Old Time Strongman and the Home Gym (Strength History)

"I say that if I can take a man and layout for him a course of progressive exercises, which will give him a better shape and far more physical and vital energy than he had when he was twenty-one, then I do not care a particle about how many pounds he can lift." -Alan Calvert

Old-Time Strength and Lifting Heavy in the Home Gym

By: Nick Soleyn, BLOC Coach, PBC, Editor in Chief

In 2020, professional strongman, Hafþór Björnsson (“Hafthor”) deadlifted 501 kg. (the heaviest weight pulled from the floor and a world record had been done in competition). With that lift, he forced everyone who lifts weights into a contextual scramble: how much do you deadlift compared to the heaviest weight ever lifted? For scale, a person who deadlifts half of Hafthor’s best is stronger than most trained, non-competitive lifters. The specialization of the professional strongman puts Hafthor in a different echelon than those of us who lift weights and train for general strength, health, and fitness. Yet, the Feat of Strength has always fascinated and inspired, not in the least because of the inevitable comparison to what us mere mortals do every day in our home gyms, the squats, deadlifts, and presses done in the privacy and quiet of our home gyms, witnessed by family or coaches and recorded only in our training logs.

Something as dramatic as a >1000 lb lift raises questions about the relationship between feats of strength that are part of a performance or competition and those that make up the routine strength training regimen: What is the difference between the demonstration of strength and the process that builds it? Do the two ever mimic each other? Is there value in performance if your only goal is to get stronger? These are not new questions. They go back over 100 years to circus strongmen and the original home gyms.

Following Fitness Icons

The late 19th to early 20th century is full of stories of circus and vaudeville strongmen and strongwomen. The traveling show was the height of entertainment—think Ringling Bros., Houdini, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. They delighted, inspired, and amazed, and the strength-performance act was a staple. The old-time strongmen were popular enough to publish magazines and write about their secret training regimens for strength, health, and aesthetics. But, even if the average person wanted to lift weights, they could not just order the weights and equipment they saw on stage.

Barbells were specialized equipment for professionals. A performer would have local smiths create the now-iconic spherical dumbbells or fixed barbells for their training and shows, but “the average man who wanted to emulate these showmen had difficulty finding weight training equipment.” (Todd 1995, no. Vol.3 No.6) When demand is high, innovation usually follows.

There had been an explosion of home training and fitness guides in the US. People would order them through mail-order catalogs the same way that we use Amazon and online ordering today. Everything from home gym equipment to houses could be shipped by railroad. Since home gyms were undersupplied, early physical training guides relied on light-weight dumbbells, calisthenics, and makeshift equipment:

“All that people need for their daily in-door exercises is a few pieces of apparatus which are fortunately so simple and inexpensive as to be within the reach of most persons. Buy two pitchfork handles at the agricultural store. Cut off enough of one of them to leave the main piece a quarter of an inch shorter than the distance between the jams of your bedroom door, and square the ends. On each of these jambs fasten two stout hard-wood cleats, so slotted that the squared ends of the bar shall fit in snugly enough not to turn. Let the two lower cleats be directly opposite each other, and about as high as your shoulder; the other two also opposite each other, and high above the head as you can comfortably reach.” —From William Blaikie’s “How to Get Strong and How to Stay So” (1879).

Here Blaikie gives the beginnings of the instructions for parallel bars and a pulley-weight system. It’s better than nothing, but there was a problem with light-weight training, one identified and then solved by Alan Calvert.

Enter the Barbell

The lone lifter owes much to Alan Calvert and his Milo Barbell Company. As a boy, having become interested in his own physical development because of circus and vaudevillian performers, Calvert bought popular training books like the above-quoted William Blaikie’s. He was not pleased with the results. As written about in Iron Game History, the light-weight training that was most popular at the time “left him vaguely dissatisfied. He wasn’t really muscular. He wasn’t truly strong.” (Beckwith and Todd 2005) It was like setting out to look like The Rock with little more than your body weight for resistance.

Calvert possibly would have seen the man who epitomized both a muscular physique and strength at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. That’s where Eugen Sandow first gained traction in America, becoming eventually the most famous of the old-time strongmen. What set Sandow apart was the combination of his physique and strength. Perhaps connecting Sandow’s strength and physique to the heavy weights he lifted both on the stage and in training, Calvert eventually solved the home gym equipment problem. (Id.) He created shot-loaded and plate-loadable barbells, kettlebells, and other home strength training equipment. He published Strength, America’s first muscle magazine, and sold his equipment via mail-order. Advertisements for the Milo Barbell Company would note that they allowed you to use the same training protocols that “Made all ‘Strong Men’ strong.”

Eugen Sandow. (Public Domain)

Despite this marketing, Calvert was a proponent of the everyman strength lifter. About the tension between performers and regular lifters, he wrote,

“That part of the public which patronizes the theaters has very little interest in barbell and dumbbell lifting. They enjoy seeing ‘Strong acts’; but their preference is for marvelous and seemingly miraculous feats of strength. Therefore, professional lifters cater to the taste of their audiences. Instead of lifting barbells, they lift and support enormous quantities of live and dead weight. They try to make their acts spectacular.” (Calvert 2012)

Calvert shared the letters he received from middle-aged men who wanted to get stronger. They believed in the use of the loadable barbell but were confused as to whether the type of lifting they would need to do would need to mimic the feats they had seen on stage or read about in newspapers and magazines.

“If I use a barbell, is it necessary for me to do the muscle-racking stunts that I have seen on the professional stage, and will I be compelled to use tremendously heavy weights?”

Calvert would respond:

“Invariably, I tell the writers of those letters that a man who uses a barbell does not have to do any sensational lifting stunts in order to become either beautifully proportioned, very strong, or very healthy. Many of the writers of such letters are middle-aged men; and why should a man of forty try to become a record-breaking lifter? If I answer such letters, I say that if I can take a man and layout for him a course of progressive exercises, which will give him a better shape and far more physical and vital energy than he had when he was twenty-one, then I do not care a particle about how many pounds he can lift.” (Id.)

History Repeats

Today, when lifting pops into the general media, the emphasis is on made-up ideals of strength and fitness. Everything from the Hafthor’s earth-shaking 501kg deadlift to the fitness influencer to the bodybuilding scene represents some kind of specialized performance, not the types of things that improve one’s quality of life through lifting. These specializations are the cultural descendants of the circus strongman, inaccessible and provocative, having failed to completely shed their sideshow roots. Popular fitness ideas delight or amaze because they are not part of our regular experience. They may inspire us to lift, eat, and train a certain way but do not mimic the day-to-day work that it takes to train effectively.

Fortunately, there are more and more people who value strength training for its intrinsic benefits—the way Alan Calvert seems to have preferred:

“The exhibition stunts you see performed by professional ‘Strong Men’ have very little to do with the creation of strength. The professional does his training before he gets on the stage. For every one professional who does exhibition work, there are a thousand men and boys who use adjustable barbells for the purpose of improving their bodies.” (Id.)

We follow in Calvert’s footsteps to encourage people to train for themselves with an equal amount of reverence for this simple act and affinity for sticking to what works.

Performances are fun and inspiring. They are what you see, but the unseen work of building strength is where our focus lies, in the strength of what we do.


References

Beckwith, Kimberly, and Jan Todd. 2005. “Strength, America’s First Muscle Magazine: 1914-1935.” Iron Game History 9 (1). https://www.academia.edu/3009307/Strength_Americas_First_Muscle_Magazine_1914-1935.

Blaikie, William. 1879. How to Get Strong and How to Stay So.

Calvert, Alan. 2012. Super Strength. Createspace Independent Pub. (Originally published 1924).

Todd, Jan. 1995. “From Milo to Milo.” Iron Game History 3 (6). https://www.starkcenter.org/igh/igh-v3/igh-v3-n6/igh0306c.pdf.

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