I love feats of strength. Admittedly that’s not the most surprising admission given the purpose of this website but it is one worth stating every now and then. It doesn’t matter if it is someone lifting a barbell or a bale of heavy. Make it heavy enough and I will watch it or, if I am feeling particularly spry, lift it.
I am also a romantic at heart and, for that reason, the strongmen and women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century have long fascinated me. These were the individuals who lifted bank vaults and cannons to show their strength. These were the people who carried heavy rocks or bent steel bars around their faces to impress audiences. They lifted members of the public, supported heavy weights across their backs and even lifted animals overhead. They were creative and inventive.
This is not to say that the modern athletes do not exhibit a similar creativity. Heck the world strongest man and woman shows, as well as the Arnold, do a great job in bringing in old school feats of strength. Rogue’s ‘Wheel of Pain‘ at the Arnold was simultaneously an engineering feat and a wonderful piece of inventiveness.
But I, like most historians, like to look back, rather than at the modern age. This is primarily because of the difficulty which faced this early wave of strength athletes. The great historian of strength, Terry Todd, once remarked that in the ‘olden times’, the general public were not familiar with dumbbells and barbells. When they saw an individual lifting hundreds of pounds on a barbell, they knew it was impressive, but they didn’t fully appreciate what it meant. They had little to no experience lifting one.
Take a bank vault, or a cannon, or a horse, on the other hand. The general public knew these things were heavy. They knew that they were hard to move or that you could only carry them a short distance. Hence many strength athletes used common objects, rather than dumbbells, barbells or kettlebells. Because each strongman or woman was an individual performer, they often had to come up with stunts that were unique to them. The more unique the stunt, the more likely they could secure a theatre for their shows.
With that in mind I turn to a wonderful illustration of ‘father of modern bodybuilding’ Eugen Sandow. Sandow was not the strongest performer of the late 1800s/early 1900s, but he was very clever in managing his public image. Eschewing competitions with others – especially after some defeats early on in his career – Sandow instead took to fantastical feats of strength like lifting animals and oversized objects.
Published in The Superman magazine – British fitness magazines which bizarrely went VERY fascist in 1933, folded that year and then re-emerged in 1934 as if nothing had happened (yes really) – the below illustration shows some of Sandow’s supposed feats. If nothing else it shows how creative people believed Sandow to be.
So I’ve rambled on here. What is your favorite feat of strength or, better yet, who do you believe is the most interesting strongman or strongwoman of the present age? Let us know in the comments below! As always… happy lifting!