Arnold Obscura: J.L. Holdsworth in Mighty Mitts Grip Contest

  • Photos by Meghan Ralston
From the February 28, 2013 edition

In a sense, J.L. Holdsworth has been training for the Mighty Mitts Grip Contest all his life. He just needed some blown-out knees and a herniated disc to point his hands in the right direction.

“I’ve always had pretty good grip,” said Holdsworth, owner and head trainer at The Spot Athletics. “Growing up, we had a wood stove, so I had to chop wood every day.”

Spending your entire adult life in the weight room doesn’t hurt either: “You have to pick up heavy stuff. Your grip gets good.”

But Holdsworth didn’t consider competing in Mighty Mitts until last year. His attention was always elsewhere.

In high school, he played football and wrestled. A college football career at Wayne State University followed, but a series of knee injuries took him off the gridiron and into the exercise science program. His degree landed him a strength training job at Wayne State, then at the University of Kentucky, where he studied coaching. There, he took up powerlifting and quickly turned heads, earning an invite to train at legendary Columbus gym Westside Barbell.

At Westside, Holdsworth set a world record in the bench press for his weight class and ranked fourth overall worldwide, but his most harrowing injury sidelined him from yet another sport. During a 984-pound squat, an injury that had been building reached its breaking point.

“It was like somebody hit me in the back with a bat,” Holdsworth said. “My legs just went numb. It ended up being a herniated disc.”

Holdsworth opted against surgery and pursued alternative healing methods that nursed him back to full strength and vastly increased his training knowledge. He spent most of the past couple years getting his training business off the ground and put competition on the back burner.

Last year, he was slimming down and toying with jiu jitsu when a Mighty Mitts competitor named Andrew Durniat saw video of Holdsworth pulling 585 pounds with an overhand deadlift, an especially difficult grip. Durniat suggested Holdsworth enter an international grip contest; he placed eighth in the world. Another successful meet in December convinced Holdsworth to focus on grip training for the Arnold.

Friday and Saturday, he’ll face the world’s toughest hands in 10 knuckle-busting events, including the Blob Lift, Hand Grenade Lift and 45 LB Plate Pinch. The feats of strength are unimaginable, but it’s really a game of details, Holdsworth said: “That’s the cool thing about grip. Literally, you move your hand a half-inch and it makes all the difference in the world.”