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December 30, 2021 4 Comments
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Not infrequently in discussions of these distinct but interrelated pursuits, one will encounter misused terminology. For example, the terms “weightlifting” and “weightlifters” will often be used when “weight training” and “weight trainees” would be the correct terms. (I’ve done a lot of weight training in the course of my long life, but I have never, ever done any weightlifting in the strict sense of the word.) However, this confusion is understandable: Everyone who exercises is trying to build up his or her body. Everyone who uses weighted resistance is in the loose sense of the word a “weight lifter.” And, we are all, in some sense, trying to increase strength and power.
The large, muscular, strong man has always been an admired figure throughout recorded history. Over four thousand years ago the epic of Gilgamesh, who was “ruling like a wild bull over Uruk” and “strong as the host of heaven,” enthralled audiences in ancient Mesopotamia as he and his sidekick the beast-man Enkidu slew the monster Humbaba and after the death of Enkidu went on an unsuccessful quest to find the secret of everlasting life.
Athletics, particularly wrestling, were popular in ancient Egypt, and it was always customary for the pharaohs and other notables to be portrayed with strong, athletic physiques in their statues--broad-shouldered, deep-chested, trim-waisted and with muscular legs. Ties were especially close between Egypt of the 26th Dynasty (7th and 6th centuries B.C.E.) and Greece, and Egyptian statuary heavily influenced Greek sculpture depicting athletes and others.
Greek mythology had such legendary strongman-heroes as Hercules and Theseus, even as the Hebrews had Samson. Homer’s heroes effortlessly lobbed mighty boulders that “three or four of the men who now are” could not lift!
Leaving myth and legend for more tangible evidence of strongman activity, we find inscribed stones: At Olympia a block of red sandstone was discovered that weighed 315 pounds and had an inscription “Bybon, son of Pholas, lifted me overhead with one hand.” The stone has a handhold cut out of it, making it a sort of makeshift kettlebell. Another, much more massive, stone weighing a little over a half-ton bears the inscription, “Eumastus, the son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground.”
The most famous of the historical Greek strongmen would have to be Milo of Croton (sixth century BCE). He had been a student of Pythagoras and heroically led his city’s forces to victory in a war with the neighboring community of Sybaris. He was six times wrestling champion at the Olympic games and a victor at other major Greek athletic festivals. He is supposed to have pioneered progressive resistance training by carrying a bull calf on his shoulders as a youth, and when he grew to manhood he could still carry the full-grown bull on his shoulders. This seems like an unlikely story: Aside from the fact that a youngster’s strength could not keep pace with the weight gains of the bull, bulls are notoriously irascible animals that would not take kindly to being manhandled onto someone’s shoulders.
The story goes that Milo met his demise when he discovered a stump or log that woodcutters had been trying unsuccessfully to split. Enjoying a challenge, he removed the wedges and tried to pull the stump apart with his bare hands. Unfortunately, the stump snapped shut and trapped Milo’s hand. Unable to extricate it, he was devoured by a pack of wolves. Other versions state that a lion got him. If so, Milo would have been far from his native haunts in southern Italy.
Another famous Greek strongman would have been Polydamas of Skotoussa. His story is told by Pausanias, who wrote a tourist’s guide to Greece in the Second Century. Polydamas was memorialized by an elevated statue at Olympia, where he had won the pankration ( “a terrible sport,” as the poet Pindar calls it, similar to modern MMA) in 408. According to Pausanias, Polydamas was the biggest and tallest of all humans after the race of heroes. Wishing to emulate Hercules’ killing the Nemean lion, he is supposed to have killed a large lion bare-handed on the slopes of Mt. Olympus. (As a matter of interest, Eugen Sandow wrestled a lion in San Francisco in 1894. However, that lion was muzzled and garbed in heavy leather mittens. Skeptical observers remarked that the lion looked old, decrepit and drugged!) Hearing of Polydamas’ prowess, the Persian king Darius II invited him to Persia where he fought three members of Darius’ elite force called “the Immortals” simultaneously and killed them all. Darius II was the grandson of Xerxes, who had invaded Greece in 481. Xerxes had told the exiled Spartan king Demaratus that there were men among his Immortals who boasted they could fight three Greeks at once. Polydamas evidently reversed the procedure. Among his other feats,he is also supposed to have restrained a wild bull with such force that when the animal broke free, it left his hoof in his hand. He also was able to hold back a chariot while the team was being furiously lashed by the driver.
Polydamas met his end when he and a group of friends were picnicking in a cavern when the roof started to cave in. Polydamas volunteered to try to hold up the roof while his friends escaped. They did, but the cave collapsed on Polydamas. Could this have been the inspiration for the song “Big John” that was popular in the days of my youth?
Related: The Greek God Body Workout Plan
About the only notable “strongman” I can find in Roman history was Maximinus the Thracian [Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus "Thrax" ("the Thracian"; c. 173 – 238)]. A youth of mixed barbarian ancestry, his size and athletic prowess caught the attention of the martial emperor Septimius Severus, who enrolled him in his imperial bodyguard. Maximinus rose rapidly in the Roman army and eventually achieved high rank. When there was a military insurrection against Septimius’ (supposed) grandson Alexander, a mild and kindly young man although something of a “mama’s boy,” Maximinus was proclaimed emperor. He proved to be a harsh, cruel and unpopular ruler. Rebellion broke out against him, and when it appeared to be succeeding, he and his son were murdered by his troops.
Of his size and prowess, the Historia Augusta records that he stood 8’2” (modern measurements), could drag wagons with his hands or loaded carts by himself. If he punched a horse, he would loosen its teeth; if he kicked it, he would break its legs; he could also crumble tufa and split young trees. People variously called him “Milo of Croton,” “Hercules” or “Antaeus” (a giant defeated by Hercules). The Historia Augusta was written long after the time of Maximinus and is not a very reliable source, but Maximinus’ contemporary Herodian of Antioch confirms that he was a man of extraordinary size and strength.
Much of the Medieval period seems to have been more an era of weaponcraft than bare-handed strength although the ability to cleave an adversary from “chin to chine” with a broadsword would obviously require considerable strength. Perhaps Beowulf would be the nearest figure to a legendary strongman. After all, he had been able to swim more than five days in stormy seas while wearing chain mail and toting a sword with which he killed nine sea-monsters. This was before he won his greatest renown by pitting his strength against the invulnerable man-eating monster Grendel, whom he fatally injured by tearing his arm off! In his old age, Beowulf was killed fighting a fire-breathing dragon. Obviously, all this is as much in the realm of myth as the adventures of Gilgamesh.
Similar to Beowulf but an actual historical figure would be Grettir the Strong (aka Grettir the Outlaw), who lived in Iceland in the early decades of the 11th century. He was at once a heroic and a tragic figure, outlawed for events for which he bore no moral culpability. Some of his feats a modern sensibility would dismiss, such as defeating Nordic zombies (properly called draugur) on two separate occasions or killing a pair of mountain giants in an adventure similar to (and perhaps inspired by) the story of Beowulf’s destruction of Grendel and his dam. However, his other adventures do not involve the mythical: As a post-adolescent, using both guile and combative prowess, he wiped out a gang of 12 berserker Vikings; he prevailed over a Norwegian bear (essentially the same animal as a grizzly) in a bare-handed struggle (his toughest challenge, he said) and always remained undefeated in armed combats, often against heavy odds.
Forced into exile on a remote island in the north of Iceland, he was done to death by heathen sorcery, his saga tells us.
More germane to our interests, Grettir left mementos of his strength around Iceland in the form of massive stones that he lifted and are still pointed to with pride by Icelanders today. Stone lifting has probably always been practiced by men wishing to test and display their strength, but it is particularly common in regions where boulders have been deposited by glaciation during the Ice Age. Thus, stone lifting has been especially popular in Iceland and Scotland. There are many famous lifting stones in both countries. Rogue Fitness has produced a couple of interesting documentaries on this: “Stoneland” for Scotland, “Fullsterkur” for Iceland. These can be viewed on Rogue’s website. It is noteworthy that Iceland, with its tiny population, has produced some dominant figures in the sport of strongman--Jon Pall Sigmarsson, Magnus Ver Magnusson and Hafthor Bjornsson, to name the most notable. The 2021 World’s Strongest Man competition was recently won by Tom Stoltman of Scotland. The event that clinched his victory was the Atlas Stones...food for thought.
E. Ferdinand Lemaire in his text Indian Clubs and How to Use Them published in 1889 includes an appendix entitled Strength and Strong Men that catalogs a number of strong men and their feats from antiquity down to his time, the latest “strongman” being none other than Abraham Lincoln. Many of the feats catalogued therein seem the stuff of legend, more worthy of such fictitious characters as Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill than actual historical personages. A few examples: “Salvius, of Rome could walk up a ladder carrying 200 pounds on his shoulders, 200 pounds in his hands, and 200 pounds fastened to his feet.” “Athanatus could run around the arena carrying 500 pounds on his shoulders and 500 pounds fastened to his feet.” “A man named Eckenburg could lift a gun weighing 2,500 pounds.” “A Belgian giant could stand up under two tons.” There is much more of the same. Unless some of our present-day champions in the strength sports can match some of these feats, I would have to remain highly skeptical!
I discuss the early evolution of exercise weights in the modern period in my August 5, 2020 post in this blog entitled “Fitness Miscellany.” Men were evidently exercising with “dumb bells” in the early 18th century. Although it is uncertain what these “dumb bells” were, the most probable conjecture seems to be that they were bell-shaped weights more akin to modern kettlebells than what we call “dumbbells” today.
The beginnings of modern “physical culture” as we know it today can be said to have commenced around the beginning of the 19th century. This is unsurprising: Many people were being forced by the conditions of the industrial revolution to forgo the more salubrious conditions of a rural lifestyle with hard physical work in the outdoors, fresh air and fresh, home-grown food. Instead, to survive, they were being forced to work long hours in hellish factories or (at best) spend interminable periods hunched over desks in counting houses. Most urban dwellers had to reside in overcrowded, unsanitary slums. This physical deterioration became a matter of national security: Weak, undernourished, unhealthy young men obviously did not make the best soldiers. This problem remained for most of the 19th century and into the 20th century.
One of the first individuals to address these issues was a Swede named Pehr Henrik Ling (1776-1839). Something of a polymath, he developed a system of stretching and self-resistance exercises he called “medical gymnastistics” but which commonly came to be called “Swedish drill.” Although athletes and other people had probably performed some exercises of this type for centuries, he was perhaps the first to really systematize them, and so modern callisthenics came into being.
Around the time Pehr Henrik Ling passed from the scene, Indian clubs had started to come into vogue in the West. (I treat this topic in more detail in my post for March 15, 2020 on this blog.) As used in India, the original Indian clubs were ponderous affairs swung over the shoulder in a very limited range of motion. In the West, the clubs were soon made much lighter and were swung over a much wider range of motions. Demonstrations of club swinging were popular spectator events. These included endurance competitions, a record being set by Tom Burrow, an Australian who swung a pair of three-pound clubs non-stop for an amazing 107 hours and five minutes. As with any area of human endeavor, club swinging exhibitions attracted their share of phonies. The aforementioned E.F. Lemaire mentions how one fraudster had had a pair of huge clubs made from lightweight cork wood and probably had them marked “90” or “100 pounds” even though they barely weighed three pounds. The clubs remained very popular into the early decades of the 20th century and then faded into obscurity only to enjoy a modest revival in recent years. It has been plausibly speculated that the immense influence of Eugen Sandow created a fashion for more massive musculature that could not be achieved with the clubs.
As the century progressed, large commercial gymnasia were opened in major cities. Dumbbells, Indian clubs and gymnastic rings and benches were standard equipment. Barbells were invented around 1850 and became more common after 1870. Kettlebells first saw wide usage in the 1880s. Although ostensibly derived from Russian agricultural weights, they were really popularized by German physical trainers.
The second half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century were the golden age of the strongmen. They were a standard attraction at circuses, at county fair sideshows and in music halls and vaudeville theaters. Since audiences were not very familiar with dumbbells and barbells, they frequently lifted familiar objects like massive dinner tables (complete with seated diners!), horses, anvils, cannons and whatnot, as well as breaking chains and leather straps by flexing their arms or expanding their chests. The strongest of the strongmen of that era was in all probability the massive French Canadian Louis Cyr. He stood about 5’8” and weighed about 325 pounds. Strong and massive he was, if not very shapely. However, other showman-strongmen did have handsome, muscular physiques and made a point of displaying them in tights or leopard-skin singlets to the crowd as part of their acts. As a matter of interest, a circus strongman figures, albeit offstage, in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger”--not one of Conan Doyle’s more inspired efforts!
Out of this 19th century show-biz milieu emerged two men who were in all probability the most influential in creating the modern enthusiasm for muscle and strength. These were Ludwig Durlacher, who adopted the stage name of “Professor Attila,” and his pupil and protege Friedrich Mueller, who on the advice of his mentor changed his name “Eugen Sandow” (more dramatic than plain “Fred Miller”). Sandow, of course, went on to become the most famous muscleman/strongman of his era.
The less well-known Professor Attila was a fascinating character in his own right. Born in 1844, he was a talented pianist and fluent in five languages. He had begun his stage career as a song-and-dance man, but he came under the influence of an Italian professional strongman named Felice Napoli, who helped mould him into a strongman. Although Durlacher/Attila was not a large man, standing only 5’4”, he flourished in this role and eventually opened a gym in Brussels in the mid-1880s. He was certainly ahead of his time, when women were customarily regarded as frail and feeble creatures, by encouraging strenuous physical exercise for women as well as men. At one point in his show-biz career, he had a sidekick who went by the stage-name of “Valerie the Female Gladiator.” Unfortunately, I could find no further information about Valerie the Female Gladiator. Information about all but a very few of these old-time strongwomen is scarce, but they were around in some numbers, and their existence should be noted.
Attila is credited with a number of advances in exercise equipment, including the invention of weight-adjustable barbells, both those using shot-loaded hollow globes and the later, modern, plate-loaded variety. However, the historicity of this is murky and subject to controversy.
In any event, after a few years, Attila opened a gym in London. It was a major success, and many of Britain’s social elite, including members of the Royal Family, flocked to be trained by the “professor.” It was during this period that a promising young gymnast from Koenigsberg, the aforementioned Friedrich Mueller, came to his attention, Attila invited him to come and train under him, and so The Great Sandow came into being.
Sandow had it all: Strikingly handsome, enormously strong, with a physique embodying the perfection of classical and Renaissance sculpture, and charisma to burn! Part of his act was to appear coated in marble dust to resemble statuary and then imitate the poses of famous sculptures, all the while moving his muscles in time to music. It is said that women in the audience would frequently swoon at the spectacle!
At the time Sandow was making his debut in London, the two reigning strongmen were one Charles “Samson” Sampson and his partner “Cyclops” (Franz Bienkowski). They were very different physical types. Samson Sampson had a lean, sinewy physique while Cyclops had a massive, beefy build. (Lean, sinewy men are often deceptively strong, I have found.) In that era, it was customary for performing strongmen to issue challenges to the audience, typically with monetary prizes for anyone who could match or surpass their feats. Late in 1889, Sandow trounced Cyclops and proceeded to take on Samson Sampson a week later. The contest attracted great attention. There was a sell-out crowd of 10,000 people. When Sandow arrived, he found the hall’s doors locked--whether to limit the crowd or as a subterfuge on behalf of Samson Sampson is uncertain. Sandow solved the problem by smashing the doors open for a dramatic entry. The two contestants were a study in contrasts, Sandow arrived wearing the proper garb of a gentleman of that era, including a frock coat. He stripped down to modest athletic attire while Samson Sampson was wearing a get-up similar to Batman’s a half-century later--embroidered tights and a voluminous hooded cape. Sandow proceeded to match or surpass all Samson Sampson’s feats and then proceeded to produce a 280-pound dumbbell that he bent pressed, then lay on the stage floor holding the weight above him and performed the equivalent of a Turkish get-up. Samson Sampson thereupon fled the stage, and so Sandow became the king of muscle and strength--an eminence he was to enjoy for many years.
Both Sandow and Attila capitalized on their fame by marketing exercise gear and courses that were quite similar. Although both were products of heavy resistance training, their courses involved a great number of exercises and repetitions utilizing 5-pound dumbbells. Sandow’s were spring-loaded. Squeezing them together presumably increased tension and resistance. Both men also sold chest expanders. When I was a stripling, about 30 years after Sandow’s demise, I can recall buying a spring-loaded chest expander. On the box was a picture of the great man in a heroic pose and the bold inscription “Sandow--The Greatest Strength Builder of All Time.” That was the first time I had heard of him.
Sandow eventually sued Atilla although I have not been able to find out the cause or outcome of this litigation. In any event, Attila decided to migrate to the United States and open a gym that would serve New York’s large German community. He opened his gym on Times Square, and it became a magnet for aspiring physical culturists. Among his more eminent students would be strongmen Warren Lincoln Travis, Lionel Strongfort, Rolandow and others, as well as barbell manufacturer Alan Calvert. His most famous pupil would have to be the first “scientific” heavyweight boxing champion of the world “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. After Atilla’s passing in 1924, the gym was taken over by Siegmund Klein. Depending on the source, he was either Attila’s son-in-law already, or he married Miss Atilla shortly after taking over the gym. (Yes, she did go by “Miss Atilla”!) In any event, Sig Klein became a universally respected figure in the realm of strength and physique training until his demise in 1987.
In 1896 the Olympic Games were revived and held in Athens, and weight lifting was one of the original sports. There were seven competitors and two lifts--one-handed (similar to the modern snatch) and two-handed (essentially a clean and jerk). The one-handed event was won by Launceston Elliot of Great Britain with a 71 kg. lift with Viggo Jensen of Denmark taking second. The two-handed lift was a tie between the two men at 111.5 kg., with Jensen being awarded first place for better form. The 1896 Olympics marked a milestone in that strength competition began to move away from the tawdry world of vaudeville and music halls into the much-revered world of amateur sport, “the best and soundest thing in England,” as Sherlock Holmes characterized it in “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter.” Weightlifting did not appear in the 1900 Olympics, reappeared in 1904 and did not resurface until 1920. Since then, the sport has always been a part of the Olympics although its future as an Olympic sport looks cloudy.
For about a decade “The Great Sandow” ruled as king of muscle and strength. Then a new challenger arose in the person of Arthur Saxon, the strongest of three brothers (real last name: Hennig) that comprised the Saxon Trio, who unsurprisingly hailed from the Kingdom of Saxony, one of the constituent states of the recently organized German Empire (the “Second Reich”). Saxon was an amazing character. He was not a huge man: He stood 5’10” and weighed 200 pounds. He must have burned an enormous number of calories in training, for he consumed gargantuan quantities of food, flushed down by gallons of beer and no small quantity of schnapps, yet his physique remained trim and muscular. Some of his feats of strength remain unmatched to this day, and remember, these were performed many years before the coming of steroids, growth hormones and other performance enhancing drugs. His specialty was the bent press, and his record of 371 pounds remains the heaviest weight raised overhead with one hand (although if more of today’s strongmen practiced this lift, it might well be surpassed).
In any event, Saxon began issuing challenges from the stage to Sandow. These culminated in a showdown between the brash youth (who was not even 20 at the time) and the Great Man in Sheffield, England, on February 26, 1898. Saxon performed a variety of mighty feats of strength that Sandow refused to even try to match (perhaps in hopes of wearing down his younger adversary before the climactic and decisive bent press contest). In the latter, Saxon bent pressed 269 pounds with ease. After five tries Sandow was able to get the weight above his body, but he couldn’t stand erect with it. The consensus of all was that Saxon had decisively defeated Sandow!
Saxon thereupon began advertising himself as “the Man who Beat Sandow.” This was obviously displeasing to Sandow. Worse yet, it was costing him money, as he was losing show-business gigs, having ceased to be the top strongman. He therefore did something very modern: He sued Saxon. In a court case that seems to have been a travesty of Britain’s much-vaunted system of justice he prevailed. Saxon was ordered to stop proclaiming himself the victor over Sandow and had to pay the Prussian 25 pounds in damages (then a substantial sum: You could buy a pretty nice medium-grade double-barreled shotgun for that amount in those days).
About the same time Saxon gained a measure of vindication: The great old-time Scottish Highland athlete and strongman Donald Dinnie found the reports of Saxon’s feats to be literally incredible. Dinnie, best remembered today for the famous “Dinnie stones” (a pair of massive lifting stones), vehemently denounced Saxon as a lying fraud. Saxon thereupon traveled to Scotland and demonstrated his lifting prowess using Dinnie’s own weights to avoid any suspicion of fraud. Dinnie was instantly converted from being Saxon’s most vehement detractor into his most fervent supporter!
On the evening of September 14, 1901, a crowd of 15,000 people packed the Royal Albert Hall in London for “The Great Competition,” the culmination of a three-year project conceived by Sandow. Bodybuilding competitions of a sort had existed in Hellenistic Greece, and minor physique contests had occurred in Britain for about a decade before the Great Competition, but this was the first major bodybuilding event in modern history. Over the previous three years, thousands of hopeful contestants had entered local competitions. Now the field had been winnowed down to 60 finalists. The top three finishers would receive, respectively, solid gold, silver, and bronze statuettes of Sandow. There were also cash prizes. (Sources seem confused and inconsistent about the amounts.) The proceeds were to go to the aid of soldiers wounded in the Boer War, which was winding to a close. The judges were Sir Charles Law, a noted sculptor, and Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle. (He hadn’t been knighted yet, but he had been a pupil of Sandow for some years.) In the event of a disagreement between the two judges, Sandow would act as the tie breaker. After various preliminaries, including a musical tribute by the band of the Irish Guards to recently assassinated U.S president William McKinley and exhibitions of fencing and wrestling, the finalists assembled on stage to display their physiques. Sandow’s criteria were:
Equality or Balance of Development
The Condition and Tone of Tissues
Condition of the Skin
The winner turned out to be one William “Billy” Murray. Billy had previously distinguished himself as an all-around athlete, and some skeptics maintained he owed his fine physique to his athletic pursuits rather than “Sandow exercises,” as they were commonly called. However, he weighed a very muscular 189 pounds at a height of 5’8”--and a man is unlikely to build a physique like that chasing a ball around, then or now!
Billy parlayed his victory into a career in show business, touring Britain putting on muscle and strength shows, often with “Roman gladiator” themes (presumably without the gore!). When the First World War broke out, Billy, like most patriotic young Britons, rushed to the colours. The reward for his patriotism was being badly disabled in a gas attack. He survived, although somewhat broken in health, but was able to continue a career in theatrical management and lived into his 70s.
Ironically, Billy’s solid-gold statuette, after which the modern Mr. Olympia trophy is modelled, proved on examination many years later to be a fake: It was not solid gold, merely gold-plated. This doesn’t speak well of the integrity of The Great Sandow!
If you believe in karma or other forms of cosmic retribution, you will be pleased to learn that after Sandow’s unsportsmanlike dealings with Arthur Saxon and his fobbing off a phony trophy on Billy Murray, he got his comeuppance a short time later at the hands, strange to say, of an 18-year-old girl (a nice Jewish girl, no less). Her name was Catherine “Katie” Brumbach, and if anyone ever had hereditary advantages, it was Katie. Her father was a circus strongman who stood 6’6”, weighed 260 pounds and had a 56-inch chest, while her mother sported 15-inch biceps and also performed feats of strength. Katie’s height is variously reported at 5’9” or 6’1.” She had a massive, muscular body, yet it was curvaceous and feminine in appearance, and her face was quite pretty. She was a natural for show business.
As previously mentioned, it was customary in strongman acts to issue a challenge to any men in the audience to equal or surpass the performer’s feats of strength, and this strongwoman did the same. One evening, while she was performing in New York, who should rise to meet her challenge but The Great Sandow himself. For a time he matched her lift for lift, but in the end he could not match her 300-pound press, and she emerged the victor.
After her victory, she changed her stage name to “Sandwina.” Whether this was in tribute to the great man or it was derisive seems uncertain. She went on to a lengthy career on stage and in circuses. She married an acrobat considerably smaller than herself. He thought he could defeat her in a wrestling match. He couldn’t and got pinned, but they promptly fell in love--a curious beginning to a romance! She would frequently lift her husband overhead and otherwise use him as a living prop in their stage shows. They had two sons. One had a career as an actor. The other, Ted, weighed 50 pounds when he was two years old and was known as “superbaby.” Superbaby grew up to box as a heavyweight, calling himself “Ted Sandwina.” Between 1926 and 1933, he compiled a record of 48-31-6. He retired after losing his last 16 fights in a row--prudent of him, since he lived on to be 91. His most notable opponents were “Two Ton” Tony Galento and future heavyweight champ Primo Carnera, who later grappled with Steve Reeves in one of the Hercules movies.
Sandwina and her husband performed with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus until she was 60 and retired to open a bar and grill in Queens. She died in 1952 at the age of 68. She was by far the most famous strongwoman of her era. The stories of these little-known early-day strongwomen should make a fruitful field of investigation for students of physical culture.
At the end of 1903, an event similar to Sandow’s Great Competition was held in New York City. This was the brainchild of none other than Bernarr Macfadden. Now there was an “American original” if anyone was! He was, in varying degrees, sage, prophet, savant, business genius, crank, crackpot and egomaniac. (Example: He changed his name from the more prosaic “Bernard” to “Bernarr” because he thought it sounded more like the roar of a lion!) Among his positive attributes were his tireless advocacy of fresh, natural foods, avoidance of processed foods (He abhorred white flour and white sugar, for example.), and lots of vigorous exercise. Through outdoor living, hard farm work and exercise, he had transformed himself from a sickly boy into a strong, muscular man. He profoundly distrusted the medical profession and preferred to effect his own cures. This was more justifiable in the late 19th century, when he came of age and when many “doctors” were quacks and charlatans or at best haphazardly educated, than in his later years. He was also very, very interested in sex, but that need not concern us here. He loved to keep himself in the public eye, and I remember him well from the days of my boyhood. My family always regarded him as a risible figure. He died in 1955 at the age of 87--in those days a very great old age.
He had founded a magazine entitled Physical Culture in 1898 to propagate his ideas of health and exercise. It formed the basis of a publishing empire that brought him great wealth and endured for many years after his death. The announcement of his competition brought an enthusiastic response from both men and women. In an effort to comply with the standards of the day, the women were to compete in skin-tight, white bodysuits while the men wore more conventional shorts. Nonetheless, Macfadden was later charged with obscenity over the female contestants’ attire. The competition lasted from December 28 to January 2, 1904. The women’s winner, Emma Newkirk, was an early-day California beach girl from Santa Monica, who was subsequently featured prominently in Physical Culture magazine. The men’s winner was a sometime Harvard athlete named Alfred Jennings, who certainly had an imposing, athletic, muscular physique. Shortly thereafter, he changed his name to “Al Treloar.” I have speculated that he may have done so to avoid confusion with another Al Jennings, an Oklahoma attorney turned (inept) train-robber and an incorrigible publicity hound who had recently been pardoned by Theodore Roosevelt. Jennings (the would-be train robber) had the temerity to run for governor of Oklahoma some years later and ended up as a consultant in Hollywood. Jennings/Treloar was hired as director of training at the posh Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1907 and remained in that post until 1949. The Los Angeles Athletic Club is still very much in existence and as posh as ever, I am informed.
McFadden’s competition was the first major bodybuilding competition in the USA. However, several decades were to pass before it became a regularly practiced sport.
The sport of wrestling has always been closely interrelated to the realm of muscle and strength, and it may be well to pay tribute to a couple of notables in this field. One would be George Hackenschmidt, “The Russian Lion.” (Actually, he wasn’t Russian at all: His father was Baltic German, his mother Estonian and Swedish.) He had a massively muscled physique that could compare favorably with any of the strongmen and musclemen of the day. In addition to being one of the top wrestlers of his time, his contributions to physical culture include popularizing the bench press and inventing the “hack squat,” in which the bar is held at arm’s length behind the legs. In later years, he became respected as a philosopher of considerable profundity and died in 1968 at the age of 90.
Another famous wrestler/strongman would be an Indian Muslim Ghulam Baksh Butt (1878-1960), best known as “The Great Gama.” His height is variously given as anywhere from 5’7” to 5’9”, his weight from 200 to 250. In any event, he was a massive man of enormous physical power. His training mostly consisted of bodyweight work, consisting of several thousand reps each of Indian-style pushups and squats (more demanding than their occidental counterparts) daily. He also used the gar nal (a heavy, doughnut-shaped stone weight worn around the neck) and in all probability used such traditional Indian exercise gear as joris and mugdars (giant, extra-heavy versions of Indian clubs) as well as the gada mace (progenitor of today’s macebell).
After defeating the leading wrestlers of India, he travelled to Europe and challenged the top wrestlers of the West (Europe and North America). Men he beat there included some leading American grapplers like “Doc” Roller and Frank Gotch as well as the great Polish wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko. Hackenschmidt prudently avoided a showdown with Gama. In all, Gama wrestled for 50 years and never tasted defeat although he did have a few draws. He was famous for his incredible strength. Opponents compared grappling with him to struggling with “a wild animal” or a “tiger.” In Baroda, he is supposed to have lifted a 1,200 kg (2,645-pound) stone to chest height and carried it a considerable distance although this sounds hard to believe. In light of exploits like Gama’s, it is surprising that Indo-Persian and other Asian systems of physical culture were not taken more seriously until comparatively recent years. Gama lived into his early 80s, albeit in poor health. He had lost most of his wealth during the partition of India in 1947. To his credit, he did much to protect Hindus from his fellow Muslims during the horrific sectarian violence that accompanied the partition.
Back in the United States, a young man named Alan Calvert became fascinated with the subject of strength. As it happened, his family owned a foundry, and in 1902 he started the Milo Bar-bell [sic] Company, one of the first companies of its kind in the world. He became a close collaborator with both Professor Attila and George Hackenschmidt, and these two men assisted Calvert in devising a course of barbell and dumbbell exercises, many of which remain standards to this day. Milo was probably the first company in the world to manufacture plate-loading barbells and dumbbells, possibly at the instigation of Attila. Calvert also started a magazine entitled Strength in 1904. Unfortunately, shortages of iron occasioned by the heavy production demands of World War I forced Calvert to sell the Milo-Bar-bell Company in 1918. In 1932, it was acquired by Bob Hoffman of York,
Pennsylvania. Hoffman was to become a leading figure in the iron game for the next half century, and the company has endured to this day as the York Barbell Company.
In 1921 and 1922, Bernarr Macfadden staged successive contests for the “World’s Most Handsome Man” and the “World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” Both times they were won by a young immigrant from Calabria named Angelo Siciliano. He had already enjoyed some success displaying his fine physique as a model for artists and sculptors. Macfadden then decided not to hold any more contests of this sort because he concluded that Angelo would simply win them all. Angelo changed his name to “Charles Atlas,” and his comic-book advertisements for his mail-order muscle-building course made his name familiar to generations of Americans.
This course consisted of bodyweight and isometric/isotonic exercises. Somewhat similar courses were offered by George F. Jowett, Earle Liederman, “Professor” Henry Titus and perhaps others. Like the earlier courses offered by Attila and Sandow, with their five-pound dumbbells, these either used no apparatus or minimal gear like lightweight dumbbells. Of course, these programs were much more marketable and profitable than anything that would involve serious amounts of weight!
Several of the leading lights of the iron game passed from the scene during this period: Arthur Saxon died of tuberculosis in 1921, age 43. Attila went in 1924 at the then-ripe old age of 79, while his pupil Sandow checked out in the following year at the not-so-ripe age of 56. Sandow’s death is something of a mystery. Ostensibly, it was the result of a cerebral aneurism incurred by heaving a stuck car onto terra firma a few years earlier. I find that one hard to believe. I once performed a similar feat when I was about 60 with no ill effects, and I was never nearly as strong as Sandow! Other investigators believe it was more likely the result of what we used to call a “social disease.” What is certain is that he did not leave a grieving family behind him. His wife and daughter refused to allow any sort of burial marker on his grave, and so The Great Sandow reposed in an unmarked grave for many years until a great-grandson placed a suitably massive monolith on the spot simply inscribed with the name “Sandow.”
During the early and mid-1920s, there was an effort to organize and systematize the sport of weightlifting in the United States and Canada. A group called the “American Continental Weightlifting Association” was formed. There was a movement against the bent press, until then popular in strength competitions, on the grounds that its performance was more a matter of technique and know-how than a true test of strength. Some of the same arguments were mustered during the rise of powerlifting as opposed to Olympic-style weightlifting 35 to 40 years later.
In 1928, the Olympic lifts were standardized as the clean and press, the snatch and the clean and jerk. These remained in effect until the clean and press was abolished in 1972, and only the latter two movements have been practiced in the sport.
An interesting figure from the second and third decades of the 20th century would be the English weightlifter and muscleman Edward Aston. He is credited with the invention of “barbell clips”--a sort of clamp or collar that made plate-loading barbells and dumbbells much more practical. Of special interest to followers of this blog is his invention of a device called the “Anti-Barbell,” essentially a barbell loaded on one end only. His theory was that the asymmetrical load forced the body to work harder and encouraged the increase of muscular strength and size. The few photos of him show him performing conventional barbell exercises with the Anti-Barbell, which looks very like the contemporary ShoulderRok adjustable macebell. It is known that the French experimented with one-ended barbells as far back as the 1870s. It is not very well known that during the era that the British dominated the subcontinent of India, the French had a number of colonial establishments there as well. Were the French--and Aston as well--influenced by Indian practices of physical culture with the gada mace? In one photo of Aston, he is holding the Anti-Barbell as if he were about to perform a macebell swing with it!
Even in Depression times, Bob Hoffman prospered with the York Barbell Company. He also published Strength & Health magazine. His passion was weightlifting, and he assembled a team of weightlifters whom he subsidized by working for him at the barbell company. This may have been a violation of the amateur ideal, but Hoffman got away with it for many years. Even in the 1930s, bodybuilding and weightlifting were not clearly differentiated. For example, John Carl Grimek, one of the York employees, competed as a weightlifter at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and went on to become the greatest physique man of his day, winning the first and second “Mr. America” contests in 1940 and 1941, the “Mr. Universe” contest in 1948 and the AAU “Mr. USA” in 1949, defeating most of the other top bodybuilders along the way. For many years, he edited Muscular Development, the second magazine started by Bob Hoffman.
In the mid-1930s, a development took place in Germany that to this day has cast a long shadow over the iron game. This was the synthesizing of androgenic-anabolic steroids. Originally intended for burn victims, cancer survivors and others who needed to regain muscle size and strength, they were soon used and abused by bodybuilders, weightlifters, wrestlers, football players and other athletes in sports that demand size and strength.
I recently read that the World Anti-Doping Agency, which polices such matters in the realm of sport, had found that 46 percent of all doping violations occurred in three sports: bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting. I have also read that because of the prevalence of drug abuse, the International Olympic Committee may drop weightlifting from the list of Olympic sports. I had previously read that because steroid abuse is so common in the sport, powerlifting will never be approved as an Olympic sport.
When steroid abuse became rife in the realm of bodybuilding may be open to question. On some Internet fora, it is claimed that most of the older “greats” of the game were on “gear” or “juice” after the introduction of steroids. One can find long and doleful lists of bodybuilders who died young, presumably from the effects of steroids, human growth hormones and performance-enhancing drugs. Nonetheless, when I checked out a number of the top men from the days of my youth and young manhood, most of them lived to either reasonable or great old ages: John Carl Grimek 88, Clancy Ross 84, Jules Bacon 89, Leroy Colbert 82, Steve Reeves 74, Reg Park 79, Serge Nubret 73, Larry Scott 75, Sergio Oliva 71, Vince Gironda 82, Jack Lalanne 95. I am glad to report that the great Bill Pearl recently celebrated his 91st birthday. (I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with him at his gym in Pasadena in the mid-70s.)
I would make the observation that from the late 1930s on, competition-level physiques do seem to be qualitatively different from the Billy Murrays, the Al Treloars, even the Eugen Sandows and Charles Atlases of a few decades earlier, and this difference has become far more marked in recent years. Make of it what you will.
For a time it appeared that Bob Hoffman was set to dominate the iron game for many years. He was a power in the Amateur Athletic Union, and he had his barbell factory and his stable of York weightlifters, many or most of whom were also top-class physique men. However, his most serious competition was to arise from an unexpected quarter: In the late 1930s, two very young Canadian brothers in Montreal started a little muscle magazine in Montreal entitled Your Physique. Their names were Joe and Ben Weider.
Despite their youth, the Weiders proved to be shrewd businessmen. During the war years, the nascent rivalry between Hoffman and the Weiders seems to have amounted merely to simmering suspicion. Late in 1946, it burst into open warfare. The Weiders were planning to hold a bodybuilding competition when at the last minute the Canadian Amateur Athletic Union, under the influence of Hoffman, refused to sanction it. On the spot, Joe Weider proclaimed the existence of a new organization to sanction it--the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB), and the rest, as they say, is history!
Hoffman’s first love was weightlifting, and bodybuilding was secondary and subordinate. On the other hand, Joe Weider, who was the public face of the Weider organization, had little apparent interest in the strength sports, and concentrated on bodybuilding. This was a shrewd move on his part. Weightlifting is a very demanding sport. I have heard it said that it demands every sort of athletic ability except great endurance: strength (obviously!), speed, timing, balance, flexibility and coordination. Even many men who are quite strong cannot make good weight lifters. On the other hand, every able-bodied person can perform bodybuilding exercises and usually achieve satisfying results. Moreover, most people are more interested in looking good than in being able to put 300 pounds overhead. Alan Calvert had figured that out long before either Hoffman or Weider got into the game.
Both Hoffman and Weider were both very domineering, aggressive men and not very well liked in their respective sports. (Empire builders are rarely nice, easygoing guys!) Both were in and out of trouble with the government over hyped-up claims made for their respective vitamins and supplements. Weider was also accused of rigging bodybuilding contests for his favorites. Obviously, judging a bodybuilding competition is much more subjective than a weightlifting match.
It is said that Hoffman espoused a training philosophy of “train for strength and size will follow,” while Weider’s position was “train for size and strength will follow.” There is probably some merit in both positions, except that weight gains without commensurate increases in strength are obviously undesirable for a competitive strength athlete (weightlifter or powerlifter). Weider in particular made grandiose claims, styling himself “The Trainer of Champions” and “The Master Blaster.” He devised training regimens consisting of “super sets” and “giant sets,” during which you “bombed and blitzed” your muscles into hypertrophy. (Arthur Jones, whom we’ll meet later on, remarked that many of these routines would literally kill an adult gorilla!) Hoffman’s claims and training methodologies were somewhat more conservative and less flamboyant. For this reason, I have heard him acclaimed recently as a pioneer of “functional strength.” (I have never been entirely clear about the distinction between “functional” strength and just plain old strength.)
To the credit of both Hoffman and Weider, they stressed that muscle and strength were gained through hard training, mostly with conventional free weights (barbells and dumbbells), which they marketed aggressively. You were not going to build a Mr. America physique swinging five-pound dumbbells! In the postwar era, gyms were springing up in profusion, and many of them were stocked by either Hoffman or Weider although there were local foundries that often furnished similar products. An unfortunate consequence of the emphasis on free weights and bodybuilding was that some very useful pieces of old-time fitness gear-- most noticeably the kettlebell, the Indian club and the medicine ball--fell into disuse, only to be re-discovered by fitness enthusiasts a couple of generations later.
One source of the animosity between Hoffman and Weider was that early on the Weiders put out some magazines that were seemingly targeted to a gay readership. Like most men of his generation, Hoffman was extremely homophobic, and some pretty scurrilous invective against the Weiders appeared in Hoffman’s magazines. Ironically, Hoffman was a rather repellent sexual braggart, boasting in a national magazine about how he kept two mistresses simultaneously, among other things.
Some men felt that the sports of weightlifting and bodybuilding should be complementary since the rugged, “manly” sport of weightlifting counterbalanced the implicit homoeroticism of having almost-naked men flexing and posing their magnificent shaven and oiled bodies before an audience. Interestingly, I first heard this from Bob Hise II, a longtime weightlifting coach and otherwise a prominent figure in the sport. He had no use for Bob Hoffman but was a friend and ally of Joe Weider.
On a personal note, I met both men back in the 1970’s. I had a very pleasant conversation with Bob Hoffman at a strength event (can’t remember whether it was weightlifting or powerlifting) at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium. Bob Hise II introduced me to Joe Weider at a bodybuilding competition in Harbor City, and I found him affable and gracious.
Under the tutelage of Bob Hoffman, American weightlifters dominated the sport in the early years after World War II. Of course, American prosperity and the fact that we had been unscathed by the war no doubt helped mightily. At the 1948 Olympics, American lifters won five gold medals, two silver and one bronze. In 1952 the figures were four gold, two silver. In 1956 Americans bounced back with five gold medals, two silver and one bronze. In 1960 the Americans slipped a bit, with but a single gold medal, four silvers and a lone bronze. Thereafter America ceased to be a major force in the sport, with American men garnering only five medals in the 15 games that have ensued. Some would attribute this to dissatisfaction with the overbearing ways of Bob Hoffman. I suspect the growing power of the Soviet and other Eastern Bloc sports machines may have had more to do with this decline. Competition from other sports, especially the “easier” sport of powerlifting, also probably siphoned off a good deal of potential talent. In many ways this is a pity, since I consider weightlifters to be among the finest athletes out there. I recently learned that the sport is enjoying a modest revival in the USA. One wonders if the popularity of “Oly lifts” in Crossfit may have helped spark this. However, the very real possibility of weightlifting’s being dropped as an Olympic sport may put a damper on this revival.
The postwar era was a golden age for bodybuilding. When men “went to the gym” or tried to “get in shape,” they customarily practiced bodybuilding exercises, either with free weights or very commonly with exercise machines like the Universal that simulated free-weight training. Serious “iron men” tended to look down on Universal machines and similar devices. Bodybuilder Vic Tanny owned a major chain of bodybuilding gyms, and I can remember his television ads as if it were yesterday, “Overweight or underweight, the results Vic Tanny gives you are amazing and permanent. Membership costs less than a pack of cigarettes a day. Join today!” Of course, a pack of cigarettes cost less than a quarter back then.
Throughout this post, I have customarily referred to “men.” For many years weight training for women was regarded with suspicion as being both un-feminine and conducive to developing a masculine musculature.
Although it would still be several decades before “second wave” feminism propelled women into bodybuilding competition and the strength sports, there were always some women who perceived the benefits of resistance training. Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, who was not “pudgy” (a childhood nickname) at all but had a very attractive, toned figure, was a popular regular at the old Muscle Beach located just south of the Santa Monica Pier. This was the epicenter of Southern California’s muscle culture for decades until it was closed by the authorities in 1958 because it had become a gay cruising ground. The current Muscle Beach is just south of the Venice Pier, a couple miles south of the original. In the 1970s and ‘80s I used to do a lot of running on the beach (often 16 miles at a stretch) and would occasionally encounter a bodybuilding notable like Mike Mentzer in the vicinity of the newer Muscle Beach.
Another interesting figure in the field of women’s training in the 1950s was George “Butcherman” Bruce. His sinister-sounding nickname came from his ability to take unwanted flesh off aspiring models and actresses and give them the bosomy yet wasp-waisted figures fashionable in that era--not with a cleaver (fortunately!) but with barbell and dumbbell training.
In the 1950s, the bodybuilding subculture really began to change perceptions of men’s physiques. In the 1930s and 1940s, Johnny Weissmuller and his friend Buster Crabbe were in great demand as film heroes. Both had been Olympic gold medallists in swimming. Both were endowed with splendid examples of the natural male athletic physique. My mother could remember them proudly strutting about at the posh Beach Club in Santa Monica. Weissmuller, the quintessential screen Tarzan, was hailed as “the perfect man” (physically, I presume). Yet when my friend Jeff Lewis, the proprietor of the Fourth Street Gym in Long Beach, saw a photo of Weissmuller, he remarked, “Today he’d be nothing!”
The man most responsible for this sea change would have to be Steve Reeves. Earlier, I remarked that Eugen Sandow “had it all.” If so, Steve Reeves had it all and then some! He was heartbreakingly handsome and had exceptionally wide shoulders that tapered down in a prefect “V” to his slim waist and hips. He was massively yet aesthetically muscled. Joe Weider once commented that Reeves never came close to realizing his potential as a physique man. I have sometimes remarked that if I could have gone through life looking like somebody else, it would have been Steve Reeves. Steve Reeves’ training schedule involved two-hour total-body workouts three times a week. It galls me to recall that in my prime my training schedule and routines closely resembled Reeves’, yet I never looked remotely as good as he did. Oh well, heredity counts for a lot in this game...and in life in general.
After returning from wartime service with the U.S. Army in the Philippines, Reeves won a string of major bodybuilding titles: Mr. America 1947, Mr. World 1948 and Mr. Universe 1950. He then embarked on an acting career, and starred in many action and adventure movies in which his magnificent physique could be displayed to best advantage. He customarily had to lose about 15 pounds before filming. Otherwise his muscularity appeared too unnatural and overwhelming on-screen. The majority of his films were made in Italy, and he is best remembered for playing Hercules although he only portrayed that mythological hero in two films. He was by far the best known bodybuilder of his era. He retired from making movies at a young age. He was influenced in his decision by the fact that many of Hollywood’s leading men of his era--Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper--had all died at comparatively young ages. He spent the remainder of his days as a horse rancher in Oregon and later in Valley Center, California. Just before his retirement he was being considered for two roles: The Man with No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars” and James Bond in “Dr. No.” Given the subsequent careers of the men who took those roles, one wonders whether Reeves may have rued his decision to retire early!
It should not be thought that bodybuilding was all about Steve Reeves, though. The 1950s and early ‘60s produced a number of outstanding physique men. Californian Bill Pearl won the NABBA (a British bodybuilding association) Mr. Universe title in 1953 and went on to win other bodybuilding titles, concluding his career by winning the NABBA Mr. Universe title again at the comparatively old age of 41. In that contest he beat a number of other bodybuilders of legendary status, among them such notables as Frank Zane, Reg Park and Sergio Oliva. Bill’s brother once told me that Joe Weider pulled Arnold Schwarzenegger from that competition for fear his star protege would also go down to defeat.
Englishman Reg Park was another top man of that era. Among other achievements he won three Mr. Universe titles and appeared in several Hercules movies. He eventually moved to South Africa, where he opened a gym (for whites only, given the time and conditions in South Africa).
Another notable physique man was Chuck Sipes. He was extraordinarily strong, even for a bodybuilder, and sported some of the most imposing forearms in the history of the game. He worked for many years with the California Youth Authority. He was instrumental in introducing weight training into the penal system. He believed that it gave convicts a chance to work off energy, practice the discipline of regular effort and see hard work rewarded with muscular gains. On the other hand, some may question the wisdom of releasing ex-convicts into the general population much bigger, stronger and tougher than when they were incarcerated. Chuck committed suicide at the age of 60, sad to say.
Let us now take a respite from the world of beefcake and posing platforms and briefly chronicle the rise of another strength sport--powerlifting. There were several men who were most responsible for the creation of this sport. Bob Peoples of Johnson City, Tennessee, became interested in developing strength at a young age. He built all manner of interesting lifting equipment from scrap lumber and may have been the inventor of the power rack. Although he was a competent weightlifter, he did not excel in the sport, largely because his long arms gave him poor leverage in the overhead lifts. On the other hand, he was capable of extraordinary feats of strength in the squat and especially the deadlift. He had practiced deadlifts with such unconventional equipment as heavy canisters filled with rocks hanging from his lifting bar. At the age of 40 and a bodyweight of 181 pounds he deadlifted an extraordinary 725 pounds. Although this has been exceeded in modern powerlifting competition, it has taken a long time for that to happen. Peoples also served as a mentor to Paul Anderson, who went on to win an Olympic gold medal as super-heavyweight weightlifter in the 1956 Olympics. Paul Anderson became a national celebrity and was hailed as the “Strongest Man in the Word,” probably with considerable justification. It has been speculated that if powerlifting had been an established sport during Anderson’s prime, he would have excelled at that sport even more than he did in weightlifting.
Related: Powerlifting Workout Program
Another figure similar to Peoples was Joseph Curtis Hise (a distant cousin of Bob Hise the weightlifter). He was another specialist in the squat and deadlift who performed prodigious feats in these lifts. He died at a relatively young age, perhaps from having worked in a uranium mine.
The feats of men like Peoples and Hise came to the attention of Peary Rader. He, with the close collaboration of his wife Mabel, had been putting out Iron Man magazine since 1936. Iron Man lacked the glitz and glamor of its competitors, but the Raders were willing to make it an open forum for a variety of points of view. The Raders were very earnest Christians and stressed the importance of moral and spiritual development in addition to size and strength. When the original Muscle Beach was closed in 1958, he published an editorial “We Hang Our Heads in Shame!” (although why he should feel ashamed because of goings-on a couple thousand miles away in which he had no part whatsoever I could never quite fathom). Unlike such divisive characters as Hoffman and Weider, I don’t think anyone ever had a bad word to say about the Raders. I had the pleasure of conversing with them at length once, and they were every bit as friendly, unpretentious and down-to-earth as I had imagined them. It was a sad day for serious physical culturists when the Raders sold Iron Man in 1986 and the new owner immediately transformed it into a glitzy, Weider-esque beefcake magazine. As Bradley J. Steiner, who had been a longtime contributor to the magazine (and who also wrote for me), remarked to me, “There will never be another magazine like the old Iron Man.”
Competitive weightlifting was limited to only three lifts--the clean and press, the snatch and the clean and jerk. However, side matches featuring “odd lifts”--various strength and bodybuilding exercises including the squat, the deadlift, the bench press, the curl and bent-over and upright rows--were not uncommon at weightlifting competitions. Especially popular were the “strength set,” the first four exercises listed, not only in the USA but also in Britain and France. Starting in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, there was a movement afoot to create a new strength sport featuring the lifts of the “strength set.” Iron Man played a key role in this movement. There was also a perception that the simple lifts of the strength set were a truer test of real strength than competitive weightlifting, which demanded a range of athletic abilities beyond raw strength and was “tricky” (as a character in one of Harry Paschall’s “Bosco” comics in Strength and Health described it).
At first Bob Hoffman was opposed to this movement, believing that it would siphon talent away from his beloved weightlifting, but as the popularity and international success of American weightlifting began to dwindle, he came around to supporting the concept of a new sport. At first it was uncertain which lifts it would involve. A faction of British lifters especially favored including the curl, but in the end a consensus was reached that the lifts should be the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. The first international powerlifting competition was held at York in 1964. The first world championships were held at York in 1971. In the following year, the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) was organized.
Powerlifting continued to grow worldwide. In 1980, the sport was opened to women, and it proved surprisingly popular with them. According to one statistic I found, about 28 percent of all registered competitive powerlifters are female.
The acceptance of powerlifting as an Olympic sport has always been a goal of the IPF. To further this end, they decreed in 1982 that strict drug testing would be implemented before matches. This led to a schism in the sport as a number of leading competitors objected to this. Another development in the sport was the creation of supportive shirts, unitards and knee wraps that enabled competitors to handle considerably heavier poundages than otherwise. This created a further division in the sport between records set “raw” (without special clothing) and “assisted” (with the clothing and wraps). The upshot of all this is that at this moment there are no fewer than 10 international powerlifting federations and 20 American national federations. All of this must be very confusing to the outsider and the newcomer, but it does afford competitors a wide range of options for competition in the sport according to their preferences.
In the meantime, Joe Weider went from strength to strength in the realm of bodybuilding. The two foremost bodybuilding competitions not under IFBB control were the AAU Mr. America and the NABBA Mr. Universe. Weider then established an IFBB Mr. America and an IFBB Mr. Universe. In 1965 Weider instituted the physique competition meant to crown the “best of the best”--the Mr. Olympia. Larry Scott won the first two Olympias, followed by Sergio Oliva who won the title in 1967, ‘68 and ‘69. In the latter competition he became the only man ever to beat Weider’s star trainee, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger went on to win the next six Mr. Olympia titles and became the most famous bodybuilder in history. He also won the Mr. Olympia title in 1980. As everybody knows, he parlayed his fame and physique into movie stardom, acquired a substantial fortune and became governor of California.
If I may be permitted a personal digression, I have heard it claimed that Schwarzenegger was not a particularly tall man--only 5’10” or so. Well, I was in close proximity to Arnold at several events. I was 6’3” in those days (before I began shrinking in old age). My impression was that he was slightly shorter than I, but not much. This jibes perfectly with his claimed height of 6’ 1 1⁄2”. I don’t know how those rumors arose!
Other IFBB stars of what is often called the “Golden Age” would include Franco Columbu (Mr. Olympia 1976 and 1981), Frank Zane (Mr. Olympia 1977-9) and Lou Ferrigno, who was never a Mr. Olympia but garnered much fame from his role as The Incredible Hulk. In those days, bodybuilding was very much in the public eye, and these names were familiar to a wide swath of the general public.
Weider was also very successful in squelching opposition. For example, his former associate Dan Lurie had an acrimonious break with Weider, set up his own “World Bodybuilding Guild” and published a magazine Muscle Training Illustrated for a number of years, but he was never able to effectively challenge Weider’s dominance. Another short-lived challenge was mounted by wrestling impresario Vince MacMahon (himself a man of fine physique), who attempted to start a professional bodybuilding league of his own around 1990, the World Bodybuilding Federation. His intention was to add a lot of the glitz, glamor and dramatic hokum (“kayfabe”) of professional wrestling to bodybuilding. Very generous cash prizes would sweeten the allure of the new organization to top bodybuilders. However, the new federation soon foundered. Weider sped its demise by decreeing that any bodybuilder who joined would be banned from IFBB competition for life. Eventually, the top men of the WBF were granted clemency and returned to the IFBB fold in a dramatic ceremony worthy of professional wrestling.
Another rival to the Weider establishment was Arthur Jones, without a doubt the most colorful, offbeat character in the game since Bernarr McFadden--about equal parts genius and madman. He had dropped out of school in the ninth grade but had amassed a fortune in a variety of pursuits as a collector and dealer of wild animals, bush pilot and showman. His motto was “Younger Women, Faster Airplanes, Bigger Crocodiles.” He was married six times, always to young women between the ages of 16 and 20. He kept all manner of dangerous wildlife like big cats and venomous snakes, but the prize of his collection was an 18-foot saltwater crocodile that he hoped to nourish until it attained record length. Did I say “madman”? Well, he let his young daughter share her bed with a jaguar. In captivity, the jaguar is incomparably the most dangerous of all the big cats. An animal trainer I used to know was almost killed by one she had raised since it was a tiny cub. For many years there was one at the L.A. Zoo that had killed a keeper at another zoo. My grandfather was in the movie industry and tried to rent one for a South American drama. He was turned down. The outfit that furnished lions, tigers, leopards and such to the industry said they wouldn’t handle jaguars. They were “too dangerous.” I had predicted that might be the case. I was 12 years old at the time. My grandfather settled for a puma.
In any event, Jones turned his brilliant and roving intellect to the topic of bodybuilding. He formulated theories of exercise in direct contrast to Weider’s principles of “bombing and blitzing” various muscle groups in frequent, extended workouts. Instead, Jones formulated the principle of High Intensity Training (HIT, not to be confused with the later HIIT--High Intensity Interval Training). HIT consisted of very brief workouts with maximum effort and close-to-maximum poundages, usually no more than once a week. Moreover, he invented a series of machines that could provide maximum resistance over the full range of motion of the exercise. In theory, a trainee could visit the gym, do a full sequence on the Nautilus machines and build an outstanding physique in about an hour a week. The Nautilus machines took their name from a special cam invented by Jones that resembled the shell of a chambered nautilus.
Jones believed his principles and inventions would revolutionize bodybuilding. These he publicized extensively in the pages of Iron Man. A number of bodybuilders rallied behind him. His star pupil was Casey Viator, the youngest man ever to win the AAU Mr. America title at the age of 19. Sergio Oliva, “The Myth,” surely one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, declared Arthur Jones “the best and most honest man in bodybuilding.” Mike Mentzer, another top bodybuilder in the 1970s, was another ardent disciple. It was widely believed that Mentzer was robbed of the Mr. Olympia title in 1980 through the machinations of Joe Weider, who persuaded Schwarzenegger to enter the competition at the last minute although the latter was in less than top shape. Schwarzenegger was duly crowned for the seventh time, and Mentzer retired from bodybuilding in disgust.
To counter the competitive threat posed by Arthur Jones, Joe Weider mobilized his top stars to discredit Jones and proclaim the superiority of conventional free-weight training. He also enlisted the support of the highly respected trainer Vince Gironda, “the Iron Guru,” who ran a gym in Studio City and added his voice to discounting Jones’ views and inventions. In any event, Jones failed to revolutionize bodybuilding. How much of this was the result of Weider’s opposition or the conservatism of the bodybuilding subculture, as Jones claimed, may be open to question. People found that free weights could still give excellent results, and Nautilus equipment was bulky and expensive--not very suitable for the home trainer. Nonetheless, Nautilus survives to this day. Jones died in 2007 at the age of 80. Although nobody would describe him as “heartbreakingly handsome,” he had a fine muscular physique. Ironically, for a man so concerned with health, strength and fitness, he was a lifelong smoker!
In more recent times, it has been common for a single individual to reign as Mr. Olympia for multiple years: Lee Haney (1984-1991), Dorian Yates (1992-1997), Ronnie Coleman (1998-2005), Jay Cutler (2006-7 and 2009-10) and Phil Heath (2011-2017). Dorian Yates was the first of the new breed of bodybuilders sometimes called “Mass Monsters.” These men characteristically display a degree of size and definition that make even the Golden Age physique stars look a bit soft and puny. Critics of the sport say that these physiques are achieved not just with steroids but also human growth hormones, performance enhancing drugs and insulin injections. They will also cite untimely deaths of prominent bodybuilders. Be that as it may, if muscle size and definition are the name of the game, these men have achieved levels of development never before seen, and they must be given credit for that.
For those who want to learn more about the various classes and categories of men’s and women’s bodybuilding, you can do so by following that link. I shall refrain from redundancy by not reiterating them here.
Modern women’s bodybuilding could be said to have been birthed by “second wave” feminism. The first female bodybuilder to gain public attention in the contemporary era would in all probability be Kellie Everts. This was a stage name. Her birth name was Rasa Sofija Jakstas. In later years she has gone by “Rasa von Werder.” When we discuss colorful characters in the iron game, she would be a good candidate for “most colorful of all.” She has been at various points a nudist, including winning the title of “Miss Nude Universe,” a stripper, an evangelist and most recently a proponent of goddess worship. She had appeared in a Playboy spread in May 1977. This may have led to her being barred from IFBB competition. Thus she remains an outlier in the history of women’s bodybuilding.
I can well remember when Iron Man displayed a couple of photos of Lisa Lyon, expressing apologies and trepidation, her lean, toned body being so out of the norm by the standards of 40+ years ago. She was a true pioneer of women’s bodybuilding and was to be an inspiration to other women bodybuilders who followed in her footsteps. These days women with physiques similar to hers would not be uncommon in serious gyms and Crossfit boxes. I thought she looked fine back then and never had cause to revise my opinion. She won the first IFBB Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding Championship in 1979, appeared in Playboy’s October 1980 issue and modeled for such noted professional photographers as Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorp. She was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 2000.
Rachel McLish, who won the title of Ms. Olympia in 1980 and 1982, also had a sinewy body similar to Lisa Lyon's, but the dominant figure in women’s bodybuilding during the 1980s was Cory Everson, who won six consecutive Ms. Olympia titles between 1984 and 1989. She had been coached by her husband, who was a strength coach at the University of Wisconsin, and she was somewhat more heavily muscled than her predecessors but not over the top (in my opinion, anyway). She projected a sexy yet wholesome image and did some acting, including appearances in the popular “Xena, Warrior Princess” series.
Related: Best Workout Splits for Women
In subsequent decades, many women bodybuilders have achieved levels of muscular development that would put most men, including even many weight-trained ones, to shame. Previously, it was thought that women were incapable of achieving such muscular size. What made this change possible was the ready availability of androgenic drugs, i.e., steroids. The term “androgenic” means “man making” or “man begetting,” and these drugs have in many cases have had noticeably masculinizing effects on their users in addition to larger muscles --square-jawed, more masculine features; deeper voices and facial hair, and they can do other strange and repulsive things to women’s bodies that I would rather not discuss.
In fairness to the women who elect to go this route, let us remember that steroid abuse has been rife in men’s bodybuilding and other strength sports for decades. I would add that any comments I might make may be colored by the fact that I am an old man of very conservative and traditionalist sensibilities. I know that the concept of “gender fluidity” is much more widespread these days, and if women want to make themselves with the aid of barbells and “gear” into better, more imposing “men” than most men, they have every right to do so. Moreover, the bodybuilders’ pharmacopeia can only do so much to increase muscle size and improve shapeliness. These women have put a tremendous amount of hard training into crafting their imposing physiques, and they deserve considerable respect for that.
With that said, were I still hunting for a mate, I don’t believe I would find a woman rocking 19-inch “guns” and “cannonball delts” very appealing (more likely, very intimidating). As to the women bodybuilders who participate in such classes as “Fitness,” “Figure” and “Bikini,” all I can say from my straight male perspective is, “What’s not to like?” (It was suggested to my wife some years ago that she get into senior bodybuilding, I might mention.)
The strength sports have spurred competitors to raise positively amazing poundages. However, seeing men and, more recently, women perform the same lifts--two in the case of weightlifting, three for powerlifting--can become somewhat tedious and repetitive, at least from a spectator’s point of view. In 1977, building on the popularity of game shows and contests, a television special was created called “World’s Strongest Men,” in which contestants drawn from the ranks of bodybuilders, weightlifters, professional wrestlers, football players and such competed in a variety of colorful, offbeat, challenging feats of strength. The show was marred when bodybuilder Franco Columbu was seriously injured in a “Refrigerator Race, an event in which contestants raced with refrigerators strapped to their backs. Unfortunately, the harnesses were devised for much taller men than Columbu, who only stood 5’5”, and he took a bad spill that seriously damaged his leg. He subsequently won a large settlement from the show. The contest was won by Bruce Wilhelm, a weightlifter, and he won the subsequent competition in the following year. By this time the competition had been re-named “The World’s Strongest Man.”
Over the years these events have been characterized by using unconventional objects like lifting massive old-time dumbbells, barbells, stones, logs, even huge blocks of cheese, as well as lifting the front-ends of various vehicles, pushing or pulling them or tipping them over. The sport thrives on novel and offbeat challenges.
The next three years of WSM competition were dominated by Bill Kazmaier, who had distinguished himself in weightlifting and powerlifting and was also a virtuoso in various odd lifts. So dominant was Kazmaier that he was banned from future contests. The organizers thought it would be a foregone conclusion that he would be the victor, and viewer appeal would be diminished. He was permitted to return in 1988, when he finished second to Icelander Jon-Pall Sigmarsson.
Sigmarsson, who was a true Norse god in looks, won the WSM four times between 1983 and 1990, with two second-place and one third-place finishes. Tragically, he died of a congenital heart defect in 1993. He was only 32 years old. He was succeeded by his fellow Icelander Magnus Ver Magnusson, who won the competition in 1991, finished second in 1992 and 1993, and took first in 1994, 1995 and 1996.
Another standout figure in the sport was Marius Pudzianowski of Poland, who took the title of WSM five times between 2002 and 2008, with second-place finishes in 2006 and 2009.
At the beginning of the present century, Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to get involved in the sport. For some years he had been running an event, “The Arnold Sports Classic,” held annually in Columbus, Ohio, and he thought that a strongman competition would enhance the event. His consultants on this included Professor Terry Todd and David Webster. Terry Todd and his wife, Jan, a most formidable strongwoman in her own right, had become respected scholars of the iron game, and Terry Todd had played an important role in the nascent sport of powerlifting 30 years earlier. David Webster is a Scotsman who for many years was a weightlifting coach and also an authority on the Highland Games, many events of which influenced the WSM competitions.
A criticism of the WSM was that a number of the events involve pushing or carrying things for considerable distances, as well as feats requiring multiple repetitions. Thus, in requiring feats that involved endurance and general athleticism, it was not a true test of pure strength. Skeptics might say that “the Arnold” was making a virtue of necessity since it is always held indoors, while the WSM uses more spacious outdoor venues. In any event both events are dominated by the same athletes.
The first Arnold Strongman Classic (2002) was won by Mark Henry, an American weightlifter and pro wrestler. Let’s look at three strongmen who have distinguished records in both competitions:
Lithuanian Zydrunas Savikas took first place in the Arnold from 2003 to 2008. In 2010, he finished second, third in 2011 and 2012, first in 2014, second in 2015 and first in 2016. In the World’s Strongest Man, he took second place from 2002 to 2004, first in 2009 and 2010, second in 2011, first in 2012, second in 2013, first in 2014, and second in 2015.
American Brian Shaw took first place in the Arnold in 2011, finished second in 2013 and 2014, first in 2015, second in 2016, first in 2017, second in 2018. In WSM he was first in 2011 and 2013, third in 2014, first in 2015 and 2016, third in 2017 and 2018 and second in 2021.
Icelander Hafthor Bjornsson won the Arnold in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and was in the top three in WSM between 2012 and 2019, taking first in 2018.
All this is by way of saying that men who perform well in one of the world’s two premier strongman events will do about as well in the other.
Well, I can only hope that you, the reader, found this meandering ramble--from the Bronze Age to the third decade of the 21st century--entertaining and informative. Please accept my apologies for any notable errors or conspicuous oversights. They will be entirely my fault. The team at SET FOR SET should not be held culpable.
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September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
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