7 Old-Timey Feats of Strength That Still Impress – Fitnessnacks

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    In a time before powerlifting meets, organized weightlifting competitions, and bodybuilding shows, strength athletes often showcased their talents at circuses and in vaudeville acts. Strength was more spectacle than sport at the time, so athletes needed to be as entertaining as they were physically impressive.

    Performers like Eugen Sandow and Arthur Saxon are typically cited as the most well-known of these spellbinding showmen of strength from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, there are countless others who pulled off feats that still befuddle fitness historians to this day.

    There will never be a definitive list of the best feats of strength from yesteryear, but the seven examples below are among the most notable.

    7 Old-Timey Feats of Strength That Still Impress

    Editor’s note: Lifts from this time can often be suspect, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, they are part of the history of strength. So even if many of these feats can’t be officially verified, it’s important to examine them as part of the mythology of the iron game.

    Arthur Saxon’s 371-Pound Bent Press

    Early 1900s strongman Arthur Saxon can easily be described as one of the most powerful athletes of his era — and many of the eras that followed. Part of a traveling performance group with his brothers known as the Saxon Trio, he was often celebrated for his great “tendon strength,” which contemporaries used to explain his ability to press incredible weights over his head. 

    In December 1905, Saxon hit his most long-lasting mark when he set a world record in the bent press with a 371-pound lift. For you younglings out there, the bent press involves the lifter hoisting a weight up to their shoulder and bending over to the side (in a corkscrew fashion) while lifting the weight overhead. A perfect showcase of “tendon strength,” in other words.

    [Related: What You Need To Know About How to Increase Strength]

    As you might expect, the bent press has since fallen out of favor in gyms today, owing in part to how difficult it is to pull off. Nevertheless, some strongmen still use it in moderation, including 2019 World’s Strongest Man winner Martins Licis, who has gotten up to 200 pounds on the move in training.

    Saxon’s 445-Pound “Two Hands Anyhow” Lift

    Oh, we’re not done with Saxon yet. It’s said that in 1905, the prodigious strength pioneer also executed a still-existing 445.3-pound world record in the “two hands anyhow” lift. As Sandow biographer David Chapman explains, the “two hands anyhow” is a lift in which the athlete needs to lift two separate weights overhead to arm’s length. This is typically performed using a barbell and a kettlebell or ring weight. It didn’t matter how this was achieved, but rather that the weights were simply lifted overhead.

    The easiest — although that word is used lightly — way to do this was beginning with a barbell and jerk it overhead with two hands. Then, by slowly getting into a bent press position, shift the barbell to a single arm. Next, the athlete picks up the other weight from the ground and presses that overhead.

    While another strongman, Hermann Goerner, was said to have pressed 430 pounds in the “two hands anyhow” using four kettlebells, no one has topped Saxon’s 445-pound mark. 

    C.G. Pillay’s “Suicide Milo Barbell” Clean & Jerk

    Coomerasamy Gauesa (Milo) Pillay was a South African weightlifter who made his mark in the 1930s and 1940s. Like many strongmen of his era, Pillay realized that one of the easiest ways to build his reputation was to create his own equipment, so in 1938, he debuted the “suicide Milo barbell.”

    What distinguished this barbell from any others, before or since, was its thick diameter. For reference, a standard barbell today has around a 1.1-inch diameter, while well-known strongman implements from the past, like the 172-pound Inch dumbbell or the Apollon wheels, tout diameters of 2.5 inches and two inches, respectively. The “Suicide barbell” tops all of those with a whopping three-inch diameter, making it a true test of grip strength. (The book Sports in South Africa, Past and Present suggests it was the thickest barbell employed in the world at that time.)

    In 1938, Pillay managed to clean & jerk 168 pounds using this implement, and there’s no indication of anyone ever besting it. Interestingly, it was said at the time that Pillay executed this lift, as well as a one-hand jerk from the shoulder of 142 pounds, “without exerting himself to any degree.” Perhaps he could have done more.

    Charles Rigoulot’s 253-Pound One-Handed Snatch

    Of all the feats on this list, Charles Rigoulot’s are among the most valid. A French physical culturist and weightlifter born in 1903, Rigoulot won a gold medal in weightlifting at the 1924 Paris Olympics, where he hit 135 kg (297 pounds) on the clean & jerk in the 82kg-and-under class.

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    Living an incredibly varied life that included a stint as a racecar driver, Rigoulot was also famed for performing feats of strength with an eight-foot globe barbell, which was incredibly springy when lifted. The highlight of these “challenge barbell” lifts was a one-handed snatch, reportedly done with 253 pounds in either 1926 or 1929.

    Fantastically, some have tried to match the mark, including former weightlifter and strongman competitor Mikhail “Misha” Koklyaev, who failed to do so at the 2015 Arnold Strongman event.

    [Related: 9 of the Most Controversial Moments in Olympia History]

    Katie Sandwina’s 600-Pound Cannon Carry

    Katharina Brumbach — or “Katie Sandwina” as she was known after beating Eugen Sandow in a lifting contest — was one of the most influential strongwomen of the early 20th century. It’s said she could bend iron bars, do handstands with ease, and support the weight of five men across her shoulders — and she did all of this while reportedly weighing around 200 pounds. (Though she did apparently have a hefty set of 16-inch biceps and a 44-inch chest.)

    Her most amazing feat was arguably her ability to carry a 600-pound cannon on one shoulder as part of her act.  Details are hard to come by, but this was reportedly one of her trademarks as part of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

    Katie SandwinaImage: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    [Related: Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton Is the Reason Why Women Lift Weights]

    While Sandwina’s cannon lift is going to be hard to top, one of her other famous records did get beat eventually. For decades, Sandwina held a Guinness World Record for a 286-pound clean & jerk, the heaviest ever for a woman. But in 1984, weightlifter Karyn Marshall edged her out by successfully hitting 289 pounds and, in 1985, 303 pounds. She was the first woman ever to clean & jerk over 300 pounds.

    Louis Cyr’s 445-Pound Barrel Lift

    It wouldn’t be a proper old-timey strength list without mentioning Quebecois strongman Louis Cyr. Known to modern strength fans through the continual usage of the Cyr Dumbbell in competitions, Cyr had a variety of strength marks to his name. At the top of that list were his prodigious barrel-lifting feats.

    [Related: The Birth and Growth of the Arnold Sports Festival]

    According to strength chronicler David Willoughby, Cyr once lifted a 445-pound barrel filled with sand and water to his right shoulder using just one hand. Like many of these feats, few details exist, but it did earn a mention in The Canadian Year Book for 1899, which chronicled some of Cyr’s most impressive lifts. (Despite the book’s title, the event itself actually took place in 1896 in Chicago.)

    Eugen Sandow’s Pony Hold

    When it comes to mixing strength with entertainment, few rivaled Eugen Sandow. And one of his most famous displays involved a rather unique implement: a pony. 

    During stage performances, Sandow would lift a 350-pony pony across the stage using one arm. The animal wasn’t pressed overhead; rather, it was hoisted into the air using a cable system before Sandow supported it using one arm. Illustrations of Sandow’s feat were shared widely around the globe and, on more than one occasion, were used in advertising materials. For a variety of reasons, not least animal welfare, it is unlikely we’ll see this type of lift again.

    More Fitness History

    Craving some more bits of fitness history? Check out these stories:

    Featured Image: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

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