written by: Matthew Chan, Physical Culturist
During the early 19th century (also known as the era of Physical Culture), there existed a group of strongmen who set the standard for today’s strength athletes and all lifters in general. Interestingly, most of these men stayed relatively lean throughout the year while still increasing their strength.
Like many strongmen today, their diets varied and showed many differences when compared with each other. If you’re looking for the perfect diet to gain their legendary strength and musculature, you’re out of luck. By exploring the diets of these old timers, however, you can gain some insight on their eating habits, and perhaps incorporate them into your own diet. Everybody responds differently to different foods and plans, so it’s important that you do not blindly follow somebody else’s way, but rather, discover your own way. Find what works for you individually.
This article will explore the dietary habits of seven old time strongmen: Eugen Sandow, George Hackenschmidt, The Saxon Trio, Thomas Inch, Hermann Goenrer, Edward Aston, and Louis Cyr. Whether you’re looking to gain some muscle mass, get strong, or both, the examples below will give you some ideas on what you can implement into your own diet.
1. EUGEN SANDOW’S DIET
Also known as the Father of Modern Bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow was a man of moderation.
I am myself no believer in a special diet, still less in a rigid one, as necessary while training. – Eugen Sandow
I do not care for anything intoxicating (hard liquor), but do enjoy a beer or some wine on occasion. I never touch tea or coffee. I eat “plain”, wholesome food for the most part, but do “indulge” on occasion. I have my meals at regular intervals, and prefer simple foods that are easy to digest. I chew my food well and believe strongly that mastication is a key to good health. – Eugen Sandow
Eugen Sandow was a proponent of raw eggs and meat:
The old nonsense on this subject, about raw eggs and underdone meat, seems to be passing away, and more rational views now prevail. – Eugen Sandow
Sandow’s Typical Day:
Year round I take cold baths, and afterwards, I do a light-weight dumbell routine. I then have breakfast, then attend to my correspondence. I then enjoy seeing my friends. After this, I typically go for a long walk or if it is not sunny, I will take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. I have my dinner promptly at 7 p.m., then attend my evening performance. After appearing at the theatre, I will have my evening cold bath, followed by a late night supper. – Eugen Sandow
2. HACKENSCHMIDT’S DIET
Also known as the Russian Lion and the founder of the Hack Squat, George Hackenschmidt followed a balanced diet consisting of fruit, nuts and raw vegetables. Unlike many of the strongmen of that time and today, he did not believe in eating large quantities of meat.
I believe I am right in asserting that our Creator has provided food and nutriment for every being for its own advantage. Man is born without frying-pan or stewpot. The purest natural food for human beings would, therefore, be fresh, uncooked food and nuts. It is not my intention to discuss here the old problem, whether meat is necessary as food for man or whether man was created and should remain a vegetarian. My experience has taught me that foodstuffs are of secondary importance. There are very strong people who are strict vegetarians, whilst others eat a good deal of meat. A fare which consists of three-quarters of vegetable food and one-quarter meat would appear to be the most satisfactory for the people of central Europe. – George Hackenschmidt
Hackenschmidt did not believe in seasoning his food, and recommended avoiding sour dishes and sugar, unless from a natural source like fruit.
Every one should and can find out which diet best suits his constitution, and he should avoid all food which disagrees with it. I would shun altogether all highly seasoned and sour dishes. Much has been said lately in praise of sugar as food, but as artificial sugar is an acid-forming substance, I should not recommend it. Natural sugar, such as is contained in dates, figs, and other fruit, is certainly preferable. Highly flavoured or seasoned food produces thirst and therefore acts harmfully. – George Hackenschmidt
Hackenschmidt also avoided alcohol, tobacco and coffee. Instead, he drank 11 pints of milk a day.
3. THE SAXON TRIO’S DIET
The Saxon brothers were well-known for their group strength performances.
From Muscle Power Magazine, courtesy of Joe Weider:
For breakfast they ate 24 eggs and 3 pounds of smoked bacon; porridge with cream, honey, marmalade and tea with plenty of sugar. At three o’clock they had dinner: ten pounds of meat was consumed with vegetables (but not much potatoes); sweet fruits, raw or cooked, sweet cakes, salads, sweet puddings, cocoa and whipped cream and very sweet tea. Supper, after the show, they had cold meat, smoked fish, much butter, cheese and beer. Following this they had a chat and at one o’clock went to bed.
The Saxons did have a “health drink” which I presume they concocted themselves. The ingredients were dark lager beer (or Dublin stout) mixed with Holland gin, the yolk of an egg and plenty of sugar. “It is a very good but strong drink” was the Saxon opinion, “but, if you are not used to it you will get dizzy very quickly.” It seems to me that one would have to be a very strong man in the first place, in order to drink it.
In their childhood, breakfast, for the Saxons, consisted of a thick soup made from white flour, rolls or white bread with butter or marmalade. On week-days dinner was at one o’clock; there was no soup, but instead, vegetables of all kinds, cooked or steamed, with fat on them, and some potatoes; after this, raw or cooked fruits. Other days they had green beans, white beans, peas and all kinds of food like this and rice cooked with milk and plenty of sugar. This was varied at other times by having salted herring that had been watered for 24 hours and eaten raw with boiled potatoes; there was also pickled cucumbers and raw onions with a little vinegar and plenty of oil; they had milk or sweet cream made by their mother. Salads and celery were also part of their meals, particularly in the summer when they had salads with plenty of oil on them.
Dinner was usually followed with fruits or sweet cakes made from white flour and sometimes, berries on top of the cakes. They were very fond of these. There was also plenty of mushrooms eaten raw or fried with fat; their mother used to go out in the morning and pick about 10 to 12 pounds of these in the fields. She also used to make big cakes, 24″ by 36″, and spread with butter, or beaten egg whites, sugar and chocolate. This was often eaten with apples.
At dinner time, there was usually nothing to drink but plain water. Other meals included soup, black German bread, butter or lard, cheese, smoked fish, raw cucumbers and radishes and onions. There was never any kind of meat on weekdays except for their father’s meal; their mother did not care for it and it was only when they went to England, as professional performers, that the Saxon brothers learned to eat meat every day; the meat in England was very good.
4. THOMAS INCH’S DIET
Strongman Thomas Inch was not a fan of being specific with his diet.
THERE is nothing so wearisome as having to be extremely particular about what one eats or drinks. I can never believe that the food faddist is happy, that it can be nice to go through life feeling that it is extremely difficult to get the peculiar meals which have been adopted on some nature-cure plan, that everything has to be exact in quantity with nuts and fruit predominating. – Thomas Inch
All my life I have partaken of a mixed diet, and although eventually I was led to delve more deeply into the exact make-up of various foodstuffs, I never had reason to believe that my instinct had led me wrong as to what contained the constituents needed to quickly repair broken-down tissue following in the train of more or less strenuous physical exercise. – Thomas Inch
Thomas had some interesting dietary recommendations for those who suffered from certain conditions:
Diet plays an important part in connection with certain ailments. Those who suffer from rheumatism must keep down red meats, and alcoholic drinks. The constipated ought to avoid cheese and eggs; a little olive oil with salads, plenty of green-stuffs and fruit, Hovis bread instead of white, hot water before the first meal, stewed rhubarb or stewed apples, also raw apples, assist materially. The obese should avoid rich greasy dishes, fattening drinks such as cocoa, ale or stout, much liquid of any kind, pastries, potatoes, any starchy foods, pies, soups, white bread, sweets. – Thomas Inch
Thomas Inch’s Muscle-Building Foods:
It may be helpful and of interest to many readers if I outline a dietary which is calculated to assist muscle-building and with the object of helping one stand hard training. Cheese, beans, lentils, Hovis bread, oatmeal porridge with milk and treacle added, Bovril instead of soup (nothing replaces broken-down tissue and gives energy so quickly as Bovril). – Thomas Inch
Thomas Inch’s View on Sugar:
Whilst those threatened with increasing weight must avoid sweets, chocolates and sugary foods, the athlete in training has a somewhat strange leaning towards the same, the simple explanation being that sugar is energy-producing. It is not generally known that one famous rowing race trainer always allows each man in his boat one or two pieces of lump sugar about half an hour before the event, solely to give energy for the coming struggle. So that the physical culturist who aims at development of muscle and is training for feats of strength might with benefit include the very items which the obese must perforce avoid. – Thomas Inch
5. HERMANN GOENRER’S DIET
German Strongman Hermann Goenrer followed a diet that consisted mainly of meat:
Goerner is firmly convinced that a mixed diet is the best for a strong man, with emphasis laid on eating good meals with the accent on meat! He is particularly partial to pork and beef and also wurst-German sausage meat.
Vegetables also, together with potatoes, but not overdoing the latter. He is very fond of nuts -particularly walnuts-and all fruits: apples especially, which he thinks every strong man should eat, as well as oranges and other citrus fruits.
Cheese and eggs also figure in his diet, but he does not care for rich pastries nor does he drink milk in any quantity. As regards to drinking, he drinks beer, but only moderately — seldom touches spirits.
6. EDWARD ASTON’S DIET
Known as Britain’s Strongest Man, Edward Aston was a big meat eater–particularly, beef. He also suggests foods such as eggs, fish, rice and milk. He was a proponent of proper digestion and was against over-eating. He was also a huge fan of Bovril, which is a thick, salty meat extract.
Do not make the great mistake of eating too much. Half the ailments of the present day are due to over feeding. It is one thing to eat food and another to digest it, do not eat more than you can easily digest and if any difficulty in digesting small quantities of food, try BOVRIL. It aids digestion and renders the food taken more nutritious bringing out ALL the good qualities in the food, which would otherwise pass through the system unassimilated. A drink of HOT Bovril after exercise restores the lost energies much quicker and is a safeguard against over-fatigue. As a change Bovril and milk will be found valuable. – Edward Aston
7. LOUIS CYR’S DIET
Dubbed the Strongest Man Who Ever Lived, Quebecois Strongman, Louis Cyr was naturally strong since birth, being able to lift impressive amounts of weight overhead without any prior training. A genetic freak, his strength was accompanied by his huge frame. Louis Cyr’s weightlifting records have yet to be broken today.
George Jowett wrote about Cyr and his enormous appetite, which eventually led to his downfall:
“He could eat more than four ordinary men could at one sitting, and took a keen delight in watching the amazement creep over the waiter’s face when he turned in his order at the hotel. Six pounds of meat at one meal was nothing for him. He could devour that for breakfast. Next to a lifting contest, he loved an eating contest best.”
By the age of 37 he suffered from Bright’s disease and subsisted soley on a diet of milk.
IMPORTANCE OF DIGESTION
Writer and avid physical culturist, Craig Staufenberg states in his interview:
The old timers generally opposed eating immediately after exercise due to their focus on circulation. They felt that your blood needed to circulate through your muscles after exercise, and that eating a meal drew blood away from your muscles and into your digestive apparatus.
When your body was ready you’d eat a large breakfast of whole, natural foods that were minimally prepared and seasoned. You’d eat until you weren’t hungry any more, and you’d pay careful attention to chewing thoroughly. You wouldn’t read or do anything else that required a lot of brain power when eating. The old timers recommended you focus on your meal to optimize digestion.
After your meal you would go out and do your work or your chores for the day. Most of the old timers recommended against eating lunch, or recommended eating a lunch that was very light. Most of the old timers opposed eating more than twice a day. MacFadden even argued that the 3 meal a day plan killed more people than any other habit.
You’d go about your day and finish your work and then return home and eat a sizeable dinner. A long walk in the evening was usually recommended, and then you would relax and retire before heading to bed.
Your whole week would pretty much look like this. The old timers generally argued for as much regularity as possible in your life.
WAY OF LIFE
Many of the oldtime strongmen were not only extremely strong, but they were also muscular and relatively lean and stayed that way year-round. They did not follow any “bulking” or “cutting” phases and managed to get stronger while staying lean and healthy. They also did not rely on any fancy supplements or drugs.
That being said, it is important to consider that back then, people were not as sedentary as they are today, and processed foods were not as common. The quality of crops and meats were also much higher back then. Another thing to consider is that these strongmen were circus performers or full-time athletes, who required large amounts of food to sustain their active lifestyles.
Hopefully, the information presented above will have given you some ideas on what you can incorporate into your own diet in order to build muscle and strength. Combined with a proper strength training regimen, you too can achieve the physiques and strength of the old timers!
Also Read: Old Time Strongman Training Methods