Bringing Back Old Timey Strength (w/Mike Aidala)

Today I’m talking to performance coach and athlete Mike Aidala, who is perhaps best known online for helping resurrect some strongman lifts from a bygone era. Mike’s done immensely impressive things like a one-arm overhead squat at 315 pounds, a two-hands anyhow lift with 430 pounds, and the list goes on. In addition, he’s an accomplished endurance athlete. We talk about following your heart in strength and balancing so many different training methodologies and goals to keep things exciting.

Mike Aidala BarBend Podcast

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Mike Aidala about:

  • “It feels like I’m on a vacation every weekend” (02:20)
  • Why arm lockout is Mike’s secret superpower (05:30)
  • Mike’s latest endurance challenge (09:40)
  • Why Mike’s “main” lifts can be (relatively) low, but he can still excel at things like a 315 pound overhead squat (13:30)
  • Mike’s background learning from some of the world’s best at making efficient and effective athletes (16:40)
  • Why the mental component of training is so important for how you relate to the world (20:00)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

…at that point, if you have a lot of certifications but you can’t talk to anyone, it doesn’t help.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today I’m talking to performance coach and athlete, Mike Aidala, who is perhaps best known online for helping resurrect some strongman lifts from a bygone era. Mike’s done immensely impressive things, like a one arm overhead squat at 315 pounds, a two hands anyhow lift with 430 pounds, and the list goes on.

 

In addition, Mike is an accomplished endurance athlete. We talk about following your heart and strength, and balancing so many different training methodologies and goals to keep things exciting. Also, I want to take a second to say we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast.

 

If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend podcast in your app of choice. Now let’s get on with the show.

 

Mike, thanks so much for joining me today. I got to ask, you have a beautiful background behind you. Where are you recording from today?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

I am currently at the Boulder Library, in Boulder, Colorado.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s why it’s sunny and beautiful there.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

It’s hot. It’s 95, I think, today.

David TaoDavid Tao

See, in my mind, I think of Colorado, I think of mountain states, I think of skiing, of snow, of cold weather, but right here in August, definitely not the case.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Yeah, for sure. It’s the Front Range, is such a beautiful location. Boulder and Denver are right at the base of the Rocky Mountains. A lot of that snow and inclement weather gets stuck in the mountains, which in the wintertime is great for skiing, but in the summertime, the sun pumps down here.

David TaoDavid Tao

If you’re into outdoor activities and you want the full range, basically you’re saying Colorado’s got it all throughout the year. They got the hot and the cold.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

 Yeah, 100 percent. I’ve lived many different places in my life and I’m in love with Colorado. It feels I’m on a vacation every weekend.

David TaoDavid Tao

How long have you been in Colorado?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

About four years now.

David TaoDavid Tao
  1. This is home now for you.
Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Yeah. Totally. This is where I’m sleeping and I do like it here.

David TaoDavid Tao

 Excellent. Let’s get back to why you’re on the podcast. A lot of folks might not be familiar with you, but tell us a little bit about your athletic background, and we’ll get to…Bring us up to speed on who Mike is, and then we’ll go from there and leap frog from there.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Cool. Yeah. I have a pretty varied background so I’ll try to keep it a little bit concise.

David TaoDavid Tao

You know what? This is an opportunity to talk about yourself, don’t be humble. Just do what you want to do.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

 I’ll give you the story. I play in almost every single sport in high school, except for lacrosse which I regret. I went to play football in college at a Division 3 school in Upstate New York called SUNY Cortland. Before that, I was a quarterback and a cornerback in high school. I was about 5’11, 195 pounds.

 

They told me I was needed to play middle linebacker. I look at the roster, and these guys are 240-250 pounds, and so I was, “OK. I got to get bigger.” My friend was working out with Olympic weightlifting coach at the time. I went with him to learn a few sessions.

 

In about four months, I gained 35 pounds. Not all muscle, obviously, but I blew up to 235 pounds and learned to fall in love with the sport of Olympic weightlifting.

 

From there, I went to play football in college. Then after that, I competed in standup paddleboarding. Flirted a little bit with Olympic weightlifting still. Then I got into yoga, which got me into arm balancing, which then got me into partner acrobatics, which then got me into circus and cirque. Then, that got me into strongman.

 

I was interested in expressing my strength in different ways. Then, let’s see…I got into ultra-distance running for a hot second. I ran 250-mile ultras in one month, which I don’t recommend unless that’s your thing, but [laughs] that was challenging. That’s my athletic background.

David TaoDavid Tao

On Instagram, how we first came across you, I think we were tagged…People were tagging us in the comments to some of your posts. It was a lot of interesting expressions of strength. It was some old-timey…What people might call old-timey strongman moves. You’ve done a lot of two-hands anyhow lifts and things like that.

 

Explain to folks what that is, the two-hands anyhow lift, and how you learned about that lift in the first place because no one’s done that competitively for a hundred years. What that exploration of strength was like in that particular movement? We can use that to talk about some other things that I was very interested.

 

I’m very interested to talk about the reactions you’ve gotten online for that.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

[laughs] Totally. I have figured out from my background with yoga, hand balancing, and Olympic weightlifting, that I’m really good at keeping my arms straight.

 

My core is really strong. I’m good at articulating my scap and being able to lock out my elbow. From that, I found a picture of Eugen Sandow doing a windmill with a barbell and then picking up a kettlebell, it looked like, and I was like, “Oh, looks kind of interesting.” About three years ago, I had played around with the idea of what’s a really heavy overhead squat with one arm.

 

Is experimenting with how to get the barbell to my shoulder and then push it overhead and jerk it overhead and then squat down. I put those together with the two hands anyhow, which to be honest, I learned about this year from Google searches on the Internet, and some websites like BarBend to try to figure out inspiration from what these strong men have done in the past.

 

I clear the barbell, bring it to my shoulder, push it over my head, and then pick up a weight from the ground. That’s the two hands anyhow.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

 It’s like the toughest-looking windmill anyone has ever seen. When you post about it, we’ve reposted it a couple times. That’s impressive. Wait, I should ask what kind of — for those who don’t know — weights are you moving, with the two hands anyhow lift?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

The most I’ve done is 225 up top and 225 below together.

David TaoDavid Tao

400-450 pounds supported by your body in various planes. Of course, your core is pretty strong. Just imagine that in my head. I’m sure my smile would rip in half. What are some of the comments you get on social media? I’ve had a lot of folks.

 

I’ve read a lot of comments and we reposted this people saying like “Oh my God, why are you posting this? This is so stupid.” I think a lot of people don’t realize it’s actually a pretty important part of strength history.

 

It was one of the first famous expressions of strength before the rules of weightlifting were codified, before powerlifting existed. This is one way that people like Eugen Sandow, the pioneers, expressed their strengths. What are the comments that you have received? How do you often respond to those?

 People, they’re not used to seeing that lift. It looks extreme, it looks irregular, to what their personal trainer or what their class teacher is telling them to do with their movements. A lot of times, to be honest, people are inspired by it.

 

They’re like, “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. How did you even think to do this? I couldn’t even deadlift this, how you’re lifting it over your head.” I get a lot of those comments. Then yes, some people are questioning it, I would say.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

 People, they’re not used to seeing that lift. It looks extreme, it looks irregular, to what their personal trainer or what their class teacher is telling them to do with their movements. A lot of times, to be honest, people are inspired by it.

 

They’re like, “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. How did you even think to do this? I couldn’t even deadlift this, how you’re lifting it over your head.” I get a lot of those comments. Then yes, some people are questioning it, I would say.

David TaoDavid Tao

What does a week of training look like for you? You’ve mentioned, I think, 11 different sports and disciplines that you’ve done over the years. You’re probably not playing linebacker much these days is my guess. What is your training look like these days? What are some of the other expressions of strength and fitness that you’re pursuing?

 

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

That’s a great question. To be honest, it varies. I like to go off of what I’m inspired by. If I find something that I’m interested in trying, I have a lot of baseline strength that I’ve developed when I was younger, that I can go in and practice a skill. I am addicted to skill-based exercises or expressions.

 

Right now, currently, I love running up mountains. I love scrambling, free climbing up mountains. I make up little challenges in my head.

 

In Colorado, especially in Boulder, there’s a lot of human mountain goats. Strava is a great app to see how you can compete with them based on your age or your weight, or all time. What I’m trying to do now is run from my car. It’s a mile and a half, a mile and a quarter to the base of a second flat iron.

 

Scramble up that on your hands and feet, and then run back down to your car in less than 40 minutes. My fastest is 40 minutes and two seconds which was heart breaking, but for me I’m 210 pounds, and so there’s obviously people that can do it faster but it’s a great mental challenge and obviously, really physical.

David TaoDavid Tao

How often are you in the gym lifting and are you following a particular…Power lifters would say, they are doing the big three this many day a week, squat, bench press, and deadlift, that sort of thing? Are you following any periodized strength training because even though you’re challenging yourself and all these different disciplines, you’re still very strong.

 

You’re putting 225 pounds over your head with one hand, you’re deadlifting lots of weight, you’re moving lots of weight. Do you have a base of movements or resistance training that you need to always hit in a given week or does it vary as well?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

To be honest, I haven’t done a periodized program in probably six months.

David TaoDavid Tao

Oh wow. OK.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

 I focus a little bit on more body weight stuff at the moment. I believe in calisthenics at least for my upper body, if I can do things like free standing, handstand, 90-degree push-ups, press hand stands, and different movements like that, my upper body stays strong when I go back to weightlifting.

 

Then for my lower body, I’ve been, like I said, running up the mountains, been trying to get outside as much as possible.

David TaoDavid Tao

I think people underestimate the impact of generally being active. What are some disciplines in strength or physical culture that you haven’t explored so far and you’re like, “Hey, I need to tackle that or explore that at some point in my career?”

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

That’s a great question. Nothing jumps up at me right off the bat because I would probably go for it if I wanted to do it. That my personality and I think it serves me in a lot ways where I’ll get obsessed about something and then I’ll either accomplish it or come close to accomplishing it.

 

Then I’ll want to jump to something different. That keeps me injury-free, knock on wood, I haven’t had a lot of major injuries. I’ll have a goal of one-armed overhead squatting 300 pounds or 315 pounds. I’ll do that, then that goes to the side and I’ll work on running 50 miles in the Grand Canyon. I’ll do that and then I’ll jump to something else.

 

I forget your question now. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

The question was anything on your radar that you haven’t gone for yet? It seems you go for those things pretty quickly. Just to clarify, you did a 315-pound one arm overhead squat?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Yup.

David TaoDavid Tao

How long did it take you once that goal was in mind to accomplish it and what did training for that look like? That is a very specific thing and I can’t think of anyone else that I ever talked to who’s done that.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Yeah, it is specific. When I would first think of that, I was like, “There’s no chance. That’s impossible.” When I pick 315 off the ground to clean it or deadlift it, I’m like, “This is really heavy to lift up with one hand.” [laughs] I probably started in 2018. I was messing around with a heavy window.

 

I would pick the bar up off the rack, like I was going to jerk it, lift it with one shoulder, dip and drive, and lock it out overhead, started out at 135 and I was curious. It felt pretty simple so I put some more weight on and more weight. I think the first time I did it, I did 200 pounds and then the next goal was two plates, 225. I hung out there for awhile.

 

I didn’t even think 315 was possible just from how difficult that was. For me, my main lifts aren’t that great. My best deadlift is like 525, my best squat is like 440. For me, the 315, the squat was harder than the holding it over my head in that weird position at the time.

David TaoDavid Tao

Now that’s 315, you didn’t do that on the right arm then also do it on the left arm, were you training one specific arm to be a little bit stronger than the other at that point?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Oh yeah. My right arm. I definitely cannot do that with my left arm.

David TaoDavid Tao

At that point, after you transfer that, what do you think you could’ve done with your left arm if you had to max out on that arm that day?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Probably, around 200, 225.

David TaoDavid Tao

I find it fascinating. We’re not perfectly symmetrical as human beings, and I think that people often times get stuck in doing two-handed barbell movements all the time and they’re working in very limited range of motion. They underestimate how different the stability and the strength capabilities of their different sides, or their different limbs are.

 

It’s a good expression of the fact that you can seem really strong and you can seem fairly balanced, but when it comes to maxing out something like that between arms, there’s a massive difference. I can’t even see that video.

 

The first thing I’m going to do after this podcast recording is go look up that video. This is a fascinating thing. After you accomplish something like that, something very specific, it’s not like there is a single hand overhead squat competition you can go to and compete at these days. What do you feel after that?

 

You’ve accomplished it for yourself. Is there riding a high and suddenly, you’re like, “What’s next? I’m a little sad now.”

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Yeah, there’s definitely a high. It’s something I’ve never seen, and so I don’t know it could be done. I’ve seen people lift weights like that over their head at World’s Strongest Man, but I’ve never seen them squat it and I was doing it with a barbell. Obviously, it’s a lot longer and there’s little balance point finding a middle spot.

 

Yes, there’s a huge high once I did it. I was excited and then afterwards I was like, “Cool. I don’t really have a desire to keep going in that place.” I was driven little bit by the idea of 315, those three black plates on each side. I’m not going to lie, but I did 300 and I was like, “This is cool. What’s 15 more pounds? Let me try that.” [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk about a little about your day job. Physical culture and activities are a part of who you are, but you’re also a trainer. You work a lot with different folks, but if I had to narrow down a sport where I’d say, “Mike, probably works with people on this sport or on this particular physical path.” I probably couldn’t guess it based on our conversation so far.

 

Tell us what you do in that professional sense.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Thanks for asking. I started off my career doing a lot of strength and conditioning, and I was fortunate the New York Jets came to my college for training camp, and I interned with their strength staff for two years during training camp. I went out to California after that and interned at Athletes Performance now Exos.

 

I was fortunate when I was younger to learn from some of the best coaches in the game on how to make an efficient and effective athletes and that’s what I love to do. I managed a strength and conditioning facility in New York for a bunch of years.

 

Then to be honest, I was thinking to myself, “It’s really fun helping people get bigger, faster, and stronger, but what happens when they’re outside of the gym and that’s going to relate to their overall health.”

 

That’s when I dove a lot into yoga, mindfulness practices, and went on what I called an alternative graduate studies program, where I traveled the world studying from various cultures with a backpack on community health and ways that people live as happy and healthy as possible. Now, that’s what I do.

 

I work as a performance coach, it’s what I call it. It’s a little bit, strength coach, life coach, therapist, counselor. I use all these various modalities in a way to create a program like, what are the sets and reps of the emotional strength, their vulnerability, and what are the exercises that we do for individuals.

David TaoDavid Tao

On your travels and learning from physical culture and traditions from around the world, it’s difficult to distill that down to a short podcast interview. What are some moments or experiences that stick out to you that maybe changed your perspective on the pursuit of physical strength and well-being?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

I would say community is one. That’s the biggest one that I found. When I was in Costa Rica and Austria, I was surfing a lot in Costa Rica. Then in Austria, I was with these crazy Australian men who run up mountains and ski down them and have a great community of people that they can do that with.

 

I think that is a huge benefit to being in a gym and being with people that can push you. When I first was learning Olympic weightlifting, it was in a basement with my coach. We had two other people there. Just having that little bit of a community each and every day provided a lot of detail-oriented movement, which obviously is important in a skill life like that.

David TaoDavid Tao

I got you. That alternative Graduate Studies program, what influenced you to take that path? A lot of folks would go take a traditional graduate studies bath, or they would intern with another storied strength and conditioning program, not to say the ones that you had experienced with work story, there’s some of the best to this day.

 

What was the deciding factor? What pushed you to do that self-guided form of education?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

To be honest, I told myself that the soft skills were important of coaching and I loved that idea. I said, “You know what, Mike, in your 20s, learn the most about yourself as you can. Learn the most about your emotional health and your mental health and how you relate to the world and how you can relate to other people.”

 

“Because when you’re 30…” This was me when I was younger, but I was like, “When you’re 30, you have to have it figured out.” [laughs] At that point, if you just have a lot of certifications, but you can’t talk to anyone, it doesn’t help. That’s where I leaned into it.

 

I read the book “The Art of Non-conformity” by Chris Guillebeau. He outlines this Alternative Graduate Studies program in that book and inspired me. I’m 32 now and I’m doubling down on that concept.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m very glad that you referenced the thinking that by the time you’re 30, you have it figured out, as a young person’s perspective…

 

…because I’m over the hump as well. I’m glad that you brought that up and contextualized that otherwise, I’d feel a little bit an old fogy.

 

I am pretty set in my ways, though, so that’s to be fair. Who are some other folks in the strength community or the broader fitness community who have inspired you?

 

Maybe folks you’ve been able to work with or maybe folks who by following along from afar have helped shape the way you approach what you do both in your personal physical expressions and in your work with clients?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Yeah, I’ll say Paul Chek is one that helped me out when I was young. I got into some holistic health and wellness through him and love to some different exercises and some ways of activating through my core that I learned through him.

 

Matt Giordano is a yoga teacher that I’d studied with and seeing people float up in their hands and do wild things with their bodies was enticing. Strong Camps on Instagram. I think DJ, I’ve never met him but with engage a little bit online.

 

I get some inspiration from him. I recently did a one-arm-hang challenge where you hang from one arm and then hold weight and the other hand. That was pretty fun.

David TaoDavid Tao

That sounds right up your alley, by the way. Just anything where you have to do something with one arm, and a different thing with the other arm and t involves weight…

 

I’m thinking Mike.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Yeah, totally. Now that’s a good challenge. I studied with Ido Portal a little bit in Copenhagen. He definitely inspired me for a period of time. I love learning all the different modalities. My friend Dave Durante is a former Olympic gymnast who runs Power Monkey Fitness.

 

I used to work with him and in New York City. I love learning all these different modalities and then pulling them together. If I’m teaching something a handstand, I can teach it from Las Vegas Cirque background. I can teach it from a gymnastics background. I can teach it from a yoga background. I can teach it from all these different ways and use the art of coaching and the different cues and methods and exercises that are going to work best for that specific individual.

David TaoDavid Tao

I like that you reference Dave. I’ll have to link to his podcast. He’s joined us in the BarBend podcast. I’ll have a link to that in the show notes. I appreciate you bringing that up.

 

If folks want to follow along with what you’re doing or they’re interested in the next expression of physical strength or mental strength that you pursue, it’s anyone’s guess what that might be over the next few years or what those might be, I’m sure. Where is the next best place to follow along with you?

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

I would say via Instagram. On social media, my handle is Mike.Aidala. You can also follow along on my website which is mikeAidala.com.

David TaoDavid Tao

Excellent. Mike, I appreciate you for joining us today. It’s fun to talk to someone who is so passionate about exploring the world of physical expression and using strength in unconventional ways. I appreciate you sharing a little bit about your experience and your story with us.

Mike AidalaMike Aidala

Thank you so much for having me. This has been great, and thanks for all the amazing content that you guys put out and inspire people like myself to do that, to express ourselves in different ways.

David TaoDavid Tao

We love doing it. Talk to you later, Mike.