Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

Although only an exhibition, Paul Anderson and all the lifters competing at the weightlifting exhibition in Moscow on June 15, 1955 surely understood the magnitude of this first “cultural exchange” between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And, as detailed in the previous entry, with only a few years of experience under his belt, Anderson had made the U.S. team and sought to do his best both for himself, and for America.

So, like a proper heavyweight at the most important event of his life to date, Anderson laid on a couch that evening while awaiting his first press attempt of the night. Since Anderson and his teammates – Tommy Kono, Chuck Vinci, Stan Stanczyk, Joe Pitman, and Dave Sheppard – stepped on stage during opening ceremonies, Anderson did his best to save his energy. He saved it for quite awhile, actually, as the “rising bar” method was used for all weight classes, meaning the weight rose by 5 kilograms for each attempt, and each athlete would jump in whenever he wanted.

 

Anderson flexes at the World Championships in Munich a few months after his performance in Moscow.

 

All the other weightlifters attempted all of their lifts before Anderson even stirred. The last athlete on stage was Alexey Medvedev, the reigning Soviet heavyweight champion who was pitted against Anderson. Medvedev finished his presses at 325 pounds, which tied his personal best, and tied the Olympic record for heavyweights. It was no surprise, then, that the Soviet crowd buzzed after hearing that Bob Hoffman, the United States “coach,” called for a 25-kilogram weight jump. What stirred the crowd more was the man attempting the jump in weight had no international weightlifting experience. In other words, most in the crowd simply had not heard of Anderson.

According to Arkady Vorobyov, one of the Soviet weightlifters competing that evening, Anderson didn’t even warm up before his first attempt. “When [Anderson’s] turn came,” he said, “he got up from the couch with all the elegance of an elephant and went straight out onto the platform,” where he was met by reportedly 15,000 spectators at the outdoor Zelyony Theater in Gorky Park. At 5’9” and 340 pounds, Anderson was so stocky that he almost waddled to the bar as he swung his body with each step. He looked out of place compared to the slimmer weightlifters, but as Vorobyov explained, “[Anderson] performed his solo with complete calm. The bar, heavily loaded with weights, was raised and then lowered without a murmur of dissension.” Anderson easily cleaned his first attempt to his chest while in a relatively shallow squat position, and then pressed it overhead seemingly with little effort.

After his first successful press at 172.5 kilograms (380.29 pounds), Anderson called for 182.5 kilograms, or 402.41 pounds. Loading the bar took longer than usual, as organizers did not expect such a weight to be lifted so early in the evening, and the loaders were meticulous in reaching the correct weight. On his second attempt, Anderson easily cleaned the bar, waited for the judge’s clap, and began pressing the weight. Halfway into his press, however, the weight seemed to move forward out of the groove, and Anderson let the weight fall back to his chest, and then to the ground.

Anderson recounted in his autobiography, The Strongest Man in the World, that the bar was wet due to a drizzle, which caused his hand to slip. A number of other sources, such as weather data and film of the event, suggest that there was not actually any significant precipitation at the time. For instance, no one in the crowd was seen using umbrellas. Perhaps this discrepancy resulted from the many years between the event and his autobiography, or maybe Anderson simply couldn’t remember it happening any other way. He is surely not the only strongman to have missed a few details from an event. Whatever the reason, the fact remained that Anderson had only made his first lift.

On his third attempt, Anderson redeemed himself. He easily cleaned the 402.41 that bested him just a few minutes before, and this time, once he began pressing the weight, he didn’t stop until lockout. Although the film did not show the crowd throwing their hats or standing on their chairs like Anderson described in his memoir, Harry Paschall, managing editor of Strength & Health at the time, wrote, “The spectators were absolutely numb. You could see the stark amazement, admiration and awe in their stricken faces – you could just imagine them wondering where this American youth came from – why no Russian could cope with such power.”

 

Anderson presses 402.41 pounds to stun the crowd in Moscow.

 

​Anderson punctuated his press with a 336-pound snatch, as well as a 425.25 pound-clean and press. He totaled 1164 pounds at the exhibition in Moscow, which was another all-time best for Anderson. Although many at the time referred to his lifts as world-records, they were actually all unofficial as the International Weightlifting Federation rules required at least three countries to compete at a meet for world-records to be set.

​The previous piece on Anderson hinted at the geopolitical implications of the event, and, to be sure, Anderson’s press was more than simply one lift. At the time, the press was considered to be different than the other two “quick lifts” in weightlifting, as it was the standard in measuring the true raw strength of an athlete. Moreover, the heavyweight class was regarded as the absolute strongest class. Thus, with the Cold War already 10 years old by that time, the Anderson versus Medvedev matchup took on significant meaning: Anderson’s success demonstrated that American manhood, and by extension, the American way of life, was superior to Communism.

​A number of periodicals in the United States echoed this message. Time magazine reported that Anderson was a “giant of a capitalist fairy tale…Anderson toyed with the big bar bells and set two world-records in the process.” Stewart Alsop, whose article appeared in The Washington Post and Times Herald, wrote, “The most conspicuous American weight lifter was a prophet without honor in his own country…The Russians had won, but Mr. Anderson had saved the national face by breaking all known records.” Also acknowledged that the lifting in Moscow was about “the world balance of power and the frightening difference between social systems.”

​Back home in Georgia, people were ready to celebrate Anderson’s achievements. The governor had declared July 5th “Paul Anderson Day” in Georgia, and dignitaries and a motorcade awaited his arrival in Atlanta. Due to Anderson’s overseas flight arriving six hours late, however, he missed this grand ceremony. Nevertheless, Anderson also garnered mentions in Congress, which suggests that the U.S. Government looked favorably upon his accomplishments in furthering American propaganda efforts in the fight against communism.

​Perhaps the most interesting results of Anderson’s performance was the effect he had on the Soviet people. Based on newspaper reports, Soviet women were nominating Anderson as their “Pinup Boy of 1955,” and Soviet Sport devoted an entire page of its 8-page Saturday edition to the United States weightlifting team. Dorothy Johnson, Anderson’s sister, recalled that during the World Championships in Munich, Germany, held a few months after the Moscow exhibition, the Soviet and American teams slipped away and socialized. She said, “At that time Paul was eating honey and when the Russians came they were all eating honey and that shows that they thought a lot of him.”

Finally, as a testament to the legacy that Anderson left on the Soviets, Bob Hise, who founded the American Weightlifting Association, said in the documentary The Strongest Man in Recorded History: A Documentary on the Life of Paul Anderson, that during the 1975 World Weightlifting Championships in Moscow, the rink in which it was held was surrounded by a corridor filled with outstanding weightlifters. If numbers meant anything, according to Hise, Anderson was clearly their idol, as there were 144 pictures of him in that corridor.

Overall, the Moscow exhibition was not as popular or significant as other “cultural exchanges” such as the track and field meets between the United States and the Soviet Union from the 1950s until the 1980s. However, Paul Anderson lifting the Iron Curtain was important for a number of reasons. First, the Moscow Weightlifting Exhibition was a very significant event in sports history, as it was the first time Americans were invited to the Soviet Union for a cultural exchange since the Cold War began. Moreover, at a time when a symbolic battle was being waged between two of the world’s most powerful countries, Anderson’s strength helped land a powerful blow for the American way of life. From being regarded a hero, to helping popularize the sport of weightlifting through all his press coverage, for at least a brief moment in time, it seems one Soviet official was correct when he called Paul Anderson “Mr. America.”

 

 

Bibliography:

Russ Crawford. 2008. The Use of Sports to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1945-1963. (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press).

Dominic G. Morais and Jan Todd. 2013. “Lifting the Iron Curtain: Paul Anderson and the Cold War’s First International Sport Exchange.” Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture 12(2): 3–16.

Harry B. Paschall. January 1956. “Strongest Man Who Ever Lived.” Iron Man,
20.

“Peaceful Penetration-US Weightlifters Find Velvet Carpet in Russia.” June 19, 1955. The Spencer Sunday Times (Spencer, Iowa): 10.

The Strongest Man in Recorded History: A Documentary on the Life of Paul Anderson. 1992. VHS. Coleman Video Productions.

Arkady Vorobyov. October 1995. “Paul Anderson’s Moscow Triumph.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture 4(2).

Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

With the recent 2017 Arnold Sports Festival providing a platform for athletes to accomplish tremendous strength feats, I thought it would be appropriate to change gears a bit to celebrate one of the most legendary Iron Game standouts: Paul Anderson. Many consider Anderson to be one of the strongest people to have ever lived, and rightfully so. The famous image of Anderson with an axle and enormous wheels on his back and stories of him backlifting over 6,000 pounds are just some evidence of his larger than life strength.

Although individuals have justifiably challenged the veracity of some of Anderson’s feats, that they could even be believed in the first place is a testament to Anderson’s abilities. There are a number of stories about Anderson that I could relay, but in this piece I’d like to examine a lesser-discussed accomplishment on Anderson’s resume: his splash onto the world stage in Moscow at the 1955 weightlifting exhibition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

This particular weightlifting exhibition was a result of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that began brewing after World War II. Due to fears of a growing global communist presence linked to the increasingly powerful USSR, the United States initiated foreign policy that attempted to stifle the dissemination of communism globally. These geopolitical tensions, which lasted until approximately 1991, are referred to as the Cold War. Although no direct skirmishes occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union, each side attempted to influence the spread of democracy or communism in many ways, including proxy wars such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Sport also played a role in the battle between Communism and the “American Way.” Throughout the Cold War, competitions on the world stage between the United States and the Soviet Union were imbued with domestic sociocultural implications, and, as such, the two countries often found ways to pit their athletes against one another. One of the earliest of these competitions was the weightlifting exhibition in Moscow in 1955. It was also the first “good will” sporting exchange between the two countries during the Cold War, and its success led to more of these events between the two countries. But just as we don’t hit PRs without laying a foundation, I think it’s important to feature Anderson’s path to that momentous occasion.

Anderson was born in Toccoa, Georgia in 1932. Anderson’s family moved around the South during his childhood due to his father’s job with the Tennessee Valley Authority. As a child, Anderson showed few signs of becoming one of the strongest men to ever live, and actually barley survived a bout of Bright’s disease, which affects the kidneys. This once-ailing child soon grew, however.

Anderson became an exceptional athlete in high school, and eventually earned a football scholarship to Furman University in South Carolina. Although his uncle introduced him to weights when Anderson was 14 years old, he first began training seriously with weights while at Furman. Due to popular beliefs their coaches held about “muscle binding” and the deleterious effects weight training had on athletic performance, Anderson and his friends trained in secret. Approximately two years into his college career, however, Anderson realized that college was not the right path for him, and he returned home.

While there, Anderson gravitated toward a group of individuals who also enjoyed weight training, and they eventually introduced him to another Iron Game standout named Bob Peoples. People’s, who lived in Johnson City, Tennessee, was known for his deadlifting ability; a few years before meeting Anderson, in 1949, Peoples officially pulled 725.5 at a bodyweight of no more than 181 pounds. Peoples was also known for his interesting deadlifting technique, as he would exhale to lessen his intra-abdominal pressure and pull with a rounded back.

Although Peoples admitted he was skeptical about the rumors he heard about Anderson’s behemoth strength, after meeting and training for the first time, Peoples was a believer. For their first training session, Peoples invited Anderson down to his basement – what Anderson eventually called “the dungeon.” Peoples recollected that Anderson weighed about 260 pounds when they first met. In “the dungeon,” on what is regarded as the first “power-rack” ever built, Anderson asked for 500 pounds with no warm-up. He squatted it easily. Anderson then asked for 50 more pounds, squatted it twice, and then performed another rep so that Peoples wife could bear witness! What’s more, after supplementing his regular training with “heavy supporting work” for one month, as Peoples advised, Anderson accomplished a perfect squat with over 600 pounds.

For the next two years Anderson’s strength followed a similar trajectory. At the Junior National Weightlifting Championships in 1953, he totaled 900 – 300 press, 270 snatch, and 370 clean and jerk. He weighed in at 292.75 pounds. Only two weeks later he squatted 714.75 at a Boys Club exhibition. With these types of performances, Anderson soon earned the moniker “Dixie Derrick” among weight training circles.

Although Anderson was making big waves in the weight lifting world, he struggled with injuries during most of 1954. He broke his wrist attempting to clean 400 pounds at the Middle Atlantic Open in Philadelphia, and although he competed once after recovering, according to his autobiography, Anderson broke several ribs and injured his hip in a car accident later in the year. As a testament to the impact he already made, however, Charles Coster wrote in the Reg Park Journal, “PAUL IS ONE OF THE MOST SENSATIONAL THINGS THAT EVER HAPPENED IN THE WEIGHT-LIFTING WORLD.” There weren’t many folks who disagreed.

Eventually Anderson made his way back to the platform, totaling 1070 with a 370-pound press, a 300-pound snatch, and a 400-pound clean and jerk at the All-Dixie AAU Open in Atlanta in December 1954. All of these numbers are impressive, but what illustrates the raw strength that Anderson encompassed was his press. At the time, cleaning the weight preceded every competition press, and this context only amplifies his abilities.

By this this time, Anderson began reaching weightlifting heights that some never thought they would see in their lifetime. Two months after the All-Dixie AAU Open, in February 1955, Anderson became the first man to total 1100 pounds in the three Olympic lifts, which broke Olympic champion Norbert Schemansky’s record of approximately 1075 pounds (the lifts were recorded kilos). Then, in April, as part of an exhibition at a variety show, Anderson broke the 400-pound press barrier by pushing 402 pounds overhead, and he went on to total 1142.5 pounds. Unfortunately for Anderson, however, because it was not under proper conditions, his feat could not be recognized as an official record.

Whereas Anderson felt little to no pressure during his performances due to being the strongest man around, his next competition was different. The 1955 Senior Nationals would determine which lifters would make the United States Olympic team and travel behind the Iron Curtain to compete in the 1955 exhibition in Moscow.

Before the competition, Anderson felt that the cards were stacked against him. Sometime before the meet, Bob Hoffman, who owned York Barbell and was organizing the trip abroad, invited Anderson to live in York and work for Hoffman; he essentially offered to sponsor Anderson. Anderson declined, however, and believed this action might ultimately be held against him.

The pressure was on, but when the time came to perform, as always Anderson impressed. He lifted 390, 320, and 435 pounds, and his clean and jerk set an unofficial world record at its official weight of 436.5 pounds. This performance alone was likely enough to land Anderson a spot on the team, but with Norbert Schemansky not able to compete due to a back injury, Anderson’s fate was certain. He would travel to Moscow and attempt to lift the Iron Curtain.

In the next entry, I’ll detail Anderson’s triumph in Moscow, and the reaction his performance elicited back home.

Bibliography:

Russ Crawford. 2008. The Use of Sports to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1945-1963. (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press).

Chas Coster. July 1954. “Paul Anderson: ‘The Unknown Quantity.’” The Reg Park Journal: 30.

Douglas Field. 2005. American Cold War Culture. (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press).

Thomas M. Hunt. Fall 2006. “American Sport Policy and the Cultural Cold War: The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Years.” Journal of Sport History 33(3): 273–97.

Dominic G. Morais and Jan Todd. 2013. “Lifting the Iron Curtain: Paul Anderson and the Cold War’s First International Sport Exchange.” Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture 12(2): 3–16.

Joe Roark. June 2001. “Ironclad – Paul Anderson’s June 12, 1957 Backlift.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture 7(1): 30–35.

Joe Roark. May 2000. “Ironclad – Paul Anderson’s Famous Safe.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture 6(3): 30–33.

The Strongest Man in Recorded History: A Documentary on the Life of Paul Anderson. 1992. VHS. Coleman Video Productions.

Al Thomas. November 1992. “Bob Peoples: Deadlift Champion, Strength Theorist, Civic Leader.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture 2(4): 3–5.

Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

Recently, Cara Brennan wrote an article for BarBend.com titled “Atlas Stones Versus Stone of Steel: Why the Difference Matters for Strongman Athletes.” In the piece she identified a number of differences between the Stone of Steel (SoS) and concrete atlas stones. Notable among them were the technique used for each implement, the greater accessibility of concrete stones due to the Stone of Steel price, and the relative ease of cleanup after using the SoS. First, I think she provided a fair commentary on the stone debate, and she conveyed great points. However, one major consideration regarding the SoS was not mentioned: legitimacy. Thus, I’d like to discuss what I think to be the most potentially positive aspect of the SoS in this blog post. As a disclaimer, I own a SoS that I purchased before writing for MBPowerCenter.com, and I do not receive any compensation for my writing on this website.

I think that implements such as the SoS can potentially increase the legitimacy of strongman as a sport to those who are not already “physically cultured.” Legitimacy is described as “congruence between social values associated with or implied by [organizational] activities and the norms of acceptable behavior in the larger social system” (Dowling & Pfeffer, 1975, p. 122). In other words, the concept of legitimacy is socially constructed; people in the surrounding social system deem the entity in question legitimate (accepted by society), or not.

It should be no surprise that relatively few people compete in strongman. Out of the estimated 21% of Americans who participate in strength training activities, approximately 15,000 individuals are members of Strongman Corporation in the United States. The amount of people who view strongman as a “legitimate” sport rather than just a bunch of meatheads or strength freaks is probably closer to the lower end of the range between these two numbers. No matter where that mark lands, it is not relatively large.

Now, I believe that using uniform implements, like the SoS, can potentially increase the legitimacy of strongman in the eyes of people who do not view it as an “acceptable” sport. Presently, when someone is introduced to a sport, they usually expect rules and regulations explaining how the game is played, but also regulating the equipment to be used. In Major League Baseball, bats must be made of one single piece of wood not more than 2.61 inches in diameter, and not more than 42 inches long. In the National Basketball Association, only balls officially approved by the league that are between 7.5 and 8.5 pounds of pressure may be used. In the National Hockey League, sticks may not exceed 63 inches in length, and the blade of the stick can be no wider than 3 inches. This equipment must all meet certain specifications, and most in the U.S. are accustomed to this trend.

In strongman, however, there are few to no rules regarding equipment. There is no equipment or event description page on Strongmancorporation.com or USstrongman.com. Rather, there are informal guidelines for events. For instance, competitors know they will likely have one, or sometimes two of the following types of events in a competition: a press overhead, a pull from a certain height, something heavy to be moved or carried a distance, a loading event, and a showcase event such as keg toss. These criteria are very broad, and as such, there is usually little uniformity to each competition.

Moreover, the equipment that is used in each event also differs. The Austrian Oak that is used at the Arnold Strongman Classic in Columbus is made of wood. The logs used at the Log Lift World Championships are metal. The size and weight of frames differ. Sometimes promoters don’t know the weight of the stones because they haven’t made them yet. There are different types and sizes of circus dumbbells. The examples of the irregularity in equipment in strongman abound.

Personally, I do not think these are bad things. I believe, like many I’m sure, that part of the charm in strongman is only having “guidelines” to follow in terms of the sport. The weaving in of the unknown into the sport is exciting to me. The feeling of lifting implements “not made to be lifted,” is extremely empowering. However, I came to this sport after training with weights for a number of years, and my experience is likely not shared by most in the U.S.

I am not part of the majority of the public that can deem strongman “legitimate” by increasing attendance to competitions and shows, and increasing viewership online. The people who will deem strongman legitimate are those who don’t bat an eye after hearing Kirk Herbstreet mention that a Penn State running back power cleaned 590 pounds. These are the people who do not know much about the Iron Game right now, and who are likely accustomed to rules and regulations so minute that players are fined for not wearing appropriate shoes. Considering the general public is used to so many regulations and their uniform execution, public perception, and thus commercial viability, can be tarnished without uniformity. Horse racing and NASCAR, among other sports, provide evidence for this claim (Hassan, 2014; Shackledford, 2011; Abrams, 2010).

This mindset is in part a result of the beginnings of organized sport in the United States. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, sport took on characteristics of a capitalistic enterprise. Leisure time increased for many people as America became more industrialized, and sporting goods companies began standardizing sport products. Sport practices continued to become “more organized, rationalized, and quantified,” which are all characteristics of modern sport as we know it (Gems, Borish, and Pfister, 2008, p. 140; Guttmann, 1978).

To summarize thus far, the sport of strongman has much variation regarding events, but I assert that the general sport public is accustomed to uniformity in sports. I believe that uniformity, as a consequence of implements like the Stone of Steel, can potentially lead to greater public acceptance/popularization/legitimation of strongman.

I believe this for a few reasons. First, using standardized pieces of equipment promote parity among competitors. In other words, all competitors are competing on the same level when each piece of equipment is virtually the same as the others. This can spur a quest for records among competitors. For instance, in the past month or two, we’ve seen Martin Licis, Dave Daly, and Jeff Lee, among others, chase after numbers put up by one another on the Stone of Steel. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that these individuals did not need to be at the same competition using the same stones in order to compete with one another, as there were no doubts as to the circumstances of the others’ feats (weights of the stones, texture of the stone surface, discrepancy in circumference).

Second, I believe that standardized equipment lowers the entry barrier to the sport. In an age of consumption, buying equipment for most mainstream sports is very easy. The same cannot be said for strongman. Making stones, scouring Craigslist for kegs (though PowerCenter also has kegs), or building frames and farmer’s walk handles with lumber takes much more time and energy than acquiring equipment for most other sports. Moreover, I’d argue that it is comforting to newcomers to see equipment recognizable as standardized, which makes an introduction to strongman somewhat similar to other sports, which can be less intimidating. To be fair, however, if the cost of purchasing the equipment is too high, the barrier for entry will likely not lower.

Finally, along the same lines, standardized, uniform equipment could help strongman be acknowledged as more mainstream. As this characteristic is already present among most, if not all, popular, contemporary sports, I think it would provide the potential for strongman to be recognized similarly. Additionally, even the simplest sports, such as soccer, invite innovations in new cleats, advancements in ball design, and new shin guard materials. A move from the more primitive equipment of concrete stones and wooden logs might also lead to associations of strongman being a more recognizable sport.

Overall, I think the introduction of equipment such as the Stone of Steel and the Power Keg are already changing the sport, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. Where the sport will ultimately end up, however, will be determined by those who wield the most power and influence. Only time will tell whether that contingent will be the governing bodies, the equipment manufacturers, the social media influencers, the spectators, or the competitors, as each of these bodies play a significant role in the sport right now. Either way, I believe the increased activity we’ve seen within the sport means that more people are participating, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.

Thank you to Ben Pollack for his help in writing this piece.

Bibliography:

Roger I. Abrams. Sports Justice: The Law and the Business of Sports. Boston, Massachusetts: Northeastern University Press, 2010.

Luke P. Breslin, “Reclaiming the Glory in the ‘Sport of Kings’ – Uniformity is the Answer.” Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law 20 (2010): 297-332.

Gerald Gems, Linda Borish, and Gertrud Pfister. Sports in American History: From Colonization to Globalization. 1 edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008.

Allen, Guttmann. From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports. New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

David Hassan. The History of Motor Sport: A Case Study Analysis. Routledge, 2014.

Ben Shackleford. “NASCAR Stock Car Racing: Establishment and Southern Retrenchment.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 28, no. 2 (February 1, 2011): 300–318.

Brian W. Ward, Tainya C. Clarke, Colleen N. Nugent, and Jeannine S. Schiller. “Early Release of Selected Estimates Based on Data From the 2015 National Health Interview Survey.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, May 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/earlyrelease201605.pdf.

Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

I’m admittedly a big Eugen Sandow fan as the previous few entries here suggest. I’d be remiss, however, to not focus on the many other physical culture standouts that helped pave the way for those of us so passionate about the Iron Game. And in the midst of America’s relatively divisive national climate, I think it’s important to think a bit more inclusively about the people who have embraced strength and helped spread its benefits.

Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton is one of these standouts. For those alive during her heyday, they may remember Stockton as being a “buxom barbelle” who caught the attention of many lifters during the 1940s and 1950s. For those not as familiar with Pudgy Stockton, she is recognized as one of the most influential figures in the popularization of resistance training among women in the modern era.

Known as “Pudgy” – the nickname her father gave her as a child due to her solid build – Abbye Eville was introduced to the physical culture field in approximately 1938, when she was nineteen. While working as a telephone operator, she began gaining weight due the relatively sedentary nature of the job. After voicing her concern about this change to her boyfriend and later husband, Les Sockton, he bought her a pair of dumbbells and eventually brought her to the original “Muscle Beach” in Santa Monica. There, she began practicing the acrobatics for which the beach became known in the 1940s and 1950s.

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These images demonstrate some of the balancing and acrobatic feats commonly on display at Muscle Beach.

Stockton picked up on both the acrobatics and lifting relatively quickly, and her body soon reflected her aptitude. Her once average physique began leaning out and developing strong curves, and she looked much different from average women of the day. She looked so different, in fact, that about one year after she began her training, a photographer “discovered” her on the beach, and his photos were featured in a magazine titled Pic in 1939.

Everything changed for Stockton after that initial magazine feature. In 1940 she and a few other prominent women from Muscle Beach were featured in the September issue of Strength & Health. Her appearance actually marked a change in the magazine, as Stockton ventured from the domestic female ideal traditionally forwarded in the United States and in Strength & Health, and treaded on territory usually reserved for males. She was shown in that particular issue performing a back double bicep pose, as well as in a bridge position while supporting the weight of two men. These images are shown below. She was not just strong for a woman. She was strong, plain and simple.

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This temporary shift in the way women were portrayed in Strength & Health paralleled American attitudes toward women during the war years. Prior to the World War II era, societal roles for most women – especially white, middle-class women – were limited to domestic duties. As America prepared for the impending conflict, these traditional roles of women in society changed drastically. As men were being shipped from the mainland, the United States labor force weakened. In response, government and mass media began a campaign to entice women to seek employment and do their part in helping fight the war on the home front. This ethos became epitomized through the iconic “We Can Do It!” image, which became known as “Rosie the Riveter,” which is below this paragraph. These messages and images helped widen the range of acceptable female behavior and provided positive examples of unconventional women, which blurred traditional gender roles.

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A few years after her first images graced the pages of Strength & Health, Stockton became a permanent fixture in the magazine with her “Barbelles” column that ran from 1944 to 1954. In it, Stockton encouraged women to take up weight training by providing exercise and health advice and featuring women who had changed their lives through physical culture. Through the column, Stockton helped spread the use of weight training among women by dispelling the myth that they would become too “masculine” if they took it up.

By the end of the 1940s, Pudgy was featured on the cover of forty-two magazines internationally, and in others including Strength and Health, Laff, Hit!, and Physical Culture. She even opened her own gym for women clientele. During her time, she garnered many titles including “The First Lady of Iron,” “America’s Barbelle,” and “the Queen of Muscle Beach.” Moreover, although Pudgy is known more for her aesthetics, she competed in weightlifting contests, and played an integral role in organizing the first weightlifting contest for women in 1947 in Los Angeles. According to strength historian Jan Todd, another pioneer for women in physical culture, Stockton helped shift attitudes regarding women and exercise during her prime, and is now considered a nonpareil among Iron Gamers.

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One of the most popular images of Stockton is from the cover of the March 1948 Strength & Health in which she holds a dumbbell that looks similar to the Bartos Circus Dumbbell.

As much as Stockton did for women, and as much as she broke free of many traditional gender attitudes, they still affected her to a degree. For instance, she eventually stopped posing with a flexed bicep as she deemed it too masculine, and, according to her column, she saw the woman’s role as the caretaker. To be clear, these are not necessarily bad things. If these patriarchal types of attitudes – which are still present today, but manifest differently – hindered women from pursuing certain goals or dreams, however, then I would deem them “bad.”

When listing legends of the Iron Game, Pudgy Stockton, without a doubt, should always be included. Known for her unique combination of strength, athletic ability, and shapeliness, she helped pave the way for all women who have ever sought strength through weight training. What’s more, she did not reach her heights by stepping on others. She was selfless in encouraging women, and did what she could to open doors for others. She was an example we could all learn from.

 

Bibliography:

Susan M. Hartmann. 1982. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. American Women in the Twentieth Century. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Maureen Honey. 1984. Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda During World War II. (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press).

Morais, Dominic Gray. “Strength in Numbers : ‘Strength & Health’ Brand Community from 1932-1964,” 2015. https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/31480.

Marla Matzer Rose. 2001. Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution. St. Martin’s Griffin.

Jan Todd. 1992. “The Legacy of Pudgy Stockton.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture 2, no. 1: 5–7.

Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

In our last installment, the father of modern bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow, and Professor Attila sought to take up Sampson’s challenge and win 500 pounds. Sampson, however, was able to talk his way out of the contest, and force Sandow to face his apprentice, Cyclops, instead. Ultimately, Sandow bested Franz “Cyclops” Bienkowski with relative ease, and subsequently pocketed 100 pounds. More importantly, however, he earned the right to challenge Sampson.

By the night of November 2, 1889, three days after Sandow beat Cyclops, news of the showdown had spread among London’s sporting circles. The face-off between the relatively unknown Sandow and the self-proclaimed “Strongest Man on Earth” resulted in large crowds packing the Royal Aquarium. Demand was apparently high as prices for tickets were cited at one pound all the way up to 50 guineas!

Finally, after palpable anticipation, the curtain rose and Sampson issued his challenge of awarding 500 pounds to any man who could replicate his feats. No one came forward, however. Twice more Sampson spoke to the crowd and reiterated his challenge with no response. Finally, perhaps as a mind game, or perhaps because there was too much of a crowd, Sandow burst in, surrounded by elites who were members of the National Sporting Club. The group was met with cheers from the crowd, and the challenge was on.

The judges agreed that Sampson was required to perform feats that were part of his regular exhibition. As such, he started with iron pipe bending. Using his leg, chest, and arms to slowly and steadily bend the pipe – and then straighten it – Sampson’s first feat was smooth and successful. Sandow, on the other hand, was apparently less versed in pipe bending. Although he completed the feat, he received no “style points,” as he was slower and looked labored and clumsy.

For his second act, Sampson fastened a wire rope around his chest. Knowing that the “trick” of the feat was to twist the ends of the rope together allowed Sampson to easily “break” it upon expanding his chest and ribcage. Again Sandow performed the feat, but only after a few attempts and taking instructions from helpful audience members. Though he had matched Sampson in each discipline, this was surely not the smooth start Sandow wanted.

Sampson must have felt confident, for he moved on to a trick in which he specialized: wrapping a small chain around his forearm and breaking it. So, he revealed a chain from his pocket, and offered another to Sandow. To the surprise of Sampson, however, Sandow rebuffed the offer and pulled out a chain of his own!

This was actually an interesting turn of events in the competition. Similar to many of the performing strongman feats, brains played as much of a role as brawn did in breaking the chain. In order to break the chain by contracting the muscles in the forearm, it was necessary for it to be a length that perfectly matched one’s forearm. In other words, the trick could not be performed without a tailored chain.

Cleverly, Sandow and Attila anticipated this trick, and a few days before the competition found the same man who made Sampson’s chains. Not only did they have one made that fit Sandow’s forearm, but they made sure the man was in attendance to verify that both chains were similar in all aspects other than their length.

After the chain maker and the audience inspected it, Sandow easily broke the chain. Sampson was outraged. He tried arguing his case to the audience, and then the judges, but no one sympathized. To make matters worse for Sampson, the judges declared that if Sandow could perform further proofs of his strength on his own, he would be named the winner.

While Sampson continued disputing the audience, the judges, and his competitor, Sandow performed what was becoming a trademark feat by lifting a man from the ground who stood up straight and stiff. Then he performed a number of feats with an exceedingly large, 150-pound dumbbell. Finally, Sampson took his cape and left the stage, thus indicating his defeat.

Sandow emerged victorious, but the story did not end there. Unfortunately for Sampson, a clause in his contracted stated that he would no longer be employed by the theater if he was defeated in one of his challenges. What’s more, he never paid Sandow the 500 pound purse for his victory. Sampson ultimately traveled and performed again, but his claim of being the “Strongest Man on Earth,” no longer followed.

Sandow’s reactions to his victory shed light on his motives. For a man who often entered into litigation when it involved his name and/or reputation, it’s interesting that he never brought Sampson to court to claim his prize. Instead, he accepted 350 pounds from the Royal Aquarium’s management. After entering a cab that was lifted by the excited audience and carried to his hotel, Sandow told reporters that he had no interest in a music hall career.

Before the night was over, however, he had signed a contract with Alhambra Music Hall in which he was to be paid 150 pounds per week. His actions suggest that although he wanted to make ends meet in the present, he had an intuitive understanding of the power of one’s reputation, or brand. Some might argue that contemporary strong men such as Arnold or Halfthor have used similar strategies.

Bibliography:

David L. Chapman. 2002. Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press).

Caroline Daley. October 2002. “The Strongman of Eugenics, Eugen Sandow.” Australian Historical Studies 33: 233–48.

Dominic G. Morais. Summer 2013. “Branding Iron: Eugen Sandow’s Modern Marketing Strategies, 1887-1925.” The Journal of Sport History 40(2): 193-214.

David Webster. 1976. The Iron Game: An Illustrated History of Weight-Lifting (Irvine, Scotland: Webster).

Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

As discussed last time, Sandow was on his way to meet Professor Attila, his teacher, in London in order to challenge Sampson. Although challenging the performer seems relatively uncomplicated, Sandow would have to overcome a few obstacles before sharing the stage with Sampson. Fortunately, Sandow’s skills and savvy as a showman would be honed along the way.

Before Sandow and Attila could challenge Sampson, they felt they needed to establish somewhat of a reputation since Sandow was a relative no-name at the time. Thus, they visited the National Sporting Club (NSC), whose members took it upon themselves to lift the sport of boxing to a respectable level. There, Sandow performed an impromptu feat of strength for the members, many of whom held high-class positions in society, and lifted the biggest person he saw and placed him gently on a table. If this wasn’t enough to gain the favor of those who would support the challenge to Sampson, Sandow removed his clothing in order to display what was soon to become known as a perfect physique.

On the night of October 29, 1889, the entire Sandow camp, consisting of himself, Attila, and a group from the NSC, took their seats and waited for Sampson to issue his challenge. As soon as Sampson finished, Attila declared that he had a challenger ready at that moment. Sampson, unwilling to risk parting with so much money, pulled a fast one and stated that Sandow would have to first beat Cyclops before being eligible to challenge Sampson. He then gave 100 pounds to the theater manager to hold as a sign of goodwill. Sandow and Attila agreed to this change, although they were not happy, and Sandow’s posse took the stage.

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Franz “Cyclops” Bienkowski

Dressed as a debonair gentleman, complete with a monocle, Sandow looked rather unremarkable as a challenger. After he ripped off his outfit, however, which was prepared to be forcefully removed, the audience resounded and Sampson and Cyclops squirmed.

The contest between Sandow and Cyclops began quickly. Cyclops started the first round by picking up a 150-pound dumbbell, then a 100-pound dumbbell, and pressing them both overhead. Although no small feet, Sandow replicated the feat, but pressed the 100-pound dumbbell twice, with seemingly little effort. Sandow won round 1.

Cyclops started the second round by jerking overhead a barbell weighing 220 pounds. Unfortunately for Cyclops, Sandow’s ability to put weights overhead was superb, as he was masterful at the bent press; Sandow bested the incumbent by pressing the barbell overhead with only one hand.

“Press on back” was the third test for the two athletes. Both men, starting with Cyclops, lifted a 250-pound barbell while their backs were on the ground. With three rounds over, the men from the NSC declared the contest over and Sandow the winner, as the effort he put forth was much less compared to Cyclops. This did not sit well with Sampson, who said that a true test of strength included some test of endurance, meaning that each test was to be performed over and over until one man failed. The audience erupted, as they had taken a liking to the underdog, and the representatives from each party argued back and forth.

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Sandow performing the bent press in four images

Finally, the manager of the theater who held the 100 pounds of currency stepped in. He offered that Sampson suggest one last test to determine the winner. Sampson reluctantly agreed. Cyclops picked up a 150-pound dumbbell, then picked up a 100-pound kettlebell. He slowly bent pressed the dumbbell twice and then dropped it from overhead, causing a dramatic crash.

The audience hollered at Sandow not to attempt it as he had already won. He smiled in response, and picked up the 150-pound dumbbell. He then picked up the kettlebell. He performed one rep with the dumbbell, then two. Then he completed five more reps as the audience roared.

Sandow’s joyous crew left the theater 100 pounds richer. Although Sandow did not best Sampson that night, his performance would boost his reputation, making the upcoming contest a livelier affair than it would have been. Sandow was on the staircase to strength stardom.

Bibliography:

David L. Chapman. 2002. Sandow the  Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press).

Caroline Daley. October 2002. “The Strongman of Eugenics, Eugen Sandow.” Australian Historical Studies 33: 233–48.

David Webster. 1976. The Iron Game: An Illustrated History of Weight-Lifting (Irvine, Scotland: Webster).

Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

When we left off last time, we learned that the Iron Game in the United States experienced a relative low point after the mid 1800s, due in part to the passing of George Barker Windship. Once an evangelist for the health benefits of the resistance training, his early death from a stroke cast doubt on the efficacy of weights in the pursuit of health. However, 17 years later, during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Eugen Sandow’s performance at the Trocadero Theater would help him lift the Iron Game in the United States higher than it had ever been.

Born on April 2, 1867, in what is now Kaliningrad, Russia, Friederich Wilhelm Muller came from humble beginnings, as his father sold produce in the local market. His first taste of physical culture came from frequenting the local Turnhalle as a youth, a result of Father Jahn’s Turnvereine movement in Germany. Although he was discouraged by his lack of progress there, in order to avoid military service upon turning 18, Sandow joined a travelling circus and eventually becoming a leading acrobat.

 

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A young Sandow. Notice the relatively thin, yet lean physique.

 
The circus went bankrupt approximately two years after Sandow joined, stranding him in Brussels, Belgium with no job and little money. It was here, rather fortuitously, that Sandow met another Iron Game legend – Louis Durlacher, otherwise known as Professor Attila. Although there are conflicting stories, whether it was due to his athletic ability or the physique he had even then, Attila’s hired Sandow as an apprentice in approximately 1887.

One of the most significant impacts Attila had on Sandow was his training with heavy weights. At the time lifting heavy was looked down upon due to the potential for “muscle binding.” Those who feared this condition believed that heavy lifting would make a person slow, clumsy, and less flexible. Attila, a strongman in his own right but recognized more for his pupils, knew this to be false through his own experience.

With Attila’s supervision, Sandow’s once relatively thin and physique began to develop the sculpted body we now associate with progressive resistance training. His enhanced physique and strength soon paid dividends as he made a living by posing as a model for artists, performing traveling strongman acts, and competing in wrestling exhibitions.

 
imageProfessor Attila

 

Although he parted ways with Attila to continue his itinerant lifestyle, while in Italy Sandow heard from his former teacher, who presented an opportunity the young Prussian could not pass up. In London were two performing strongmen – Sampson and his pupil, Cyclops – who, as was common at the time, had offered to pay anyone who could replicate the same feats of strength they could; 100 pounds to replicate Cyclops’s feats and 500 pounds to replicate Sampson’s. But the pair’s exploits weren’t simply demonstrations of strength, they were a combination of deception, strength, and acrobatics.

One of Sampson’s feats, for instance, was lifting a 2,240-pound barbell overhead off of two barrels. The secret to this trick was that the globes of the barbell were filled with sand before Sampson attempted to lift it. It was during this time that audience members were invited to test the implement. As Sampson talked with the audience, however, a hole in each globe was unplugged so that the sand in them would fill the barrels, allowing Sampson to lift the implement. The secret to the trick was discovered after an audience member attempted to lift the barbell after Sampson, but Sampson and Cyclops were not significantly affected by such reveals, as they devised new feats.

With the 500-pound challenge waiting in London, Sandow hurried to meet Attila and challenge the strength performers…

Bibliography:

David L. Chapman. 2002. Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press).

Terry Todd. (1985). “The Myth of the Muscle-Bound Lifter.” NSCA Journal 7: 37–41.

David Webster. 1976. The Iron Game: An Illustrated History of Weight-Lifting (Irvine, Scotland: Webster).

Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

The last we heard regarding George Barker Windship, he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1857, a few years after being bitten by the Iron Bug. This was due to the realization, in public no less, that he was not as strong as he once thought. From that point, Windship dedicated the rest of his life to weight training, and did much to spread the Iron Gospel.

It seemed that Windship’s first priority was relatively simple: to get stronger; which he did. By 1960 Windship had trained enough to successfully lift 1,208 pounds in the hand-and-thigh lift. He was not satisfied, however, and, thus began creating new implements to help him lift more. A padded rope and then leather over the shoulders didn’t work, so he had a wooden yoke (think oxen, not the sport of strongman) fashioned. By attaching weight to the yoke with chains, Windship wrote that he successfully lifted 2,007 pounds on November 3, 1861.

Some might be curious if Windship supplemented his heavy partial training with other lifts. The answer is yes – he added dumbbell training to his regimen in June 1858. Although he could not press the 50-pound dumbbells with which he started, by the end of 1861 he could confidently press 100-pound dumbbells. He also added barbell training to his routine, and jerked a 180-pound barbell overhead in 1860. Based on reports by Dudley Allen Sargent, Harvard’s first Director of Physical Education who paid a visit to Windship in the early 1860s, Windship also could perform a chin-up with one finger, and trained with dumbbells as heavy as 180 pounds. When considering the comparative lack of knowledge about training in those days, as well as the fact that Windship never weighed more than 150 pounds, his feats become all the more impressive.

As impressive as his strength was, what else did Windship offer? Why was he important? Well, first, Windship was giving travelling lectures and seminars long before standout lifters such as Ed Coan and Dmitry Klokov. Although he fainted due to stage freight during his first lecture attempt on May 30, 1859, he took the stage again on June 9 of the same year and redeemed himself. After giving a well-received talk, he pulled 929 pounds on his lifting machine (hand-and-thigh lift), shouldered a 229-pound barrel of flour, and performed a chin-up with one finger.

 

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An announcement for one of Windship’s lectures.

 

Windship apparently made such an impact that he received invitations to speak in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, a number of other northeastern states, and even a few Canadian cities. During his lectures, Windship promoted heavy resistance training, citing a number of benefits he had experienced. His message, when boiled down, was strength IS health.

Leveraging the momentum he built, Windship eventually moved to Boston where he opened a gymnasium attached to his medical practice. He used this platform to continue his advocacy of heavy training, and equipped his office with dumbbells, barbells, and his lifting machine.

As many in the fitness and health industry are aware, with increased interest in a new trend come new competitors. The same was true in Windship’s time as derivatives of his machine began popping up in gyms, while other iterations were made for home use. Some health professionals even offered substitutes, such as isometrics, for the lift. Although Windship’s gospel called for training the entire body, many competitors made the familiar claim that with only a few minutes a day, their method could provide the same healthful benefits. With so much new popularity surrounding Windship’s emphasis on the partial lift, it soon garnered the generic moniker “Health Lift.”

 
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One of the substitutes for Windship’s original “Health Lift.”

 

Although not known for his entrepreneurship, Windship also sold equipment. For instance, aligning with his beliefs regarding full body training, he patented a plate-loaded graduated dumbbell that could weigh 8 to 101 pounds. Interestingly, however, he was not the original inventor of this type of implement. Windship also patented a hydraulic lifting machine, and a precursor to our modern cable station. Unfortunately, no records exist that indicate how successful Windship was as a businessman, but it would

On September 12, 1876, at the height of his popularity – and the popularity of the Health Lift and resistance training – Windship died of what appeared to be a massive stroke. Rather ironically, just as Windship played a major role in popularizing the Iron Game during this time, he also contributed greatly to its decline. Many grew concerned after learning of his death and wondered how a paragon of health through resistance training could pass away so early. Understandably, weight training’s popularity began to diminish, and, slowly, the belief that heavy lifting was unhealthy began to take hold.

To be sure, there were converts who persisted despite the blow that Windship’s death dealt to the Iron Game. In addition, Windship’s impact was strong enough that he is recognized as a pioneer in the field. However, it would be approximately 25 years before the father of modern bodybuilding would help lift the Iron Game’s reputation higher than it had ever been raised before.

Thank you to Ben Pollack for his help with this piece.

Bibliography:

Carolyn de la Peña. (2003). “Dudley Allen Sargent: Health Machines and the Energized Male Body.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture, 8(2): 3–19. Viewed at: http://www.starkcenter.org/static/quest_for_victory/timeline/documents/sargent.pdf

Joan Paul. 1983. “The Health Reformers: George Barker Windship and Boston’s Strength Seekers.” Journal of Sport History 10 (3): 41–57.

Joan Paul. 1986. “George Barker Windship: Physical Education’s Apostle for Strength.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 57 (4): 29–31.
Jan Todd. 1993. “‘Strength Is Health’: George Barker Windship and the First American Weight Training Boom.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture 3 (1): 3–14. Viewed at: http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/IGH/IGH0301/IGH0301c.pdf

David Webster. 1976. The Iron Game: An Illustrated History of Weight-Lifting (Irvine, Scotland: Webster).

Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

Over the course of its history, the dumbbell’s popularity has waxed and waned. The 19th century, however, was the dumbbell’s coming out party, so to speak. From it being a staple in physical education courses to its use by performing strongmen to mesmerize crowds, the dumbbell experienced significant traction in the United States during the 1800s.

Due in part to the increasing of acceptance of dumbbells by individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, in the early nineteenth century physical educators began implementing dumbbell training into their courses and schools. This was actually part of a larger societal acceptance of resistance training, however. Spurred by concerns regarding urbanization at the time, gymnastics and resistance training were promoted by some as ways to fight the moral and physical decline brought on by the new, more sedentary lifestyles that accompanied city living.

Charles Beck was one of the most historically significant of the aforementioned physical educators who advocated dumbbells. In his book, A Treatise on Gymnasticks, Taken Chiefly from the German of F.L. Jahn (can be found at: https://books.google.com/books?id=dOwsAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false) published in 1828, Beck dedicated a section to seventeen dumbbell exercises. In it, he described modern exercises such as triceps extensions and not so modern exercises, such as arm circles, similar to a backstroke. Testifying to their increasing popularity, Beck stated that he added the section because the implements were so well known in the United States.

Beck’s importance neither started nor ended with his book. He began teaching at Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts soon after coming to the United States from Germany in late 1824. Upon teaching at the school, Round Hill became notable for three firsts: the first school to have a physical education teacher, the first school to include physical education as part of the curriculum, and the first introduction of German gymnastics, also known as Turnen.

Turnen was developed by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn – the same Jahn mentioned in Beck’s book – in Germany in the early 1800s. His system of exercise was born out of German ideas of national unity, patriotism, and the readiness to fight for one’s “fatherland” that arose after Napoleon defeated the Prussian Army. Jahn’s Turnen, a comprehensive term for physical exercise, included exercises on apparatus, such as rings and parallel bars, as well as calisthenics we are accustomed to today. It also included forms of training with resistance. Although the history of Jahn, his movement, and the role the Turner’s played in German history is much more detailed, Beck’s book is recognized as being largely responsible for introducing Jahn’s methods to America. And as we will see later, German Turners played a crucial role in the spread of resistance training in the United States as well.

 

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An image of Jahn’s vision of a Turnplatz, or outdoor gymnasium.

 

Beck was not the only physical educator who helped popularize dumbbells at the time. Gymnastics for Youth, by J.C.F. Guts Muths, or GutsMuths, was translated into English in 1802, and in it he discussed the importance of strength training for boys and girls. Additionally, Sir John Sinclair discussed dumbbell training in his work Code of Health and Longevity in 1807. The anonymously published A Course of Calisthenics for Young Ladies in Schools and Families With Some Remarks on Physical Education recommended in 1831 the use of four- to five pound weights filled with iron or tin, which may be a surprise to some, considering that Victorian Era gender roles were not known for allowing practices that empowered women.

As the 19th century progressed, dumbbells gained momentum. The importance that physical education played in the popularization of training with weights cannot be understated. With this initial spark in the early 1800s, George Barker Windship would soon help fuel America’s first weight training boom. The world would also be introduced to some of the Iron Game’s most legendary names: Attila, Cyr, Sandow, and more.

Bibliography:

Bruce L. Bennett. April 1965. “The Making Of Round Hill School.” Quest 4 (1): 53–64.

Hofmann, Annette R. 2004. Turnen and Sport: Transatlantic Transfers (New York City, New York: Waxmann Verlag).

Jan Todd. 1995. “From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbells, and Indian Clubs.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture 3 (6): 4–16. Viewed at: http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/IGH/IGH0306/IGH0306c.pdf

David Webster. 1976. The Iron Game: An Illustrated History of Weight-Lifting (Irvine, Scotland: Webster).

Posted by & filed under Dominic Morais.

From its roots as Greek halteres to it being referenced as “poises” in the 1500s, the dumbbell has a long history. Although overshadowed by more significant historical events such as the U.S. signing the Declaration of Independence or the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt, the 18th century was a significant period for the dumbbell. For in the midst of these revolutions and changes in the 1700s, the dumbbell assumed its modern name.

As a testament to its importance, Hieronymus Mercurialis’ book, De Arte Gymnastica Aput Ancientes, continued to impact physical training into the 1700s. In a British magazine called The Spectator in the early 1700s, Joseph Addison explained that although riding horses was his exercise of choice, at a younger age, he exercised by shadowboxing with dumbbells, a practice he learned from Mercurialis’ text. Addison didn’t use the word “dumbbell,” however. Instead he explained that he held two short sticks with lead anchored at both ends.
Interestingly, Addison did use the term “dumb Bell” to describe another device he used every morning. He described his exercise as “ringing” the implement. Historian and former “Strongest Woman in the World,” Dr. Jan Todd, wrestled with this explanation in her piece From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbells, and Indian Clubs:

Was he referring to the swinging or “ringing” of an implement similar in appearance and function to our modern dumbbell or to an implement that more closely resembled a hand held bell or Indian club? Were early “dumbbells” actually what the word implies – bell-shaped forms cast from the molds used to make hand bells but either poured solid or made without a clapper or tongue so that they were “dumb?”

Unfortunately, no decisive evidence could be found to answer these questions. The most plausible answer, however, is that Addison’s description of the bell as being “dumb” comes from the archaic meaning of “dumb-bell,” which, in general terms, refers to the handle of a church bell, but without the actual bell attached.
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Even without a concrete description of dumbbells at the time, it is fairly clear that they played a significant role in the lives of many. Explanations in exercise and health texts of the time provide evidence that not only did people train with dumbbells, but they were also referred to as “ringing of the dumbbells,” similar to Addison’s description.
The most prominent endorsement for dumbbells during the 18th century likely came from Benjamin Franklin. An advocate of labor, especially in the outdoors, Franklin once wrote to his son that he used dumbbells in order to quicken his pulse and increase his warmth, attesting to his cursory understanding of cardiovascular exercise. Later in life, Franklin cited exercising daily with the dumbbell as one of the reasons for living such a long life.
The fanfare surrounding the dumbbell during the 1700s, primed it for a breakout in the 19th century. During this time, the dumbbell would not only experience a large increase in popularity, but it would evolve with the help of some famous, and not so famous, Iron Game figures.

Credit: I’d like to thank Benjamin Pollack for his help with this piece.

Bibliography:

Joseph Addison. The Spectator, 1 (July 12, 711). Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12030/12030-h/12030-h/SV1/Spectator1.html#section1

Jan Todd. 1995. “From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbells, and Indian Clubs.” Iron Game History, The Journal of Physical Culture 3 (6): 4–16. Viewed at: http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/IGH/IGH0306/IGH0306c.pdf

David Webster. 1976. The Iron Game: An Illustrated History of Weight-Lifting (Irvine, Scotland: Webster). Read more »