When was the first time you were exposed to a strongman or woman? Or, perhaps better put, when was the first time you were left speechless at a feat of strength? For my nieces and nephews, the answer appears to be the Marvel franchise and its various characters. For me, it was the grainy footage of Vasily Alekseyev. How times change!
In 1971 Vasily set a world record in the press with a 507 lbs. lift. He executed the lift at the same meet that Belgian weightlifter Serge Redding pressed 502.6 lbs. overhead. I was seven when this clip first appeared on my television. At the time I had no idea who Vasily was, and even less about Redding. Both names are now embedded in my memory but that is a different story.
Exposure to Strength
Today’s post was precipitated by a conversation with a nephew who mentioned that he wanted to be as fast as the Flash and stronger than the Hulk. While obviously superheroes have long been physical and moral role models for children, it set me thinking about the first time I discovered real strength, and the first time I wanted to be strong. That answer leads us to Vasily.
I was seven and staying with grandparents. We were sitting, watching television, when one of those generic ‘sporting year’ programmes came on. You know the ones. In the year 1994, Manchester United etc. etc. This programme was focusing on great Olympians from years gone by and, in the opening credits was Vasily, pressing a gargantuan barbell overhead. Despite my grandparents best efforts, I managed to watch the rest of the programme until the grainy footage you see below was filling up our television.
The programme went on to discuss Vasily’s eighty world records, two gold medals and mythical stature as one of the Soviet Union’s greatest ever weightlifters. I didn’t remember anything of his biography until many years later when I began to study the history of strength. The video footage remained, however, emblazoned in my brain.
It is ironic, in a sense, that this website often neglects the history of Olympic weightlifting. This is part due to the existence of excellent websites elsewhere (see here and here) and my own experience within the sport. You see when I first entered the gym, I too, wanted to be an Olympic weightlifter. A lack of mobility, ongoing shoulder pain and a paucity of fast twitch muscles meant that while I do the lifts in training, I never dove deeply into the sport. Strength (as defined by the Big 3) and bodybuilding were more welcoming bedfellows.
Nevertheless, I religiously watch weightlifting at the Olympics, keep an eye on World Championships and devour training materials. All because of Vasily.
Who is Your Vasily?
So obviously I failed to honor Vasily’s legacy by moving away from his sport. I wonder, though, who inspired you to train? Also how did the media landscape of your childhood impact that impression? Moving from my nephew to my students, I am struck by conversations from younger generations about who motivated them to begin training. More often than not, the answer has been a social media personality whose name I have never encountered – although in saying that I recently met an 18 year old inspired by Zyzz which was a very odd throwback.
Now before you say it, this isn’t ‘old man yells at cloud’ or ‘back in my day’ ranting. Instead its a stream of consciousness post about how our media influences our role models, especially in the strength community. In the late 1990s, aged 7, I was first shown footage of Vasily. For this reason I still consider my military press as my real test of strength. When I began bodybuilding style training in the mid-2000s, people spoke of Arnold and Franco with as much regularity as they did then stars Ronnie Coleman or Jay Cutler. My theory now as I age (don’t worry not ranting!), is that the media landscape was much more narrow.
In the next 5 minutes I can seen thousands of videos of unknown men and women pushing heavy weights, displaying amazing physiques or engaging in feats of strength. And that is just the amateurs. I can spend a whole day watching a strongman train, a powerlifter eat or a bodybuilder pose. So when students, or the younger generation names an unknown influencer as their role model, it’s likely not a sign the world is burning (although environmentally…) but rather that celebrity burns much quicker than in previous generations. Nowadays people have access to far more role models than in the past.
Some are problematic, of course, but the diversity is likely a cause for good. I’ll stick with Vasily but I’m fascinated to see how the next generation first comes into contact with the awe and admiration I felt in front of that television.