Who is the world’s strongest man? Nowadays the answer is clear to most strongmen: either the winner of the Arnold Strongman Classic or the World’s Strongest Man competition.
But these competitions, popular though they are, are relatively recent phenomenon. The World’s Strongest Man began in 1977 and the Arnold Strongman Classic kicked off in 2002. How did we determine the strongest man before such events? Complicating things further, we might ask how do we determine strength when lifting as we know it was only beginning to come to the fore?
Such questions plagued the lifters of the early 1900s. At a time when gym going, as defined by the term “physical culture,” was still a novel idea, every strength athlete worth his salt claimed the title of World’s Strongest Man. Was Arthur Saxon’s record in the bent press — a record which stood for over a century — proof that he was the strongest? What about Eugen Sandow and his feat of Hercules stunts which saw entire hoards of men walk across a beam supported by the Prussian strongman? Without a standardised set of lifts, comparisons were difficult.
Despite this confusion many lifters knew that real strength resided primarily in one man. Louis Cyr.
From 1886 to his death in 1912, Cyr hoisted wagons, pulled globe barbells and pushed various objects overhead. He exhibited back lifts totalling several thousand pounds, simultaneously held back four horses, defeated other strongmen in competition and toured the world as the undisputed face of strength. In a time before strongman competitions, few doubted Cyr’s claim to the world’s strongest living man. Famous among strength aficionados, Cyr is oftentimes overlooked in popular discussions of strength. Today’s post tells his story and highlights the raw strength which defined the first lifter worthy of the title ‘World’s Strongest Man.’
From Proud Beginnings
James Woycke credited Cyr’s remarkable strength as an adult to his genetic heritage. Born in St. Cyprien, south of Montreal, in 1863, Cyr’s ancestry included farm workers and lumbermen.(1) His mother, Philomène Berger Cyr, was said to have been a strong woman in her own right. Christened Noé-Cyprien Cyr (he later changed his name to Louis) the young French-Canadian came at an opportune time in his region’s history. At a time when the Quebec economy was still defined by farmwork and wood cutting, Cyr’s childhood was spent in the informal acts of strength training found in pushing, pulling, chopping and lifting hay, wood or whatever else was to hand. Gymnasiums had yet to become popularised and strength acts, although in existence, were not commonplace.(2) Farmwork and lumberjacking were still the best means of acquiring strength and muscle, something Cyr did with a great enthusiasm.
[Learn more: Why Woodchopping Is the Best Workout You’re Not Doing]
According to subsequent myth, it was only when he hit his late teens that Cyr, and those around him, began to take notice of his strength. Returning home from work one day, Cyr came upon a farmer’s wagon that had become stuck in a ditch on a muddy path. The horse, despite his owner’s best efforts, could not dislodge the wagon from the mud. Sensing an opportunity to help, Cyr lifted the wagon from the ditch and, with the help of a presumably shamed horse, pulled it back onto the road. Then returning home, Cyr left an astonished farmer to return to his business.(3)
(It’s hard to know how much of this is apocryphal, but we’re describing the stories as they were reported.)
This was not the end of the matter. People were talking about the teenager’s strength and encouraged him to exhibit it. When his family moved to Boston in 1878, Cyr continued in this vein. In 1881, aged 18, Cyr competed in, and won, his first strongman show. Demonstrating the still ad-hoc nature of strength competitions in the early 1880s, the competition revolved around one feat: who could lift a horse overhead.(4) Cyr lifted the horse with ease, thereby winning the competition and initiating a strength career which lasted two decades.
Building One’s Strength
From 1881 to 1886, Cyr largely lived the life of a vagabond strongman, competing in strength shows and picking up seasonal work where possible. Predating Ronnie Coleman’s claim to the world’s scariest police officer, Cyr was part of the Montreal police force from 1883 to 1885. To put the oddity of Cyr’s employment with the police into context, the average male weight in the United States during this time ranged from 142 to 165 pounds.(5) Cyr was on his way to weighing in at over 300 pounds. He might not have caught perps in a footrace, but his sight alone was probably a crime deterrent.
Legend has it that this is how Cyr was offered the job: One evening, he came across two men engaged in a knife fight. Not stopping to discover the cause of their discontent, Cyr shook each man by the collar, took their knives and carried one under each arm to the local station. He was quickly met with a job offer.(7)
Police work, however rewarding, was not enough for Cyr combined his various jobs with a series of weightlifting and strongman events. Following his Boston victory in 1881, Cyr returned to Quebec where he faced David Michaud in a weightlifting contest. Then Canada’s strongest man, Michaud challenged Cyr to best him in a boulder lifting competition. Writing on the event many years later, Ben Weider, of Weider bodybuilding fame, claimed that Cyr’s victory over Michaud was secured after the young strongman lifted a boulder totalling over five hundred pounds from the ground.(6)
[Become Louis Cyr: Here’s how to deadlift 500 pounds.]
For the next year and a half Cyr continued to wow Canadian audiences with a series of weightlifting exhibitions.
In 1885, Cyr left the police force to open his own tavern in St Cunegonde, Montreal with an adjoining gymnasium. According to David Gentle, Cyr’s tavern and gymnasium quickly became a destination from strongmen from across the country to train and challenge one another.(8) Cyr was beginning to taste financial stability and a reputation as his country’s strongest man. Not content with his lot, Cyr continued to tour, albeit sporadically, and compete in contests with other lifters.
A Strongman is Born
The period 1881 to 1886 was very much a testing ground for Cyr. He built his strength and won the admiration of many but it was unlikely that many in the United States or Great Britain knew Cyr’s name at this time. Cyr’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1886 when Cyr teamed up with Richard K. Fox of the National Police Gazette.(9) Impressed with Cyr’s victory over Richard Pennell in Philadelphia in 1886, Fox, whose magazine spanned a range of sports and interest pieces, was a great promoter of athletic excellence, regularly offering prize monies and belts to his champions.(10)
Sponsored by Fox, who offered $5,000 to anyone who could best Cyr in a weightlifting match, Cyr’s fame grew. Encouraged by Fox’s approval, he undertook a series of tours spanning Canada, the United States and England. In each town Cyr would challenge the local strongman, inevitably defeat them and also make time for public exhibitions of strength. During this time, Cyr counted Sebastian Miller, Cyclops, Samson, August Johnson and Sandowe among his competitors.(11) That was Sandowe with an E and not Eugen Sandow, the strongman previously covered on Barbend. Despite Cyr’s best efforts and the offer of a diamond studded belt, Sandow never faced Cyr in a weightlifting match.
Defeating other strongmen is undoubtedly important in establishing one’s claim to world’s strongest man but public feats of strength are also necessary. Cyr did not disappoint in this regard. In 1888, Cyr lifted 3,536 lb/1, 604 kg in a back lift. Three years later in 1891, Cyr successfully held back four draught horses with ease.(12) When on tour in England in 1891 and 1892, W. A. Pullum, an English lifter of some renown, credited Cyr with the following lifts:
The Feats of Louis Cyr
(1) Two hands to shoulder and one arm push overhead: 124 kilos (roughly 273 English pounds).
(2) Two hands clean to shoulders and slow press: 136 kilos (approximately 299 pounds).
(3) Right and left hand clean sweep-up overhead (similar to our snatch movement, but with no dip under): 78 kilos (approximately 172 pounds).
(4) One hand hold out at right angles to the body, weight not lowered from above but pushed out sideways with only a very slight sideways bend of the body: 47 kilos (approximately 104 pounds).
(5) Barrel of cement standing on end, put on shoulder by the use of one hand only: 141 kilos (approximately 310½ pounds).
(6) Standing astride a weight of 247 kilos he lifted this several inches off the ground with his little finger (English poundage approximately 535 pounds).
(7) The hauling strength of four very heavy dray horses (two each side) failed to pull his arms apart.
(8) Platform lift on back of 1,645 kilos (approximately 3626 pounds). NOTE: Sixteen men mounted the platform which stood supported on two trestles.(13)
Pullum neglected to mention Cyr’s pressing of his now famed ‘Cyr Dumbbell’ weighing just shy of 280 lbs.(14) Fans of modern strongman shows are undoubtedly familiar with the Cyr Dumbbell, a thick grip dumbbell used for one handing pressing events, usually weighing in the area of 275 to 300 pounds. Similar to the Thomas Inch dumbbell, also a strongman favorite, the Cyr dumbbell was, for many years, an impossible feat of strength for lifters. Even today strong men struggle with it in competition. Cyr’s greatest feat did not, however, arise during his time in England.
Cyr’s claim as the world’s strongest man stems from his 1895 backlift in Boston. Placing sixteen men on a platform lying across his back, Cyr completed a backlift totalling over 4,000 lbs.(15) Before modern gyms, advanced nutrition and steroids, Cyr’s strength was almost inconceivable. What kind of body can withstand 4,000 lbs. without crumbling? Luckily we have an answer.
Placing sixteen men on a platform lying across his back, Cyr completed a backlift totalling over 4,000 lbs.
Meeting with Dudley Allen Sargent, an influential physical educationist, Cyr had his measurements recorded for posterity. Aged 32, Cyr weighed 291 lbs. at a height of 5 foot 8 inches. His biceps measured 20 inches, his forearms 16 inches. His waist was a hefty 47 inches and he was carried around on thighs measuring 28 inches.(16) Sandow’s measurements by Sargent during the 1890s saw him proclaimed the world’s most perfectly developed specimen. Cyr’s gave credence to his claim as the world’s strongest man.
A Short But Strong Life
Cyr’s story did not, sadly, have a happy ending. Achieving a jaw dropping backlift in 1896, Cyr retired from the lifting game soon after. Plagued by a series of health concerns, which some have linked to overeating and inactivity, Cyr was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease in the early 1900s.(17) In layman’s terms, Cyr had acute kidney inflammation which caused considerable distress. His weight ballooned up to over 400 lbs. It became clear that the man once likened to the biblical Samson was also a mere mortal.
Cyr’s last lifting contest came against Hector De Carrie, a fellow Canadian strongman, in 1906 at age 43. Upon hearing De Carrie’s claims that he, not Cyr, was the strongest man in Canada, Cyr slimmed down and best the young upstart. Needing to take long breaks between lifts, Cyr was eventually declared the winner, Shortly after, Cyr told the audience that he was retiring for good from the strongman circuit. His last gesture was to bequeath his title of world’s strongest man — not affiliate with the modern competition, of course — to Hector.(18) Six years later Cyr passed away in 1912. He was 49 years old.
When Cyr died, the lifting community mourned the loss of a true great. In 1929 George Jowett, then a successful fitness entrepreneur and lifter, published The Strongest Man in the World, a biography of Louis Cyr.(19) Some years later W.A. Pullum published a series of articles citing Cyr as the strongest man to ever live.(20) Ben Weider later printed his own biography of Cyr arguing the very same.(21)
In Montreal, a park is named in his honor alongside his own statue in the Place des Hommes-Forts (‘Strongman Square’).(22) His life has been memorialised in several TV biopics, novels and movies. Cyr’s strength and legacy live on through these tales. At a time when lifting was still in its infancy, devoid largely of proper coaches, real gymnasiums and a strongman was effectively a travelling performer, Cyr boasted a strength comparable to today’s modern athletes.
W.A. Pullum summed Cyr’s legacy thusly:
Once in a generation, it has been said, a super-athlete arises whose prowess astonishes the world. Several generations have come and gone, however, since Louis Cyr arose and showed what he could do. Since that time nothing approaching his extraordinary performances has ever been seen …(23)
Looking at Cyr’s life in 2019, it’s hard to disagree.
- James Woycke, Esprit de Corps: A History of North American Bodybuilding (London, 2016), 5-8.
- Much of this is covered in Paul Ohl, Louis Cyr (Montreal, 2013).
- George F. Jowett, The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived (Philadelphia, 1927), 15-20.
- James Allen Young, ‘Height, Weight, and Health: Anthropometric Study of Human Growth in Nineteenth-Century American Medicine’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 53.2 (1979): 214-243.
- Ben Weider, The Strongest Man in History: Louis Cyr, Amazing Canadian (Montreal, 1976).
- Hereward Senior, Constabulary: The Rise of Police Institutions in Britain, the Commonwealth and the United States (Dundurn, 1997), 76.
- David Gentle, Louis Cyr 1863-1912. Available at https://www.davidgentle.com/ironindex/cyr.html.
- Guy Reel, National Police Gazette and the Making of the Modern American Man, 1879-1906 (New York, 2006).
- Ibid., 132.
- Jowett, The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived, 58-79.
- Ibid., 108-115.
- W.A. Pullum, Recollections of Louis Cyr. Available at https://physicalculturestudy.com/2017/12/25/recollections-of-louis-cyr-by-w-a-pullum-2/.
- David P. Willoughby, The Super Athletes (New York, 1970), 161-162.
- Ibid., 154.
- Ibid., 234.
- Don Morrow, Kevin B. Wamsley, Sport in Canada: A History (Oxford, 2009), 130-131.
- Jowett, The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived.
- Pullum, Recollections of Louis Cyr.
- Weider, The Strongest Man in History.
- ‘Louis Cyr Parc Des Hommes Forts’. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m76vMxUi0wo.
- Pullum, Recollections of Louis Cyr.