From his emergence in 1889 to his death in 1925, Eugen Sandow was often advertised as the strongest and most perfectly developed man on the planet. The idea of being “strong like Sandow” was one that many individuals sought to emulate, and, for many strongmen of his era, beating the revered fitness idol in some form of competition was often the ultimate goal.
The only problem was that Sandow rarely, if ever, competed in weightlifting competitions. Once he achieved the moniker of the strongest man in the world in the early 1890s, he protected his image at all costs. When fellow strongman Arthur Saxon advertised himself as the man who beat Sandow in competition, Sandow went after him in court. And when Quebecois strongman Louis Cyr challenged him to a contest, Sandow simply ignored the calls. It was better to stay quiet than potentially lose in front of a crowd.
For the general public at the time, however, Sandow was the pinnacle of power and fitness. Even today, he’s viewed as the father of modern bodybuilding and serves as the model for the vaunted Mr. Olympia trophy, which is awarded to the winner of bodybuilding’s top prize every year. But just how strong was Eugen Sandow? And how did he build his strength? We put this fitness pioneer under the microscope below.
Editors note: It should be noted that while Sandow and his contemporaries were often referred to as “strongmen,” the events they took part in were more like performance exhibitions rather than the structured events we have today in the modern sport of strongman.
Eugen Sandow was a showman and marketing extraordinaire. While this meant he was an incredibly exciting performer, it also meant that he was prone to exaggerations and mistruths, both around his feats of strength and also in how he trained. Depending on which of his books you read, he was either a sickly youth who managed to build the world’s most perfectly developed physique over time, or he was a lifelong athlete who practiced wrestling and gymnastics before turning to free weights.
What we do know about his training is that he employed heavy and progressive weights. In 1894, the man himself briefly touched upon his training regimen in the book Sandow on Physical Training.
There, Sandow showcased a variety of exercises that would appear very familiar to modern lifters. He used heavy overhead pressing (both barbells and dumbbells), beginning with the weights on the ground. And for chest exercises, he used push-ups and crude forms of dumbbell flyes. Biceps curls, sit-ups, and lateral raises were also on the menu.
Frustratingly, Sandow did not detail his back and leg exercises, but we do know that he was capable of doing chin-ups with a single finger and could perform weighted harness lifts with hundreds of pounds.
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It is worth noting that when Sandow trained, the modern big three of powerlifting — back squats, bench press, and deadlifts — weren’t commonplace. If anything, overhead pressing was the main way to build strength.
Sandow was, of course, a showman, and, like many of his era, his weekly performances were oftentimes also his workouts. Early strongmen did not “max out” their weights during performances for fear of failing, but they nevertheless helped to maintain a strong physique.
His strength exhibitions often centered on four key movements. The first was some form of the overhead press, be it a barbell or, as his performances evolved, a “human barbell,” wherein members of the public sat on each end of a barbell. Next was a weighted carry, sometimes with strange implements like a pony or piano. (According to lore, Sandow often carried the piano and pianist overhead across the stage.)
According to multiple biographies, he’d also perform standing somersaults while holding dumbbells in each hand that allegedly weighed 56 pounds. Finally, there was a “human bridge” whereby Sandow supported the weight of an animal or a large number of audience members while holding a crab pose.
Yes, this was all unconventional, but it also helped maintain his physique.
Eugen Sandow Feats of Strength
Surprisingly, Sandow rarely, if ever, competed in official weightlifting competitions. Even his breakout victory against strongmen Cyclops and Samson in 1889 — when Sandow first began to market himself as the world’s strongest man — involved breaking chains and using other crude strongman feats rather than official lifts using a barbell in competition.
Sandow’s own variety shows were likewise more focused on flashy lifts rather than athletic endeavors. Strength historian David Willoughby studied Sandow’s career in the 1970 encyclopedia of strength, The Super Athletes, and found that his 269-pound bent press remained his heaviest recorded feat using a barbell. Though impressive, many of his contemporaries broke this record during their careers, including Arthur Saxon, who allegedly completed a bent press of 371 pounds. (As with most feats at the time, these lifts are difficult to confirm as valid.)
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In harness lifting, Sandow claimed to have lifted a 1,500-pound stone from the ground and even included illustrations of this lift in his 1894 workout book, but no one could verify this claim.
Rather fantastically, Sandow’s 1897 book, Strength and How to Obtain It, contained a passage in which he said he lifted a 530-pound lion “as high as” his shoulder. The same book also put Sandow’s highest overhead press at 300 pounds, which Willoughby and others have disputed.
How Does Eugen Sandow Compare to Modern Athletes?
It’s difficult to compare Sandow’s strength to a modern athlete because of how training has evolved. Though he’s credited with a bent press of 269 pounds, that lift has fallen drastically out of favor with today’s strength athletes, owing in part to how difficult it is to learn. Plus, there’s no definitive visual evidence that Sandow’s weight total is even accurate.
Some modern strongmen do dabble in the bent press, though, including 2019 World’s Strongest Man Martins Licis, who topped out at around 200 pounds on the lift back in 2019. (Though it’s important to note that Licis says it’s not an exercise he puts much focus on.)
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If we take Sandow’s 300-pound overhead press seriously (and there are reasons not to), he pales in comparison to modern strongmen once more. Today, it’s common to see athletes press 400-plus pounds overhead using barbells or 200-plus-pound dumbbells in each hand.
The most impressive number which Sandow claimed — but was also never verified — was his 1,500-pound stone harness lift. American strongman Steve Schmidt currently holds the USAWA harness world record with a 3,515-pound lift. Even 18th-century English strongman Thomas Topham, who predates Sandow, has a recorded harness lift of 1,836 pounds.
Sandow in Perspective
So was Sandow ever the “strongest man on Earth”? No. He was not even the strongest man of his generation when you look at some of the lifts performed by Arthur Saxon.
Why, then, was Sandow viewed as so unique? That is easier to answer. Sandow was one of the first public strength athletes with a bodybuilder’s physique. At the time, many strongmen were heavy and large, but lacked muscular definition. Sandow was lean and muscular and knew how to play to these strengths. While others were stronger, Sandow’s real strength was his marketability.