Strong Words: An Interview with Kikki Berli-Johnsen

I still haven’t met Kikki Berli-Johnsen for real but I sure hope I will. And if you are half as impressed as I tend to be by feats of strength, sports longevity, and Norwegian strength athletes, you will likely do too.

Today, you’re in it for a treat, with an interview of Norway’s Strongest Woman, Kikki Berli-Johnsen.

This interview would not have been possible without Laurie MacDougall Sookraj continued efforts to drag me out of the depth of ignorance about the sport of Strong(wo)man. But in spite of her best efforts, I’m still about as ignorant about the sport as I was when I interviewed her. So I asked Laurie to introduce Kikki. And after that, I’ve thrown in some questions about Norway for good measure, and then (just as last time) there will be questions from my daughter Arja and from The Swiss Tank, and then some more from myself.

Kikki by Laurie

I had the pleasure of meeting Kikki at the inaugural Official Strongman Games in 2017.

She competed in the masters class, ending up as a very impressive World’s 4th Strongest Masters Woman, taking first place in the truck pull and second place on the atlas stone series. She is known as Norway’s Strongest woman, and can be found there pulling a massive viking ship, hosting the Strongest Woman in the World and World’s Strongest Viking contests, or disconnecting from technology to live as a viking for a few days at a time. She is a mom, a total badass, and one of the nicest people you’ll meet. Her contributions to the sport of strong(wo)man are fantastic, we are lucky to have her involved!

-Laurie MacDougall Sookraj, Amateur Strongwoman, Canada

About Norway

The Older Avocado: First, let’s start with an easy one: you are Norwegian, and when I contacted you for this interview, you were basically living like a Viking. Don’t you think that it’s an unfair advantage?

“Everyone can live as a Viking if they just want it hard enough.”

Kikki Berli-Johnsen: Nope, not at all. Everyone can live as a Viking if they just want it hard enough. 😉 On the serious side; living as a Viking is pretty much my retreat from everyday life.

Kikki_the_Viking

We leave cellphones, iPad and other modern things back home, and live in a tent for a week or so at the time. There we cook on the bonfire, we practice handcraft like the old ones did, we sing, we dance, and we teach our kids that life is good without all the modern stuff we think we need. We go to sleep when we’re tired, and we wake up when the sun’s up. We meet around the bonfire across positions in society, and we are all worth the same. It’s a healthy way of living for both kids and adults, and more people should actually try it, just to feel how good it is for the soul.

TOA: Still about Norway: Sweden (where I live) is a pretty gender-equal country, but the perception here is that Norway and Iceland are even more progressive in that respect. Is this perception correct, and if it is, do you think it has something to do with how many amazing female strength athletes hail from Norway?

Kikki: I was actually having a talk with my 12 years old daughter today about gender-equality. She asked me why men and women aren’t 100% equal. I couldn’t answer her good enough on that question, and that has annoyed me all day.

But Norway is a pretty gender-equal country in everything but sport. Unless you play handball or do one cross-country skiing, female athletes are less paid, less promoted and less appreciated than male athletes. We do have a lot of amazing strength athletes, but hardly anyone knows about them. It’s a little-known fact that the most winning Norwegian athlete of all times is a powerlifter named Inger Blikra. Nobody has won more medals than she, but still, she isn’t mentioned anywhere.

Inger Blikra

Arja’s questions

Arja: Does it bother you that the sport is called “strongman” while there are women practicing it? Why not call it “strongwoman” for everyone?

“You have seen World’s Strongest Man on TV? Well, I do the same in the female class”

Kikki: Hehe … no, it doesn’t bother me much. Actually, I found it easier to explain my sport to people who don’t get it when I’m telling them what I do. – “you have seen World’s Strongest Man on TV? Well, I do the same in the female class” Then people understand the awesomeness of what I am doing, and they admit that they haven’t thought of women being able to do the same. Then I have to explain that women can do all the things men can do – and once in a while even better.

Kikki_OSG_2

Arja: When and why did you start training strong(wo)man?

Kikki: I actually started because I had a severe back injury. Or to be more correct; I started to train because I had that back injury. Back in 2003 I was on my way towards a life in a wheelchair. I was told in one hospital that I most certainly would end up in a wheelchair because of the injury and that even if I had a surgery, I would be in a chair sooner or later. Luckily, I went to another doctor, got another opinion and an opportunity to get the surgery. I decided I would start to train before the surgery, so perhaps it would be easier to continue to train after, and – honestly; I fell in love with lifting stuff from day one.

I had the surgery in November 2003 and started powerlifting in April 2004. During the first half of 2005 I found out that women were doing strongman as well, so I told my husband that I really wanted to try it. The next day he came home with to big cans I could fill sand in. Those were used for my first farmers walk. Soon after he came home with a massive tractor tire, and I was addicted to the sport after the first flip of that. I still love my sport passionately.

Arja: Had you practiced another sport before that? If you had, did it help?

“You know what? I had never trained anything but some aerobic before I started to do strength training.”

Kikki: You know what? I had never trained anything but some aerobic before I started to do strength training. I have tried several things, but never liked it, so I’ve quit at once. Strength sports, on the other hand, was my thing.Aerobics

Arja: Were your friends and family supportive when you started? Are they now?

Kikki: My friends have always been supportive of my sport. I think most of them think it’s quite cool that I do such a weird sport as strongwoman is, and that I do odd stuff like pulling planes and Viking ships.

My husband and our kids are very supportive. Actually, I wouldn’t be able to continue with the training and the competing if it wasn’t for the support I get from my husband. He is amazing! When I don’t believe in myself, he kicks my butt, when I don’t feel like going to the gym, he kicks my butt. He believes more in me than I do myself, and he makes sure that I remember that I am awesome. I am one very lucky woman!

Kikki_and_Egil
Kikki and Egil

My parents aren’t too fond of me doing this – especially my mama isn’t very happy with my muscles. Still she is very proud every time I do a plane pull, or a massive truck pull or something like that. I have decided that I don’t talk much with them about my sport. That’s the most peaceful for us all. My brother, on the other hand, it very supportive, and so are the rest of my family.

The Swiss Tank’s questions

The Swiss Tank: I’m a master strength athlete too, and I am super-impressed by your performance in a sport that has a reputation to be rather hard on the body. Is the training of master strong(wo)men different from seniors?

Kikki: I started to train when I was 35, so I was actually a senior athlete all the way from the beginning. So far, I haven’t felt much of the sport being very hard, maybe because I am so aware of my former back injury, and because I am terrified to get another injury. Or … perhaps it is because I all the way have trained rather smart. If I am exhausted, I don’t train, and I don’t force myself to go way beyond my limits.

TST: Do you periodize your training? If you do, on what kind of cycle: week, month, etc?

Kikki: I train in 4 weeks cycles. What I do depends on where I am in training; am I close to competition, I will have fewer reps and heavier weights. Am I far from competition, I have lots of reps on lighter weights.

TST: Do you currently have a coach? Whether you have one or not right now, do you think it’s necessary to have one in your sport when competing at your level, or is there a point where you can start relying on your experience?

Kikki: I am trained by the one and only Jenny Todd from England. She is a strongwoman athlete as well – a very well educated one – and one of the smartest things I’ve done during my career was to change to her. She tells me exactly what to do, and as the simple woman I am, I do as I am told. For me it’s alpha and omega to have a coach. I could do it as well, but I don’t trust my own experience enough yet. And – honestly; it’s very easy to rely on a coach, to do what she says.

I would actually suggest that everyone should have a coach, but it has to be a person who KNOWS the sport. You can’t let a person who never has done a yoke race teach you how to do a yoke run the best way possible, or you can’t let a person who never have lifted a stone teach you how to lift a stone. You need someone who knows the sport.

TST: From an outsider’s perspective, strong(wo)man looks a bit messy with a lot of different events requiring a lot of different qualities. How does your own training put order into that?

“I know some powerlifters will think I am a jerk now, but it is how it is. I have the deepest respect and admirations for powerlifting, but strongman/woman is more challenging.”

Kikki: I am lucky enough to train in a gym where we have almost all the strongman equipment I need for my training, so that makes it easy for my coach to put together a good training program for me, and it makes it easy for me to follow it. I think all the different events makes me a better athlete than for example a powerlifter, since I have to work more of my body than them. I have to work my speed, my coordination and my stability. I have to be persistent at the same time as I am explosive. I know some powerlifters will think I am a jerk now, but it is how it is. I have the deepest respect and admirations for powerlifting, but strongman/woman is more challenging.

My own questions

TOA: When I was doing my homework for this interview, I did not find out a general repository of world records, so I don’t really know how many you’ve held and currently hold. Did I miss something, and if I did not, do you think that the lack of publicity hurts the sport?

Kikki: Then you did your homework well, because there isn’t a proper repository of world records. When I decided I wanted to try to set a world record in atlas stones, I had to do a lot of searching because I found that Jill Mills had the existing record on 300 lbs. (136kg) I raised that with 3lbs, and where very happy with that. A few weeks later my record was broken by Alana Curnow from Australia. She added another pound to the record, and that stood for a couple of months before Donna Moore from England broke it with impressive 328lbs.

The same when we decided that I should do a world record in truck pull. There was nothing to be found in any repository, except a Guinness record. I did beat that record in Dubai November 2016. I still held the official record, even though both I and other athletes have pulled way heavier trucks after that.

“I actually think we have to work ourselves to get the attention and publicity we deserve. We can’t just wait for media to contact us, we need to sell ourselves, we need to show them that we exist, and that we are worth the attention.”

I wish we could get a lot more publicity around the sport. Too few people actually know about the sport, who’s competing in it, and what the sport actually is. On the men’s side “everybody” knows who Hafthor is because of Games of Thrones, but very few know who Donna Moore is. But … I actually think we have to work ourselves to get the attention and publicity we deserve. We can’t just wait for media to contact us, we need to sell ourselves, we need to show them that we exist, and that we are worth the attention.

View this post on Instagram

First event session in what seems like forever. Felt great to be back at it. Stone run up to 140kg. Need to be better all round. Not explosive enough for my liking from the hips. Need to secure the pick better. Axle clean and press 80kg. Testing out the Continental Clean aspect. Felt it went just fine. The press was good. Jack @spartan_performance_ telling me to press it faster worked well! Plenty of scope to build on that. #backinbusiness Tyre Flip is a favourite event to do. So much carry over to other events we did this before stones. Thanks to @rob.spence for being my training buddy today. Powered by @geneticsupps Supported by @sbdapparel @sbd.usa Training at @spartan_performance_ @bodyextremegym Programmed by @trapsliketodd #teamgenetic #geneticsupplements  #sbd #TeamSBDUK  #SBDApparel #geneticsupps  #deadlift #deadlifting #squat #strongwoman #strongman #womenwhostrongman #WSW #x2  #worldsstrongestwoman #pickupheavyshitandrun #pressallthethings  #grownasswomanstrength #strength #strengthtraining #overheadpress #pushpress #elite #strengthathlete

A post shared by Donna Moore (@donna_moore_strongwoman) on

TOA: I mentioned in introduction that I’m super-impressed by Norwegian strength athletes, but that’s not entirely correct: I’m super-impressed by Norwegian female strength athletes, especially in my sport (girevoy) but it’s a niche sport, so it might be just optics. How really popular are strength sports for women in Norway?

Kikki: Hmm … that is a good question. I notice that more and more women do strength training, but I also notice that most of them do it just to stay fit, not to compete in anything. We do have “a million” bikini fitness athletes, but honestly, I don’t think of that as a strength sport. Am I mean now?

I am in a group of Norwegian Strongwomen on Snapchat, and in that group, we are 22 women. I think that is all the women training for strongwoman in Norway, so it’s safe to say that we are few.

In powerlifting, on the other hand, there are now more women than men. That is very good!

TOA: Speaking of event organization, correct me if I’m wrong, but there does not seem to be any prominent world federation, like with weightlifting (IWF) powerlifting (IPF) or even girevoy (IUKL/IGSF). Would you say that it hurts the sport or on the contrary preserves it from the politics?

Kikki: Oh, strongman is filled with politics, because of all those federations. We have Official Strongman, we have Strongman Corporation, we have United States Strongman, Strongman Champions League, World Heavy Events Associations and probably a lot more that I don’t know about.

My biggest dream is that the world of strongman could meet in very few federations, and that those federations could work together, not against each other. It would make things so much easier for us all.

TOA: When I asked Laurie about the existence of different systems of training, she answered that there were not many well-identified systems. Would you confirm that, or are things different on this side of the Atlantic? And if they are, what’s the specificity of the training system you follow?

Kikki: I do agree with Laurie; there isn’t too many well-identified systems existing. Of course, there are a few out there, but not as many as there are for bodybuilding, powerlifting, etc.

TOA: How much do you know about the science behind your sport and (more importantly) how would you want to know about it? How much does it inform your training (if at all)?

“When it comes to incorporating the physics, angles, direction of force, explosiveness and brute force in my training… well… I just line the shit up, and get it done.”

Kikki: If one looks up the definition of “power” or of “force” one finds similarities. To move things with speed and energy, or to perform labor and work forcefully.

Strongman is about getting things done. Getting trucks moved or getting stones lifted. When it comes to incorporating the physics, angles, direction of force, explosiveness and brute force in my training… well… I just line the shit up, and get it done. If training is hard – competition will be easy.

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Line the shit ut, and get it done.

TOA: Are you coaching other strong(wo)men, in real life or online? In the latter case, would you coach juniors, especially teenage girls?

Kikki: I don’t coach anyone now, mostly because I have a tendency to not trust my own knowledge. It’s kind of stupid, because I know I know a lot, and that I am more than capable to coach anyone. So yes, I would like to coach newcomers to the sport, and if anyone who reads this feel like contact me for that, feel free to do it.

TOA: One next-to-last question: Do you support The Older Avocado on Patreon? If you don’t, what are you waiting for?

Kikki: I don’t do it yet, but as soon as I’ve seen the program that I am going to watch about suicide on TV now, I will read about it and consider supporting The Older Avocado on Patreon. Actually, I guess I will end up supporting.

Kikki’s own question

TOA: A last one: Is there a question that I did not ask but that you wish I had?

Kikki: Oh … there are many questions I wish I could have answered. Like … the disabled part of strongman. Why haven’t that side of our wonderful sport gotten more attention than it has? Or why do so many strongwomen come from toxic and abusive relationships? Or why does it seem like so many – both men and women – has struggled with anxiety and depressions? These are topics I burn for at the moment, topics I would like to work more with, learn more about. The world of strongman/woman is wonderful and including, so these topics should be spoken more about.

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