Numerous health problems have not held Youseff Al Fardan back from transforming his life – or earning the title of Strongest Emirati.
In addition to breaking records, he has joined forces with Britain’s former and the UAE’s current strongest man, 27-year-old Mark Boyd. In January the pair opened their new Strong Gym in Dubai. It is one of the region’s only facilities focusing on strongman workouts.
“I met Mark through mutual friends, to get personal training sessions from him,” explains Youseff. “We started training and we just clicked. During lockdown, we were talking about opening a gym. I told him I’d like to open one and surprisingly, he had already been planning to start one of his own.”
More than 100 years ago, “strongman” referred to circus-style acts who demonstrated jaw-dropping feats of strength. Over time performance has morphed into strongman-based workouts and competitions. The goal is still based on building strength, however, and those who win competitions do exactly what the title suggests: they move and lift the heaviest weights.
I met Youseff for the first time right before one of the gym’s Dynamic Strength & Conditioning classes.
At 6ft. 3in (1.90m)3 and weighing in at 140 kilograms, with long curly black hair, he certainly lives up to his title. But he is quick to assure me that Strong Gym isn’t only for professional lifters, or a certain body type.
“It’s for everyone,” Al Fardan says. “It is our community that makes us unique among other gyms in the market,” he adds.
As for the workout, instructor Ash Galal took a mix of beginners like myself through a series of the sport’s fundamental movements: tire flips, carrying sandbags and tire pulls, three of the sport’s eight key movements, including the deadlift, log press, farmers walk, giant dumbbell press and atlas stone hoist.
Despite a background in bodybuilding and CrossFit, as a first-timer, I struggled with some of the movements. But Galal’s instructions, along with encouraging shouts and clapping from the others in the class helped me grasp the more technical aspects.
We worked on each exercise until we had perfected before combining them into one larger circuit, where we rotated between the three with minimal rest. Sprints were also incorporated to complement the strength work.
Strong Gym offers a series of challenging workouts, including boxing-based Combat Conditioning and Static Strength & Conditioning, which combines static lifts with cardio and strong circuits, based on eight fundamental movements.
Strong Gym’s office is lined with rows of trophies from Mark and Youseff’s various competitions. Loud rock and rap music filters in as another grueling session begins.
Youseff emphasizes that despite its name, Strong Gym is for everyone. Modifications and adjustments can always be made so no one is left out, regardless of level of experience or physical limitations.
“Everyone can benefit from being stronger, no matter who they are,” he explains. “And there is always a solution in strongman, even if an athlete has limitations or injuries.”
Youseff would know: he has experienced more than his share of limitations. At 14, he weighed 100kg and was battling a long list of medical problems, including asthma, pre-diabetes and hormonal issues.
“I can’t even remember how many medical issues I have,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time with doctors, but this is the longest time I haven’t had to see any because of how my health has improved.”
Youseff overcame all his health problems through strongman training, which he started in 2018 when his brother invited him to a session. Initially hesitant, he was intrigued after watching professional strongmen moving serious weight.
“I started to see all these videos pop up of the strongest men in the sport, like Eddie Hall and Brian Shaw, so I was interested and decided to give it a try,” he says.
Although it was his first time and he was in poor physical condition, Youseff took to the sport immediately, which impressed his brother.
“He was shocked at the weight I was lifting, because it was weird for an untrained lifter to do what I was doing,” he said. “My first time deadlifting I was doing sets of three to four reps with 184kg and in one week I was already lifting over 200kg.”
Two years later and both physically and mentally transformed, he earned the title of strongest Emirati at the Emirates Strongest Man competition, organized by Emirates Strength, Boyd’s strongman brand.
That’s why Youseff speaks from personal experience when he says: “Don’t let your illnesses be excuses.”
His own past health challenges are what made Youseff so determined to make Strong Gym a place that caters for everyone. Although they have already had visits from some of the sport’s leading athletes, including powerlifter Larry Wheels and the 2018 World’s Strongest Man Hafthor Bjornsson, Strong Gym’s core mission is to help everyone improve their functional fitness and tackle health issues, especially obesity, which affects more than 70 percent of Emiratis by the age of 29, according to a 2019 study by the Zayed Military Hospital in Abu Dhabi.
“Of course, the top athletes of the world can come here and compete, but at the end of the day, the gym is for everyone’s health and fitness,” he says. “It caters exactly to those that want to improve.”
Youseff works with many clients who are morbidly obese, weighing upwards of 200kg.
“Most of them are actually very good at the overhead press,” he explains, “because they have more stability due to their larger base. This also keeps them motivated, as they are thriving in challenging workouts, instead of doing a cardio session at a gym, where they would be outperformed by others. Here, they are keeping up with, if not surpassing others.”
Strongman’s compound movements actually help athletes burn more calories, as you must use your whole body to perform a lift rather than breaking up workouts into traditional bodybuilding or cardio.
“Everything uses almost every muscle in your body here,” says Youseff. “The caloric demand on your body is way higher, so it’s a very easy way to lose weight fast. If you aren’t eating at a surplus, you will lose weight – and the good kind of weight, because you are still stimulating your muscles. You will maintain and might even get stronger while cutting out fat.”
Strong Gym’s average member isn’t a competitor. Most are ordinary nine-to-five workers.
“Every time you come to train, there’s something new you can do,” says Youssef. “If you’re not feeling great one day and can’t move, we have 12 different grip implements so you can work exclusively on your grip. If you’re feeling great, you can try maxing out your deadlift. If you have shoulder pain, you can transfer to a neutral bar. There’s nearly limitless things you can do here.”
Youseff has lived the gym’s motto, emblazoned in yellow and black on the wall: “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” In six years, he has gone from doctors telling him he would never ever be able to do an overhead press because of his ligaments to recently lifting 130kg.
Strong Gym can even cater to many people with disabilities, he says.
“There is a disabled strongman deadlift record which is 550 kilos done while seated. That’s more than the world record in normal deadlifts. There’s also a guy called the ‘One-Armed Monster.’ He pressed 70 or 80 kilos over his head with one hand, I believe. There’s also the ‘One-Legged Monster.’ He has one leg and trains strongman. So, if you have the will, you can do it.”
One strongman golden rule is to “respect the weight.” Strongman is fun but it can be dangerous if not done properly.
“It’s a risky sport that needs a lot of concentration and attention,” explains Youseff. “You have a lot of weight over your head or in your hands. I can deadlift 300kg but I’m not going to treat even 100 kilos like it weighs nothing, because if I drop it on my legs, I’m going to injure myself. You must respect the weight.”
Strong Gym is in Dubai, Al Qouz 3 on 8th street. They are open from 6am to 10pm on Sunday to Thursday and 7am to 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Strong circuit classes and gym memberships start at 100 Dhs and 450 Dhs respectively. Visit Instagram or the Strong Gym website for more information.
Issa handles multimedia at livehealthy.ae and got involved in fitness and healthy living after graduating high school. The sedentary lifestyle and junk food diet of his teen years had taken a toll on his wellbeing. Now, he makes sure to put his health first. Issa earned his bachelor’s in marketing and has since found his passion in media and arts.