Modern-day strongmen achieve awe-inspiring feats of strength. Even the most dedicated of gym rats would cringe at the thought of deadlifting over 1,000lbs in one shot, or trying to lift a 560-lb Atlas stone.
Today, there’s an entire sport dedicated to this mind-blowing style of lifting, but it wasn’t always that case. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, strongmen more often exhibited their incredible power as circus performers and entertainers than as competitive athletes. And long before bodybuilding, competitive weightlifting, or CrossFit, strength athletes found fame under the big top.
Here are some of the best, most entertaining photos of strongmen through the ages.
German strongman Eugen Sandow lifting weights, circa 1890. Sandow was a legendary strength athlete, and paved the way for much of modern bodybuilding. The trophy for the Mr. Olympia competition bears Sandow’s name.
Galen Gotch training for the Strongman World Championship in New York, circa 1900.
Polish "giant" Sigmund Breithart lies beneath a motordrome in which two men ride motorcycles at top speed, circa 1900. The total weight on Breithart’s chest was allegedly 35,000lbs, although there’s little historical (or medical) corroboration to verify that claim.
Eugene Sandow and "Goliath"
German strongman Eugene Sandow and Goliath wrestling with a bear, circa 1910.
Strongman and soldier
A strongman in the French Army lifting a cannon overhead along with three of his comrades astride it, circa 1910.
Greek strongman Gus Lessis holds an 800-lb rock on his chest while a man smashes it to bits with a sledgehammer in New York, NY, on April 9, 1926.
Edward Reece shows his strength by holding up two women with his teeth in New York, NY, on Dec. 29, 1927.
J. Rolleano pulling a truck using only his teeth at Tillings Yard on June 3, 1932.
J. Rolleano bears the weight of a Citroen car on his chest at Tillings Yard on June 3, 1932.
Balkan strongman Steve Eble, known as the "Bosnia Lion," pulling a truck loaded with 20 adults with his teeth at Prater, Vienna, on July 17, 1933.
Carrying the team
A strongman lying on his back onstage, lifting a group of men and the bench on which they sit, circa 1935.
Mr. Joe Smith
Mr. Joe Smith, a blacksmith strongman from Gloucester, picks up and balances a roadworks notice in his teeth on March 28, 1936.
Chest of steel
A strongman holds a rock on his chest while two men try to smash it with hammers, circa 1945.
Strongman Mr. Briton balances tow cyclists and a dancer on his chest in Harry Benet’s circus at Chiswick Empire in London, England on Sept. 4, 1945.
A French strongman, who earned the title "Monsieur France 1960," attempting to pull four people in a car in Paris, France, circa 1960.