The Birth of the Arnold Strongman Classic

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Earlier this year we were treated to perhaps the most exciting Arnold Strongman Classic to date. We saw Hafthor Bjornsson win the event for the second year in a row with a domineering display of power. The ‘Wheel of Pain’ from Conan the Barbarian made an appearance and it was joined by an exact replica of the famed Husafell Stone. The competition itself, and its sponsor, Rogue Fitness, spared no expense or difficulty in devising a truly remarkable show.

For those unaware of the Arnold Strongman, the competition is an annual gathering of some of the strongest athletes in the world held as part of the Arnold Classic, a multi-sporting event hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger. While the Classic itself began in 1989, largely as a bodybuilding contest, it has grown since then to include everything from Ninja Warrior to fencing. It’s this multi-sporting appeal which resulted in the inclusion of a strongman event.

Regular readers of the blog will no doubt be asking why a strongman event came to the Arnold. After all, the World’s Strongest Man contest (WSM), as detailed previously on this site, had been running since the late 1970s. Herein lies the beauty of the Arnold strongman. Whereas the WSM is often times decided by a combination of muscular strength and athletic endurance, the Arnold, as conceived by the Todds, Peter Lorimer and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is interested solely in brute force. In the WSM, a competitors’ endurance is often a limiting factor. This is especially the case in any long distance carrying events or lift for reps features. In the Arnold, the lifts are closer to one rep maxes or are done under very strict time limits. The thinking behind this is that the Arnold is a better indication of who is the strongest man while the WSM combines strength and endurance. Think of the Arnold as a test of strength alone.

Now while that is simplifying things somewhat, it provides a nice indication of the organiser’s initial motivations. So with that in mind, today’s post takes us back to 2002 and the inaugural Arnold Strongman Classic.

Why Bother?

Strongmen had been formally competing against once another since the late 1970s through the WSM. Other strength leagues, as detailed on this site, had tried and failed to replicate the success of the WSM. What did another strongman event have to offer?

In answering this question and detailing much of the history of the initial event, today’s post draws heavily from the following article written by Terry Todd, one of the Arnold’s main organisers. Terry, who is sadly no longer with us, was a powerhouse in competiting in, promoting, and researching strength cultures. He, alongside his wife Dr. Jan Todd, who herself was a renowned powerlifter met with Arnold Schwarzenegger and his organiser Peter Lorimer in early 2001. Invited out by Schwarzenegger and Lorimer to discuss the idea of bringing a strongman competition to the Arnold Classic, the Todds, whose contribution to the strength game is itself, legendary, proposed a new twist on the current proceedings.

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Deferring to Terry’s account of the meeting, he recalled telling Arnold that while he held a great deal of respect for the current WSM games he felt that ‘so many of the events had time limits of ninety seconds or even longer, the winner was often not the man who was the strongest but the man who had the best combination of strength and endurance.’ In contrast, the Arnold Strongman event would concern itself primarily with raw strength exercised over a short period of time.

Furthermore, the Arnold distinguished itself from the WSM by limiting the amount of events used to test the athletes. Whereas the WSM at that time used between eight to ten events, the Arnold would seek to use four or five tests of strength. The thinking behind this decision was twofold. First it was hoped that it would minimise the risk of injury to athletes, which in itself is a difficult thing to do considering the poundages involved. Second it would serve to preserve the men’s strength and ensure upper poundages were used.

With these goals in mind, the Todds, Schwarzenegger, Lorimer and a host of other people, including strength historians David Webster, John Fair and the legendary strongman Bill Kazmaier, set to work.

Choosing the Lifts

In choosing the events for the Arnold Strongman, the organisers were faced with two hurdles, one practical and the other symbolic. In the first instance the Arnold Strongman would take place indoors and without a great deal of free space. Additionally, the organisers wished to limit the time athletes were required to lift weights. This effectively removed the possibility of including some of the more iconic or traditional strongman events like truck pulls, heavy farmers walks etc. Incidentally the organisers circumvented this problem at the 2019 Games through Rogue Fitness’ amazing recreation of the ‘Wheel of Pain‘ from Conan the Barbarian.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the organisers were keen to distinguish the Arnold from the WSM. This meant that a very real effort was made to use lifts not commonly associated with the WSM. Given the Todds’ own extensive knowledge of the history of physical culture, this meant a trawl through the strength annals for inspiration and ideas.

To that end, the first event chosen for the Arnold was the ‘Apollon Wheels’, a bar named after the famed French strongman, Apollon. Now a regular fixture at the Arnold Classic, the Apollon Wheels date to the late 1890s when a French strongman Louis Uni (Apollon) included them in his show. The ‘Wheels’ themselves are a set of railway car wheels purchased in 1892 as a ready made barbell for Apollon’s circus performances. They weigh over 300 lbs. and, unlike modern barbells, do not rotate. This makes them a far harder thing to clean or press overhead.

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Derek Poundstone and the Apollon Wheels in 2008

Remarkably, given their name, we don’t have evidence that Apollon himself ever cleaned these weights. Prior to the Arnold Strongman, only three men had verifiably lifted them overhead. They were Charles Rigoulot, John Davis and Norbert Schemansky. This of course would change after the Games when, using a replica of the wheels, Mark Henry added himself to the list.

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Mark Henry with the Apollon Wheels, 2002

Following the Apollon Wheels, competitors were treated to a farmers’ walk with a twist. Rather than the traditional forms found in the WSM, which cover some ground, the Arnold instead went with a timber square weighing over 800 pounds to be carried up a small ramp for thirty seconds. So heavy and awkward did the timber appear that initially the organisers doubted whether or not it could be lifted. In fact, they asked Mark Henry to trial it some weeks before just to be sure. Thankfully it proved achievable but difficult. You’ll see a snippet of the timber frame below.

The third event was supposed to be a car or truck deadlift but, owing to logistical difficulties and unforeseen circumstances, resulted in a regular deadlift with straps. The addition of straps for the deadlifts showcased the organisers’ commitment to strength above all else. It also resulted in some rather enjoyable poundages being raised.

The last official event was a Hummer push. Given that Hummer had agreed to take a chance and sponsor the inaugural competition, it was perhaps fitting to end the games with a Hummer event. In this instance, competitors were required to push a Hummer truck whose tyres had been severely deflated as far as possible. For the difficulties underpinning this lift, in both its organisation and execution, I’ll defer once more to Terry Todd’s article on the Games.

Who were the lifters?

From Todd’s article, it is clear that the initial Arnold competitors marked an amazing hodgepodge of strongmen from a variety of fields. They were

Now as someone who only entered the iron game after the early 2000s, the above names mark an incredible trip down memory lane. Highlighting the diversity of competitors chosen, the inaugural Arnold Strongman welcomed renewed powerlifters, strongmen, weightlifters and WWE wrestlers. I strongly encourage you to click on each competitor’s name as their life stories are worth reading.

But How Did It Go?

Despite some small hiccups, most notably with the deadlift event, the Games were an undisputed success. Mark Henry, the powerlifter/weightlifter turned wrestler ended up dominating the events. As a small indication of Mark’s power, check out his performance on the Apollon Wheels.

Among the lifting community, the event was warmly received. It had provided a great complementary event to the WSM. It gave men like Mark Henry or Andy Bolton to compete on the strongman stage and it managed to impress Arnold Schwarzenegger enough for the Governator to include a Strongman event the next year, and the year after that.

Had the Games achieved their aim of finding the strongest man in the world? It is interesting to note however the divergences between who wins the Arnold and the WSM shown below.

List of Arnold Strongman Winners

2019 Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson
2018 Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson
2017 States Brian Shaw
2016 Žydrūnas Savickas
2015 Brian Shaw
2014 Žydrūnas Savickas
2013 Vytautas Lalas
2012 Mike Jenkins
2011 Brian Shaw
2010 Derek Poundstone
2009 Derek Poundstone
2008 Žydrūnas Savickas
2007 Žydrūnas Savickas
2006 Žydrūnas Savickas
2005 Žydrūnas Savickas
2004 Žydrūnas Savickas
2003 Žydrūnas Savickas
2002 Mark Henry

List of WSM Winners Since 2002

2018 Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson
2017 Eddie Hall
2016 Brian Shaw
2015 Brian Shaw
2014 Žydrūnas Savickas
2013 Brian Shaw
2012 Žydrūnas Savickas
2011 Brian Shaw
2010 Žydrūnas Savickas
2009 Žydrūnas Savickas
2008 Mariusz Pudzianowski
2007 Mariusz Pudzianowski
2006 Phil Pfister
2005 Mariusz Pudzianowski
2004 Vasyl Virastyuk
2003 Mariusz Pudzianowski
2002 Mariusz Pudzianowski

So there has been some overlap between the two contests but it is fascinating to note the divergence between the winners. Despite the fact that not everyone competes in both events, it seems that the Todds’ and Arnold’s desire to create an alternative outlet has paid dividends for fans like myself.

As always…Happy Lifting!

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