A Brief History of Strongman

Strength sports, as an endeavour, are simultaneously a modern, and pre-modern, sport. Accounts of men engaging in contests date back to the Chinese practice of lifting heavy stones and cauldrons in 6000 BC (Hai-sheng, 2012). Likewise, Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, among other regions, had strength cultures (Crowther, 2007). That withstanding, strength contests and feats, like Hafþór’s deadlift, trace their immediate history to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when ‘physical culture’ emerged as a new recreational movement. Defined by Michael Anton Budd as a late nineteenth and early twentieth century phenomenon concerned with the ‘ideological and commercial cultivation’ of the body, physical culture marked the beginning of mass gym cultures (Budd, 1997). Originating in Europe and spreading to the United States, physical culturists included strongmen and women who routinely competed against one another for prestige and popularity.

Tellingly these early strength competitions were marked by their disorganized and deceptive nature. When Eugen Sandow travelled to London in 1889 to face fellow strongman Samson, he insisted on using his own equipment lest Samson attempt to cheat (Chapman, 1994, 86-99). Sandow later brought fellow strongman, Arthur Saxon, to court over claims that Saxon deliberately cheated in a contest between the pair (Chapman, 1994, 100-109). Unlike other sports, which codified during the nineteenth century, strength competitions remained a largely unregulated enterprise. Strongmen and women performers were found predominately in circuses, music halls and Vaudeville theatres.

They often performed by themselves, lifted odd objects (anything from canons to bags of lime) and typically labelled themselves the strongest performer in the industry (Kent, 2012). Early strongmen and women became synonymous with the objects they could lift. Speaking in a documentary, Professor Terry Todd noted that performers chose to lift odd objects, such as horse carts or cannons, because the public had an immediate frame of reference for how heavy an object was (Rogue Fitness, 2017). Between performers, little incentive existed to challenge one another for fear of losing a claim to strength. When competitions did occur, deception was often attempted. This partly explains why Randy Roach’s history of this period is ingenuously titled Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors (Roach, 2008).

It became difficult to test whether or not a record was legitimate. In a different field Josh Boyd’s (2009) study stressed the role of utility and responsibility in sporting legitimacy. If an organization or athlete is seen to act irresponsibly in the governing of a sport, and if rules are not applied uniformly, suspicions arise. Such was the incredulity which often met feats in the early 1900s that efforts were made by the 1920s to create some form of regulated strength competitions.

Owing, in part, to the growing importance of weightlifting as an Olympic sport – which began in 1896 – federations in Britain, Europe and the United States were created around various weightlifting movements (Bonini, 2001). Unlike the strength shows found in the Music Hall or circus, such contests included specific equipment, namely barbells and/or dumbbells. These groups accurately measured equipment before competition, divided competitors into divisions, had verifiable records and used judges in their competitions.

They were modernized in the Allen Guttmann (1978) sense of the word. Although critiqued now for its determinism about what was, and was not, a sport (Guttman, 2001), Guttman’s emphasis on records, contests and standards as a pre-requisite for modern sport holds true. Such groups ensured that one strain of physical culture was formalized in the form of Olympic weightlifting and, in time, powerlifting (Todd, 2003).

Absent from such worlds was the circus performer who continued to operate in a largely peripheral role throughout this period. Included in this was the Highland Games competitions found in the Scottish sporting calendar which combined athletics and strength contests (Jarvie, 2004). Although the Highland Games came to influence the development of strongman, their largely unregulated nature and fluid governing structures mark it as a localized, rather than a national sport (Jarvie, 2004).  Despite the growth of weightlifting and powerlifting during the twentieth century, dedicated strongman shows remained the preserve of the circus. It was only in the 1970s that a strongman competition, based on odd lifts and strange objects, was held. Critical in this regard was the development of powerlifting in the 1960s.

Also important was the popularity of Superstars, an American television show produced in 1973 which pitted famous athletes and celebrities against one another in competition (Pesca, 2012). Powerlifting, which focused on the lifting of heavy weights using three specified movements, heightened discussions about who was, and who not, the strongest athlete in the United States. Testing athletes in the squat, bench press and deadlift, powerlifting was very much a modern sport defined by standardization and rules.

Where powerlifting intensified debates about strength, Superstars opened a space for new athletic spectacles on television. Previous discussions of Superstars, a television show which sought to determine the world’s best athletes, have noted its immense popularity, as well as its legacy (Pesca, 2012). Produced by ABC in the early 1970s, the program proved so successful that a series of spin-off shows were produced around the world (Pesca, 2012). The idea that a multi-faceted athletic contest could take place, and command a great deal of television interest, partly explains the development of annual strength competitions. Superstars helped normalize the concept of somewhat eccentric athletic contests. One such example was the World’s Strongest Man (henceforth WSM) contest created in 1977. It was this competition which marked the creation of strongman and strongwomen competitions.

Produced by CBS, as part of Trans-World International, the WSM sought to do for strength sports what Superstars had done for sport more generally. Inviting athletes from several different sports, the contest sought to discover the world’s strongest athlete (Todd, 2002). Critically those involved in the creation of WSM marked a hodgepodge of sporting organizers and television executives. Two of the key organizers were David Webster and Douglas Edmunds, both of whom had been involved in athletics, Highland games and physical culture for decades (Webster, 1994). This added some respectability to the event but the need for entertainment meant that their suggestions were often modified to make them palatable for television audiences (Todd, 2002). Thus, strongmen were tasked with carrying refrigerators over long distances, lifting mock stages holding several women and bending iron bars. This, more than anything else, marked the beginning of strongman and in this beginning, a tension between sport and entertainment existed.

The inaugural WSM was a commercial success and became an annual contest. From 1977 to the present day, the event has continued to be aired on television and still attempts to entertain audiences with strange sights. That commercial concerns have dominated this activity explain why, in the past, dominant competitors have been barred so as to avoid predictability, strongmen have faced off in sumo wrestling competitions and, in one-year’s contest, deadlifted heavy blocks of cheese (Webster, 1994).

The interference of television concerns into the sport’s actual competitive element is somewhat unique to strongman. Advertising has undoubtedly impinged the length of matches in the NFL, but marketing concerns have not changed the sport’s rules (Goldsberry & Rowe, 2020). Herein lies the sport’s problem. Strongman’s initial growth did not stem from a sporting federation, but rather a mishmash of athletes and advertisers. This has largely prevented the emergence of a dedicated governing body because the creation of such a group would likely limit the variability demanded by television audiences.

This tension between sport and spectacle has remained in the sport from 1977. Since the WSM’s first contest, a series of other strongman events have been created but, owing to the sport’s unregulated nature, no formal governing body exists in the same way that FIFA, for example, oversees world soccer. Returning to the issue of legitimacy, this has influenced debates about what is, or is not, an acceptable feat of strength. Regional, national and international contests exist, whose rules and standards are entirely subject to the whims of the organizers. In some instances, organizers have competed in their own events, which leads to claims of cheating (Art, 2018). Without delving into the subsequent spread of strongman contests, many of which had a short life cycle, it is worth mentioning that it was only in the early 2000s that some form of regulation came to the sport through the growth of international strongman leagues, which served as qualifier events for the WSM and the creation of the Arnold Strongman Classic (henceforth ASC).

The Arnold Strongman Classic, first held in 2002, is, alongside the WSM, one of the premier events of the strongman calendar. Part of the Arnold Sports Festival, named after its creator Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ASC takes place each year in March. Significantly the ASC is one of the few strongman competitions that has not only competed with the WSM for legitimacy, but has proven itself to be a sustainable contest. Work in extreme sports (Kim, 2010) has stressed the importance of creating standard organising bodies in the quest for legitimacy and recognition.

The ASC has provided a small, but sustained, example of why this is important in strongman. One of the points which distinguishes the ASC is its unique focus on strength above all else. This was not an accident but a deliberate move made at the contest’s inception. The ASC was created in 2002 following a meeting between Arnold Schwarzenegger, his business partner Jim Lorimer and Professors Jan and Terry Todd.

As retold by Terry Todd, the purpose of the ASC was to create a regulated test of strength which was contrasted with the WSM. As the WSM was equal parts sport and spectacle, similar in one sense to the ‘sport’s entertainment’ model found in professional wrestling (Atkinson, 2002), challenges involved lifting heavy weights for long periods of time and often over a distance. Such feats made for excellent television footage but often failed to provide a true test of strength. Rather than discovering the strongest competitor, the WSM inadvertently created a competition to uncover the strongest, and most athletic, individual (Todd, 2002).

It was a subtle difference but one the ASC exploited. Seeking to discover the strongest competitor, the ASC hosted contests which involved once off feats of strength undertaken in short and strict time limits. In this way, the ASC represented a truer form of competition for strongman competitors, one which cared more about competitiveness than television viewers. Critically, the ASC displayed a keen interest in records, and strict rules, two factors underpinning legitimacy in sport (Boyd, 2009).

Part of this stemmed from the involvement of Professor Terry and Jan Todd, as well as David Webster, formerly of the WSM. As historians of physical culture, and accomplished strength athletes in their own right, the Todds succeeded in incorporating events based on historic lifts. This explains why, at the inaugural 2002 contest athletes were challenged with the ‘Apollon Wheels’, a barbell used by French strongman Louis Uni in the late 1800s (Todd, 2002).

From rocky, and somewhat uncertain beginnings, strength contests are now an established part of the sporting calendar, providing use impressive, and bizarre, feats in equal measure. Here’s hoping it continues!