early strongmen photographs

Russian wrestler George Hackenschmidt pulls on a rope. 1897.

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.

early strongmen photographs

Eugene Sandow poses like a Greek statue, the look of which he trained his physique to emulate. 1894.

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. 

early strongmen photographs

Eugene Sandow poses on a bicycle. 1896.

early strongmen photographs

Eugen Sandow shows off his physique in the studio. 1893.

early strongmen photographs

Strongman Eugen Sandow, considered the father of modern bodybuilding. 1900.

early strongmen photographs

Katie Sandwina gears up to break a chain over her thigh. 1895.

early strongmen photographs

A Russian strongman poses with his hands on his hips. 1900.

early strongmen photographs

A strongman shows off his back muscles in a sideways pose. 1900.

early strongmen photographs

A strongman in Russia strikes a pose. 1900.

early strongmen photographs

Lionel Strongfort, 1901. He was known for his “human bridge act,” wherein a car carrying a half-dozen passengers would drive over a plank of wood set up like a see-saw over his body.

early strongmen photographs

A strongman from Russia participates in a tug of war contest. 1900.

early strongmen photographs

A photograph of a strongman from Russia focuses on the bodybuilder’s intensely defined ab muscles. 1900.

early strongmen photographs

A strongman attempts to break a chain with his bare hands. c.1900.

early strongmen photographs

A strongman from Russia dons a skintight leotard and gold belt as he poses flexing his muscles. 1900.

early strongmen photographs

Galen Gotch trains for the Strongman World Championship In New York by being run over by a car. 1920.

early strongmen photographs

Greek boxer and strongman Just Lessis demonstrating his prowess by bending an iron bar around his neck. 1925.

early strongmen photographs

Circus strongman Stefan demonstrates his strength by towing a motorcar with his teeth through the streets of Berlin. 1925.

early strongmen photographs

Edward Reece shows his strength by supporting a troupe of four actresses while he is suspended between two chairs. 1927.

early strongmen photographs

C. Attenborrow of the Royal Horse Guards, considered to be the strongest man in the British Army, holds a comrade up in the air with one hand. 1927.

early strongmen photographs

21-year-old Swansea tailor Harry Pelta, winner of the title of the strongest man in Wales. 1935.

early strongmen photographs

Edward Reece holds up two women with his teeth. 1927.

early strongmen photographs

Lewis Clark, “the strong boy,” shows off his back muscles. 1930.

early strongmen photographs

A 14-year-old calling himself “Boy Samson” supports a 200-pound motorcycle and its rider. 1932.

early strongmen photographs

J. Rolleano bears the weight of a Citroen car running over his chest. 1932.

early strongmen photographs

J. Rolleano pulls a truck with his teeth. 1932.

early strongmen photographs

Tom Joyce, who claimed to be the strongest man in Bristol, shows his strength by having four men pull at a rope tied around his neck. 1932.

early strongmen photographs

Samson Brown, “the world’s strongest man,” lets a motorcycle run over him. 1934.

early strongmen photographs

Joe Price uses a 50-pound hammer to nail up a notice. 1934.

early strongmen photographs

A 60-year-old British soldier lifts 500 pounds of man and steel. 1941.

early strongmen photographs

London strongman George Challard allows a companion to bend a piece of iron around his neck. 1935.

early strongmen photographs

George Challard bends an iron bar with his teeth. 1935.

early strongmen photographs

Joe Smith, a blacksmith from Gloucester, picks up and balances a roadworks notice in his teeth. 1936.

early strongmen photographs

Jean Challard, who claimed to be the world’s champion steel bender and strong-man, supports the weight of a push-cart on his windpipe. He is a nephew of German entertainer and “physical culturist” Eugen Sandow. 1938.

early strongmen photographs

Strongman Gus Lasser bends an iron pipe with his mouth. 1920s.

early strongmen photographs

A strongman pulls a car with his teeth outside of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. 1921.

early strongmen photographs

Andre Reverdy demonstrates his core strength by having women jump on his mid-section from a table. 1920s.

early strongmen photographs

The world’s strongest strongman, Ivan “The Great” demonstrates his strength by holding a plank with five dancing couples on it. 1924.

early strongmen photographs

A strongman lying on his back onstage, lifting a group of men and the bench on which they sit, circa 1935.

early strongmen photographs

A strongman holds a rock on his chest while two men try to smash it with hammers, circa 1945.

early strongmen photographs

Strongman Mr. Briton balances tow cyclists and a dancer on his chest in Harry Benet’s circus at Chiswick Empire in London, England on Sept. 4, 1945.

(Photo credit: Corbis / Getty Images / Fox Photos / Hulton Archives / Library of Congress).