During the 18th and 19th century, there existed a group of extraordinary strongmen who could perform feats of strength that would be considered superhuman today. Their legendary strength was accompanied by their equally-astonishing physiques. In an era before fancy exercise equipment, supplements and drugs, these old timers accomplished what most men today cannot! What was their secret?
Like many athletes and strongmen today, their training philosophies and methods varied. If you’re looking for the perfect training program, you’re out of luck. Many of the old timers did not necessarily follow any specific routine–but rather, they stuck to their own set of training principles. By exploring the methods of the old timers, you may get an idea of how they trained, so you can perhaps incorporate them into your own training.
This article will explore the training methodologies of five old time strongmen: Eugen Sandow, George Hackenschmidt, Arthur Saxon, Hermann Goenrer, and Edward Aston. Whether you’re looking to gain some muscle mass, get strong, or both, the examples below will give you some ideas on what you can implement into your own training.
1. EUGEN SANDOW’S TRAINING
Known as the Father of Modern Bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow was a performing strongman, travelling the country performing feats of strength, including bearing the weight of horses and soldiers on his chest, bending iron bars, snapping chains, lifting pianos, and bench pressing a cow. He was also known for his athleticism, being able to perform acrobatic movements; he could perform a back somersault while holding a 50 lb dumbbell in each hand. He could also bent press 300 pounds.
The bulk of Sandow’s training involved dumbbell training and heavy weightlifting with barbells:
My faith is pinned to dumbbells, and I do all my own training with them, supplemented with weightlifting [with barbells].
Owing to their smaller size it is possible to have greater variation in the weight of dumbbells than in the long handled bar commonly known as the barbell [back then, barbells were not plate-loaded and were therefore not adjustable; they were fixed in weight]. Any physical culturist can obtain several pairs of dumbbells and be in a position to progressively practice the more advantageous movements.
…While I favour dumbbells in training, weightlifting [with barbells] adds a great deal of interest and training benefit to the program. The largest and strongest muscles of the body, the powerful muscles of the legs and back are brought into vigorous action with the heavy barbell through competitive or exhibition lifting.
…Exercises should be performed progressively, for the muscles become accustomed to the work they are asked to perform, and if the demand is not steadily made greater, the desired growth in size, strength, and shapeliness will not be attained.
Sandow was known to lift light dumbbells as part of his training, and still achieve great results. The reason being that he implemented what is known today as the mind-muscle connection. When lifting light dumbbells, Sandow did not just go through the motions; he concentrated on recruiting as many motor units as possible with each muscle contraction:
You may go through the list of exercises with dumbbells a hundred times a day, but unless you fix your mind upon those muscles to which the work is applied, such exercise will bring but little, if any, benefit. If, upon the other hand, you concentrate your mind upon the muscles in use, then immediately development begins.
Sandow employed some form of periodization into his training, always varying the intensity:
Variation in the training program brings best results. Don’t train every day, skip a day now and then to give the muscles time to thoroughly rest and to give nature the opportunity to rebuild them and add to their strength and endurance. Don’t always train with the same amount of weight. Some days use more moderate weights to tone the muscles, on other training days really exert yourself, give the muscles plenty of work to do, then nature will take care of building more strength, muscle and better health.
These very vigorous days should not be practised by the average man more than once or twice a week. Of course I go through my program from one to three or four times a day, depending upon where I am appearing. But years of progressive training and proper living as I am recommending led up to my ability to withstand this rigorous program and to continue to gain in strength and development while maintaining perfect health.
2. HACKENSCHMIDT’S TRAINING
George Hackenschmidt was a professional wrestler and strongman. His training was not exclusive to weightlifting. Hackenschmidt’s training also included cycling, gymnastics, swimming, running, and jumping. As a strongman, he could perform astounding feats of strength including lifting a small horse off the ground, lifting 276 pounds overhead with one hand, and perform a pullover and press with a 311 pound barbell in the wrestler’s bridge position. In 1902 he jumped 100 times over a table with his feet tied together. He set several weightlifting records throughout his career and was considered both the strongest and best-developed man in the world.
Like many physical culturists of his era, Hackenschmidt believed it was important to develop not only physical strength, but also develop athleticism. He explains in his book, The Way To Live: In Health and Physical Fitness:
For it is only by exercising with heavy weights that any man can hope to develop really great strength. He should of course combine these exercises with skipping, running, jumping, and gymnastics of every description in order to similarly develop his activity and agility, but unless he sedulously carries out the bar-bell and dumb-bell exercises as well he can never acquire really great physical powers – George Hackenschmidt (The Way To Live: In Health and Physical Fitness)
Hackenschmidt further describes his views on lifting as follows:
Some trainers recommend to their pupils for the training of all muscle groups one and the same (light) weight and believe they are able to obtain the same effect by frequent repetitions. My experience has taught me that this is wrong, for the muscles of men or animals who are distinguished for certain feats of endurance are by no means over-developed. A long-distance runner or long-distance cyclist always has comparatively thin legs, as have a racehorse, stag, or greyhound.
Nature does not act without aim and purpose. Hence there is a great difference between feats of endurance and feats of strength. One must consider that, although it is quite possible to enlarge muscles by certain light, prolonged exercises, at the same time the development of the sinews may be neglected, and it is the sinews which transport the action of the muscles to the bone xframe. The sinews can only be exercised and strengthened by correspondingly heavy muscle work.
Besides, to take a paradoxical example, it is quite impossible to improve strong muscle groups, as, for instance, the hip muscles, with light-weight exercises. A further illustration of the fallacy of attempting to develop the muscles by frequent repetitions with the same light exercises may be found in a comparison with any and every other form of athletics, in which a man would never think of merely repeating his training programme. In order to improve himself either in pace or distance, he must set himself a steady progression of arduous effort. – George Hackenschmidt (The Way To Live: In Health and Physical Fitness)
Hackenschmidt believed in breathing through the nose throughout exercise while avoiding training to failure:
Breathing through the nose is the only proper way of respiration and at the same time an important regulator for the movement of the body, for if for any kind of work the breath through the nose ceases to be sufficient, one ought to either discontinue the work or restrict the movement until breathing has again become normal. – George Hackenschmidt (The Way To Live: In Health and Physical Fitness)
3. ARTHUR SAXON’S TRAINING
Arthur Saxon was a German strongman and circus performer from the late 19th century into the early 20th century. Saxon is mostly known for his popularization of the bent press lift, with which he set a world record of 370 pounds. He is also known for lifting 448 pounds in the two hands anyhow movement.
Saxon was a proponent of Strength Endurance, rather than maximal strength. He believed that developing this kind of strength allowed one to acquire not only physical stamina, but mental stamina as well, which would carry-over into other aspects of life.
The usual idea about strength–I mean the idea of the average reader of health magazines–is generally a wrong one. Although a weightlifter (and weightlifters are supposed to be very narrow-minded in their views on this subject), I hope that I, personally, am broad-minded enough to recognize that a man does not prove himself an all-round strong man just because he is able to lift a heavy weight, especially when the weight is lifted once only. The following is my diagnosis of real strength:
Genuine strength should include not only momentary strength, as proved by the ability to lift a heavy weight once, but also the far more valuable kind of strength known as strength for endurance. This means the ability, if you are a cyclist, to jump on your machine and ride 100 miles at any time without undue fatigue; if a wrestler, to wrestle a hard bout for half an hour with a good man without a rest, yet without becoming exhausted and reaching the limit of your strength.
Apart from sports, enduring strength means that the business man shall stand, without a break-down, business cares and worries, that he shall be capable, when necessary, of working morning, afternoon and night with unflagging energy, holding tightly in his grasp the reins of business, retaining all the while a clear mind and untiring energy, both of body and brain.
The man who can miss a night’s rest or miss a meal or two without showing any ill effect or without losing any physical power, is better entitled to be considered a strong man than the man who is only apparently strong, being possessed of momentary strength, which is, after all, a muscle test pure and simple.
In the latter case, where a man raises, once only, a heavy weight, all that he proves himself to possess is muscular control and great contractile power, but this does not guarantee sound internal organs, nor does it prove that a man would come out well in an endurance test. The man capable of long feats of endurance should live longest, and such a man will find his powers of more avail in every-day life than the man who has sacrificed vital strength for an extra few eighths of an inch of muscle, and perhaps the ability to raise a few pounds more in a certain position in a weightlifting test.
I think the above will cause some of my critics, perhaps, to admit that after all I have broad-minded views on this important question, i.e., “What is real strength?” therefore, if a weightlifting competition were held, I should like to see quite a number of lifts attempted, as is the method on the Continent, and to see each man go on with the lifting without too many opportunities for rest, so that we should not only ascertain who is possessed of greatest momentary strength but also who is possessed of the enduring strength as well, and it is a combination of these two which makes real strength.
Like many other physical culturists of his day, Saxon believed in being a well-rounded athlete. He writes,
Neither do I consider a man a really strong man if he is in certain parts developed out of proportion to others. If a man has tremendous arms and chest and weak legs then he is only half a strong man. If he should have strong legs and arms and weak lungs or a weak heart, then again he is by no means entitled to be called a strong man, and some day the inevitable breakdown will occur which will cause carping critics, always ready to attack Physical Culture, to point to such a broken-down athlete and say: “Here is a proof of the harm done by Physical Culture and weightlifting,” the cause really being that this man has not properly understood Physical Culture, and has developed one part at the expense of another. So you see that if a thorough examination could be made of all so-called “strong men” before the public, we should probably find that only one in twenty is really deserving of the name of “strong man.”
Arthur Saxon seldom used barbells in his training. Instead, he relied mostly on dumbbells, kettlebells and ring-weights, with which he would mostly practice one-handed lifts such as the bent press. He would often practice the bent press by tying smaller weights onto the ends of a dumbbell or barbell, making the lift more difficult as the weights would fall off during execution.
4. HERMANN GOERNER’S TRAINING
Goerner was a circus strongman whose stunts and feats of strength included the following: Wrestling an elephant, carrying over 1000 pounds across one shoulder, one arm snatch 229½ pounds, two hands anyhow lift with 430 pounds, deadlift 830 pounds, two hand curl 242 pounds, front squat 474 pounds, jerk behind the neck with 411 pounds, and many more!
Goerner trained an average of four to five days per week. Each session lasted quite a while as well. A close friend of Goerner named Edgar Mueller wrote,
Each training session averaged two hours when performed in the Club, and when training in the open air it would vary between three and four hours – sometimes even longer.
When training for such long periods of time, one must be sure not to burn oneself out. Goerner made sure he did not over-exert himself when training and always trained according to his mood. He always trained within his limits:
In performing the greater majority of his many amazing feats, [Goerner] very rarely exerted himself to anywhere near the limits of his astounding power. In many cases, he could have exceeded the lift he made at the time of performance by a further attempt, but this he always refused to do…He trained always as the mood took him – varying his programme to suit his energy and condition of the moment and never did he force himself to perform any workout when not feeling just in the mood… He did not have or follow what might be really termed a “set” training programme…He did, of course, use a planned and progressive programme but he did not, as many do, map out a certain number of lifts with a certain poundage and then perform them a set number of times for a given period.
The main tool Goerner used in his training was the kettlebell. As described in the article, “Quest For Simplicity in the 21st Century” by Ron Fernando, in the March 2010 issue of Powerlifting USA magazine:
It is a known fact that Goerner trained with kettlebells from the age of 10 and was able to perform a one-handed swing from the ground to overhead with a 50 kilos (approx. 110 lb.) at the tender age of 14. This last fact is astonishing as many of today’s kettlebell experts would be hard pressed to do this. Basically, “Die Kette” was a complex of exercises with a series (or “Chain” Kette) of 19 kettlebells (13 kg. to 52.5 kg.) lined up in a row on the floor.
Each complex was performed with 1 swing, 1 press, 1 curl, and 1 press with each hand before progressing to the next kettlebell. All of this was done with no rest. Sometimes, if the mood suited him, he would do only sets of swings either one or two handed with kettlebells, again with no rest. This warm-up took around 40 minutes, and after a short rest Goerner sometimes repeated “Die Kette” only with thick handled Globe Dumbbells!
It was only after performing “Die Kette” that Goerner got into the meat of his training–Military presses, cleans, snatches, squats, curls and deadlifts, both with one and two hands. He squatted very rarely, and, again, as the mood hit him, but still managed a 600+ rock bottom squat using no equipment and a 500+ front squat. His deadlift, and his ability to grip and hold heavy block weights, engines, and other unwieldy objects were helped by a generous use of this special warm-up exercise. Goerner performed a two-handed deadlift of 793 lb. with a standard barbell (using an overhand grip) over 80 years ago–a lift many of today’s supers would kill for–and of course the aforementioned one-handed pull of 727 lb., a feat which boggles the imagination.
As a matter of differentiation, the late Jon Pall Sigmarsonn was able to do a one-handed pull of 551 around 1980 or so which was then thought of as near impossible from those who had never heard of Goerner. This prodigious back and grip strength was in part developed from the consistent use of kettlebells. The use of kettlebells as a deadlift builder has been confirmed by Donnie Thompson, current holder of the all-time World Superheavyweight total. Witness a quote from Pavel Tsatsouline’s Dragon Door website: “We honestly have not seen anything that 100% transferred over to a sport like kettlebells. I mean, there is nothing about KBs that doesn’t transfer over to powerlifting.” This is a statement Hermann Goerner proved over and over again almost 100 years ago.
Mueller provides insight into the other tools and methods Goerner included in his training:
His inventive mind was always scheming out new and different ways of lifting all kinds of weights – kettlebells, dumb-bells, barbells, block weights, barrels, loaded sacks, etc.…Hermann favoured low repetitions – usually 3 and very rarely 4 – with the weight being increased by 5 kilos (10 lb.) after each set.
Goerner’s training principles can be summed up into the following points: frequent training, train according to mood, never train to failure, train within limits, train progressively, use a variety of exercises with low reps.
5. EDWARD ASTON’S TRAINING
Edward Aston was known as Britain’s Strongest Man. He was also the world’s middle-weight weightlifting champion and the British heavy-weight champion weightlifter. He retired undefeated. As a strongman, Aston could lift 300 1/2 lbs in the Right Hand Anyhow movement. During a challenge in a music hall act, he picked up a 280 lbs sack of flour, placed it on his back and walked off stage! Aston was also well-known for his grip strength; he could deadlift a 496 lbs thick bar (2 1/4″) using a overhand grip.
Aston believed that having pretty muscles was of no use unless you could do something with them:
One does not want muscle solely to look at. It must be useful or it will only serve to assuage one’s vanity.
Aston was a proponent of grip strength, and believed that having a strong grip carried over into all other physical and even mental activities:
Everyone of us today should be interested in the possession of a powerful grip… No matter whether you were a soldier, sailor, airman, policeman, fireman, air-raid warden or rescue worker, you will agree that the possession of a powerful grip was one of your best physical assets and most of us who served in any of the above capacities are more than grateful beacuse of the service it rendered to us and others… The man with good gripping powers is invariably a man with a mind of his own, knowing what he requires from life and determined to get it.
Also known as the “weight-lifting acrobat”, Aston incorporated jumping into his training:
Jumping is one of the most neglected exercises and yet it is by far the best for creating energy and quickness, both of which are the greatest assets of strength.
He practiced his jumping by jumping over a chair. He recommended that beginners begin by jumping onto the seat of the chair, and then from there, jump over the back rest. Then, progress to jumping over the chair entirely.
Although the training philosophies and methods above are varied, they do share some common factors that many lifters today fail to employ into their own training–the main factor being the avoidance of “training to failure“.
As strength coach, Jason Ferruggia writes:
The single most important concept for people to understand is that strength is a skill and you need to treat it as such.
I’m gonna repeat that because it’s so important that you understand it…
Strength is a skill.
Let it sink in for a second.
When you think about it that way the whole thing becomes much easier to grasp.
You are training your nervous system to be more efficient.
That’s why all of the great old time strongmen, like Louis Cyr, Eugene Sandow and Earle Liederman called their workouts “practice.” Lifting was their sport so they understood, as does a good pitching coach, that you can not continue practicing in a fatigued state or you ingrain bad habits. A good pitching or tennis coach would not let you continue on when your speed starts slowing down and your form gets sloppy. They know that you’re done for the day at that point. The same can be said about a good sprint coach.
Lifting a heavy weight is really no different than serving or throwing a ball incredibly hard or sprinting at high speeds. Sure, some people may want to argue semantics, but it’s all human performance and based on the same principles at the end of the day.
You get stronger in one of two ways; improving the efficiency of your nervous system or increasing the size of your muscles. Obviously, you can’t continually increase the size of your muscles forever. But you can steadily make neural strength gains for quite some time if you train properly. That’s how athletes in weight class sports are able to get continually stronger without gaining weight.
Olympic lifters don’t go to failure and they are able to train every day because of it. Gymnasts don’t go to failure, yet they posses astonishing strength and incredible physiques.
In his 1925 book, Secrets of Strength, Earle Liederman described a lifter who trained to failure in the following way, “Literally he has worked himself out, and this is exactly the thing the strength seeker can not afford to do.”
Another thing the aforementioned old time strongmen had in common was the use of one-handed lifts in their training. They did a lot of heavy lifting with one hand via lifts such as the bent press, side press, windmill, snatch, clean & jerk, etc. This prepared them for their exhibitions which often involved lifting heavy objects overhead with one hand.
Squat racks and the bench press were not as common back then as they are today. The only upper-body pressing they did was overhead using a variety of objects and in a variety of ways. This lead to extremely healthy, robust and strong shoulders in the strongmen–something that is lacking among today’s bench-press-excessive lifters.
The old timers also believed in being well-rounded athletes; although they were extremely strong, they did not become that way at the expense of other qualities. They were also agile and athletic, being able to perform gymnastics and acrobatic feats. Often times these different activities carried over into one another.
If one were to sum up the principles that would be included in an old time strongman training program, they would be the following:
- Train with a variety of objects (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, thick bars, etc.)
- Train using compound movements (deadlift, squat, overhead press, jerks, snatches, etc).
- Practice one-handed lifts (bent press, side press, windmill, snatch, etc)
- Avoid training to failure
- Lift heavy, but periodize the intensity
- Train progressively and methodically
- Practice jumping, gymnastics, and calisthenics
- Grip work
How you arrange these factors into a training routine is up to you, and will depend on your individual goals and schedule. A simple search query will provide you with many effective strength training programs; and if you do conduct such a query, you will notice that all successful training programs employ the principles listed above.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
Many of the old timers were professional performers who had to perform on a regular basis, and as part of a circus, they traveled often. Because of this, these strongmen were not able to stick to a regular training routine with a set list of exercises, sets and reps. Instead, they stuck to a set of training principles that prepared them for their exhibitions without burning themselves out. Their training schedule depended on when they were performing. Making a living as circus strongmen also allowed the old timers to focus solely on their craft. Also, many of them may have been genetically gifted.
Hopefully, the information presented above will have given you some ideas on what you can incorporate into your own training in order to build muscle and strength. Combined with an appropriate diet, you too can achieve a legendary physique with the strength the back it up!