Modern day strongmen and powerlifters are true freaks of nature. Huge, athletic and terrifyingly strong. Ray Johnson can squat with 1000lbs on his back like it’s not even there, and Brian Shaw throws Atlas stones that nearly outweigh adult grizzly bears on a daily basis.
However before the titans of today started lifting impossible amounts of weight, there were those who did so before them. Some of them holding records few men can challenge even by today’s strength standards. Now, how about we talk about those strong guys a bit? Trust me, you won’t regret reading this.
1. Thomas Topham
Thomas was an 18th-century Strongman from London, known as “The British Samson.” He initially tried his luck with owning and running a pub, but when that didn’t go well, he realized he had a knack for lifting weird heavy stuff for people. Among his many feats of strength is the famed “Harness lift,” where he would stand on a platform and lift three giant barrels filled with water totaling 1,836lbs!
He also was able to roll up a seven pound pewter dish “‘as a man rolls up a sheet of paper” and he once lifted the 27-stone (378lbs) Vicar of All Saints with a single hand—while laying on two chairs and having four people standing on his body. His great career and life came to an end at the age of 39, when he found out his wife was cheating on him. He took a knife and ended her life and wounded himself heavily, dying from the injuries a couple of days later.
2. Pierre Gasnier
The Frenchmen was often billed as “French Hercules” and is one prime example of old school strongmen. He frequently performed with a circus in the 1890s and used those funny looking ball ended dumbbells and barbells.
But he was no joke, and there’s a reason he’s on this list. Gasnier had many feats of strength. The most famous ones were tearing a chain wrapped around his chest by merely expanding it, and lifting a thick gripped 260lbs dumbbell over his head, even though he was merely 143lbs and stood at 5’3″.
As you can tell, this was impressive as hell, considering the dumbbell was nearly the same size as the man himself!
2. Bybon’s Stone
Now this is one of my favorite tales from strength history. Picture the following; It’s ancient Greece and Olympic sports have just barely kicked off. Recreational weightlifting and competitive bodybuilding is nowhere to be found.
Yet, as long as there are men, there are bros. And as long as there are bros, there’s going to be someone who lifts heavy objects to impress other bros. Such is the case with Bybon. Bybon saw a giant, 315 pound slab of rock and decided to make a huge makeshift kettlebell/dumbbell out of it and carved out a handle in the middle of the stone.
Then, he picked it up overhead with one hand. I’m confident that as he performed this amazing feat of strength, he looked everyone in attendance dead in the eyes, with the ginormous stone still in hand, and said “Bretherens, dost thou even hoist?” before performing the first ever mic drop—or in this case, stone drop.
Not much is known about Bybon aside from the inscription found on the stone which reads “Bybon, son of Phola, has lifted me overhead with one hand.” You may be badass, but you’ll never be having your own name carved on the weight you just lifted, badass.
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3. Milo of Croton
Another one of my historic favorites. Milo was a six-time Olympic wrestling champion from a Greek colony in Italy called Croton. He lived about the same time as fellow Greek Bybon, mentioned above. This makes us think these Greek dudes were probably descendants of Hercules himself. He was famous for having exceptional physical strength and some badass eating habits. Story goes he ate 20lbs of meat, 20lbs of bread and drank about 2.6 gallons of wine daily.
Legends says he was able to hold a pomegranate in his closed fist without anyone being able to pry his fingers open without crushing the fruit and that he once carried his own bronze statue to it’s place on Olympus. So, how exactly did the illegitimate son of Hercules manage to perform such an act? I’m glad you asked. He carried a young calf on his back every day for four years for an unspecified distance up a hill until that calf turned into a fully grown bull.
Then one day, he slaughtered it and ate it. His death as awesome as his life was. One day he was walking through a forrest and saw a slightly split tree, and being the badass he was, he tried to split it in half. After some fighting, his fingers slipped and he got caught in the cracks of the tree. Unable to defend himself, a pack of wild wolves attacked him and ended his life.
4. Zishe Breitbart
For this installment, we’re traveling a bit closer to our time with another classic strongman boasting incredible feats. Born Siegmund Breitbart, Zishe was a 1920s Jewish strongman and a blacksmith. He developed an iron addiction and used it to make a career of mastering metal, like Magneto…but without the mutant superpowers.
He was noted for bending iron bars in floral patterns, tearing apart and/or biting through iron chains, and my favorite feat of his, lifting a baby elephant while climbing a ladder and holding a locomotive wheel in his teeth while three men were suspended from the wheel! And that’s only some of his strength feats. In fact he was so famous for his amazing strength back then, there’s a pretty good chance that he was the inspiration behind the creation of The Last Son of Krypton, Superman.
His life was cut short at the tender age of 32 as he was performing his usual stunt of driving a nail through a stack of boards with his bare hands. The freak accident happened when he drove a rusty nail through five one-inch-thick boards, which were placed on his leg, thusly piercing his leg and contracting blood poisoning. Doctors did what they could to try and save him, even amputating both of his legs, but it was no use as he died shorty after the incident.
5. Alexander Zass
Just like many men on this list, Alexander Zass was born in the late 19th century in modern day Lithuania (then part of Russian Empire), Vilnius. His story reads like something straight out of a comic book. During World War I, Zass joined the Russian army in a fight against Austria. He was captured as a P.O.W. four times and escaped each time. How, you ask? Well, he used the bars and his handcuffs as a form of resistance training.
While bending the bars of his cell would enhance his strength and also would allow him to escape every time he got captured. After the war he went to tour with a circus performing various feats of strength. Among his most memorable accomplishments is carrying two lions on his shoulders, carrying a grand piano with one woman on top and another playing the thing.
He credited his strength to isometric training against static objects. The goal was to exert as much force as possible. Because the the objects that he was pulling or pushing against were immovable, he could force his muscles to full capacity. So, yeah…you wanna be strong and ripped? Try physically moving your house. You’ll get weird looks and laughs at first, but we’ll see who’s laughing when one day you decide to go for a walk with a car on your back.
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6. Joe Greenstein
Another Strongman from the seemingly “golden age” of strength. Nicknamed “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein, being only 5’4″ tall, wasn’t really large in size. But once he picked up strength training, the gainz followed shortly. Joe was special because he focused on mental strength as much as physical strength.
Being of Jewish ethnicity in the late 1930s meant you weren’t having a good time. Such was the case with The Mighty Atom. One day he was walking in New York City when he saw a building with a sign that said “no dogs or Jews allowed.” Being rightfully angered by that sign, he took a ladder and tore down the sign with 20 or so Nazi supporters waiting for him to come down and explain himself. As it turned out, the building in question was a Nazi headquarters building filled with—you guessed it—Nazis.
Instead of an explanation, Joe decided to talk with his fists and beat the large group of men to a pulp. He was quickly apprehended and put in front of a judge. Upon hearing that one five-footer placed 20 men in the hospital, the judge insisted that The Mighty Atom had an accomplice…or five. Since the judge wasn’t buying the story, and there wasn’t any evidence Greenstein had an accomplice, he was released from custody.
When he got married, trouble followed. One man eyed his woman and decided that she’d make a hot widow and shot Joe straight between the eyes. Unfortunately for that man, Mighty Atom not only survived this accident but eye witness reports claim the bullet bounced of his skull and the impact simply knocked him of his feet. He was released from the hospital the same day with a kickass story to tell and a bitching headache, continuing to perform his Strongman act well into his late 80s.
7. Angus MacAskill
This Scottish-born Canadian stood 7’9″ tall and holds the record for the tallest non-pathological giant. This means his size is not a result of a pituitary gland issue or any other gigantism-related medical condition. Just like Lady Gaga, he was born this way. Because of his proportionate size he was exceptionally strong and had a naturally wide frame. He is also credited for having the largest chest measurements of any non-obese man at 80 inches. For reference sake, straight outta 2004 Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman measured a chest of 58 inches.
With such natural predispositions, MacAskill held many impressive feats of strength. He is credited for raising a 2,800 lbs ship anchor to shoulder height, easily carrying barrels full of wine under his arms and placing a 40-foot mast into a schooner deck thusly assembling a sailing boat like a giant lego toy.
His lifting career was cut short when he suffered a nasty injury. Reportedly, a bunch of French sailors were taunting him, probably saying “Monsieur, tu ne fais pas lift?” and challenged him to hoist a 2000lb anchor, a feat MacAskill did regularly without much struggle. However, this time, one of the anchor’s flukes caught got caught in his shoulder and crippled him. After the incident, he lived a normal everyday life. His death came at the hands of a severe fever that he could not shake off several years later.
8. Louis Cy
Louis is considered to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest man to have ever lived. He was born in Quebec, Canada in 1863 to a father of rather average proportions and a mother of rather large, Amazonian-esque proportions. As a young boy, he worked in a lumber camp during the winters and around the family farm during the rest of the year.
He quickly realized he was strong, stronger than any other kid his age. He then learned the story of Milo of Croton and decided to mimic Milo’s rise to incredible strength. The problem was the calf he started carrying around had other plans and hit Louis with a cheap shot dropkick to the back. Louis then improvised carrying a sack of grain a quarter of a mile a day, adding two pounds each day.
He wasted no time in getting into Strongman competition as his first challenge came when he was merely 17 years old and challenged the then-strongest man in Canada, Michaud of Quebec. Cy beat Micahaub by lifting a granite boulder weighing 480lbs. At the age of 19, he lifted a 530lbs boulder from the ground up to his shoulders. This record which lasted until 2008, when American Strongman Derek Poundstone managed to lift a replica of said boulder.
He once lifted a platform with 18 men sitting on it—which weighed 4,337 pounds—and carried it. When strength sports weren’t paying him enough, he decided to try his luck in law enforcement and became a police officer. He was already known for helping the police, so this change of vocation came as no surprise. On one occasion, he was said to have stopped a knife fight with sheer force. He was later seen making a citizen’s arrest by carrying both men-each under arm to a nearby police station.
His extreme lifestyle didn’t help his health. By the time he was in his late 40s, he was inactive but still had the eating habits of his hayday, reaching a weight of 400lbs. So it was no surprise that at the age of 49, he lost his final battle to chronic kidney inflammation.
So, there you have it. Some of the strongest men in history all under one roof.