable strength athletes before, ranging from “Vertical Diet” evangelist Stan Efferding to trans powerlifter Janae Kroc, but none were in Ingalls’ league, at least not relative to the competition in her field. She’s someone who can put a 324.5-pound stone over a bar three times in two minutes, a person far removed from all but a tiny handful of peers and capable of setting new world records whenever she competes. What does she think about all this?
“Getting to call myself ‘elite’ at stone lifting feels both comfortable and foreign,” she says. “When I consider all the effort put into trying to become exactly that, it seems reasonable that it paid off, but I still find it hard to believe I actually pulled it off.”
Of course, “elite” for all others save the multi-talented Ingalls, who excels across Strongman modalities, can mean many things. The field of stone lifting is even more diverse than the related world of grip sports, with some athletes specializing in lifting naturally formed stones and others in lifting round stones manufactured by companies like Rogue. The stone lifts themselves, too, are quite distinct. Some people excel at bringing boulders to their shoulders, while others — like Ingalls — are unstoppable when it comes to placing the stones on raised pedestals.
Those pedestals can present a challenge for shorter competitors, like 5-foot Vanessa Adams, who sometimes find themselves at a disadvantage in a sport intended for giants. “You have to use a shoe with some height and suck it up,” she tells me. “When it really blows is when you’ve been practicing for 48-inch platforms and you get to the meet and they’re using 52 inches.”
Obviously, such complaints amount to a lot of inside baseball, like my constant gripes to meathead friends about how my proportions are well-suited for the deadlift but do me a disservice on the back squat. After all, when you’re lifting rocks and stones, following in the long tradition of people who did this to demonstrate their functional working capacity, you’re truly tapping the primordial source, moving beyond nitpicking gym talk and getting close to a kind of awe-inspiring sense of the human body’s capabilities.
“You’ve got to pick these things up,” Delacruz used to tell me. “That’s why I bought this stuff, why the stuff is there. Learn the right way to pick up the tires and stones, and you’ll understand. You’ll have really accomplished something in a way you can’t with the barbells and dumbbells.”