Deep furrows of concentration crease Dan Cenidoza's forehead.
The Perry Hall native assumes his stance. His left leg forward, he braces an inch-and-a-half-thick White Pages against his muscular thigh. Staring intently at the book, he forcefully grips and then completely tears through all 1,300 pages.
And this, with what he once considered his weakest feature — his hands.
In short order, the phone book becomes a pile of scrap paper on the desk in his new studio called Art and Strength at 4115 Wholesale Club Drive — the chunky remnants a testament to his powerful grip strength.
The crowd-pleasing feat is just one skill in Cenidoza's bag of tricks as a professional strongman. Named Maryland's Strongest Man in 2007, he also bends steel by hand to create unique sculptures he calls Iron Bonsai due to their similarity to the dwarf Japanese trees that people artfully prune as a hobby.
There's a sideshow-like quality to his performances and the 33-year-old fitness instructor mines that element of curiosity for all its worth.
"It's like seeing a purple cow," he said of the local buzz about his unique exhibitions of super-strength. "If you saw a purple cow on your way home from work, you'd tell everyone. This is the same kind of thing — it's remarkable and it's worth talking about."
Word-of-mouth tales often leads to the referrals that have long been Cenidoza's bread-and-butter as a strength-and-conditioning specialist. He's been a personal trainer for seven years, and also works with senior citizens.
Now that he's operating Art and Strength from a storefront off Belair Road, he hopes to assume a higher profile than he's had at his home studio.The grand opening of his new space, which boasts a steel-bending workshop and displays of Iron Bonsai along with the weightlifting equipment was slated to take place Oct. 15.
The son of a lifelong martial-arts enthusiast — Jimmy Cenidoza, 63, who still lives in Perry Hall — trainer son, Dan, has a third trick up his sleeve that he says sets him apart. He's one of only a few instructors certified to teach people to use kettlebells, a system of spherical cast-iron weights that resemble "cannonballs with handles," he said.
"Kettlebells are a forgotten art used by old-time Russian strongmen," he said.
They fell out of popularity until the start of the 21st century, when they were reintroduced into mainstream workouts and people realized they were "fun and efficient," he said.
"They address strength and cardio training" for a full fitness workout, he explained.
Passion for strength training
Cenidoza wasn't always fit. Two years after he graduated from Essex Community College in 1999 with a two-year degree in computer-aided drafting and design, he took a drafting job and began attending Towson University part-time.
While he'd exercised sporadically before, he says it didn't take long before he "started going crazy" sitting for long periods in the office and began gaining weight from inactivity.
"Bar food and beer parties aren't good for your health, either," he said with a laugh.
So, he started bodybuilding with purely aesthetic goals in mind, working out in the basement of his family's home to add muscle and lose fat. But it was when he tried his hand at strength training that he discovered his true passion.
"I began training as a strongman, but with no hopes or dreams," he recalled. "I just did it for fun."
But after his success in regional competitions he got hooked. He began appearing at fundraising events in 2008 and decided to add "performing strongman" to his résumé. His 2007 title was awarded by North American Strongman Society, he said.
These different avenues of interest have converged to send him returning to the same philosophical well, he said.
"I like to say that lack of exercise is the true leading cause of death," because it can bring on obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, among other serious health concerns, he said.
He also takes issue with minimal requirements for physical education classes in high school and college.
He left his drafting job in 2005 for a position as a senior fitness specialist at Oak Crest, a senior living community in Parkville. Then in 2006 he earned his degree in exercise science from Towson. Along the way, in 2004, he and his wife, Jessica, were married. The couple now have two young children with a third expected in February.
Also in 2004, he started BeMore training,running it from the basement of the couple's Perry Hall townhouse.
Laurie Bender, a move-in coordinator at Oakcrest, met Cenidoza at work and decided to give kettlebells a try after getting bored at the gym. Two years later, there's no going back to old ways, she says.
"After the first class I wasn't sure how I was going to get to my car," she said, remembering her sore muscles afterward. "It was a flashback to my days playing volleyball at Goucher when (the team) couldn't walk down the stairs after practice. It was a great workout."
She started with a 15-pound kettlebell and has graduated to a 35-pound weight, she said.
"People think it's not that hard, but I've never done anything where I could stand in one place and have sweat pouring down my back by the time I finished," she said. "Dan is such a talented and inspiring teacher that I'll keep taking his classes as long as he's around."
Kettlebells are key
Bender's experience is typical when motivation and determination are combined, Cenidoza said.
"My ideal client is someone who's serious about strength training," he said.
And that includes his seniors, whom he enjoys teaching despite initial apprehension about their frailty, a hesitancy that quickly evaporated, he noted.
"They take the workouts seriously because they realize their health is being stripped away," he said. "The phrase 'Use it or lose it' is much more real to them. With kettlebells, you see small successes every day. Why would you want to stop?"
Cenidoza sums up his philosophy on how physical fitness carries over to a person's mental and spiritual outlook, which he drills home in motivational speeches: "Exercise helps everyone to be more."