Our author tries out traditional Bavarian sports: Arm wrestling, stone lifting and the wonderful art of Masskrugstemmen. Will he become a true Bavarian in the end?
I was born in 1984 in Schwabing, in the heart of Munich. Unfortunately, however, that wasn't a massive help, given that, aside from my origins, I am about as Bavarian as a set of bagpipes. I don't like beer, my favourite football team is Borussia Dortmund and my Bavarian language skills are limited to a rudimentary “ja mei ...” – meaning anything from “oh my” to “whatever”. Fortunately, however, the Bavarian loves to grumble – that's enough of a starting point for most conversations. Whenever I'm sat at the table during the “Wiesn” – the city’s world-famous Oktoberfest – with “proper” Bavarians, they soon spot the imposter among them. They shake their heads with such vigour that the little tassels of chamois hair on their hats bob around, while simply muttering the words: “Na, du bisd koa Bayer ned” (“So you ain’t no Bavarian then, eh?”).
"... aside from my origins, I am about as Bavarian as a set of bagpipes. I don't like beer, my favourite football team is Borussia Dortmund and my Bavarian language skills are limited to a rudimentary “ja mei ...”.
Then I just sit there with my shandy in hand, shrug my shoulders and allow myself a straightforward “Ja mei ...”. But, of course, it secretly offends me when I’m not even accepted in the place I call my home. That's something I would like to change. Perhaps it would help to hone some of the skills needed to master Bavaria’s traditional sports. And over the next few days, that’s what I’ll be learning: Arm wrestling, “Masskrugstemmen” and stone lifting.
Nestled away in Andreestrasse 5, fifteen sweaty men moan and groan as one in a room. And then there’s me, tucked away in the middle of them. This may sound misleading, so perhaps I should rephrase: Every Sunday at midday, the city's “Bavarian Grizzlys” meet here to dabble in some serious arm wrestling. They’ve kindly invited me to come on by for a taster session. So here’s me, soaking up the atmosphere of this small gym in a youth house basement, and I can no longer feel my hand. Like a car compacter, Dimitar Yankov's paw completely envelopes my own delicate pinkies before applying the squeeze. My bones hurt. And that’s just the greeting. Perhaps I should have initially set my sights on another Bavarian tradition. Playing the accordion springs to mind.
Mr. Yankov has held the top spot in the German championships a total of three times, even managing to finish fourth in the European championships. He has broad shoulders and thick arms because, as a discipline, arm wrestling engages the entire upper body. You don't need your legs though. That's why Mr. Yankov has something of an upside-down pyramid about him. He leads me over to a small table top, with a handle on each side to grip. The other members are already gathered around the remaining tables, going head-to-head with a series of loud gasps.
“We're welcoming ever more members” explains Mr. Yankov, looking at the beefy guys in the room. “Two years ago, there were just three of us”. One of the key reasons for such a jump in membership is the Internet. Thanks to the likes of Youtube, this relatively unknown sport has succeeded in reaching an increasing number of people – people like me. That's why I just can’t wait to get started.
These guys could all be stand-ins for the next “Expendables” movie, whereas my credentials might just get me a back-up role as Bambi.
But before I get to lock horns (or arms) with Mr. Yankov, I first get a little briefing. There are three arm wrestling techniques that the guys here try to sharpen every week in anticipation of the next duel:
1. The “Top Roll”: using your hand, you press as hard as possible on the opponent's fingertips. You roll over, so to speak, leaving his palm facing the ceiling. This leverage effect now makes it much harder for him to win. Perfect for those of us with big hands.
2. The “Side Pressure”: the classic variant, in which you simply push the opponent’s arm to the side. That’s more of a beer garden spectacle than what’s in store at official competitions.
3. The “Hook”: here, you turn your hand inwards while pulling the opponent's arm towards you and then pushing it down. This technique is particularly suitable if you have short arms.
Given that I’m 1.90 m in height and have long arms, the “Top Roll” is most suitable for me (even without bear-like paws). Nevertheless, there is a catch: Arm wrestling is still a sport based on physical strength. If your opponent doesn’t fully grasp such techniques, you can gain an advantage of sorts with this knowledge and compensate for a lack of raw power.
But looking around the training room, that kind of logic has no place here. These guys could all be stand-ins for the next “Expendables” movie, whereas my credentials might just get me a back-up role as Bambi. And technique won’t be much help either. Everyone here has this nailed down, in any case. So, as you can imagine, I lose a lot. My spaghetti-arms cave in against one after the other. I might as well try knocking over an advertising pillar with one hand. Let’s hope my performance is more of a show-stopper when it comes to “Masskrugstemmen”.
Matthias von Mulert is an employee of MTU – the engine manufacturer – and is, without doubt, what the Bavarians call an “man’s man”. At nearly two metres in height and blessed with a beefy stature, he was born to embrace the art of Masskrugstemmen. His record is just under two minutes. Over the last six years, the 32-year-old alpha male from Karlsfeld has won the competition four times at the traditional “Starkbierfest” event held at the “Technisches Hilfswerk Ortsverband Dachau”.
But I'm not really that impressed. When I practice in my kitchen by holding a Masskrug (traditional 1-litre beer mug), I make one minute and fifteen seconds right off the bat. I've always wondered just what talents lay dormant within me. Maybe the dark art of Masskrugstemmen is one of them.
During competitions, a flag is held at the level of the outstretched arm. As soon as the mug dips below this flag, you’re out.
When Mr. von Mulert sees me standing in front of the entrance to the Hirschgarten (beer garden, restaurant and event location), mug in hand, he grins. Like a father confronted by their little offspring standing at the door in the morning, toy briefcase in hand, proudly announcing that they’re coming to work too. So cute. Because apparently Masskrugstemmen traditionally involves a 3-litre beer mug filled with water. When full, the thing weighs 5 kg, explains Mr. von Mulert. I look at him in horror. My little nephew doesn’t even weigh that much. These Bavarians are crazy.
One of these enormous vats stands on the shelves of the Hirschgarten restaurant. The waiter kindly lends it to us for training. When I place my mug on the table next to it, it looks like the little glass of water you get for free when ordering a coffee.
Mr. von Mulert fills the 3-litre mug with water, as is traditionally the case. That's because Masskrugstemmen has its origins in the Starkbierfest – a traditional strong beer festival. The Bavarians needed something to pass the time until the first beer of the year was served. So they filled their pitchers with water and set about seeing who could hold them up the longest. And they say the Bavarians didn’t know how to have fun... I take the mug and hold it ...
Siiiiiiiiiii..... now it's slowly getting heavy ... xxxx seconds.
Seeeeeeeeevvv ... oowwwww ... en seconds.
Eigh ... rgh!
After just thirteen seconds, my arm begins shaking like a chihuahua on the underground, spilling so much water that I would actually be disqualified, as Mr. von Mulert explains. During competitions, a flag is held at the level of the outstretched arm. As soon as the mug dips below this flag, you’re out. But there are a few tricks that Mr. von Mulert is willing to reveal – only as long as I stop being so painfully formal. In Bavaria, that’s how they roll, says Mr. von Mulert – Matthias I mean.
After just thirteen seconds, my arm begins shaking like a chihuahua on the underground, spilling so much water that I would actually be disqualified, as Mr. von Mulert explains.
Don't grab the mug by the handle. Because that just leaves it hanging farther away from the body and, given the leverage effect, makes it even heavier. Better would be: Place your hand loosely between the mug's body and its handle. Don't grab it, because that simply wastes energy; allow the jug to sag into your hand.
I follow the instructions like a good boy. The mug squeezes painfully against my knuckle, but at least: I hold out for 24 seconds. I don’t really have a chance against Matthias – but it's not like champions are made over night.
I’m not going to lie, my performance in arm wrestling and Masskrugstemmen has hardly made them proud of me back home. But as the saying goes: save the best till last. That being stone lifting.
Jannik Hormel is 30 years old and, in 2015, he won the Gräfelfinger Newcomer Competition in stone lifting. Once a week, he makes his way to the “Kraftkeller”, the Forstenried power palace, and performs acts of strength on the machine. Yes, machine. When it comes to stone lifting, it’s no ordinary hunk of rock that gets lifted, like, for example, Obelix the Gaul is known for throwing high up into the air. Far rather, it's a box containing weight disks.
The base is connected to an iron bar that passes through a hole in the plates and pops out of the top. At the end of the rod, there’s a handle that I should use to pull up the plates. This exercise is similar to deadlifting in the gym. The only tiny difference being that I usually slide two lots of 5 kilos on both ends of the barbell – here, the challenge before me is to master 254 kg: the official starting weight in Bavarian stone lifting.
254 kilos is about the weight of four sheep. By that logic, you could just as easily ask: “Hey, would you mind lifting that flock of sheep over there for a moment?“
The explanation behind this crooked number lies in the sport’s history. The Munich butcher Hans Steyrer proved his strength in the 19th century by lifting a 254 kg stone for several seconds – as legend has it – with just his middle right finger. Since then, Bavaria’s men have followed suit. Only that today it’s not a stone.
Each participant has two attempts to pull the plates at least a hundred centimetres upwards. The better attempt is the one that counts. "It’s essential that you position yourself exactly above the grip. So you pull it upwards in a vertical movement. Otherwise, the angle shifts and you end up missing that vital support from your legs. That means your back ends up doing all the work. It's a lot more exhausting” says Jannik, strapping a wide belt onto me.
It looks a bit like the belt that belonged to my ex-girlfriend. But she told me it was a fashion accessory. This one is supposed to stabilise my midriff, as Jannik enlightens me. As if that would make a massive difference, I think, as I clamber onto the box.
254 kilos is about the weight of four sheep. By that logic, you could just as easily ask: “Hey, would you mind lifting that flock of sheep over there for a moment?”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Haaaang on! The belt.”
“Woops, nearly forgot!”
If that's not Batman’s belt, with all the little pockets containing anabolic steroids – suddenly I feel pessimistic. My arm still hurts from that stupid 5-kilo mug. So I crouch down, lean forward, grab the handle and try to straighten my back.
The scene reminds me a bit of the enchanted sword Excalibur, which according to legend is locked in stone in a marketplace, and only the one who is worthy can pull it out and become the new king. I'm more likely the village idiot, because the weight discs do not move a single millimetre. Before I put my back out – or even worse: my trousers tear open, I finally give up, panting heavily under the strain. After all, as a true Bavarian, I only need to know how it works – and not necessarily set a record.
One week later, I sit down with a friend in a beer garden; next to us, there are two older gentlemen in full Bavarian dress. The topic quickly surfaces as to where we come from.
“I'm a Munich boy”, I say.
“Na, du bisd koa Bayer ned” (“So you ain’t no Bavarian then, eh?”).
“Sure I am”, I protest, and challenge him to a round of Masskrugstemmen.
Let's see who the real Bavarian is then, shall we. Given that my buddy and I only have only a small “Spezi” (a mix of Fanta and Coke) in front of us, and these gentlemen have already emptied their capacious beer mugs, my opponent instead suggests “Fingerhakeln”. Another traditional sport of Bavaria. Unfortunately, I was unable to persuade a club to give me a trial lesson. The risk of injury is too high. Both opponents hook their forefingers into the other’s leather belt and try to pull them onto their side of the table. It’s not uncommon for the skin to tear and blood to flow. If no leather belt is available, you hook your middle fingers together instead.
My Bavarian opponent clamps my tender writer's finger so hard that I have to bite my lip in pain. He yanks just once – and I go flying over the beer table, landing on my stomach.
„Na, du bisd koa Bayer ned“, he says and laughs out loud.
„Ja mei …“