Wondering why you don’t see more strength sports in Hollywood movies? We’ve scoured the web and spent many, many hours watching barbells clang and strongmen scream so you can know exactly what you want for your next movie night. Many of these deserve a much wider audience and you may not have heard of them – but they’re worth your time if you can find them.
A deep dive into the past and present of South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club, the documentary’s tagline – “In a Brooklyn gym, every day is heavy day” – underscores its focus on the personal and financial trials involved with running Brooklyn’s barbell Disneyland.
BarBend contributors Paulie and Rebecca Steinman take center stage, letting the camera film their successes and stinging disappointments in their quest to build New York’s best powerlifting gym. You could argue that Weight is a study in failure: failing lifts, failing businesses, failing life. That’s what makes it such an unusual – and essential – sports movie. It’s not super accessible to non-lifters, but if powerlifting is your jam, you’ll enjoy it.
11) Pulling John
If you know arm wrestling, you know John Brzenk, who was named by the Guinness World Records as the greatest arm wrestler of all time. This documentary takes a common sports movie theme – when is it time for retirement? – and applies it to an uncommon sport, making for a film that’s both fresh and familiar.
We’ll be honest: the production value is very low. But the film has pathos and is cinematic in its own right, also following hungry young athletes who are dedicated to unseating the champion and culminating in an arm wrestling match for the ages.
10) American Weightlifting
Sure, it can be a little “inside baseball” at times and the production value isn’t great, but American Weightlifting represents an astounding achievement. It’s entirely the product of one man: Greg Everett, the head coach of Catalyst Athletics.
Everett set out to answer the question: why are Americans so much less interested in the sport of weightlifting than other countries? It explores the issues of drugs, budget, media exposure, and more, featuring interviews with some of the most notable trainers in the field. It probably won’t convert many non-fans, but if you’re a weightlifter, you’ll be happier than a pig in mud.
9) Bending Steel
A surprisingly emotional documentary about the modern oldetime strongman, the film focuses on Chris “Wonder” Schoeck, a bar bending, penny folding strongman who struggles with anxiety both social and existential.
Why is he drawn to bending metal? How does he know if his motivations are healthy or not? Is he just using it to escape from deeper problems that he needs to reckon with? Bending Steel is a movie for people who want to see the human mind behind the superhuman muscle.
8) Girl Power: Going for Gold
It’s only an hour long, but this BBC documentary from 2012 shines a spotlight on three female weightlifters who are vying to compete for Britain at the London Olympics.
The film gets points for highlighting female competitors who, while not absent from media coverage, are seldom the subject of documentaries. It does a commendable job of not only focusing on the ladies’ extraordinary strength, but their softer sides: struggling with diet, failure, and perceptions of femininity. (It’s worth it to see the origins of a young Zoe Bell as well.)
7) Eddie Strongman
“Unless someone tells me to stop, or I die, I will be the world’s strongest man.”
Released in 2015 — before he became the first man to deadlift 500 kg — the movie about one of, if not the strongest lifters on the planet will likely only appeal to his fellow strength athletes, but they’ll absolutely love it. There’s not just a lot of lifting and a lot of eating; Hall discusses the hardships that come with pursuing such a lofty goal, including the toil it takes on his body and largely missing his son’s first two years of life due to his training. For a glimpse of what it truly takes to be the strongest on Earth, Eddie Strongman is an unflinching portrayal of true strength.
6) Froning: The Fittest Man In History
There are CrossFit® athletes, and then there’s Rich Froning. Hailed by the movie itself as a “legend” who “appear(s) once in a generation” à la Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth, this documentary follows Froning as he aims to win his fourth straight championship at the 2014 CrossFit Games.
CrossFit HQ has pumped out several documentaries, and a close runner up is 2008’s Every Second Counts, which is considerably less slick but an interesting peek at how far the sport has come. Froning has solid production value and, in focusing on one man’s rise instead of solely on the Games, delivers a human bent and some extraordinarily emotional scenes that are often missing from films like these.
Perhaps the most critically acclaimed documentary about strongman, the movie follows Stanley Pleskun, a.k.a. Stanless Steel, a man who can bend pennies with his fingers and put a nail through wood with just his hand.
Strongman revolves around how someone who considers himself the strongest man in the world deals with the everyday B.S. of human existence. He pays rent by collecting scrap metal and occasionally competing (for meager wages), and as he reaches middle age and struggles with his career and relationships, he has to ask himself what the next phase of his life looks like. It’s sad and poignant, and worth your time if you’re interested in the softer side of giant men.
4) World’s Strongest Man: 30 Years of Pain
An in-depth look at the World’s Strongest Man competition, this film is about the event itself and unearths footage from the 1970s all the way to the 2006 event, featuring interviews with the sport’s biggest players along the way.
Given the dynamic and undeniably cinematic displays of strength, like pulling planes, caber tossing, and even sumo wrestling, this documentary might be the most accessible on this list for folks who aren’t fans of strength sports – if they can stomach the injuries.
3) Pumping Iron
OK, bodybuilding isn’t a strength sport according to many folks. But no list of movies about people lifting weights would be complete without the perfection that is Pumping Iron, a documentary that chronicles the rivalry between future movie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno as they compete for the 1975 Mr. Olympia title.
The two competitors couldn’t be more different: one brash and confident, one shy and gentle. But the movie successfully showcases their motivations and limitations, and those of the fledgling sport itself. It’s a work of art. See also its 2013 spiritual sequel, Generation Iron.
2) Bigger, Stronger, Faster*
The seminal steroids documentary, the movie can be summarized just by the little asterisk in its title, a reference to the records of athletes on performance-enhancing drugs, which need to be postfixed by an asterisk.
The film is about tainted success, the flaws in the health supplement industry, and the contradictions between what we expect of athletes and our hatred of what it takes for them to get there. The film smartly avoids demonizing steroids as a whole, and instead cuts through the negative hysteria surrounding them and examines the very flawed relationship between the public and the athletes they adore. It’s an absolute must for fans of the Olympics, Mr. Olympia, and everything in between.
1) Over the Top
“A winner never listens to the odds.”
Estranged son who needs winning back? Check. Controlling ex-father-in-law who needs to be put in his place? Check. The only solution? Becoming the best damn arm wrestler on Earth. Sylvester Stallone plays the awesomely-named Lincoln Hawk, a down-on-his-luck, underdog trucker competing for a $100,000 prize at the World Armwrestling Championship in 1987 Las Vegas.
Rife with pitch perfect 80s cheese and filled to the gills with real life arm wrestlers and strongmen (Hey, Rick Zumwalt!) Over the Top is a strength athlete’s perfect guilty pleasure. Except there’s no guilt. Because it’s the best movie ever.
The Giants of Iceland
At only twenty minutes long, this may not qualify as a movie per se, but VICE’s documentary about the strongman culture of Iceland, along with the considerable amount of time screentime dedicated to its native Hafthor Bjornsson, is a fantastic watch. Watch it right here.
Another shorter film, Rogue’s recent documentary about the Highland Games is a beautifully shot homage to traditional Scottish strongman events. It’s on YouTube in its entirety, embedded below.
Featured image via Warner Bros., Indee Channel, and IFBBification on YouTube.