Old Time Strongman Training Methods

On January 24, 2014 by Matthew Chan


old time strongman training methods

Known as the Father of Modern Bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow was a performing strongman, travelling the country performing feats of strength, including bearing the weight of horses and soldiers on his chest, bending iron bars, snapping chains, lifting pianos, and bench pressing a cow. He was also known for his athleticism, being able to perform acrobatic movements; he could perform a back somersault while holding a 50 lb dumbbell in each hand. He could also bent press 300 pounds.

The bulk of Sandow’s training involved dumbbell training and heavy weightlifting with barbells:

My faith is pinned to dumbbells, and I do all my own training with them, supplemented with weightlifting [with barbells].

Owing to their smaller size it is possible to have greater variation in the weight of dumbbells than in the long handled bar commonly known as the barbell [back then, barbells were not plate-loaded and were therefore not adjustable; they were fixed in weight]. Any physical culturist can obtain several pairs of dumbbells and be in a position to progressively practice the more advantageous movements.

…While I favour dumbbells in training, weightlifting [with barbells] adds a great deal of interest and training benefit to the program. The largest and strongest muscles of the body, the powerful muscles of the legs and back are brought into vigorous action with the heavy barbell through competitive or exhibition lifting.

…Exercises should be performed progressively, for the muscles become accustomed to the work they are asked to perform, and if the demand is not steadily made greater, the desired growth in size, strength, and shapeliness will not be attained.

Sandow was known to lift light dumbbells as part of his training, and still achieve great results. The reason being that he implemented what is known today as the mind-muscle connection. When lifting light dumbbells, Sandow did not just go through the motions; he concentrated on recruiting as many motor units as possible with each muscle contraction:

You may go through the list of exercises with dumbbells a hundred times a day, but unless you fix your mind upon those muscles to which the work is applied, such exercise will bring but little, if any, benefit. If, upon the other hand, you concentrate your mind upon the muscles in use, then immediately development begins.

Sandow employed some form of periodization into his training, always varying the intensity:

Variation in the training program brings best results. Don’t train every day, skip a day now and then to give the muscles time to thoroughly rest and to give nature the opportunity to rebuild them and add to their strength and endurance. Don’t always train with the same amount of weight. Some days use more moderate weights to tone the muscles, on other training days really exert yourself, give the muscles plenty of work to do, then nature will take care of building more strength, muscle and better health.

These very vigorous days should not be practised by the average man more than once or twice a week. Of course I go through my program from one to three or four times a day, depending upon where I am appearing. But years of progressive training and proper living as I am recommending led up to my ability to withstand this rigorous program and to continue to gain in strength and development while maintaining perfect health.

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