What is Strength?


So often in today’s world of World’s Strongest Man, Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting, the assumption that strength is defined by maximum weight lifted goes unchallenged. It is as if we accept unquestioningly that the person who can lift 500 pounds once is stronger than the those who can ‘only’ lift 400 pounds for reps.

It’s important to remember that strength was and is, a highly contested issue. Today we are going to look at a 20th century European strongman’s views on what strength really means.

So who is this mystery strongman and why should we care?

None other than Arthur Saxon.

saxon‘The Iron Master’

Nicknamed the ‘Iron Master’ in recognition of his strength exploits, Arthur Saxon was one of the strongest men in Europe prior to the First World War. Over the course of his short career the German helped popularize the bent press life, lifted over 440 pounds in the two hands anyhow lift, and was part of the famous Saxon trio of strongmen.

What’s more, Saxon seldom trained using barbells, preferring instead the use of kettlebells, dumbbells and ring weights. A circus strongman by trade, Saxon was known for his proficiency with one hand lifts such as the bent press. In a time when Eugen Sandow was wowing audiences across America, Saxon was touring Europe with his brothers displaying feats of remarkable athleticism.

What made Saxon relatively unique for his era was that he stressed endurance over maximum strength, something that was no doubt influenced by his career as a circus performer.

Saxon wasn’t shy about his beliefs either.

In 1905 Saxon wrote in The Development of Physical Power that

“The usual idea about strength–I mean the idea of the average reader of health magazines–is generally a wrong one. Although a weightlifter (and weightlifters are supposed to be very narrow-minded in their views on this subject), I hope that I, personally, am broad-minded enough to recognize that a man does not prove himself an all-round strong man just because he is able to lift a heavy weight, especially when the weight is lifted once only.”

Saxon had an unusual view of strength

A tough man to please, Saxon defined ‘real strength’ quite differently from his strength training compatriots

“Genuine strength should include not only momentary strength, as proved by the ability to lift a heavy weight once, but also the far more valuable kind of strength known as strength for endurance. This means the ability, if you are a cyclist, to jump on your machine and ride 100 miles at any time without undue fatigue; if a wrestler, to wrestle a hard bout for half an hour with a good man without a rest, yet without becoming exhausted and reaching the limit of your strength.”

Saxon’s definition of genuine strength was very far reaching and even extended outside the athletic world

“Apart from sports, enduring strength means that the business man shall stand, without a break-down, business cares and worries, that he shall be capable, when necessary, of working morning, afternoon and night with unflagging energy, holding tightly in his grasp the reins of business, retaining all the while a clear mind and untiring energy, both of body and brain.”

What’s more, Saxon claimed stamina aided longevity

For those seeking the best means for a long life, Saxon was unequivocal

“In the latter case, where a man raises, once only, a heavy weight, all that he proves himself to possess is muscular control and great contractile power, but this does not guarantee sound internal organs, nor does it prove that a man would come out well in an endurance test.

The man capable of long feats of endurance should live longest, and such a man will find his powers of more avail in every-day life than the man who has sacrificed vital strength for an extra few eighths of an inch of muscle, and perhaps the ability to raise a few pounds more in a certain position in a weightlifting test.”


Big Muscles didn’t impress Saxon

Strength Competitions

Saxon had equally interesting views about how strength competitions should be measured:

“I think the above will cause some of my critics, perhaps, to admit that after all I have broad-minded views on this important question, i.e., “What is real strength?” therefore, if a weightlifting competition were held, I should like to see quite a number of lifts attempted, as is the method on the Continent, and to see each man go on with the lifting without too many opportunities for rest, so that we should not only ascertain who is possessed of greatest momentary strength but also who is possessed of the enduring strength as well, and it is a combination of these two which makes real strength.”

At present, only certain events in the Strongman competitions would satisfy Saxon’s rigid testing process.

The Importance of Proportion

Saxon wasn’t a complete renegade in terms of his opinions however and did agree with other physical culturists about the importance of a well balanced physique

“Neither do I consider a man a really strong man if he is in certain parts developed out of proportion to others. If a man has tremendous arms and chest and weak legs then he is only half a strong man.

If he should have strong legs and arms and weak lungs or a weak heart, then again he is by no means entitled to be called a strong man, and some day the inevitable breakdown will occur which will cause carping critics, always ready to attack Physical Culture, to point to such a broken-down athlete and say: “Here is a proof of the harm done by Physical Culture and weightlifting,” the cause really being that this man has not properly understood Physical Culture, and has developed one part at the expense of another.

So you see that if a thorough examination could be made of all so-called “strong men” before the public, we should probably find that only one in twenty is really deserving of the name of “strong man.”

So whilst you may not agree with Saxon’s views, it’s interesting to see an alternative view of strength being put forward.

So if you’re used to training in singles or doubles, throw in a set of 20 rep squats every now and then in honour of the Iron Master.

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