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Sure, Ronnie Coleman can squat 800 pounds, but could he press and Inch Dumbbell? So, Andy Bolton recently broke the vaunted 1000-pound barrier in the deadlift, but how would he fair with a two-handed anyhow press? And how much do you think you'd have to pay Jay Cutler to lay on a bed of nails as a 14-man band played on his chest?
Before there were bodybuilders, before there were Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters, even before Joe Weider himself was born, there were physical culturists and strongmen. Popularized by men like Eugen Sandow, William Muldoon, Bernarr Macfadden and Edmond Desbonnet, physical culture included all endeavors meant to strengthen and vitalize the body, and in turn, show it off. Strongmen differed slightly in that they weren't so concerned with their body's appearance as they were its ability to perform improbable feats of strength. Yet adherents to both often crossed lines into the other, making the turn of the twentieth century a golden age of muscle and strength.
Because physical culture was so encompassing, its practitioners were many and varied, each developing his or her own system of training and of displaying their abilities. Some worked with circuses or carnivals, daring all comers to match their feats while others, like Eugen Sandow, chose to display the fruits of their labor in public exhibitions. Regardless of their approach, many of the forefathers (and mothers) of today's iron game were celebrities in their day and innovators whose prowess still stands the test of time, a century later.
LOUIS CYR (1863-1912)
The strength of Canadian strongman Louis Cyr was considered to be without equal during his peak years. Standing somewhere between 5'8-1/2" and 5'10-1/2" (based on varying sources), Cyr weighed as much as 400 pounds, although 300 pounds or so seemed to be his optimal weight.
Legendary strength pioneer George Jowett called Cyr "The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived" and Ben Weider chronicled the Montreal powerhouse in "The Strongest Man in History." Born October 11, 1863, Cyr's career as a strongman began at the age of 17 when he bested then-Canada's Strongest Man Michaud in a stone lifting match in which he hoisted a 480 lb. granite boulder.
Later he would perform a variety of preternatural feats of strength, including performing a back lift with 18 men support on a platform, restraining four horses, two tethered to each of his arms and prodded to pull in opposite directions, and lifting a reported 553 lb. weight off the ground with a single finger. Interestingly, Cyr's wife, Melina was a petite 98 pounds – barely larger than the sprawling meals Cyr was said to have gorged himself on regularly.
THOMAS INCH (1881-1963)
Britain's Thomas Inch may have been the world's first fitness entrepreneur, employing as many as 70 people at one time to help him sell his various courses and books. Moreover, Inch is known to this day for a particular feat of strength – one which even now has been equaled by only a handful of men.
As with many strongmen of his day, Inch had a lift that was uniquely his – one that he would challenge all comers to duplicate. His involved the lifting off the floor of a dumbbell that weighed 172 pounds with a handle nearly 2-1/2" in diameter – about the width of a soda can. The Inch Dumbbell, as it's come to be called, stymied many a would-be challenger to Inch's might, not so much for its weight, but for its awkwardness. The average man doesn't have a hand large enough to fit around such a thick handle.
In recent years several men have actually pressed replicas of Thomas Inch's claim to fame, including first Arnold Classic Strongman winner Mark Henry and three-time World's Strongest Man victor Bill Kazmaier.
SIGMUND BREITBART (1883-1925)
A Polish Jew living in Berlin, Breitbart traveled throughout Europe with Circus Busch, which at the time was the largest in the world. He made his name performing eye-catching feats of strength as opposed to merely lifting heavy objects
. For example, he would bend iron bars around his arm and bite through iron chains. He could tear a horseshoe in half and restrain two whipped horses charging in opposite directions. He pulled wagons full of people with his teeth and supported automobiles filled with passengers atop his chest while lying on his back.
Breitbart's strength act, which he performed proudly as a symbol of Jewish strength, wound up leading to his demise. While driving a railroad spike through five one-inch boards with his hand he pierced his thigh – upon which the boards were resting – and contracted blood poisoning.
In 2001, famed director Werner Herzog told Breitbart's story in the film "Invincible," starring Tim Roth and two-time World's Strongest Man winner Jouko Ahola as Breitbart.
Look for the second part of this feature next week on www.muscleandfitness.com.
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