Originally published on October 20, 2015
Oldtime strongmen are trending. There are websites and products cashing in on the nostalgia and sense of manliness created by these legendary men of strength. But as with any legend, we have to wonder how much is fiction. Were the oldtime strongmen was strong as they are made out to be? Did they possess secrets of muscular strength that we have lost? Should we emulate the way they trained?
The Old Time Strongman was NOT as Strong as Today’s Athletes
Although this may anger, or disillusion many of those who have been fascinated by the many websites promoting old-time practices, the oldtime strongmen were NOT anywhere near as strong as even an average modern strongman! Yes, I know you have seen images that seem to suggest almost super-human strength, but you must realize that “physical culture” in those days of Saxon, Apollo, Milo, etc. was at times a physical reality while at other times a stage act replete with what amounts to what seemed like great feats of super-human strength but were actually impressive but nowhere near super-human. Much of it was deception. Even the famous back lift, where lifters hoisted huge platforms laden with people, hay bales, or bricks, is not as impressive as it seems. And, in this case, the amount of weight claimed was often exaggerated. To this day, the official record for the lift is disputed. Even the great Paul Anderson held a record for this lift, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, which has since been unlisted, as it could not be adequately backed up. Weights of over 5000lbs were claimed and even today, using much more stable lifting platforms, the all-time USAWA (United States All-Round Weightlifting Association) record is 3050lbs lifted by Steve Schmidt (as of this writing).
Another great example is the bent press, as in the image above. Images like these are often passed around as evidence of the superior methods of the old-timers. And look how skinny he is! Wiry strength, right! It is an impressive feat, but it also a bit of smoke-and-mirrors. It may surprise you to know that the same guy may not be able to actually take that same amount of weight to his shoulders and lift it overhead with two hands!
In his book Ideal Physical Culture and the Truth about the Strong Man, William Bankier, aka Apollo, makes a surprising admission:
It is astonishing how ignorant people are now-a-days concerning feats of strength which, if they took the trouble to enquire into, would seem very simple after all. To read the announcements on the play bills you would imagine that the Strong Man had the strength of half-a-dozen ordinary men. Whereas the real truth is that the strongest man known – if it could be decided who that is – has not more than the strength of two ordinary men in good health. That is to say, a strong man may lift a bar-bell weighing 240 lbs. (which is an extraordinary weight, and is about the heaviest that any strong man performs with) from the ground to arm’s-length above the head, with both hands; and you can take two ordinary men and after a few minutes practice in getting them both to lift at the same moment, they will elevate the same weight. To lift a weight with two hands is considered the hardest way and they greatest test of a man’s strength. There are strong men who can raise with one hand from the shoulder to arm’s length above the head, weights of from 200 to 230 lbs., but if you ask these same men to lift it with both hands it is ten-to-one they could not do it, proving that the one handed lift is accomplished with great practice, and is simply done with leverage of the body. This mode of lifting is not allowed in competition. It is always taken advantage of by Stage Athletes, as it is attractive, and sounds very well to say that the performer can raise such and such a weight with one hand, the public thinking naturally that he could lift double the weight with two hands, the fact being that he probably could not lift it at all with both hands.
No, that is not a typo. He said what you think he said. Today, we (the public) still look at things the same way. What he means by great practice and leverage of the body is that the one arm bent lift is more about balancing the weight with the body bent way to the side and the arm straightening, but not pressing, and then using a lateral extension of the body while carefully guiding the weight so that it ends up in an overhead position. In this way, the weight is never actually pressed by the arm. It is more finagled then lifted in any conventional sense of the word. It is strong. It is impressive. But it is not super-human or even extraordinary. Today’s junior strongman without his pro card can lift MUCH MUCH more overhead for many repetitions. This same type of exercise is promoted today as a type of core training, usually using kettlebells. To move a great deal of weight this way is an accomplishment. But if we lead people to believe that we could actually lift double the amount overhead with two hands, we are being deceptive. And deception was part of the show in the old strongman acts. Some of the acts were more than deceptive, they were outright fakery.
Modern strongman champions, such as Mariusz Pudzianowskie, Jón Páll Sigmarsson, Magnús Ver Magnússon, Žydrūnas Savickas, Brian Shaw, Eddie Hall, Phil Pfister, Svend Karlsen, and the reigning champ, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, would have wiped the floor with the legends of old, in both sheer brute strength and, yes, athleticism as it applies to feats of strength.
How to Fake It as a Strongman?
Here I have included an old article by Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright called How to Pose as a Strong Man, published in the January 1899 edition of Pearson’s Magazine (see link below). It is basically a set of seven parlor tricks as outlined by The Bartitsu Society’s website.
Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science, Strength Training for Sport, by Kraemer, has an interesting and informative “brief history of strength training and basic principles and concepts” as its first chapter. The era of the strongmen mentions how many of the myths surrounding strength, to this day, come from the old-time strongmen, including the age-old myth that strength training will make you “slow and ponderous.”