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Viking Power

Svend Karlsen, Strongman Extraordinaire

He’s 6’2′ tall, weighs around 330 pounds, and, besides having earned an IFBB pro card, he’s a past IPF Junior World-record holder and a World’s Strongest Man winner. If that’s not enough, hand him a microphone, and Svend Karlsen is likely to start singing Elvis Presley songs. Why not? In 1997 I was in Holland covering the Europe’s Strongest Man contest, and ’93 World’s Strongest Man winner Gary Taylor pointed to a new competitor, Svend Karlsen, and tipped me off: ‘From what we hear, this guy is really strong.’ It wasn’t much longer before the secret was out, and soon Svend was considered a favorite to win the World’s Strongest Man contest, the most-coveted title on the professional strongman circuit. He succeeded in doing that in 2001’just desserts for a guy with 22-inch arms who can flip a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) tire and deadlift just about whatever he feels like.

Starting to lift when he was 14, Svend wanted to be like Arnold, but he first made his mark as a powerlifter, setting a pile of records, including a 350-kilogram (770-pound) IPF Junior World record in the deadlift’a record that stood for almost a decade in the 125-kilogram (275-pound) class. By 1990 Svend was competing as a bodybuilder, and in 1993 he earned his pro card, but for a variety of reasons he moved on to strongman competition at the invitation of Finnish bodybuilder-strongman Ilkka Kinnunen.

‘I heard that in Norway they had this big Viking who had competed successfully in bodybuilding and powerlifting and would be interested in trying a new sport,’ Kinnunen says. ‘He didn’t have any technique but was extremely powerful. When I saw him doing some of the events like picking up the car for the carwalk, I thought that he would be a future champion in strongman.’ For years, Svend’s training took the form of a power-bodybuilding routine:

Monday: Arms and abs
Cheat barbell curls (to help
the car flip) 3 x 12
Hammer curls (to help the
log lift) 3 x 12
Close-grip bench presses
(lowering the bar slowly
and then exploding up) 2 x 4
Wide-grip pushdowns 3 x 12
Lying triceps extensions 3 x 12
Reverse-grip pushdowns 3 x 12

Tuesday: Legs
Back squats (with a
three-second pause at
the bottom) 2 x 4
Hack lifts 1 x 12
Half-squat hack lifts 1 x 20
Karlsen squats (hack squats
facing in, to help the truck
pull and tire flip) 1 x 12
Leg presses 1 x 12
Leg extensions 3 x 12
Leg curls 4 x 12
Seated leg curls 4 x 12
Calf raises 4 x 20

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday: Shoulders and chest
Military presses 2 x 4
Military presses
(back-off set) 1 x 15-20
Standing dumbbell
presses 2 x 12
Crucifix holds 3 x 20
Lateral raises 3 x 12
Upright rows 3 x 12
Incline presses 3 x 12
Flyes 3 x 12
Bench presses 1 x max
Friday: Back
Deadlifts (standing on
a box) 2 x 4
Deadlifts (standing on
a box; back-off set) 1 x 15-20
Seated rows 3 x 12
Front pulldowns 3 x 12
Rear pulldowns 3 x 12
Shrugs 3 x 12

Saturday and Sunday: Event training

This basic approach has certainly taken Svend far, but in the past year, to help his preparation for the Arnold Strongest Man competition, he changed things dramatically and began working with an Olympic-style weightlifting coach. From then on his training emphasized explosive movements, and the real focus ‘was changed to fit into the power events that are in that show,’ says Svend. ‘I just did deadlifts, squats, farmer’s walk, medicine ball and the axle.’ (The axle is a two-inch-thick bar modeled after the one lifted by the great 19th-century French strongman, Louis ‘Apollon’ Uni.) ALL Day 1
Axle jerks: ‘I started with seven sets of four reps at a low weight, and every training week I cut one set and increased the weight.’ In the final week, Svend was using the same weight as would be used at the Arnold, 366 pounds, and in his final workout he did six reps, cleaning and jerking the weight. Medicine ball throws: He did about 15 to 20 throws for maximum height.

Day 2
Axle cleans: Svend uses the same formula he uses for axle jerks. Deadlifts: Once again, it’s the same progression as he used for the jerks and cleans, starting with seven sets of four reps and then decreasing the sets while increasing the weight each week. Svend ended up doing 400 kilograms (880 pounds) for a double but injured his hamstring in the process.

Day 3
Rest and massage: The massage, Svend notes with pride, is ‘done by my beautiful wife, Lene.’

Day 4
Squats: Svend started off with his pattern of seven sets of four reps, but discontinued the lift when he found out that it would not be included in the competition.

Farmer’s walk: He does about seven sets of 10 meters, and, once again, he says, ‘I dropped one set each week as I increased the weight to the Arnold weight [815 pounds].’

Day 5
Rest and massage.

On the sixth day, he says, ‘We start all up again with day one.’

Whether you want to be a bodybuilder, a powerlifter or a strongman, Svend recommends that you train for strength on heavy, basic movements and that you watch what you eat, emphasizing, ‘Basic food, such as meals with fish or meat or poultry, with vegetables and a salad; potatoes, rice or pasta’as much as you can eat. Take a vitamin-mineral complex and use a protein supplement, but don’t spend your money on miracle products because they don’t work.’

To give you an idea of how famous Svend is and what a nice guy he is, let me share a little-known story.

Getting certified for officially closing a No. 3 Captains of Crush’ gripper is the global measure of outstanding hand strength, and to earn that recognition, you have to close the gripper, according to the official rules, in front of a witness selected by IronMind Enterprises, Inc.

A couple of years ago we had a Norwegian customer who was ready to get certified, so I thought, ‘I’ll make this guy’s day. I will ask my friend Svend if he will be the judge.’ Svend agreed, but in making the arrangements, I hadn’t noticed that the spelling of this customer’s city and Svend’s hometown differed by one letter. It turned out that they are on the opposite sides of Norway! Our customer never said a word to me about this, and it was only afterward that I learned from Svend what this guy had gone through: Even though he had to fly to Svend’s city, stay in a hotel and so on, when I apologized to the fellow for my mistake, all he could talk about was that it was the experience of a lifetime to meet World’s Strongest Man winner Svend Karlsen!

As friendly as Svend is, not everyone approaches him with ease. Svend says that some people get so nervous when they meet him that they hold their cameras backward when they try to take a picture of him.

As Svend gets closer to 40, he says that he would really like to win the Arnold Strongest Man contest because that contest ‘is the way strongman should be. It’s not powerlifting, but you also don’t have to be a marathon runner to win it. I know I can come back tougher next year.’

Odd Haugen, a superstar strongman in his own right, has spent many hours of training and competing with Svend, and he sums things up like this: ‘I think we have yet to see the best out of Svend.’ So with his second-place finish at the Arnold in 2004, Svend’s goal of coming back tougher in ’05 should be within his mighty grasp.

Editor’s note: Randall J. Strossen, Ph.D., is the founder and president of IronMind Enterprises, Inc., a name synonymous with strength around the world. If you like strength or want to get stronger, be sure to visit for more information, or call (530) 265-6725 for a free catalog of the finest products for serious strength athletes. Yes, we do have the Svend Karlsen training DVD’see him preparing for the Arnold Strongest Man and learn some of his secrets. IM

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