Strength As An Artform (w/Steven Koontz)

Today I’m talking to Steven Koontz, best known online as RhinoStrength. Steven has made a name for himself with some pretty epic displays of old-timey and unconventional strength (80+kg kettlebell bent presses, anyone?). And a big reason Steven pushes his limits is to challenge the notion of strength being static, boring, or easily defined. Steven is a musician and artist by training, and our conversation focuses on how strength sports and lifting can act as self expression. Could it even be an art form?

Steven Koontz on the BarBend Podcast

 

 
 
 
 
 
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In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, David Thomas Tao and Steven Koontz discuss: 

  • How filming workouts leads to internet fame (1:40)
  • Playing in a band, painting houses, and dead broke — guess I’ll head to the gym (6:00)
  • “I’m a failed artist…so I started just trying stuff, I looked at it like skateboarding” (10:30)
  • Learning how to fail with heavy weights; “What does an Olympic lifter know how to do?” (14:00)
  • People Steven admires in the strength space (16:00)
  • Letting your training goals evolve (22:00)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

What does an Olympic lifter know how to do, or CrossFit? You know how to fail. It’s the same with kettlebells, they know how to fail. I know how to not catch a bell, or to sacrifice the integrity of the bell over my body.

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 trainer and athlete, Steven Koontz. Better known online as @rhinostrength, at least on Instagram, where he’s risen to popularity with his feats of strength, featuring some very heavy kettlebells and odd movements. Steven actually has a background as a musician.

 

Today, we’ll talk about how physical culture and strength can be an expression of personal creativity.

 

We also chat about why it’s so easy for folks in the fitness industry to fall into very narrow lanes when it comes to expressions of physical culture. This podcast is a little different than what we normally do, but I hope you still enjoy. It’s certainly one I had a blast recording. Now, let’s get to the show.

 

Steven, I appreciate you taking the time. The first question I got to ask; let’s talk about your Instagram handle because when we started talking, I wasn’t even sure your name was Steven. Take us back to how you got your online moniker.

This name is, probably came up a lot, but my buddy Dennis, one of my closest friends. I used to work with him at a gym about 10 years ago. If you work at a gym with someone, he’d always see me workout. A few years in, four, five years in, he’s like, “Dude, you should film your workouts.” This was before filming your workouts was the thing.

 

He was like, “You’re just fun to watch, why not?” In 2016, it was like, “Well, I don’t know. Sure. I guess the next thing to do is…” because I don’t have a website or anything like that to promote my business. I was like, “I’ll make an Instagram.” I was like, “Oh, I just started filming my workouts.” Again, if you go and see the first thing that’s a picture of me doing a bench press.

 

You’re like, “Oh, here’s me doing a kettlebell stature.” It’s funny because I’ll go in, and Instagram does a “Look at your past” kind of thing. I’ll go in, I’ll go through the time travel, and see the former seasons.

 

Then all of a sudden, I’m like, “There’s me maxing out on the kettlebell press of 48 kg.” It’s so funny because you get the second empirical, visual evidence of change, right? Of progression, so it’s cool. That’s what happened. My buddy Dennis was like, “You should film your workouts,” so I started doing it, then…

David TaoDavid Tao

I’ve asked that question before. The story only goes one of two ways. One, it goes like people want to have an interesting story. Their grandfather gave them a nickname as a kid. It means so much to them. It’s like an old story.

 

Or they’re like, “Yeah, I was sitting down with my phone, starting an Instagram handle, and I needed something. The first thing that popped into my head, that’s what I went with.” Then 10 years later, that’s what they’re known as online.

It’s stupid because anything strength or strong…it’s so cheugy and cheesy. I don’t know. Again, it just happened. Then I was like, “Oh, it works, whatever.” Then Darwin drew a logo of a rhino skull with a silhouette around it. I’m like, “That’s cool looking.” I just kept it. That’s the story, so… [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

The problem is if you want to change it, if you’ve already built up a following and an audience and you want to change it later on, it’s risky. It’s risky because then people won’t be able to associate with you.

It’s so funny too. It’s almost like getting a tattoo. You remember it for the first six months, then after that, you forget it’s there. I forget what the handle is. I call it my professional, it’s not professional to you but my work on Instagram or whatever.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk a little bit about your athletic background. What led you to the point…to where someone’s like, “Hey, you should film your workout.” How did you get started in strength training? Take us back.

I hated working out. I hated sports. I hated all things athletic. I skateboarded all my life. I love skateboarding. It wasn’t until I was around 24 that…I was in between, going from college to grad school, that I got in a little bit of trouble with the law. I got into a bar fight.

 

At that point, I was like, “Well, I’m just going to start…” I needed to find something new. Skateboarding wasn’t really hit me anymore. I used to tour a lot as a musician. I was not a professional drummer, but I was on tour a lot as a drummer in different bands.

 

That wasn’t hitting anymore for my cathartic release. Then all of a sudden I started going to the gym and I immediately fell in love with it, and I started getting into the bodybuilding. This was when I still lived in California. Then on a whim, this band asked me to move out to Chicago, so I moved out to Chicago.

 

I have degrees in history, philosophy, with a minor in literature. It wasn’t like I couldn’t go and find a job right away. This was 2010. I was playing in that band, wasn’t skateboarding anymore. Playing in a band and painting houses.

 

I was broke so I started going to the gym all the time. I loved bodybuilding. I loved Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I got more and more in love with Mike Mentzer and Franco Columbu. I love all the different philosophies. Frank Zane is probably one of my favorites as well. All the different bodybuilding philosophies and that’s how I got into it around 25.

David TaoDavid Tao

What I would say now is, you’re best known for some quote unquote…I hate this term but I’m going to use this term, “functional movements.” What does that even mean? Everyone has a different function, it’s a bit of a weird term.

 

You’re very well known for doing heavy shit with kettlebells, let’s put it that way. It’s the line from bodybuilding training to doing heavy stuff with kettlebells it’s not always the easiest one. Take us through that progression.

Being nomadic here in Chicago, trying to find my way. My buddy Denis the guy, I met him at a GNC. He was like, “You should come train at Equinox.” I started [laughs] working at this Gucci-ass gym called Equinox.

 

Denis who was my mentor in all the fitness, I would probably say one of the first guys in Chicago to bring the Kettlebell to Chicago. I think he did the very first RKC Cert with Pavel. He’s the guy who understood all the old classic training, all the old 1920s, 1910, 1920s, Arthur Saxon-type training styles.

 

The way he looked you know those boxers back in 1890s, that’s how he looks. Very wiry thin but insanely strong and flexible. Me, I was always like this meatball that was like a rhino I guess, I don’t know.

 

When I started working at Equinox, my first couple of months in, he saw my bodybuilding stuff. Again, I love the progression and the programming for bodybuilding. He saw I do all that stuff. He came up and he’s like, “You should get into kettlebells and mace training and stuff like that.” I was like, “That’s not for me, that’s like whatever.” He said, “No, you should try it.”

 

It slowly progressed from that. For about the next two, three years, I would do swings casually, you rose. I would get the kettlebells and do tricep extensions and stuff like that. The creativity of bodybuilding is killer. I love it, dude. There’s so much avenues you can have in bodybuilding where you can make your workout fun.

 

Which is the antithesis of hard-style kettlebell training. Hardstyle kettlebell training is like, “You do these five movements and you do them until you need to progress,” which is the dog muzzle, a little foo-foo for me.

 

Anywho, then what happened was, I left Equinox and I went private. When you go private, especially in a place like Chicago, when you’re training privately, you are limited to little gyms or private gyms.

 

With that said, you get more and more into kettlebell training. Then what happened was, I went and got StrongFirst certified, which was monumental for my training, not only strength training but overall movement stuff.

 

With a background of bodybuilding and Equinox influence which is being over hyphy, the whole functional shit. Then the StrongFirst it started to build out from there. After my first StrongFirst cert, I started running all these regiments to my clients and stuff.

 

Also with myself, but I’m getting bored of the snatch test. The Turkish Getup, this is going to sound very pompous but a lot of the StrongFirst ideas just seemed very pedestrian.

 

It sounds really pompous, but to me, it wasn’t hard to do a Turkish Getup with a 48. That’s what I warm up with. The snatch test was almost a warm-up for me. At that point, I’m getting bored and I’m a failed artist.

 

I was a touring musician, skateboarder, degrees in History, and Philosophy, and Literature. The redundancy, I just was over it. I was like, “Why can’t we just paint it up a little bit?” Then I started trying shit. I started looking at cannonballs like I looked at skateboarding or I looked at bodybuilding, like, “How can I do this?”

 

I’m like, “Oh, fuck, let’s try it.” The fearlessness of me, I’m not scared [laughs] of anything like that. I started experimenting. It’s funny even to this day, a few months ago I was like, “I’m going to try this 80kg bell.”

 

I was a little scared. I’m like, “This is the first time I’ve ever been scared to do a bent press with an 80kg bell and we’ll see what happens.” That’s how it’s always been like I’ll throw this bell in the air and see what happens. [laughs] It’s not the safest thing.

 

I don’t get a lot, but even backlash, “Oh, that’s not safe. Aren’t you scared you’re going to hurt yourself?” “No, that’s why I do it because I’m not scared I’m going to hurt myself.” [laughs] Anyhow, that’s what happened, just progressed.

 

This random thing became a very cathartic output for me. I can give a shit. I’m not trying to sell anything, I’m not trying to inspire anybody. I’m just like, “Hey, here’s me. Here’s me doing a trick or whatever, and here’s a stupid blurb.” Almost like a live journal of my life. Then that’s what happens, it started to take off. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

It sounds like for you, physical culture and expressions of strength are a really important way for you to express your creativity. Is that correct?

Yeah, 100 percent, man. I play drums. That’s a very physical output. I skateboarded, it’s a very physical output. It’s like, I don’t have the art, I don’t have the gift of being able to paint or the gift of being able to…Maybe if I practice or whatever.

 

I hate to quote Henry Rollins, because that’s like, “Oh, you’re a musician quoting another jock musician.” He’s like, “I can have a shitty day, and 45 pounds is always going to be 45 pounds.” That gets fucked with me.

 

I think about when I moved to Chicago, it was like, I’m coming from California to Chicago. It’s the middle of winter and I don’t have any friends, it’s like, “I have the gym.” When I left Equinox and went private, I didn’t have a culture to be behind. You engulf yourself in this whole culture. It was like my outlet and still is.

David TaoDavid Tao

I got to ask. When you’re attempting these things, you have no fear or very little fear, very infrequent fear. How many kettlebells have you broken?

You would think it’s way more. I honestly don’t think I’ve maybe broken less than fingers on my hand. Maybe three or four. That is something the people like, “Oh, don’t try this at home.” Same with Olympic lifting, I can’t Olympic lift. I can’t throw a barbell over my head unless it’s with one arm.

 

I can’t do all that stuff. What does an Olympic lifter know how to do? Or CrossFit, you know how to fail. It’s the same with kettlebells, you know how to fail. I know how to not catch a bell or to sacrifice the integrity of the bell over my body.

 

I know how to catch something or to get out of it. I grew up skateboarding. Of course, an accident is going to happen, but I knew how to bail out of a handrail trick or something, whatever.

David TaoDavid Tao

I think people underestimate that in the strength. When you’re learning the movements, learning how to fail at the movements, is just as important. If you never learn how to fail, you’re going to get some very compromising positions as you progress in strength.

That’s one of the things I implement to my clients all the time. I tell them, “It’s not to prevent you from failing, it’s to teach you how to fail and how to get back up.” I tell them too, if the bell doesn’t feel right, just throw the bell. There’s plenty of space around, we’ll buy a new bell. It’s 30, 40, 50 bucks, it’s fine. [laughs]

 

The structure of your shoulder girdle is much more important, or your noggin is much more important than fucking cannonball handle. One of those.

David TaoDavid Tao

The only problem is, see I live in New York City apartment, so if I’m training indoor at home. I have a backyard too. It’s raining today. If I’m training indoors, it’s like, “Maybe my floor here actually is more valuable.”

 

My tile floor might be more valuable than my foot. I’m kidding. I’m kidding, but these things go through my head.

No, but sure, at the same time, one of the videos I posted, I dropped the bell and I put a dent in my floor. They never charged me for that anyway. Accidents are going to happen. It’s like when I did that 80kg bent press, I felt the bell and it went to the floor of my condo’s gym. Had to fix it.

 

It’s like, you have to find the right areas to do things in. People were always asking me for advice. The best advice you can take is “use your common sense.” If you’re going to flip a bell on wood floor in your house, no, man. [laughs] If you don’t feel comfortable, then go to the grass. I don’t know. There’s plenty of options.

David TaoDavid Tao

Who are people in physical culture in strength, it could be in the kettlebell space, it could be outside of it, who you really admire or you look at them, maybe follow them on social and you’re like, “Hey, I get inspiration from that or I get some motivation from that?”

I would say, if I could Frankenstein certain people into a perfect body, I would take that guy Levi, I don’t how to say his last name. [laughs] He’s one good friends of mine, Markwardt whatever. Levi Markwardt, he’s out on Iowa.

 

His GS kettlebell abilities and his fervor to be unrelentless with his capacity and training is what I wish I could have, and that inspires me. My buddy Joe, swing his kettlebell, he’s out of Cincinnati. His mobility is second to none. His size, his mobility, I admire that so much.

 

Pound for pound, one of the strongest people I’ve ever seen in my life would have to be Chris Chamberlain from the Weck method. What he does and his creativity and him and David Weck.

 

I wish I lived close to those guys. I can understand their language, but I can’t speak it and I want to get fluent in their language. Bud Jeffries was always a huge guy for me. I loved Bud, and RIP to that guy. I was really fortunate to hang out and meet him. We got along well.

 

Other than that, there’s like certain things here and there. I will say, there’s nothing better than seeing tiny women dominate a heavy kettlebell. I would say, Jackie out of Wisconsin. Jackie Vazquez, I think is her last name. I think, she, Turkish Getup in the 48, no problem.

 

Then I would say kettlebells, she can clean, squat, and press 28kgs like no one’s business. I think she weighs like 130 pounds. Again, I’m probably missing so much, which is fine. The main ones would have to be the first three or four I mentioned.

David TaoDavid Tao

I wanted to make sure I knew who you were talking about, but I looked it up real quick, that’s Levi Markwardt.

Markwardt?

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah. That first person you referenced.

[laughs] We text all the time. His name is a little funky. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

He’s going to listen to this and he’s going to show up on your doorstep and be like, “Hey man, what gives?”

It would be good to see him.

David TaoDavid Tao

 You’re like, “Don’t get mad. Let’s lift some bells. It’s OK. Let’s do it.”

He’s stronger than me.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] Well, a question. You’re talking about kettlebell sport a little bit. Some of these folks do that. Some of these folks are more hard style. Have you ever thought about doing kettlebell sport like the long cycle or the biathlon or anything like that?

I absolutely would love to, but I’m very fortunate to be very busy at work or I’m working about 8 to 12 hours a day. Sometimes at kettlebell sport, I’m not making excuses, I don’t see myself giving the energy that I require to be able to do that kind of thing.

 

If I’m going to do it, I see what one of the best in the world does which is Levi, I want to be able to feel [laughs] like he does and I don’t right now. I don’t have that focus. I’m so busy with work. I’m so busy with the clients and I’m very fortunate. Very, very, very fortunate. Thanks.

David TaoDavid Tao

 It’s interesting too. You talked about creativity and not falling into the same movement patterns. You mentioned hard style having a handful movement patterns. Kettlebell sport, it’s only three movements.

Again, to bring him up one more time. Levi’s always been like, “Oh, I know it. You know, I know no one gives a shit, but here is me doing long cycle clean impresses.” [laughs] It’s cleaning jerks. It’s like, “Yeah, you’re right. It is boring, Levi, but I respect what you’re doing.” [laughs] It is. Again, that is true. I keep saying this word, but the cathartic output would be compromised.

 

Don’t get me wrong, not every workout needs to be this over emotional gut-wrenching thing. A little bit goes a long way. Then when the days I do need it and it does come out. Man, it’s one of the best things ever.

David TaoDavid Tao

What is something that in your mind is a next-step for you? You’ve mentioned the 80-kilogram bent press. The bent press and I’ll link it. We have some content on it on BarBend. I can link in the show notes. It’s a very old-time movement. It’s something that folks were doing 100, 120 years ago.

 

Circus strong men and strong women were doing bent presses with a lot of weight. It’s very interesting way to move a lot of weight with one arm. You mentioned that 80kg bent press is something you worked toward and got. Is there anything else that’s in your mind, an expression of strength that you haven’t quite hit yet, but you would want to work toward?

Yeah, so to be fair, 80 wasn’t the heaviest I’ve done. 80 kg with the bell was the heaviest. The bells are always so much different. What I want to work…That’s the problem is right now, especially the last six months, I’ve hit a, not a wall, but a roll of goals.

 

The thing is that’s normal for anyone in fitness. It’s funny as myself as a professional, which I do feel very confident to say I’m a professional. I practice enough and I train enough that I feel very confident I’m a professional. With that said, I’ve hit a wall of not creativity, other things. I’m OK with it for now. I’m letting things evolve or change as they go.

 

During the pandemic, I was very fortunate enough to have access to a gym. During that time from March 2020, all the way to July or August 2020, I hit so many different things that I never really thought I could hit, and I was pretty stoked on it. I did so much during that time. I’ve chilled out a little bit, and I’m OK with it.

 

Again, I said it earlier, things I’m looking at right now would be Chris Chamberlain method stuff and the Landmine University thing that they’re adopting in. I would be really interested to see how my brain would expand with those guys.

 

I didn’t mention him earlier, but he’s coming on. I love watching his videos, his name’s Atlas Shrugs, I think. He’s an old-timey barbell guy and he only does barbells. I enjoy his videos. I’d like to see how old-school barbell training that he does. Other than that, I don’t have any goals and I need it, I want some, but I’m also not rushing it.

 

I do think that good things come with time and patience.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

Amazing. Where is the best loop we’ve talked about already? As we come up to toward the end of this podcast, what’s the best way for people to keep tabs on what you’re doing, your training, anything like that?

 Sure. Again, I’ve posted in two weeks, I just bought a house.

David TaoDavid Tao

Oh, congratulations.

I’ve been moving, it’s been gnarly. Again, that’s the thing, life gets in the way. I used to post every day, then I would only three times a week now, then once a week. Now, it’s a culture. I forgot about it. [laughs] The best way to keep in touch is through rhinostrength on Instagram. My email’s there.

 

I also think the best thing to do is again, don’t ask basic questions that you can use common sense to know. Again, all the people I mentioned, there’s so much good…I do believe there’s so much good material out there when it comes to the Internet.

 

It’s like, again, what BarBend posts out and then what Levi, Joe from Sweden’s Kettlebell, the Atlas-Shrugged guy, when he pulls out all the wet method stuff. There’s so much good information out there that like…Then again, the stuff I put out, even go back in time and look at Bud Jeffrey stuff, or even Kettlebell Caro, who hasn’t posted in four years.

 

There’s so much good things out there if you just search for it. That would be the best way to keep tabs. Not only would I do, but when what’s going on in the community, because it’s not just me.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s a great lesson. You can’t look at just one person for all your knowledge. People are experimenting and experiencing a lot of different things. I super appreciate your time and congrats on the new house.

Thanks, man.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

 We’ll know things have calmed down when you start posting more regularly. That’s how we’ll know.

Maybe I’ll get inspired again. I feel so honored to be part of everything you and I give a shit. That’s cool, man. Thank you for having me.

David TaoDavid Tao

Well, thank you.