During the week, Arden Cogar gets dressed in a suit and tie and goes to work as a civil trial lawyer. But when the weekend hits and it's time for the defense to rest, he puts down his briefcase, picks up a five-pound ax, and murders mountains of wood.
"That's what happens when a lawyer needs to blow off some steam," says Brad Sorgen, executive producer of the STIHL Timbersports series, the Olympics for woodsmen.
Like Cogar, just about all competitive lumberjacks make a living doing something else. The total purse of a typical event is $15,000, and the winner only gets a piece of that, so you'll find teachers, construction workers, and the occasional logger crisscrossing the country each weekend, spending time away from their families competing for the love of the rising sport.
"It's a very transient lifestyle," Sorgen says. "TSA looks down on taking chainsaws and axes on an airplane, so you have to drive."
Fortunately for Cogar, his family is usually by his side, if not competing directly against him. It's in the blood. Cogar's grandfather and great grand uncle took part in Appalachia's first organized wood-chopping event back in the 1930s, they passed the skills down to their kids, and now roughly 20 of Cogar's family members, including his wife and his two daughters, compete regularly in timbersports events.
"I watched the first two years of the STHIL series, then joined it in 1987," says Cogar, who first picked up a chainsaw for competition at 8 years old. "I have not missed a year since. Getting ready for a Timbersports event became a reason for the Cogars to come together."
Arden's cousin Matt, a three-time U.S. champion, is considered the best of the best right now. But his success comes from more than his family's history, or his sturdy 6-foot-4 frame. You need more than just natural brawn and Paul Bunyan looks to be a timbersports athlete.
"He's setting off a lot of alarms," says Adrian Flygt, a former competitor and popular timbersports commentator with a trademark lumberjack beard. "He invests his time and energy into improving himself. Whether it's in the gym, on the chopping block in West Virginia, or traveling abroad to study with the best axemen in the world, he is covering the physical and mental aspects, polishing all edges of that sphere, so you have a competitor who's almost untouchable."
Matt Cogar works part-time in the hunting section of an outdoors store in his native West Virginia. But he considers timbersports his full-time obsession and puts in the necessary time in the gym and at the chip yard to turn his body into a wood-splitting machine.
"I'm trying to take it to a more athletic level," says Cogar, who turns 30 in November, "and away from the weekend-warrior-type deal where it's just something you do as a hobby."
For years, the best lumberjacks traditionally came from Australia and New Zealand, where wood-chopping is among the most popular spectator sports. The timber is also known to be significantly harder in that part of the world, so those competitors have been steeled by their environment. "They're chopping wood that's three and four times more dense than what we have," Sorgen says. "It's like chopping a brick."
Here in the U.S., softer woods have traditionally produced softer ax swingers. But Matt Cogar is challenging that trend because of his rare blend of size, strength, and precision. He's been competing in events since 1999 when he was a 12-year-old novice.
"I've been competing for about 17 years, and it's all that repetition," Cogar says. "The more you do it, the more you find your flow, then you become more precise at what you do. I was able to be more consistent at it, and I've been able to find that rhythm to compete at."
Leg and core strength are paramount to an athlete's ability to turn, swing, and chop. But Cogar says winning and losing an event comes down to an athlete's cardio endurance, and his ability to keep chopping and swinging at the same rate without slowing down.
"I do a lot of cross-training where I'm working on strength while doing the cardio," he says. "Some events go for a minute flat, chopping away. So it's pretty important to be able to maintain your peak performance throughout the entire competition."
Strength is important in timbersports, but the closest comparison to the art of efficiently cutting up a tree might be the game of golf. While pros swinging drivers will never be confused with the massive frames of lumberjacks, golfers can crush the ball straight and far because of how precisely they strike the ball. The same techniques apply to timbersports.
"It's brute precision," Sorgen says. "When you swing an axe, you have to place it precisely into the wood. And the next time you swing, you have to hit it back in the exact same space. If you're a little under, you're wasting your chop; leave it a little over, and you're wasting wood that's uncut. But then you also need the muscle mass to bury your axe as deep as possible to get more of a chip out."
Lumberjacks don't work on what Sorgen calls "glamour muscles." There's a steady diet of kettlebells and cardio and actual wood-chopping for serious competitors who come from all walks of life. Every year, STIHL receives upwards of 10,000 applicants from prospective competitors who must prove their cut times and show previous competitive experience.
Those times are used to rank them from first to last, and the top 40 competitors are selected to participate on the tour that year. If you think you have what it takes to be a lumberjack, the process repeats every year. Just don't quit your day job.