Thursday, August 8, 2013

Eugene Sandow

Aris DeMarco

I had a few questions regarding part one of part one after sharing it around a bit. Jason asked:

why do you say that the old timers were less flexible? What is that based on, and what do you think led to modern weightlifters being more flexible?

To which I responded:

It’s not ‘the oldtimers’ as a group so much as the European superheavies, the ones who lifted in the ‘continental’ style. They didn’t have good technique, they didn’t bother to become fast or flexible, so their competitions revolved around brute power. In the olympics today, even the fattest guys are gonna be doing squat cleans. The German ‘continental’ lifters just did a sort of high pull, rested the bar on their bellies, and then shouldered it (continental). Same goes for layback in the press. They didn’t want to be limited by the ‘military’ form, so layback was allowed. This wasn’t a sophisticated double layback olympic press either, just leaning back as far as they could/needed to, to press the bar out. They allowed their off hand to be placed on their leg/knee in the one arm snatch, too, unlike the ‘clean’ style of lifting. Basically, continental style lifting was big guys moving big weights, just like the WSM today–judges won’t be calling anyone on hitching deadlifts, using leg drive on overhead ‘press’, etc.

Modern weightlifters are more flexible because it’s advantageous to be flexible, given the rules. The Chinese have so much usable flexibility that many of them can do bottoms-up overhead squats with nearly the same poundage that they use on front squats. Because of that, they can drop right to the bottom to catch a squat jerk. This gives them an advantage over lifters who have to catch the bar higher. These enormous refinements in technique have made weightlifting an entirely different sport. In the ’50s and ’60s, lifters just pulled the bar up high and stepped forwards under it, to snatch it. In the 1900s, they probably didn’t even bother to step under it, that’s why snatch poundages were relatively low.

Anyway, flexibility was more of a thing for the french, who loved ‘clean’ lifting; and the guys who did gymnastics as well as heavy lifting (sandow, maxick, sig klein, otto arco). Saxon, Aston etc. were doubtless more flexible than the ‘continental’ competitors as well, at least in some places, because they could bent press. I doubt that steinbach, swoboda, et al could bent press at all.....

Just the other day I found this bit written by Sig Klein in 1936:

"The Bent Press was never very popular with the continental lifters . . . most of them were too bulky to perform it . . . they could not lean forward or sideways enough to make a good lift in this style. Not that they didn't try . . . they all wanted to make good in this lift since one can put up more weight with one hand this way than it is possible with any other one-handed lift. There have been men who could put up more weight with one hand in the Bent Press than they could with two hands in any other style. Continental lifters called the Bent Press "a trick" . . . said it was harmful . . . that it was not a true lift, but a supporting feat. As a result of their wails the lift was eventually barred from competition on the continent."

So, there you have it. This, of course, brings us to the man who probably most influenced the entire course of western physical culture at the time--Eugene Sandow.

5'9'' and 180 pounds of shoulders and leopard trunks.
Real fur, probably, too. 

Sandow was born in Prussia in 1867. His was a common tale among strongmen and weightlifters-to-be. He grew up with physical ability that was average at best, but a chance encounter--in Sandow's case, visiting a museum that held classical Greek statues--drove his desire to become strong. 

By all accounts, Sandow trained himself by (against his parents' wishes) stealing away to wrestling clubs and sneaking off to the circus to work out with the strongmen and acrobats. It isn't exactly clear how strong he became during this period, however, after meeting several well-known 'professors' of physical culture for the first time, it was noted that he was stronger than many of them even at this early stage in his career so clearly, Sandow had tremendous natural gifts. A few of these individuals were impressed enough to sponsor him and allow him to teach classes at their facilities. 

"Sandow? Oh... he even." 
--'professor Attila'

Eventually, Sandow left home and began travelling, using his newfound talents to make money along the way. In late nineteenth-century Europe, physical culture was experiencing something of a boom at the time and, apart from teaching gym classes, there was plenty of money to be had for weightlifters as part of circus acts, street shows, and as models for the classical era-obsessed artists and sculptors of the time. Undoubtedly, Sandow's rather unique combination of agility and strength served him well as an 'attraction' while doing this: Most performers at the time were either acrobats/handbalancers or weightlifters, not both!

Sandow's fame gradually grew not only from his pure physical talent, but also through rather uniquely brazen publicity stunts. For example, in Amsterdam one night he drove around the entire city in a cab breaking the fragile pulley machines set up in public places for normal passers-by to workout with. 

Kinda like this. 

Sandow purposely got himself arrested while in the act of doing this, claiming that he had committed no crime--he had merely attempted to exercise, but he was simply too strong for the machines! He rapidly gained fame throughout the city; crowds followed him wherever he went, and he gained a deal at a local theater that paid him 1200 guilders each week to perform. (Apparently that's about 2000usd. I have no idea about the inflation rates on Dutch currency from 1900, but it's a ton of money to be paid for, in essence, lifting and then posing for an audience for an hour every evening.)

Not sure if this ridiculousness is worth the equivalent of a six-figure salary, but whatever works....

As you can see from the clip, Sandow's posing looks a bit strange even for those of us who have seen modern bodybuilding competitions. However, the clip shows just how famous Sandow grew to become--not many films were being taken in 1894, and according to the video description one of Thomas Edison's associates was the one who did the filming here. 

We can pretty safely assume from the massive fame and monetary success that Sandow gained, that he was indeed much more popular than the massive, beer-bellied strongmen who had been more popular before then. Apart from his more outrageous publicity stunts, he knew exactly what people wanted. In a time completely taken by the classical era, a man who looked exactly like some of the ancient statues--and had many, many professional photographs of himself taken to prove this fact--was a 'must see' attraction. Especially for women, of course. When the average 'really fit' guys at the time looked something like this:

Seeing Sandow must have been quite a shock for the ladies. He capitalized on this, too, arranging even more showings and performances for eager audiences. I can't find it online but in a book someplace I saw a picture of Sandow literally surrounded by a group of fascinated women with the stereotypical long skirts, fans, and feather boas of the time period. Unlike the street and circus strongmen, Sandow specifically marketed himself to the higher-paying members of high society and it paid off in terms of both money and reputation.

He didn't forget his roots in the circus, though, and accepted weightlifting challenges from other strongmen. He made shows out of these, too, of course. These were something like high-class versions of professional wrestling, with a great deal of posturing from both lifters and their entourages, bets being placed from the audience, and so forth. Here's part of one account from when Sandow faced 'Hercules':

...The regular contest then began, Hercules setting the first task, which was to raise with the left hand from the ground at arm's length above the head a weight of 170 lbs. The challenger accomplished the feat, and Sandow was also successful at the third attempt, the limit allowed for each trial. Sandow then, amidst renewed applause, raise a dumbbell weighing 226 lbs. with his right hand at arm's length above the head. Hercules declined to attempt the feat, his decision provoking loud cries of disapprobation and a good deal of hissing...." (from Sandow on Physical Training). 

From this report, it's difficult to tell exactly what lifts the two men were doing, as most of the lifts of the time ended up with either one or two arms overhead. However, it seems likely that the first lift was a one arm snatch, the second, the bent press--wherein the lifter tipped the barbell on one end, held it in one hand with his elbow firmly supported on his hip; then commenced bending forwards and down away from the weight. The upper arm actually stayed supported against the lifter's side until it was completely straight, so the 'bent press' really was not a press at all, but rather a supporting feat. Once the arm was straight, the lifter would slowly squat under the weight and stand up with it overhead in one hand. As noted by Sig Klein above, the 'poundage potential' of the bent press was absolutely tremendous, bodyweight on the bar was considered a good beginning lift and many accomplished weightlifters could do more in the bent press than in the two arm press, or even push jerk. 

Poster showing Sandow completing a bent press with human weights

This, of course, brings us to the question of what Sandow could lift. He was known to exaggerate his numbers (perhaps the first of many men to claim a 'twenty inch arm') and in some advertisements, said that he was the strongest man in the world. He did one arm military presses with what he claimed was a 150-pound dumbbell, and said he could bent press 300 pounds several times in succession. However, the heaviest weights he lifted in a competition wherein the barbells were actually weighed (i.e. not an exhibition with his own weights) Sandow did much less. He apparently put up a 180ish-pound one arm snatch, alternate pressed a pair of hundred-pound dumbbells for a few reps, and did a backflip with a pair of 35-pound weights (he claimed they were 55 apiece). According to David Willougby, Sandow's only official weightlifting record was a 269 1/2 pound bent press, which was soon surpassed by several other lifters, and of course was much lower than Sandow's claimed ability. He was apparently seen by many to do two hundred consecutive strict pushups, in addition to doing a one-finger one arm chin with any of his ten fingers, (get started on that here, Alex is already well on his way to a one-finger OAC!) though he used a sort of 'hook grip' arrangement on a strap to assist his thumb (Willoughby). 

As to how he trained, he built the majority of his ability in his formative years, and from then on primarily maintained it with his daily performances. He did a great deal of advertising for his 'system' of training with very light dumbbells--which probably played no role in his own development, but were definitely easier to sell than full barbell sets!--in addition to publicizing various methods of physical training for men in the military. This is perhaps what we should give him the most credit for; being a tremendous spokesperson for lifting, health, and physical culture, and playing a huge role in popularizing being lean, agile, and 'in shape' as well as strong. Of course he was a very good lifter too, though only average for the time, in comparison to the massively powerful 'continental' lifters (of course, his overall athleticism was far beyond theirs) but his legacy is by far his greatest accomplishment: Simply put, he was the right man at the right time to truly bring physical culture to the masses. Moreover, he's considered by many to be the 'father of modern bodybuilding' for his obsession with aesthetic goals. The 'Mr. Olympia' professional bodybuilding trophy is, and always has been, a statue of Sandow himself for a reason.

Yep, Arnold has seven of these. 

Finally, of course, Sandow paved the way for many individuals who came after him. The next 'lifter profile' I'll do will be for either Arthur Saxon or Max Sick--and I'll have a lot more actual information on his training in that blog post. Stay tuned!

Klein, Sig. How much can you bent press. 1936. 
Adam, G. Mercer. Sandow on Physical Training. 1894. 
Willoughby, David P. The Super-Athletes. 1970. 


  1. Good one. Among the many oldetime strongmen, Sandow was the one to really turn his muscles into a successful business venture.

    BTW the street pulley machines you mention - I read somewhere that those were in fact grip testing machines, pretty common at fairgrounds and arcades back in the day. You squeeze two handles together and the mechanism gives you a 'strength rating'. If you ever get a chance to visit the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, you'll find a number of these gadgets on display (and still working), along with other "strength testing" devices.

  2. Thanks Fatman. I didn't know about the grip machines. I read someplace that when he was a teenager, Gennady Ivanchenko measured his grip by seeing how many grip 'testers' he could break in a row, or something like that. I'll def keep the museum in mind next time I'm on the west coast.

    Btw, other than Lillian Leitzel, who I'm definitely doing a blog post on, do you know any other females from that era who I could do a 'profile' on? I just realized that until I'm done with this series, a good 1/3 of my posts are gonna have some near-naked man ass in them, and we can't have that, haha.


  3. Dunno, maybe Katie Sandwina?