Rogue Fitness put out a series of documentaries on Youtube back in 2017, taking a look at some of the early days of strongman and fitness pioneers. I am a guy who still buys old 50s and 60s strength magazines and books, so it really is kind of surprising it took me four years after their release to start the series. I didn’t even know about them until I was doing some research on Louis Cyr.
Episode 1: Eugen Sandow
Sandow is probably best known these days as the guy the Mr. Olympia Statue is named after. Early strongman was as much circus showman as it was feats of strength. Dude once wrestled a lion (sort of). He also used horses in his act. And in those days (late 1800s, early 1900s) it was very much an act, traveling from country to country. Sandow was on the smaller side for strongman, so he essentially invented bodybuilding, putting posing routines in his act. He held the first bodybuilding competition in London in 1901. Sandow actually had baseball card like cards in 1912. He also pioneered the brand with magazines, books, exercise programs. He took a big financial blow when he tried to get into cocoa manufacturing just before WWI. One of the most famous people of his time, he ultimately was buried in an unmarked grave because of his estranged wife.
Episode 2: Louis “Apollon” Uni
The French have entered the fray. Yes, those French. Another showman circus performer. Where as Sandow was a physique showman, Apollon was a large, strong, strong man. The man has 20″ calves and forearms that nearly matched. For comparison sake, I have rather large calves. They are only 18.5″ inches, measured today after watching this. Apollon was more naturally strong than a showman, which hurt his career, especially compared to someone like Sandow.
Episode 3: George Hackenschmidt
One of the pioneers of early wrestling, known as the Russian Lion. It was a tricep injury that took him from strongman to greco-roman wrestling. The Gotch vs. Hackenschmidt stuff is fascinating. Like Sandow, “Hack” is largely remembered because not only because of his physical prowess, but because he knew how to brand himself, with articles, wrestling promotion and a book on training and philosophy. His brand was not in showmanship, however, but in life philsophy.
Episode 4: Kate Sandwina
“The Lady Herculules.” We have our first female feature. Sandwina was a large woman for the era (i.e. 5-10, 200), but with a figure that could still be sold to the public in the early 20th century. She is credited with showing other women lifting was okay. She is yet another circus performer tie, with both her parents performing in a traveling circus. Katie would lift her husband overhead as part of her act. She was reported to be able to put a 286-pound barbell overhead.
Episode 5: Arthur Saxon
Thus far in the series, I at least knew the names featured, if not the detail that has been provided in this series. Saxon is the first one I had not heard of before starting this. Arthur was the beginning of the barbell brutes, taking strongman from the circus sideshow into the modern competitive form. Made a name for himself at 19 by outperforming Sandow in a bent press, which started a bitter rivalry.
Episode 6: Terry Todd
This was a short “bonus” episode, and a departure from the look at the early days of Strongman. It is actually a look at the looker, as Terry Todd was the driving force behind this series as a strength historian. Todd passed away, and the series takes a quick look at his career as both a lifter and a historian. This was also ultimately the end of the series.