Friday, August 13, 2010

Old Strongmen vs New Strongmen... Who was stronger?

Famed scientist Nikola Tesla knew that he needed some photographic proof to cause a sensation about his mysterious experiments in Colorado Springs when he returned to New York in 1900. So, he worked with a photographer and went public with this fantastic picture:

There's just one problem: This picture is a fake. It's actually two pictures, one of Tesla and another of the equipment, exposed on the same film. He created the illusion that he mastered electricity enough to know how to sit amongst a 7 million volt, man-made electrical storm. Ideas like this die hard and even to this day, many believe in Tesla's near-magical capabilities with electricity. Take a look at the depiction of Tesla in 2006 movie, "The Prestige."

Strength training has it's own issues with its early roots. With old becoming new again, contemporary strength trainers see it fit to deride a lot of the roots of strength training, decrying old-timers as inferior fakes. Possibly the best example of this is George Jowett. Although he was a fantastic writer and a respected old-time strongman (having worked for both Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider), legitimate doubt about his most famous lifting stunt, his 168 lbs anvil lift and press, exist out there.

Most don't believe that this is a 168 lbs anvil that he's lifting. Plus, the picture looks to be doctored (Was the anvil resting on a chair that was removed from the photo?). It's hard to believe that anyone could lift an anvil by the horn that far in front of the body one-handed.
Indeed, lying, cheating, doctoring and double-exposing, rigging or exaggerating has a long and scandalous history in the iron game. It was very common back in those days to claim to be the World's Strongest Man and then find ways to make it appear so other than by legitimate lifting feats. Strength was demonstrated at Vaudville theaters and circus's, neither of which had a stellar reputation for honesty and integrity.

It's not an open and shut case that that our modern-day strongmen were stronger than the old-timers as far as I'm concerned. Like any other, modern sport, things have changed considerably in the past 110 years. First of all, there are lifts today that didn't exist 100 years ago. Who knows how much Eugen Sandow could bench? He probably never benched in his entire life! Likewise, several of the lifts popular in 1900 are barely practiced today. How can you compare two lifters who never even did the same lifts? Of course, steroid use has completely changed physical culture. Who knows what Arthur Saxon could have done with a good stack?

Plus, we have to keep in mind how specialized modern iron gamers are today with their training. There was Olympic lifting but there was no strict bodybuilding contests. Powerlifting didn't even exist. To make a something resembling a living off strength training, you had to be good at all of the popular shows of strength, including gymnastics. Can you imagine Matt Kroc doing a back flips and handstands? While a small handful of guys can make a living off of strength training today, that was just impossible 90 years ago. Sandow had to work as an circus acrobat and wrestler (which he hated) when he wasn't modeling for sculptures or touring on the Vaudville circuit in his early years. Jowett had to keep blacksmithing and chainmaking when his writing and mail-order business was starting and again when the depression hit. Bob Hoffman supported his barbell business with his boiler-making work.

So, is old worth being new again? Or, do we take their information and treat it as obsolete as the Ford Model T's that they used to drive? Is there something legitimately useful that we lost and need to find? I think happen to think so. It's a horribly over-used and heavily abused term that I almost don't want to say but this non-specialized training is where training becomes functional. All too often, it's not enough to be strong at, say, max strength but have no conditioning, or vise versa. Take, for example, my project in Greensburg, PA back in the Fall of 2009. I had to shovel out 10 yards (approximately) of wet sand out of the bottom of a tank and load four-55 gallon drums. The drums had to be lifted, by crane, out of the tank an then manually tipped over into a dumpster. So, I had to climb out of the tank (30' deep) and help tip each barrel. I have no idea how much they weighed but they had to be well over 500 lbs. (I know that I can tip a 500 lbs drum by myself).

So, I had to have some pretty good conditioning to keep shoveling the dirt. Then, I had to have enough max and starting strength to tip those barrels over. Plus, I had to do it all day. What I'm getting at is the need for more complete strength development. That's what the old-new-timers were probably better at than the new-old timers. They couldn't be as specific in their training goals. In a way, that makes them just as strong, or stronger, than the latest generation of iron gamers and strength trainers. That's why a strength trainer who lived when Tesla was alive is still relevant. We'd be foolish to disregard it over suspicion or inferior lifting numbers.