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Over the years, the definition of a “strongman” has changed significantly. It was once an occupation held by circus performers who exhibited feats of strengths to small crowds. In the 20th century, it evolved into something more like athletic competitions, where competitors displayed their abilities through a series of exercises including lifting rocks, pulling trains, and toting huge trucks. Not wanting to discriminate against strongmen of earlier epochs, here are 10 of the most fascinating strongmen from over the last few centuries…
10. Thomas Topham (18th century)
Born in London, Thomas Topham was one of the most famous strongmen of his generation. He was best known for bending thick fire irons by striking them against his forearms. Crowds would also enjoy watching as he lifted items weighing 224 pounds over his head with just his little fingers.
Despite his other heroics, his most famous feat took place on May 28, 1741 when, while using a harness, Topham lifted three barrels of water weighing 1,386 pounds. For those skeptics out there, Topham’s feats were documented in a widely held work by Dr. John Theo Desaguliers called “A Course of Experimental Philosophy.”
9. Siegmund Breitbart (19th century)
As previously mentioned, many of the earlier strongmen worked as circus performers and Siegmund Breitbart was no exception. Born to a Jewish family in Poland, Breitbart was subjugated to relentless Antisemitism, which drove him to become the “Strongest Man in the World.” Some of his most impressive feats included bending iron bars around his arm in floral patterns, biting through iron chains, or pulling them apart; he even lifted a baby elephant as he climbed a ladder.
As a performer, Breitbart excited audiences by holding back two whipped horses, and pulling a wagon full of people with his teeth. Breitbart is probably best known for incorporating The Tomb of Hercules into his act. The performance consisted of Breitbart laying on his back as a bridge of boards was built across his chest. Animals were then brought to parade cross the bridge. Bulls, elephants, and other heavy beats walked across Breitbart’s chest without even a flinch from the strongman.
8. Eugen Sandow (19th century)
Known as the “father of bodybuilding,” Eugene Sandow was born Friederich Wilhelm Mueller in Königsberg, Prussia in 1867. By the age of 19, he was already performing as a strongman in various circus-like shows. He became known for his barbell routines and for breaking a chain locked around his chest. Audiences gathered around him, but were more interested in his bulging muscles than his feats of strength. Inclined to give the people what they wanted, Sandow began to develop and perform poses. He declared the poses “muscle display performances” and these same displays of strength are used in bodybuilding competitions today.
Sandow was a highly sought-after carnival attraction as audience members believed him to resemble the Roman gods. It turns out that Sandow’s similar build was no accident. He had traveled to Italy as a child, and it was there, staring at the artwork of these chiseled gods, that his passion for bodybuilding began. Sandow believed that these gods had the perfect physique and modeled his own body based on their image. He became the first bodybuilder to develop his musculature to predetermined dimensions.
7. Leonid Taranenko (20th century)
Born in 1956 in Belarus, at the time part of the Soviet Union, Leonid Taranenko would become a world record holder for the clean and the jerk at the age of 32. His first taste of success came at the 1980 Olympics where he won the gold medal competing for the Soviet Union.
Taranenko initially competed in a lower weight class, but in 1988 he moved up to super-heavyweight class. On November 26, 1988 in Australia, he set a world record of 266.0 kg in the clean and jerk. Due to “restructuring” by the International weightlifting federation, his official records no longer stand, but his feats have not been matched.
6. Andy Bolton (20th century)
Another world recorder holder on our list is power lifter Andy Bolton. Born in England in 1970, Bolton is the first man in history to have deadlifted 1,000 pounds. And he did it twice.
Before he became a world recorder holder, Bolton found success at an early age. By the time he was 21-years-old, Bolton had won a powerlifting event called Yorkshire Junior Championships. As previously mentioned, Bolton is most known for being first strongman to deadlift 1,000 lbs. Twice during the competition he “eclipsed his own accomplishment with pulls of 1,003 pounds and a then-record 1,008 pounds.”
Bolton is not a one trick pony. He also holds the fourth highest squat of all-time with 1216.63 pounds, and his three lift total of 2,806.34 pounds ranks third highest in history.
5. Brian Shaw (21st century)
The first American on our list, Brian Shaw (born in 1982) is a monster of a man. Standing at 6-foot-8 and weighing 435 pounds, he’s massive even compared to other strongmen. While not holding any individual weightlifting records, what he does have to his name is the title of World’s Strongest Man.
Shaw has claimed the title twice and has placed in the top tree at World’s Strongest Man a total of five times. His personal bests include 972 pounds in the deadlift, 1,122 in the Hummer tire deadlift, and squatting 825 pounds along with benching 535 pounds. Not too shabby.
4. Louis Cyr (19th century)
There’s no one on our list who had a more colorful career than Louis Cyr. A boxer, a police officer, and of course, a strongman, Cyr did it all. Many believe that he is the strongest man to ever have lived. Born in Quebec, Canada, Cyr developed his strength at an early age, working at a lumber camp during the winter and on his family farm during the summer. Told of the legendary exploits of strongman Milo of Croton, who as a child carried a calf on his shoulder, Cyr attempted the same feat, only for the calf to kick him in the head and run away. Cyr decided instead to carry a sack of grain and added two pounds each day.
His strongman career began at the age of 17 after he gained some publicity for lifting a farmer’s heavily laden wagon, which had become stuck. Soon after, he competed against Canada’s strongest man (at the time), beating him in tests of lifting heavy stones by hoisting a granite boulder weighing 480 pounds.
After immigrating to the United States, Cyr competed in a strongman competition in Boston, where he lifted a horse (that was resting on a platform) off the ground. Despite gaining fame, the strongman, now a married man, became a police officer. His foray into police work came after, just using his strength, he broke up a dangerous knife fight. According to eyewitness accounts, Cyr disarmed and subdued the combatants and then made a citizen’s arrest, carrying the hooligans under his arms to the police station. Eventually he’d leave the police force, using the money he had earned to open a tavern.
Louis Cyr’s most impressive feats of strength include lifting a platform on his back holding 18 men for a total of 1,967 kilograms, lifting a 534 pound weight with one finger, and pushing a freight car up an incline
3. Louis Uni (19th century)
The Frenchman who became known as Apollon the Mighty was most popular for his grip strength. Louis Uni ran away from home at 14 to join the circus, but was returned by police officers who noticed he was underaged. It wasn’t enough to stop his drive to become a strongman and after a couple of years, he left home again.
Uni became a student of strength training and would repeatedly be challenged to demonstrate his strength. In one particular instance, a friend named John Grun Marx told him that he would perform a lift that no one else could. Marx slowly approached a thick-handled dumbbell, which weighed 226 pounds, and lifted it over his head. At the time, Marx and three others were the only men to have been known to accomplish such a feat. Louis, not known to turn down a challenge, attempted it as well but he lost control and it landed 10 feet behind him. This demonstrated that he had the ability to accomplish such a feat, he just needed more training.
Years later, he was challenged by Andre Brandelli, who claimed no one else in the world was capable of performing clean and jerk using his 278 pound barbell. After performing the feat, he turned to Louis smirking. Conscious of his strength, Louis grabbed the barbell and performed the feat.
The challenges only continued as Louis became more famous. A trio of Germans called the “Rassio Trio” approached Louis claiming that they would strip him of his title of “World’s Strongest Man.” For the challenge, Louis instructed them to bring a dumbbell which weighed 200 pounds onto the stage. However, hoping to trick Louis, a dumbbell which weighed 341 pounds was brought to the stage instead. Unable to notice the difference, Louis lifted the dumbell over his head. The Rassio Trio didn’t make much of this, but when it was their turn to lift the dumbbell, they were barely able to get it off the ground.
Some of Apollon the Mighty’s most notable feats of strength include an act called “Escaping Prisoner,” in which he would bend iron bars in order to escape from a cage, cleaning and jerking a 341 pound barbell, and lifting two train wheels (366 pounds) over his head.
2. Angus MacAskill (19th Century)
Angus MacAskill makes all of the strongman on our list look like ordinary people. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, MacAskill was the the largest true giant to have ever lived, and the man with the largest chest measurements of any non-obese man. Standing at 7-foot-10 (for reference, the man beside him in the above picture was 6-foot-5), MacAskill weighed 580 pounds, but what was so remarkable about him was the proportionality of his figure. He was free of growth abnormalities, with his size and strength was simply due to his genetics.
Born in 1825 on the Isle of Berneray in Scotland, MacAskill moved to Nova Scotia with his family as a child and eventually they settled in a fishing community. He was known in his community to have lifted “a 2,800 pound ship’s anchor to chest height, carry barrels weighing over 300 pounds under each arm, and was apparently able to single handedly set a 40-foot mast into a schooner deck.” Soon, the fishing community became too small for MacAskill and he joined P.T. Barnum’s circus. Word spread of his amazing size and strength. Queen Victoria eventually invited him to appear before her to give a demonstration at Windsor Castle. Afterwards she proclaimed him to be “the tallest, stoutest and strongest man to ever enter the palace.” She presented him with two gold rings in appreciation.
1. Thomas Inch (20th Century)
There aren’t many strongmen who left a mark on strength athletics like Thomas Inch. Born in Scarborough, England in 1881, Inch won the titles of both Britain’s Strongest Youth and Britain’s Strongest Man. However, his lasting legacy isn’t a feat of strength, but a mechanism of demonstrating strength.
Inch invented the “Thomas Inch Dumbbell.” It’s routinely used in strongman competitions because of its difficulty to lift. The dumbell weights 172 pounds, 9 ounces and it’s handle is extremely thick, making it difficult to hold onto without a forceful grip. And while Thomas Inch doesn’t have any records that remain, he will always have a dumbbell that bears his name.