If you’ve been following American weightlifting online for the past few years, chances are you’ve stumbled across Tom Sroka in any number of videos from California Strength and (the now defunct) MuscleDriver USA teams. A collegiate All-American thrower in college who also competed in strongman, Sroka took up weightlifting in his mid-20s under the tutelage of coach Glenn Pendlay, first in California and then at MuscleDriver HQ in North Carolina.
As a superheavyweight (+105kg) lifter, Sroka won the 2013 American Open and the 2014 Arnold Classic in his weight category. But over time, Sroka struggled staying healthy in the superheavyweight class, and once injuries started piling up, he began looking for opportunities to transition to a different sport — and a lighter bodyweight.
Sroka found GRID in early 2015 and eventually transitioned to that sport full time. Since then, he’s lost roughly 90 pounds and found what he believes to be a sport better suited to his interests and abilities. I sat down with Tom to talk about his weightlifting career, transitioning sports, and what he thinks the future holds for American weightlifting.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell me about your athletic background and how you found weightlifting, and eventually to GRID.
I did the typical football, track and field, wrestling in high school. I ended up going to Aurora University in track & field and became a three-time All American in that. I had the opportunity to train for the Olympics and would have moved out to Arizona, but life got in the way and I ended up not pursuing that.
I ended up competing in the highland games and strongman just for something to do, and while I was competing in that I had a friend, Ingrid Marcum, who was an Olympic alternate in bobsled and National Champion in weightlifting herself. She was friends with Glenn Pendlay, and he had put something out on the internet saying he was looking for people interested in weightlifting. At the time, I was coaching college sports teams. I flew out to California to train with them, to learn more about the lifts and to see if there was info I could take back and teach to the athletes I was working with.
When I got back home, I had a voicemail inviting me to come out there and train full time with the team. I handed in my letter of resignation and started training full time in January 2012. In June later that year, MDUSA started their own team which Glenn was a part owner of. So they ended up kind of splitting, and the team split in half, I ended up going to Glenn at Muscle Driver. Simply because it was closer to my family in Chicago being in Charlotte, NC as opposed to San Francisco.
I moved there in June 2012 and I ended up being there until January of 2015. At that point, we had a mutual breakup, just a difference of opinion of how things were going and how they were running stuff. Leading up to that, the NPGL had announced their playoffs would be in Charlotte and that they were getting a franchise. The guys who were running the Charlotte franchise, I knew them, I’d coached at their gyms, and they asked if I wanted to try out GRID. They did a test day where they invited a bunch of local athletes and said, we’re going to run a race, here’s what you’re going to do.
I had a blast competing, it was one of the more fun things I’d done in awhile. I was hooked. The SAGL started later that year, I joined the Charleston Marauders, which at the time were a minor league affiliate of the DC Brawlers. I competed in the SAGL the first year and participated in the Carolina pro day, ended up not making it to the combine, and that solidified what i wanted to do.
So after that pro day, I committed to GRID and gave up weightlifting. I was training half for one, half for the other, and I decided I wanted to do GRID only.
When I moved back to Chicago, there was a group of people putting together a team for the GRID Invitational, and they asked if I wanted to participate in that. That furthered my drive, I did the GRID invitational for the Chicago Rally and we took second. I ended up competing again in the SAGL for the same coach, different team name, and then I ended up getting drafted by the New York Rhinos. The sport was an easy transition for me simply for the fact that most of my training consisted of barbell work, I just adjusted the reps and intensities at which I was moving the barbell.
I went from doing heavy singles with a long rest to doing sets of 3, 5, 8, 10 with short-moderate rest.
The hardest part for me was learning the other skills, like handstand push-ups, toes to bar, muscle-ups, that stuff has taken awhile. But the barbell stuff was pretty seamless for me, it didn’t take me long to get that down.
When you were lifting, you were a superheavyweight. What was your max bodyweight, and what were your max lifts?
If you’ve ever seen the guys who compete as superheavyweights, they’re monsters. They’re often over 6 feet tall and over 300 pounds. When i first got into weightlifting, i was about 265 pounds. Glenn said I was going to have to lose weight or gain weight to be competitive. Looking at my frame, we decided I’d gain. The heaviest I ended up getting was 330 pounds.
I was at my strongest there, I had snatched 332 pounds, I had clean and jerked 445 pounds, my back squat was well over 600 pounds, I push pressed 400 pounds, I was very strong.
The problem is I’m only 6 feet tall. So with all that extra weight, I grew out and was pretty robust. Most of that weight was in my belly, and I couldn’t move as well as I used to. My calling card was that I moved well for a big guy, but with that extra weight, that was not the case.
Then I started getting injured. First my knee hurt, then my hip started bothering me, and at nationals I dislocated my elbow. I decided that I wanted to lose some weight, to carry around less weight and move better, and that’s where some of the disagreements started happening between me and MuscleDriver. I knew I wasn’t going to have a good quality of life being that heavy.
I dropped down to about 310 pounds around January, and my lifts didn’t change that much. I’m now about 250 pounds, and my snatch actually went up a little bit as I lost weight. My clean & jerk is a little down, it’s around 405 now, but I’m happy with how I’m lifting having dropped around 90 pounds so far.
In the sport of GRID, it doesn’t matter how much I lift, it’s how fast I lift it.
Your numbers are still very competitive in GRID, though. There aren’t many weights in that sport you can’t move.
In the SAGL, there was not a single ladder I didn’t have the ability to clear because of strength. I simply ran out of time on a few of them, the weights weren’t the problem. The numbers in the ladders are well within my range, and as my aerobic capacity and lactic threshold improve, my ability to do more in that event is going to improve. Now I can run entire ladders, not just the heavy bars.
Working on my cycling time and handling the shorter rest is a priority now.
Can you ever see yourself getting back into weightlifting competitions at a lighter bodyweight?
I’m never going to say never, I just have to be realistic with myself. I’m never going to be competitive at that top tier in the superheavyweight class, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a competitive superheavy under 300 pounds. I could lose the weight and go down to 105, and that’s something that I may consider. But I’m in no rush to move one way or another with my weight.
There have been some rumors that the IWF is considering adding a new women’s weight class between 75 and 75+. Is that called for on the men’s side?
Anybody that’s competed in weightlifting a long time knows the women really need a new weight class there. That’s not a fair split. In that 75+ weight class you have people like Sarah Hopping who are very strong, but they’re never going to be 225 pounds. But when you go to the international stage, the women in that class are much larger, taller, heavier. I wouldn’t be opposed to them adding two more weight classes in that range.
On the men’s side, a lot of people don’t know that the 110 kilo weight class used to be a thing. I think something like a 110 or a 112 weight class in weightlifting is needed, especially for guys like me who are strong but can’t really put on 30 or 40 additional pounds without sacrificing some athleticism
I feel like they could use an in-between weight class: 110, 112, 115. That would be closer to 250 pounds, and that’d be a good sweet spot, in my opinion.
You’ve competed across strength sports: strongman, weightlifting, GRID, even as a thrower relying on explosiveness. Are we going to see more multi-sport strength athletes moving forward, or is the future specialization?
I don’t think you can be at the top of your sport unless it’s your number 1 priority. The best example in my opinion is one of the greatest strength athletes of all time, Mikhail Koklyaev. He was a 10-time Russian champion but wasn’t a world champion, for a few reasons. Then he competed in strongman, and he was top three at WSM and the Arnold and other top competitions. But he was never THE guy. Then he dabbled in powerlifting, and he came close to breaking the all time deadlift record, but he couldn’t bench well and his squat was good but it wasn’t top-tier. So he was a good powerlifter, but he wasn’t the best powerlifter. He made a name for himself for his feats of strength, but he was never the best in any single sport. If you want to be the best at your craft, that has to be your number one priority.
Do I think an athlete can be good in multiple strength sports? Absolutely. I think we see it more on the women’s side in terms of crossfit, weightlifting, and grid. Vanessa McCoy is one who comes to mind.
I think you’ll see more multi-sport strength athletes on the women’s side than on the men’s side. But I don’t think you can say someone is great at more than one thing. If they want to be the best, it needs to be their priority.
Let’s talk about the organizational lever of strength sports in America, specifically weightlifting. What do you think the future of USAW is, and how can weightlifting in the US harness the increased popularity of Olympic lifts?
I believe they’re doing everything they can right now. I wouldn’t even say I was a full time weightlifter, so to speak, because I was always working side jobs. We always joked around that we were the highest semi-professional team there could be. There are in my opinion only five or six athletes in the entire country making a living solely off weightlifting, or are considered full-time weightlifting. It needs to stop from the top-down, USAW needs to make a commitment to a select group of athletes and create a procedure to identify those athletes, or they need to let athletes do what they gotta do and try not to be too involved in it.
Another thing that’s going to help is a grassroots program, which I truly believe USAW is doing a good job of. Our youth and our junior lifters are starting to kick some ass on the world stages. If we can keep them healthy, keep them interested in the sport, they’re going to have the same impact on the senior level. We’re already seeing it with lifters like CJ Cummings and Mattie Rogers. We’re already starting to see some of these younger athletes take center stage, we just need to keep them interested and develop the programs that will continue to foster those talents.
We have to get to the point where we have professional athletes in the sport. That’s what’s going to bring sponsorships, that’s what’s going to bring training facilities, and those bring success.
Featured Image: @iamtomsroka on Instagram