Strongman and strongwoman shows have grown tremendously in popularity over the past decade and a half. Where once shows struggled to attract competitors, interest in strength has never been higher. Strongman stars like Hafþór Björnsson and Eddie Hall have moved into the public sphere, the History Channel features strongman feats, and events like the Arnold Sports Festival now have a Katie Sandwina trophy for strongwomen.
Growing up in the 1990s my access to strength competitions came through shows shown once a year on television at Christmas. These days I can check out a strongman or strongwoman’s training schedule through my phone. The sport, and its popularity, have changed drastically since my initial exposure to it.
Although one of the oldest sports there is, strength contests are nevertheless a relatively new phenomenon. Really new in fact. Effectively created in the 1970s for a television audience, the sport has transformed into the million-dollar, world record-breaking events that captivate so many of us. In Columbus, Ohio, the annual Arnold Sports Festival, of which the Arnold Strongman plays a large part, brings millions of dollars into the local economy. (1) This is to say nothing of global sponsorships, domestic endorsement, or advertising revenue from social media.
As we’ll see, the human fascination with strength has never wavered. What’s changed has been the outlet.
The Early History of Strength Contests
Accounts of men engaging in strength contests date back to the Chinese practice of lifting heavy stones and cauldrons in 6000 B.C. Likewise, Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, among other regions, embraced strength culture.
In Greece, for example, we know that soldiers and athletes would train with small stone dumbbells — called “halteres — using a variety of movements. Stronger individuals would lift stones or heavy sacks to build strength and also demonstrate it. Similarly, gymnastics played a large role in training individuals for contests. That withstanding, strength contests and feats trace their immediate history to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when ‘physical culture’ emerged as a new recreational movement.
Michael Anton Budd, a historian of physical culture, defined this period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century phenomenon as concerned with the ‘ideological and commercial cultivation’ of the body. A physical culture marked the beginning of mass gym cultures. (2) Originating in Europe and spreading to the United States, physical culturists included strongmen and strongwomen who routinely competed against one another for prestige and popularity.
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These early strength competitions were marked by their disorganized and deceptive nature. When Eugen Sandow traveled to London in 1889 to face fellow strongman Sampson, he insisted on using his own equipment lest Sampson attempt to cheat. Sandow later brought fellow strongman, Arthur Saxon, to court over claims that Saxon deliberately cheated in a contest between the pair. Unlike other sports, which codified during the nineteenth century, strength competitions remained a largely unregulated enterprise. (3)
Strongmen and strongwomen performers were found predominantly in circuses, music halls, and Vaudeville theatres. They often performed by themselves, lifted odd objects (anything from canons to bags of lime), and typically labeled themselves the strongest performer in the industry. This meant that the early strongmen and strongwomen had little economic incentive to compete against one another. You cannot, after all, claim to be the strongest human on the planet when people can defeat you.
Early strength athletes were synonymous with the objects they lifted. Speaking in a documentary, physical culture historians Jan and Terry Todd noted that performers chose to lift odd objects, like horse carts or cannons because the public had an immediate frame of reference for how heavy an object was. (4) This was a problem when it came to comparing one athlete’s strength to another. One performer might claim to be the strongest athlete in the world while only lifting canons while another may make the same claim while only lifting barrels. The early decades were, quite frankly, a mess.
Despite the growth of weightlifting and powerlifting during the twentieth-century, dedicated strongman shows remained the preserve of the circus. It was only in the 1970s that a strongman competition, based on odd lifts and strange objects, was held. This, more than anything else, marked the birth of strength shows as we know them.
The Chaotic Birth of World’s Strongest Man
Two factors, more than anything else, contributed to the creation of the World’s Strongest Man competition in the 1970s. The first was the development of powerlifting in the 1960s. Without delving too much into familiar territory, powerlifting helped break attention away from Olympic weightlifting in the United States for the benefit of other means of testing strength.
Also important was the popularity of Superstars, an American television show produced in 1973. This was a stranger, but equally important development. For those unfamiliar with the show, Superstars pitted famous athletes and celebrities against one another in a series of athletic competitions ranging from the 100-meter sprint to weightlifting. Where powerlifting intensified debates about strength, Superstars opened a space for new athletic spectacles on television.
Previous discussions of Superstars have noted its immense popularity, as well as its legacy. (5) Produced by ABC in the early 1970s, the program proved so successful that a series of spin-off shows were produced around the world. The idea that a multi-faceted athletic contest could take place, and command a great deal of television interest, partly explains the development of annual strength competitions.
Superstars helped normalize the concept of somewhat eccentric athletic contests. The World’s Strongest Man (WSM) contest, created in 1977, was one of them. It was this competition that marked the creation of modern strongman and strongwomen competitions.
Produced by CBS, as part of Trans-World International, the WSM sought to do for strength sports what Superstars had done for sports in general — that is, objectively find the strongest athlete in the world.
Those involved in the creation of WSM marked a hodgepodge of sporting organizers and television executives. Two of the key organizers were David Webster and Douglas Edmunds, both of whom had been involved in athletics, Highland games, and physical culture for decades. (6) This added some respectability to the event but the need for entertainment meant that their suggestions were often modified to make them palatable for television audiences.
One example of the tension between entertainment and sport in the 1977 contest was the ill-fated refrigerator race which saw Franco Columbu suffer a terrible leg break. According to Terry Todd, concerns were raised about the event but ultimately ignored since it was deemed entertaining. The following 1978 WSM saw the refrigerator race return, not because it was safe, but rather because Columbu was suing the organizers for negligence and it was feared that removing the race from the show could be seen as an admission of guilt. (7)
The inaugural WSM was a commercial success for the time and became an annual contest. From 1977 to the present day, the event has aired on television and still attempts to entertain audiences with strange sights. In the past, dominant competitors have been excluded to avoid predictability, strongmen have faced off in sumo wrestling competitions and, in one-year’s contest, athletes deadlifted heavy blocks of cheese. (8) What saved the contest for many — and helped to make it more legitimate — was the birth of strongman stars in the 1980s.
For many strongman fans, the 1980s were defined by Bill Kazmaier and Jón Páll Sigmarsson. Kazmaier was the first undisputed star of strongman. Remarkably powerful and blessed with a sharp competitive edge, Kaz’s victories from 1980 to 1983 made clear that the WSM was as much sport as it was entertainment.
Excluded from the 1983 WSM after his third victory in 1982 — supposedly so that others would have a chance of winning — Kaz returned later in the decade at a time when Jón Páll captivated fans’ hearts. Boasting of his ‘Viking blood’ during contests, Jón Páll seemed to create feuds regardless of his competition. He antagonized Kaz, feuded with British Strongman Geoff Capes, and made strongman one of the biggest spectacles in the strength community.
The victories of Kaz and Jón Páll in the 1980s largely solidified a sport that was still in its infancy. It meant that during the 1990s, a small but important fan base existed. Furthermore it meant that people now trained specifically for strongman events.
When athletes assembled in 1977 for the inaugural event, strongman existed solely as a concept. People didn’t know how to train for strongman but relied instead on their inherent strength. This is why the initial show featured bodybuilders, football players, weightlifters, and even one Kung Fu artist. By the 1990s a new athlete existed in strongman. Put another way, people began to specialize and train exclusively for strength contests. No longer a variety show, the sport became home to dedicated strongmen.
This also explains the growth of other strongman competitions during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Around the world, more and more nations began to host domestic strongest man competitions. Those which already hosted such contests saw even more contests emerge. In Britain during the 1990s, strongman competitors could compete in six different shows a year. Internationally, athletes could compete in the WSM, the World Strongman Challenge (1987-2006), and the World Muscle Power Championship (1985-2004).
The sport was growing but there was still room for change. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the sport evolve in two important but very different ways.
The Rise of StrongWOMEN
Thus far, our story of strength competitions has focused predominantly on men. This, perhaps, is not too surprising given the fact that women’s sports in the fitness industry have often lagged behind their male equivalents. Women’s weightlifting was not made an Olympic sport until the 2000 Games.
Strength contests for women, on an international stage, emerged in 1997 with an inaugural World’s Strongest Woman contest. This marked the first time that the World’s Strongest Man format was open to women.
Despite the optimism surrounding the event, especially after strongwoman Michelle Sorensen’s victory, the World’s Strongest Woman contest has undergone a series of difficulties since its creation. (9) Much like the Ms. Olympia contest, a great deal of difficulty stems from an inability to promote the shows, attract advertisers, and hold yearly contests.
Following the 1997 contest, the next World’s Strongest Woman contest was held in 2001. That the sport suffered several years before hosting another contest was and is a recurring issue. It has been 23 years since the first competition. Envisioned as an annual show, the contest has only taken place 14 times. This is not down to a lack of quality on the part of the competitors, people like Aneta Florczyk and Jill Mills have showcased remarkable strength and tenacity, but rather down to structural barriers.
Issues of sponsorship and television exposure limited the sport’s growth for many years much in the same way that it did for the Ms. Olympia contest. One positive turn in recent years has been the Arnold Pro Strongwoman which, in effect, mimics the Arnold Strongman Classic. Alongside women’s strength contests, the Arnold has been the most definitive change to the sport in recent years.
Strength Gaps: New Turns in the New Millenium
The Arnold Strongman Classic, first held in 2002, is, alongside the WSM, one of the premier events of the strongman calendar. Part of the Arnold Sports Festival, named after its creator Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ASC takes place each year in March. Significantly the ASC is one of the few strongman competitions that has not only competed with the WSM for legitimacy but has proven itself to be a sustainable contest.
One of the points which distinguish the ASC is its unique focus on strength above all else. This was not an accident but a deliberate move made at the contest’s inception. The ASC was created in 2002 following a meeting between Arnold Schwarzenegger, his business partner Jim Lorimer, and the Todds. As retold by Terry Todd, the purpose of the ASC was to create a regulated test of strength which was contrasted with the WSM.
As the WSM was equal parts sport and spectacle, similar in one sense to the ‘sport’s entertainment’ model found in professional wrestling, challenges involved lifting heavy weights for long periods of time and often over a distance. Such feats made for excellent television footage but often failed to provide a true test of strength. Rather than discovering the strongest competitor, the WSM inadvertently created a competition to uncover the strongest and most athletic individual.
It was a subtle difference but one the ASC exploited. Seeking to discover the strongest competitor, the ASC hosted contests that involved once-off feats of strength undertaken in short and strict time limits. In this way, the ASC represented a truer form of competition for strongman competitors, one which cared more about competitiveness than television viewers. Critically, the ASC displayed a keen interest in records, and strict rules, two factors which came to underpin its popularity.
Part of this stemmed from the involvement of the Todds, as well as David Webster, formerly of the WSM. As historians of physical culture and accomplished strength athletes in their own right, the Todds succeeded in incorporating events based on historic lifts. This explains why, at the inaugural 2002 contest athletes were challenged with the ‘Apollon Wheels’, a barbell used by French strongman Louis Uni in the late 1800s.
The WSM’s reliance on television spectacles had largely divorced the sport from the earlier strongman shows from the 1900s. Rarely did the WSM attempt to utilize historic lifts which meant that, in essence, its form of the contest was born in 1977 and operated on the border of sport and entertainment. The ASC, in contrast, used verifiable weights. In this way, the ASC attempted to revolutionize the sport by using historical records, verifiable competition, and record-keeping as part of the contest.
This, more than anything else, has defined the ASC and explains why many within the sport regard ASC winners as stronger than WSM winners when discrepancies arise. Later contests included the Inch Dumbbell used by strongman Thomas Inch in the early 1900s, the Cyr Dumbbell used by French-Canadian strongman Louis Cyr and a host of other objects. The ASC became a means of the contest, spectacle, and historic comparison. This explains why, from 2016, the ASC began to formalize, even further, its association with record keeping and strong competition.
Rogue Fitness, the American barbell manufacturer eventually became the official supplier and sponsor to the Arnold Strongman Classic. Founded by Bill Henniger in 2007, the company is one of the fastest-growing equipment manufacturers in North America. Working alongside the ASC’s organizers, Rogue developed a keen interest in the history of strength, a point evidenced by the several historic documentaries created by the company on famous strongmen and strongwomen from the early twentieth century.
Aside from documentaries, Rogue also created an online database of historical documents in conjunction with the Todds, while also producing its own line of strength equipment said to mimic old strongman devices. To somewhat labor the point, the company’s keen interest in the history of strength surpasses many of its competitors, even companies like York Barbell which has produced equipment since the early 1930s.
Rogue’s creation of an annual Rogue Record Breaker contest at the ASC — an annual contest designed to break historical records — in 2015 furthered this interest. Driven primarily by the ASC, strongman competitions, including the WSM, began to record more and more records.
Previously a sporadic concern, legitimate records now became a driving focus. Athletes, in turn, began to explicitly target new records as a means of increasing their popularity, and it is no coincidence that such athletes often did so on social media. One of the most obvious examples of this was the rivalry between Eddie Hall and Hafþór Björnsson on the world record for the deadlift. The intense focus given over to the record spoke of a much broader interest in strict strength training which stemmed from the Arnold Strongman Classic and its association with Rogue.
Returning briefly to the contest which started it all, the WSM, it is fair to say that the progress made by the Arnold shows and the Rogue Record Breakers have not gone unnoticed. In 2012 Colin Bryce, who for many is the iconic voice of the games, set out the main challenge facing the sport.
“I believe the World needs more promoters. More risk-takers. More action men. It’s very easy to sit back and say how a contest should be run. It’s a whole different story getting off of your backside and putting your money where your mouth is.” (10)
In the Arnold and Rogue, Bryce got his wish. Such competition has forced the WSM to change things up. The contest is now hosted in new regions, new formats were introduced (like the Last Man Standing stone lifts), and the contest now has an intricate qualification system incorporating regional shows from around the world. Where Bryce was correct in citing a lack of competition and innovation in 2012, the past 10 years, in particular, has shown a remarkable amount of vibrancy in the sport.
Emblematic of this is the recent attention given to Björnsson’s world record deadlift. Although not done in a strongman competition, a point which proved contentious to some, Björnsson’s amazing feat of strength was directly linked to the sport’s drive for ever greater feats of strength. Thanks to the marketability of people like Björnsson, and Hall, the man whose record was defeated, the lift became world news. At the present moment, there is no reason to think the sport will not continue to go from strength to strength, pun intended.
- Jarrod Clay & Haley Nelson, ‘Arnold Sports Festival cooperating with governor’s orders to go without spectators,’ ABC 6, March 3, 2020. Available at: https://abc6onyourside.com/news/local/arnold-organizers-plan-to-allow-spectators-negotiating-with-state-city-leaders.
- Budd, Michael Anton. The sculpture machine: Physical culture and body politics in the age of empire. NYU Press, 1997
- Holt, Richard. Sport and the British: a modern history. Oxford University Press, 1990.
- The Rogue Legends Series – Chapter 2: Louis “Apollon” Uni / 8K. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdZZm1f4RvY.
- Whannel, Garry. “Television and the Transformation of Sport.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 625.1 (2009): 205-218.
- Todd, Terry. ‘Our Davie.’ H.J. Lutcher Stark Center. Available at https://starkcenter.org/2010/03/our-davie-2/.
- Holowchak, Mark A, and Terry Todd. “Philosophical Reflections on Physical Strength: Does a Strong Mind Need a Strong Body?.” In Philosophical Considerations of Physical Strength: Does a Strong Mind Need a Strong Body, 91–129. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.
- Heffernan, Conor. ‘Deadlifting Cheese at the World’s Strongest Man.’ Physical Culture Study. Available at https://physicalculturestudy.com/2018/04/18/deadlifting-cheese-at-the-worlds-strongest-man-1983/.
- ‘World’s Strongest Woman’, Bit Lander. Available at https://www.bitlanders.com/blogs/worlds-strongest-woman/68977.
- ‘Interview with Colin Bryce,’ Viking Strength. Available at https://vikingstrength.com/2012/01/18/interview-with-colin-bryce-worlds-strongest-man-commentator-and-head-referee/.
Featured image: “Bjornsson Arnold Classic” by Paula R. Lively is licensed under CC BY 2.0.