When did Strongmen Begin Using Atlas Stones?

The past few years in particular, have been a wonderful time for strongman and strongwoman fans. For me, one of the most exciting developments has been the renewed interest shown in stone lifting. As a World’s Strongest Man fan who grew up watching Kaz or Jon Pal dominate the competition, the sport has always had a special place in my heart.

Oftentimes at a World’s Strongest Man, or indeed a regional Britain or Ireland’s Strongest Man, it was the Atlas Stones or stones of strength which served to separate the champion from the runner up. Those who specialize in the stones are often those who finish near the top of the competition.

Brian Shaw, the 4 times World Strongest Man winner, was and is one such individual. Such was Shaw’s proficiency with the stones that he held the world record with the stones for several years. It took Tom Stoltman and a 602 lbs. Atlas stone to defeat Shaw’s record. As an aside, the ease with which Stoltman broke the record suggests there is more to come from him in future years.

As part of my teaching this semester, several students came to me with questions about the history of strength competitions and, in particular, the stones of strength.

Stoltman’s world record, combined with the growing interest given to strongman and strongwoman shows more generally, suggest why students are becoming increasingly interested in this space. One student (who will remain nameless!) serves as the inspiration for today’s post.

Discussing the relatively recent history of the World’s Strongest Man, the student wished to learn when and how the sport became standardized. Although strongman or strongwoman shows are different from country to country, there are common themes across contests – log presses, yokes, carries, pulls, deadlifts and, of course, stones.

How, the student wondered, could the sport have evolved from men bending bars over their heads – as was the case in the first ever 1977 contest – to the kinds of lifts undertaken by Stoltman, Shaw and others. This got me thinking about the first ever World’s Strongest Man show to incorporate the Atlas stones.

Shamefully, I simply couldn’t remember the answer. I have watched or followed every WSM contest, plenty of European and British shows and, of course, every Arnold Strongman Classic. After a certain point these shows all sort of blend in with one another, only broken up by incredible or ludicrous feats of strength.

Thus I did what all good historians do, I used Wikipedia! Thankfully the Internet’s memory is far better than my own. It was not until the 1986 World’s Strongest Man competition that the sport of strongman was introduced to the stones of strength.

So that’s the birth of the Atlas stones right? Well, yes and no. The 1986 contest was the first to include stones but they were the McGlashen Stones rather than the Atlas ones. It is a small difference admittedly, but one with a cool piece of history attached.

As Rogue Fitness’ documentaries on stone lifting in Scotland, Iceland and the Basque Country make clear, the act of lifting stones has a rather long history indeed. Across cultures and across countries stones have been used as tests of strength for predominately young men.

The McGlashen stones were modeled on the Braemar stones, one of the oldest testing stones in Scotland. At the WSM they weighed between a hundred and fifty and over three hundred pounds.They were, as the above video shows, rather entertaining for the crowd!

More important than that, the McGlashen stones proved a challenge for competitors. From their inaugural showing at the 1986 WSM, the stones became commonplace in strongman shows. It wasn’t until the 1998 games in Morocco that the sport was introduced to Atlas Stones.

So named after the Greek god Atlas, the new Atlas stones marked an intensification of the stone’s importance. The below coverage of the games shows the first Atlas stone event around the two hour mark. Note how both the weights and the heights have increased since the 1986 debut.

What is interesting to me know is seeing what new twists and turns are around the corner in this event. As Stoltman recently showed, the stones are just as relevant today as they’ve ever been.

As always … Happy Lifting!

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