Thanksgiving in the United States is one of the most popular holidays, always falling on the last Thursday in November, but it reality it is a four day celebration of family, friends, food, football, and recently shopping. In the tightly knit world of Strongman competitors, Thanksgiving became a tragic time in 2013. The reason for the tragedy was the sudden death of iconic Strongman Mike Jenkins, who had trouble breathing while asleep that morning, fell out of his bed and died after being transported to a nearby hospital. Mike was 31, recently married, a successful business owner and a juggernaut of a strongman in the prime of his life.
Mike Jenkins, Country Kid
Mike grew up a typical, American country boy outside of Westminster, Maryland, except for the fact that he weighed 225lbs before he turned 12, could squat with over 400 lbs and bench 315 lbs as a sixth grader- having begun weight training in middle school. Jenkins told Simon Bronner of Penn State that he grew up fishing, riding bikes, and playing sports. Unable to play youth football due to his size, Mike played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse until he entered high school.
Jenkins earned a College Football Scholarship to Kent State upon graduating high school in 2000. Mike transferred to play football at James Madison University in Virginia following his freshman year. While at JMU, he developed into a 290 pound starting offensive lineman and captain on their 2004 National Championship Football Championship Subdivision team. When interviewed about his time at JMU by RxMuscle, Mike said that then JMU strength coach Jim Durning heavily influenced his programming, providing the basis for the methods he employed to dominate in Strongman contests within six years of the end of his football career.
Entering the Strongman World
Mike had normal jobs following his graduation from JMU with a bachelor’s degree in sports management as well as a masters degree in athletic administration- but he missed having athletic goals. Mike took his mother to a local Strongman contest on Mother’s Day 2007 to watch and that same year he won Maryland’s Strongest Man in August at 325 pounds. Mike was qualified for the U.S. Strongman Nationals at which he placed 6th out of almost 100 competitive strongmen. Jenkins meteoric rise continued with his winning the inaugural Arnold Amateur Strongman Classic in 2010, earning his professional status and putting the other professionals on notice that he was talented and motivated.
Mike’s Astounding Professional Strongman Career
Mike entered that 2011 Arnold Classic Strongman, competing against Brian Shaw, Zydrunas Savickas, and many other seasoned professionals. Jenkins wowed the knowledgeable crowd at the Arnold with a second place finish behind Shaw and ahead of 6 time winner Savickas. Jenkins was able to achieve this finish by beating Shaw on the circus dumbbell of 242lbs, lifting the bell with one arm for 8 reps and finishing second to Brian with two reps over a 48” bar with a 535lb stone to Brian’s four reps with that stone. When interviewed by Phil Burgess following the contest Mike said:
“I want to be remembered as one of the best ever, that’s what drives me to train.”
Mike competed in Poland’s Giants Live Strongman Contest in August 2011, but only managed 8th place after he injured his back after the second event. The next contest for Mike was the 2012 Arnold Classic Strongman in Columbus Ohio at which he competed against Shaw, Zavickas, Hathor Julius Bjornsson, and Derek Poundstone among others. Jenkins bested the entire field by being the only Strongman to press the Austrian Oak- all 456lbs of it as well as lifting the 255lb Circus dumbbell for 7 reps. Mike sealed his victory with a record timber carry of 7.42 seconds which was .14 seconds quicker than Poundstone, who came in second overall, one point behind Jenkins. Jenkins followed this victory up two weeks later by qualifying for the 2013 World Strongest Man Contest at Giants Life Australia with a solid performance.
In September of 2012 Mike competed in the World’s Strongest Man Contest and finished in 5th place while being hampered by a knee injury, most likely from his football days where he had suffered medial collateral ligament tears. In December of 2012, Jenkins underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and was unable to defend his Arnold Strongman title in Ohio for 2013. Mike competed at the 2013 WSM in China but he caught some type of virus,
Mike Jenkins’ Online Presence
Mike had his own YouTube channel which he began to document his training as well as promote his new business, the CrossFit Gamma Gym. There are videos of Mike doing CrossFit workouts of the day such as Grace-which for a man is 30 power cleans with 135 lbs, which he completed in 2 minutes. A 10/29/13 YouTube clip shows Mike deadlifting 700 for 8 reps. In less than a month he would be dead. In addition to his own channel content, Mike was interviewed in posted videos by RX Muscle as well as other strength focused channels. These interviews coincided with Mike’s outstanding performances in high level strongman contests such as the Arnold and WSM. Viewing Mike’s online legacy makes you realize what a charismatic, down to earth and positive representative of strength athletics he was.
Mike’s Training Philosophy
— Mark Bell (@MarkSmellyBell) December 11, 2013
Mike Jenkins was feature on the cover of the January 2014 issue of Mark Bell’s Power Magazine with the headline “Gone too soon.” The corresponding article, expertly written by strength athlete Matt Vincent, details Mike’s training program. Mike described to Matt that high level strength athletes are not “overnight phenoms”, rather “Our sports, like many, take a ton of time under the bar honing our techniques.” To become world class in a strength sport, Mike opined that it takes “seven to ten years.” Listen to how Mike answered Matt when asked what his ideas that have to be adhered to in order to get stronger. “I don’t deviate from simple movements until they stop working and they haven’t. Squat, deadlift, press and some type of explosive training, you can keep making gains for years.” “Every gym session is one of the big three in one form. Guys like Kaz and Jon Pall didn’t do crazy shit-they lifted heavy.”
When asked by Vincent as to what accessory exercises helped him most, Jenkins stated the following:
“Other than overhead, I stick to floor press and incline with different grips. For squats, I throw in back, fronts and zerchers. For deadlifts he recently switched to high reps with straight legs, sumo straight legs, and heavy rows.” Jenkins elaborated that he would train some strongman events for speed rather than at contest level weight to give his central nervous system a break and because “It’s like running, you have to run fast to get fast.”
As for his training cycle, Mike described to Matt that in the off season he upped his volume and sought to improve his static strength in his staple lifts. Events are not performed in the offseason in order to allow his body to recover, so conditioning is addressed via “rowing and sled work.” Mike prefers a 12 to 15 weeks pre-competition cycle during which volume decreases as load/intensity increases. Mike will cycle his training loads up 5% per week, until, he is handling more than the contest weights prior to the event.
What killed Mike
Mike’s tragic cause of death was expertly examined in Simon Bronner’s piece on Mike Jenkins he completed for Iron Game History Volume 12. In summation.
Mike’s cause of death was officially documented as “complications of cardiomyopathy”, which was announced at a press conference by County Coroner Graham Hetrick – who noted that extensive laboratory tests were done over the course of 7 months due to the unusual circumstances of Mike’s demise. The death certificate listed Mike’s death as “accidental due to an enlarged heart” with the cause being “a combination of heart dysrhythmia and heart failure.” Mike’s heart muscle had abnormal contraction bands and wavy fibers accompanied by small vessel disease.
Hetrick’s report documents that Jenkins had a significantly enlarged heart, liver, spleen, and kidneys. “The cardiomyopathy is due to anabolic steroid abuse” that was “longstanding in keeping with the heart abnormalities.” In addition to steroids, Coroner Hetrick examined stimulants found in Mike and reported that “DMAA (Methylhexaneamine), in combination with caffeine, probably caused cardiac dysrhythmia that led to cardiac failure in a heart weakened from prolonged steroid abuse.”
Mike’s Lasting Legacy
More than just a strongman, a generous and kind, charitable man by all accounts. Bronner’s interview of Mike provides a roadmap for any strength athlete to follow once his career was over: Mike wanted to make his gym a success, continue to mentor youth, and devote himself to his family. As examined in detail by Mr. Bronner, Mike’s untimely passing has caused competitors and promoters to reflect on how athletes can achieve world class strength in a manner that does not risk their health.