For as long as I can remember, since I first started reading muscle magazines and strength-building books at about age 11 or 12, I've been fascinated with stories about huge strong men. The subject of the strongest man in history is controversial, but, with the zillions of people in this world, logic suggests that the strongest man in the world is among us right now, but we know nothing about him.
Indeed. This man, who may be nothing but a glob of strength potential at the moment, assuming maturity, has enormous bones, huge hands and wrists, a thick neck, a wide waist, short back, unusually thick knee tendons, big hips, glutes, upper thighs and plenty of white muscle fibers. His parents and grandparents were also big and strong.
He is probably somewhat heavy, a prodigious eater and somewhere between 17 and 27. He probably does not lift weights (yet) and he has no specific interest in satisfying his enormous strength potential. But, he is out there. Perhaps, the first man to deadlift 1,000 lbs. or clean 600 lbs. is just touching his first barbell right now.
It is probable, for every Paul Anderson or William Kazmaier who act on their amazing potential, there're probably 25 such men in the world who never fully do so, even while they become local legends for their strength and size.
To discuss historical strongmen figures accurately, I have to eliminate religious or metaphorical beings of super-strength. By this I mean those who have performed miracles of a Biblical nature, although indeed, at least three of my candidates for the strongest man (Anderson, Clark and Hamman) claim to have drawn their great strength from divinity (with some heavy squats and benches tossed in of course). It is also ironic that all three appear to have morphed from a common ancestor since all are 5.7" to 5.9" and between 350-lbs. to 380-lbs.
I must regrettably eliminate mythical figures from my discussion. Included in my hit list is the great nine-foot Biblical giant Goliath reputed to have the strength of 20 men. However, David, the future King of Israel, cold-cocked his acromeglia butt (or head, I should say) anyway with a slingshot. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
I must also scuttle Hercules, even though the Greek son of Zeus was able to divert rivers and strangle the monstrous lion of Nemea, (after his sword, arrows and club had all failed him).
Unfortunately, I must also eliminate Ursus, my favorite strong man of all time. Ursus was a character from the original Quo Vadis, a story written by the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz. Quo Vadis is, in part, the powerful story of a Christian slave who was condemned to death by Nero, Rome's rather hedonistic emperor. Since most of you need occasional help getting emotionally up for your squats, allow me to quote from this heroic and powerful emotional work of great strength.
Resigned to death as a Christian, Ursus kneels on the sand and prays. The crowd, eager for a new thrill, is disappointed and displeased at this display of meekness. But then, to the sound of brazen trumpets, a door in the wall opens and into the arena comes, raging, an enormous German aurochs, or wild bull, upon whose head lies bound the living body of the girl Lygia.
Instantly the meek and resigned Ursus is transformed; he springs up as if touched by fire and with the bull rushing directly at him, seizes the animal by the horns!
In the stands the spectators hardly dare to breathe; such a spectacle had never been seen.
Ursus, with his head almost hidden between his massive shoulders, his arm muscles nearly bursting his skin, his back bent like a bow, his feet sinking into the sand up to his ankles, stops the gigantic bull in its tracks!
For what seems like a century, the giant man and the giant animal are folded immovable in a titanic struggle that seems like sculpture of Herculean repose. There is not a sound in the arena, save the flaming of lamps and the crackling of torches. The mighty strugglers appear planted in the earth as if never to move again. Then, suddenly, to the ears of the spectators comes a dull roar like a groan.
Slowly, in the iron hands of the giant, the huge head of the bull begins to turn! The face, neck and arms of Ursus grow purple; his back bends more and more. Duller and hoarser grows the groaning roar of the bull, and with it, is mingled now an eerie whistle that is the breath of the giant animal. Farther and farther turns the head of the bull, and from its mouth creeps foam and flesh!
Then a crack, like the breaking of bones, and the bull rolls on the ground, its neck twisted in death! Ursus, his body flooded with sweat, removes the ropes from the horns of the animal and frees his mistress. The amphitheater goes wild, the very walls trembling from the roar of the thousands as they call for mercy for Lygia, mercy for Ursus."
Such workout inspiration - almost as strong as a bottle of Thermospeed.
Likewise, I must resign myself to drop the exploits of Angus MacAskill, a 7'9", 425 lbs. giant from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Angus appeared in the PT Barnum Circus as a strongman and the infamous Tom Thumb was also on that particular bill.
Angus was reportedly able to shoulder a Halifax ship anchor said by the locals to weigh approximately 2,000 lbs. It has been stated that Angus could also then walk a few steps with it. (People also claimed to see Angus lift a full-grown horse over a four-foot fence, with no Scottish sweat.)
However, folklore being what it is and since ship makers from the time and area report that the anchors all weighed about 600 lbs., most historians have discounted the feats of big Angus as gross exaggeration. Besides, history suggests that super tall men (over seven feet tall) are never proportionally strong due to bone and tissue weakness. It is probably safe to say though, that Angus could have shouldered Tom Thumb and even walked a few feet with that cute little digit.
Of course, Samson, the great Biblical Hebrew, must also get my cane. And that's probably a good thing. I do not want to see Bill Kazmaier aiming to match one of Samson's feats and start slaying hundreds of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. And ESPN shouldn't even be thinking about adding the jawbone-slaying event as one of the events in the MET-Rx World's Strongest Man Contest!
How Do We Measure Collossal Strength?
How do I set the criterion for overall body strength?
First, we have to agree on the definition of strength as a single maximum all-out body effort, the ability to generate maximum muscle tension for one movement or repetition involving as many muscles as possible.
Consequently, the strongest man can't just be measured by great wrist, hand and forearm strength, although such strength is typically held to denote a true, natural strongman.
So, I must regrettably eliminate impressive men such as Slim Farman. Slim, known as the Hammerman, is famous for leveraging a heavy end-weighted hammer down to within inches of smashing his face, with the superhuman power of his wrists, forearms and hands.
I also must reject the exploits of Steven Stanko. Big Steve was the first man in the world to total 1000 lbs. in the three Olympic lifts (press, snatch and clean and jerk), and even smoked the great John C. Grimek, by managing over 11 lbs. on the Weaver Lift. This is lifting a stick with a weight at the end of it with your hands and wrists. I tried this once and my forearms hurt for 10 months, after a futile effort to lift 8 lbs.
Neither can I award this most elite crown of strength to one just proficient in neck and jaw strength. Thus, even though, at 90 years of age, Joe (The Mighty Atom) Greenstein could still bite straight through a big nail, that won't count. When British bodybuilder John Citrone lifted a 300 lb. man with his teeth alone, that won't count either, although both feats might seek sponsor backing from some Orthodontist Association.
Likewise I can't count four times NABBA Mr. Universe Bill Pearl when he used to tear two license plates in half at once, although with California DMV fees as high as they are, anyone who could do this stunt should have a reduction in their fees.
And, having seen former AAU Teenage Mr. America, Mike Dayton climb up a 20 ft. ladder, put a noose around his neck, then step off to literally hang himself; I won't count that either, although not recognizing this feat personally really is a pain in the neck.
Finally, the world's strongest man probably shouldn't be someone who performs only esoteric feats. Jack Walsh is a name 99.9% of you will never have heard of, but by all accounts this man had tremendous natural strength. Jack who weighed all of 190 lbs. actually lifted more than Louis Cyr in the back lift and it was his record of about 4600 lbs. that was finally broken by Paul Anderson.
Jack once vowed to go down into his basement and press his entire house off the rafters. Jack did attempt a quarter squat with a small elephant (maybe 2000 lbs.) on the old Ed Sullivan show (without a super suit and wraps). Half way through the feat, the prepubescent beast became so unnerved, that it promptly delivered some Pachyderm-sized waste on National TV. It was "a really big shoe," as Ed would have said (and even better than Topo Gigo, that little talking rat that used to say, "Goodnight Eddie").
Needless to say, Jack did not make a return engagement for CBS, but Topo did.
I'm going to assess overall body strength, indeed, not just grip, neck or deltoid strength, as in lifting your house off its foundation, (something Muscle-Tech, has not yet claimed for Greg Kovacs, but hey, give them time).
Speed, Power, Athleticism Or Slow Strength?
Theoretically, to assess pure strength, coordination and speed should be eliminated as much as possible. But, in fact, this is impossible. As speed and time become more prominent elements in performance, power becomes paramount. When you apply force over a distance per unit time, we are talking about the world's most powerful man, not the strongest man! While there is a difference, I will not try to make too much differentiation here, lest I drive myself into a physics nuthouse.
Consider the MET-Rx World's Strongest Man Contest, now hosted by Bill Kazmaier, but going on since 1977. If you watch these events you come away extremely impressed with the tremendous athletic ability of these men. These leverage Leviathans are not just big and strong, but agile, coordinated and extremely powerful. They also exhibit surprising skill and both muscular and cardiovascular endurance.
As the contests have evolved, just having the greatest bodyweight does not suffice, but being small certainly does not help. Some of you might remember graphically, when overly bow-legged 190-lbs. bodybuilder Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu, blew his whole knee out in one of these early contests, when he fell with an enormous refrigerator on his back. I think agility has always been emphasized and these contests measure athletic power more than overall slow strength.
It was no coincidence that the first two years of this contest were won by Bruce Wilhelm. To be a true athlete in these very odd events, one must show the ability to have versatile strength and power and to adapt technique functionally.
Bruce Wilhelm was about 315 lbs. at 6'3" when he won the first two years in a row. Years earlier as a high school Californian he was able to put the shot around 68 feet, an absolutely tremendous feat back in the sixties (as it would be now).
Bruce became a champion Olympic lifter
snatching in the neighborhood of 400 lbs. (I believe setting the American record for some time at over 400 lbs.) and he also lifted fairly close to 500 lbs. clean and jerk. That is a damn strong neighborhood. Bruce proved that Olympic lifters did, (and do) have tremendous, functional strength and power and were (are) not just skilled athletes hefting ponderous loads only on technique.
The super heavyweights today are approaching 600 lbs. in the clean and jerk. Believe me, no one can do this with just technique. The records today in the snatch and clean and jerk are in the vicinity of 450 lbs. snatch and 575 lbs. clean and jerk.
But, my main point - Bruce is a perfect example of the difficulty in ferreting out athletic ability and power in some sort of comparison to strength. By his own admission, Bruce did not consider himself the strongest man who ever lived, but by virtue of his accomplishments certainly could have been considered such. Bruce obviously knew he was a big, strong and powerful athlete, but admitted others were stronger (privately, never in public, he was too wily to do that).
On a more recent scale, there are two superior humans who have really proved best in the World's Strongest Man events over the years that are also good examples of what I am talking about. They are both four-time winners of these events (Bill Kazmaier and Bruce Wilhelm each won twice). I refer to Jon Pall Sigmarsson and Magnus Ver Magnusson. Jon Pall Sigmarsson started as a bodybuilder, found his calling in these strength events, surprising everyone, but unfortunately passed away a few years ago of a heart attack, cut down in his prime. Magnus himself also suffered a mild heart attack, but is recovering.
Watching these events, if this unusual combination of pure isometrics with sudden endurance shifts is not a test of your heart flow dynamics, man I do not know what is. Both Jon Paul and Magnus dominated and I would call them both the world's most versatile, powerful strength athletes. They excelled at every odd-ball thing one could imagine, from pulling huge trucks up inclines, dragging huge anchors, lifting and running with huge beer barrels, turning over cars or giant wheels, etc, etc..
Now, one can argue that this weird mixture of events is the best, functional way to measure the true extent of a man's overall strength, but I say the definition is wrong. Instead, the events require the best combination of athletic power, some slow static strength, a huge amount of agility and coordination and even cardiovascular endurance, instead of pure one repetition strength. Paul Anderson and Louis Cyr would probably not have won any of these contests, although Anderson was athletic.
Some Big Strong Boys!
First, here are some tremendously strong men who could justifiably be included on anyone's strongest strongman list. I do not include them because, in my personal view, their exhibitions of mighty strength were too short, too incomplete, more of athletic power rather than pure strength, as with Olympiclifting and strongman contests. Or, their lifts were exceeded rather quickly, were not documented with witnesses and/or limited, or even too specialized. My short list of really great strong men, which could be a lot longer, includes:
- Strongman Contestants: Magnus ver Magnusson and Jon Pall Sigmarsson, both four-time winners of the World's strongest man contests and perhaps both were instead the world's most powerful men!
- Pro Football: Bob Brown (who supposedly could military press 400 lbs. off the rack, cold with no warm-up).
- Wrestling: The Living Legend, Bruno Sammartino and Chuck Brown (6'2", 340 lbs.).
- Powerlifting: This includes innovators such as Terry Todd and Pat Casey. Todd was an all-around strong man, noted for tremendous hand, back and grip strength. Pat Casey was the first man to bench 600 lbs., to squat 800 lbs. and to total 2,000 lbs. I do not include Hugh Cassidy, Jim Williams, Ed Coan (recognized as the all-time best powerlifter ever), OD Wilson and Garry Frank. (Frank has the highest all-time powerlifting total and he also was a great all-around athlete.)
- Olympiclifting: Yuri Vlasov (1960 Olympiclifting champion), Leonid Zhabotinsky (1964 and 1968 Olympiclifting champion. He was 6'5" and 360 lbs.), Sultan Rachkmanov and Mario Martinez.
- Bodybuilding: Greg Kovacs. Probably the strongest bodybuilder ever.
- Longshoremen: Karl Norberg.
I trust you have some idea how hard it would be to really know who was the all-time strongest man if I choose not to include these great men. However, I now offer a few special men for your consideration, in approximate chronological order and what they did that was so outstanding that they qualify for my exclusive list.
Consider that many are included because the lifts they did were done slowly and extremely diversified, without modern day assisting devices such as wraps, and most importantly, in many cases, without steroids - a big consideration.
Luis Uni (Apollon The Mighty)
This French-born strong man was about 6'3" and 265 lbs. with 18" forearms and nearly 10" wrists. Besides bending huge thick bars, he lifted a pair of train wheels that weighed 366-lbs. over his head. Uni may have had the strongest hands, wrists, forearms and upper arms of all time.
The center handle or axle of the train wheels was so thick (about 2 inches) that most men couldn't even come close to wrapping their fingers around it and could not even start to lift it. Hundreds of men tried and failed. The wheels remained floor-bound for nearly 30 years until the great French champion weightlifter, Charles Rigoulot, lifted them in 1930.
Much later, both world champion Olympic heavyweight weightlifters, John Davis and Norbert Schemansky, lifted the Apollon wheels. Rigoulot had a tremendous grip and hand size and he held the one-arm snatch record for years at 253-lbs., a phenomenal feat. He was up to the task, but only after much secret practice and failures, preparing with the wheels before doing it in front of the French public.
Both Davis and Schemansky were very strong men and world weightlifting champions, and were actually considered the strongest weightlifters in the world at the time. Many times world champion, John Davis, was able to lift the wheels on his fourth attempt and he had to use a one hand over and one hand under approach, and literally flip the unwieldy wheels as he pulled them to his chest!
The motor citiy's finest strongman, Norbert Schemansky, who is now in his 70's, was truly a natural. He jerked about 445 lbs. and snatched 363 lbs. (a world record at the time), before steroids. He made his 363 lbs. in 1963 when he was close to 40 years old, without much style. Because he had large hands, Ski did better with the wheels than Davis.
Ski weighed about 230 lbs. when he cleaned it on the first attempt and jerked it for three repetitions. (Maybe the French disdain for Americans is due to Schemansky).
These athletes though, were explosive, trained lifters and knew how to accelerate using technique and speed to lift barbells. Apollon lifted his wheels with slow arm strength. Besides doing many other feats, Apollon lifted a 280 lb. set of train wheels numerous times, every night as part of his act and evidently, sometimes lifted the 366 lb. set, when he was feeling his French oats.
The mighty Apollon died in 1928. I wonder, did Apollon ever ride a French train? He may have been afraid some of the wheels were missing.
At his peak, the proud French Canadian Samson weighed 330 lbs. at 5'9". His overall body strength was enormous. He held the world record in the back lift at over 4,300 lbs., but reportedly made no big effort on this so could have lifted considerably more.
Where Louis Cyr was unusually strong was in the slow lifts and his ability to hold out weights at shoulder length (when done with both arms this was called the crucifix lift) and in one-arm pressing type movements, in vogue back then. At his peak no one could beat him in any strength feat no matter what it was, and strong men came from all over the world to test him and all failed.
I can tell you as a former Olympic lifter myself, what was most impressive about Cyr was that his lifts were all done in super-slow motion. They were not quick lifts and doing a clean or clean and press slowly is considerably harder than moving fast. Check out some of these lifts and keep in mind they were slow with no cheating, no wraps, no belts or steroids!
- Right arm held horizontally out straight, holding a 104 lbs. dumbbell.
- Jerk with one arm, 132 lbs. 36 times.
- Lifted a 430 lb. barrel of cement to his shoulder using one arm only.
- Clean and slow military press of 350 lbs.
- Cleaned and pressed a thick-handled 240 lbs. dumbbell with his right arm. This was so thick and difficult that many of the strongest men could not even deadlift it.
Louis Cyr made his best lifts from about 1895 to 1902. Cyr was considered by most experts to be the strongest man who ever lived until American Paul Anderson came on to the scene.
Interestingly and sadly, Cyr died early of Bright's kidney disease (chronic inflammation of the kidney nephrils, the functioning unit of the kidney), at age 48 in 1912. Paul Anderson also died of the same hereditary kidney disease when he was 61 in 1994. Paul's life was prolonged due to a kidney transplant from his sister in 1984.
Jeff M. Everson
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