History of Bodybuilding and Old-Time Strongmen: Lost Training Methods and Feats of Strength

By on September 17, 2014

Whenever you pick up a weight, remember that you are following in the footsteps of giants and taking part in a ‘physical culture’ with thousands of years of heritage.

Bodybuilding and strength training have a rich and fascinating history and looking back there are some incredible ‘lost’ training methods and feats of strength to be found. Read on and I shall take you on a journey through time…

eugen sandow2

The Early Beginnings

The roots of bodybuilding and strength training can probably be traced back to Ancient Greece. It is here that we find the first ‘gymnasiums’ – meaning ‘naked place’ (and yet my gym get all aerated when I take my top off…).

Back then though, strength training was only a means to an end with the sole purpose of improving athletic ability in a range of sports (and of course the Olympics). One awesome character during this time was a wrestler named Milo of Croton who had one of the coolest training methods of all time. It went like this:

  • Find a young calf
  • Carry young calf on your back every day
  • As young calf grows into old cow, develop awesome strength

This could possibly be seen as the very earliest example of progressive overload.

It’s also in Ancient Greece, specifically during the Classical Period, that we first see the ‘Grecian Ideal’. Sculptures during this time included rippling musculature and dynamic poses akin to those of comic book superheroes – or modern day bodybuilders (Frank Zane in particular modelled his look after these sculptures). Prior to this time, Greek sculptures had been inspired by those from Egypt and Mesopotamia and were pretty skinny and rigid. Perhaps the introduction of gymnasiums led to this appreciation of super-strength?

grecian ideal

Oh and it turns out that Socrates was a bodybuilder. Well, sort of.

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

Physical Culture

This physical training stuck around and spread in particular to India in the 11th century, where people finally began using rudimentary dumbbells and barbells with the aim of becoming healthier and more aesthetic. By the 16th century this was considered an Indian national pastime.

By the 19th century weightlifting had found its way around the rest of the world but wasn’t exactly ‘strongmen’. Those who chose to spend their time developing their strength and musculature were generally considered freaks and would perform in circuses drawing large crowds. This was the era of the ‘old-time strongman’ which is a pretty cool era for anyone interested in strength training.

The primary draw of strongmen at this time was their ability to perform amazing feats of strength. These would involve lifting weights (in a manner similar to Olympic weightlifting in some cases) but also bending iron bars, hand balancing, lifting strange objects (barrels, anvils, anchors, people) and doing all kinds of other crazy things.

Here are some examples of some crazy old-time strongmen and their insane feats of strength…

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).

saxon bent press

Another very cool old-time strongman lift is the ‘two hands anyhow’. This is a lift that challenges the lifter to lift as much weight as possible off the floor by any means as long as they aren’t helped (conventional weights – anchors don’t count as you can prop them up against your body). Arthur Saxon again holds the record managing to get to 448lbs by bent pressing a 336lb barbell and lifting a 112lb kettlebell at the same time.

Pierre Gasnier: The ‘French Hercules’, Pierre Gasnier could lift 260lb barbells over his head despite being only 5’3”. More impressive though was his trick of breaking a metal chain that was wrapped around his rib cage.

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.

Old-Time Strongman Training: How to Train for Feats of Strength

All pretty cool right? So how would you go about developing that kind of power today?

Well, partly these guys are likely to have been genetically gifted, being able to recruit more fast twitch muscle fibre for explosive power. At the same time though they also put in a lot of training which was the same as the training we do today in some ways, and different in others.

Like today’s strength athletes, old-time strongmen ate a lot of protein – particularly in the form of eggs. They also trained using a lot of compound movements, which will have developed the posterior chain and triggered a lot more muscle growth. Compound movements like deadlifts, squats, bench presses and the Olympic lifts will all develop your muscles in a functional manner to work together for explosive power and great stability and endurance.

Something that differed however was a big emphasis on training the obliques. This is incredibly important for stabilizing your body during one-armed lifts, which also happen to be one of the best tools for developing that kind of strength (you can try this yourself, or use dumbbell side bends).

Perhaps even more important is training for the forearms and the grip. This is what allowed strongmen to bend iron bars (and hammer railroad spikes with their bare hands in the case of Siegmund Breitbart), but it’s also what enabled them to safely lift so much weight off the floor and hold it steady at awkward angles. I’ve talked about this before: forearm and grip training is one of the very best ways to increase your physical performance across the board.

In fact, one way that strongmen would prevent challengers from coming up on stage and making them look bad, was to make the barbells and dumbbells much thicker than normal. Even someone very strong then wouldn’t be able to lift the bars unless they had also been doing specific strength training for their hands.

Sandow (who we’re getting to in a moment) also stresses the importance of the ‘mind muscle connection’ as do many top bodybuilders.

The difference is great, as every learner knows or ought to know, between going through certain exercises in a perfunctory and mechanical manner, and putting the muscles to the strain by concentrating the mind and will-power upon the manipulation of the weights, or whatever muscular exercise is being attempted.

True dat.

Eugen Sandow: The Father of Modern Bodybuilding

eugen sandowEugen Sandow is considered by many to be the ‘Father of Modern Bodybuilding’ and that’s why Mr Olympia winners receive a statue of him when they win the competition. Eugen was a strongman like the rest who would perform similar demonstrations of strength and power, but where he differed was in his physique which was similar to that of a modern bodybuilder’s. People were so impressed by his physique that he incorporated ‘Muscle Display Performances’ into his routines.

Sandow was also a savvy entrepreneur and knew a bit about marketing. Thus he wrote a number of books, including one called ‘Body-Building’ that would eventually give the sport its name. He also created a magazine called ‘Physical Culture’ that would start making fitness and health commercial and set the stage for today’s ‘muscle mags’.

In 1901 the first official bodybuilding competition took place and was called ‘The Great Competition’. Eugen Sandow was the organizer and sat on the panel of judges alongside athlete/sculptor Sir Charles Lawes and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (as though he needed to be any cooler). The winner was one William Murray.

The Birth of the Sport

Another important figure in the development of modern bodybuilding was Bernarr McFadden, who also wrote many books and created another magazine called ‘Physical Culture Magazine’. In 1904 he created his own bodybuilding-type competitions. In 1921 he created the first bodybuilding ‘star’ when he awarded the prize of ‘The Most Perfectly Developed Man’ in 1921. Charles Atlas would go on to become pretty rich by selling his ‘Dynamic Tension Training System’ through advertising he ran mostly in comic books.


By the 1930s strength and physique contests were relatively common. In 1939 the ‘Mr America’ competition was born (Bert Goodrich being the first champion) and was overseen by the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union). During this time John Grimek was the bodybuilder to beat and later Clarence Ross (whose physique was very close to the ‘Grecian ideal’), but bodybuilding very much played second fiddle to other strength competitions.

Notable names during this time were Steve Reeves, who won Mr America in 1947 and went on to become a film star playing Hercules (which became a rite of passage of sorts for bodybuilders transitioning to film), and Reg Park who won Mr Universe and also went on to star in movies. These two characters are particularly significant for inspiring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone respectively who would both do their bit to promote strength training through the 70s and 80s and continue to do so today.

The Golden Age

In 1946, bodybuilding’s next big promoter ‘Joe Weider’ came onto the scene and created the IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilders) with brother Ben Weider. He later created his own competition in 1965 that would go on to become THE bodybuilding contest. It was called ‘Mr Olympia’ and the first contest was won by Larry Scott (it was named after a beer they were drinking at the time).

Later Sergio Oliva would go on to become Mr Olympia and had three consecutive wins thanks to an almost genetically perfect physique. Joe meanwhile promoted bodybuilding through a number of magazines and made big money selling supplements and training equipment. He was looking for a charismatic champion to become the face of the industry which is when he met a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger who would help launch bodybuilding to new heights, particularly through the documentary ‘Pumping Iron’ which also featured many other big names at the time including Franco Columbu and Frank Zane.

Modern Bodybuilding… And the Future

Over time, Mr Olympia began to attract more and more money while the competitors became bigger and bigger. By the time the likes of Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler were ruling the roost, bodybuilders had become huge monsters with physiques only achievable through heavy steroid use. Many feel that bodybuilding has moved too far in this direction and that it has become something of a freak-show once again and certainly ‘unrelatable’ for the public.

Phil Heath currently holds the title of Mr Olympia and thankfully represents a slight move away from the extreme mass of previous winners. Nevertheless, he’s still arguably large to the point of being impractical.

You could argue that things like CrossFit actually represent a reaction to what bodybuilding has become and a move back towards a more ‘functional’ type of strength aimed at performance as well. CrossFit has a lot of problems however and is even potentially dangerous in its current form. Both bodybuilding and CrossFit have a lot of evolving to do and perhaps they could both benefit from looking to the past…

And just on the horizon, looms the threat of transhuman performance enhancement. When gene doping allows competitors to alter their DNA and permanently increase their natural musculature, how will the sport adapt? Might there one day be a ‘posthuman bodybuilding’? I’ll be looking at that very soon. In the meantime, get training those obliques and forearms!

charles atlas advert



About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. hello
    just a question about old style training the early magazines like
    joe weiders muscle power and mr universe promoted sets of 8 to 10
    several sets ete most people got good results from these now we have
    t u t and training to failure more or less saying the old sytem was
    no good the magazines never advocated t u t ete just train hard so
    where has the old time training gone steve reeves larry scott reg parks
    did 8 to 10 reps if it wsa good then why not now

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