Three photo side by side that show a man going thorugh the process of lifting a barrel up in the air above his head. In the first photo the man has bent over to pick up the barrel, in the second photo he is squating holding the barrel, and in the thrid photo he is standing with the barrel above his head.
VCU chemistry professor Mychal Smith, who began doing strongman competitions in 2018, recently attended the Arnold Amateur World Championships, finishing 11th in his group. (Owens Media)

Powerhouse professor Mychal Smith is one of the world’s strongest men

Smith, a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, balances his time in the classroom with an unlikely hobby: amateur strongman competitions.

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By day, Mychal Smith stands at the front of a Virginia Commonwealth University chemistry classroom, teaching his students about enzymology and biophysical techniques. By night, he focuses on more physical pursuits, lifting the heaviest objects he can find.

Smith, Ph.D., a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is an amateur strongman. Throughout their history, strongmen have performed feats of athletic prowess such as bending steel, pulling cars and overhead-pressing logs, and the sport has found renewed popularity in recent decades – and some high-profile spotlights: Icelandic professional strength athlete Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson portrayed the aptly named character “The Mountain” on HBO’s hit series “Game of Thrones.”

“I’ve always loved weight training,” Smith said. “I always did regular powerlifting or following a random program that I found online. But then I joined a gym that had the strongman [classes], and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of fun.’ The events are fun. Lifting heavy things is always fun for me. So I always wanted to try it and then when I did try it, I was really pretty good at it.”

Over spring break this March, Smith traveled to Columbus, Ohio, for the Arnold Amateur World Championships, an annual international competition featuring the best strongmen and strongwomen in the world. To qualify, Smith finished in the top 10% in a preliminary national contest. He was one of about 80 male amateur strongman athletes to attend the Arnold this year.

Just reaching that competition was one of Smith’s biggest goals, he said. He hoped to place in the top 10, but finishing 11th out of 15 of the best amateurs on Earth isn’t too shabby.

A photo of a man from the waist up wearing a t-shirt and a weight lifting belt.
Mychal Smith said his biochemistry students show enthusiasm for his strongman pastime, wishing him luck and asking him about his competitions. (Owens Media)

“I still had a lot of fun,” Smith said. “I got through all of the events really well, so I’ll probably try again in another couple of years” – with a goal of placing in the top five and reaching the second day of competition.

Since starting strength athletics in 2018, Smith has done a handful of strongman competitions each year, balancing the extensive hours of training with his day job – teaching classes, doing service outreach – and his family life. Every week, Smith does at least four workouts, with some lasting four to five hours, so planning his time well is crucial.

“I don’t know too many chemistry professors who do strongman,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they probably do some other form of exercise. But strongman is probably pretty unique as far as chemistry professors go.”

Both his unlikely hobby and his classroom demeanor have earned Smith a dedicated group of student fans. On RateMyProfessors, one declared that Smith “reigns from the heavens above,” calling his class a “must take” and encouraging VCU to “create a statue to honor his intellectual and physical prowess.” Other reviewers call Smith the GOAT – Greatest of All Time.

“It’s really cool,” Smith said. “They always ask for videos or ask how I did. I remember one class, when I went to the nationals, they made a card for me and everyone in the class signed it and said, ‘Good luck’ and ‘I hope you do well’ and that kind of thing. It’s really cool to interact with the students and bring some personal things and have them enjoy it just as much as I do.”

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