In the late 19th century and early 20th century, strongmen more often exhibited their incredible power as circus performers and entertainers than as competitive athletes.
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. Later on, part of this culture branched out into bodybuilding.
In the past, strongmen would perform various feats of strength such as the bent press (not to be confused with the bench press, which did not exist at the time), supporting large amounts of weight held overhead at arm’s length, steel bending, chain breaking, etc.
Large amounts of wrist, hand, and tendon strength were required for these feats, as well as prodigious oblique strength. Other tricks included bending iron bars, hand balancing, lifting strange objects (barrels, anvils, anchors, people), and doing all kinds of other crazy things.
Some of the most famous strongmen stood out from the rest by performing odd or brand new feats of strength, acts they claimed only they could complete, that they would challenge other performers.
Louis Cyr, a French-Canadian strongman performer born in Quebec, claimed to have lifted a horse off the ground with his initial strongman performance. And while touring with the Ringling Bros. Circus, the 5’10” 230 lbs. Cyr held a platform of 18 men on his back.
Born in France, Pierre Gasnier eventually became known as the “French Hercules.” His claim to fame was breaking an iron chain across his chest by expanding his ribcage.
Gasnier, who was only 5’3” and 143 lbs., eventually went on to tour with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, performing other feats as well such as ripping a deck of cards in half and lifting a 260 lbs barbell over his head.
Joe Holtum: Joe Holtum’s greatest trick was the ‘cannonball catch’. In case you haven’t figured out what that involved, he basically would stand opposite a cannon and catch the ball with his bare hands absorbing the impact into his chest.
This is an incredible example of reflexive, negative strength as well as reactions and technique. The first time he tried this trick he lost several fingers.
Angus MacAskill: MacAskill’s most impressive feats include lifting an anchor weighing 2,800lbs, as well as carrying barrels weighing 300lbs+ each two at a time (one under each arm). He was sometimes called ‘MacAskill the giant’ seeing as he weighed 508lbs at 7ft 4inches.
Arthur Saxon: Arthur Saxon (who was later joined by his brothers to become the ‘Saxon brothers’), was best known for performing the ‘bent press’. This was a move in which he would lift a barbell above his head with one arm from a bent over position. His official record stands at 371lbs, though unofficial reports claim he got all the way up to 409lbs.
What makes this feat impressive is that the record still hasn’t been officially broken, despite being set in the 19th Century (though Eugen Sandow claims to have equaled it).
Thomas Topham: Thomas Topham not only lifted 224lbs above his head with only his little fingers, but also managed to lift 1,386lbs of barrels filled with water from a rope while on a suspended platform.
In the late 20th century the term strongman evolved to describe one who competes in strength athletics – a more modern eclectic strength competition in which competitors display their raw functional strength through exercises such as lifting rocks, toting refrigerators, pulling trains, towing an eighteen-wheel truck behind them, etc.
(Photo credit: Corbis / Getty Images / Fox Photos / Hulton Archives / Library of Congress).