Before the days of sports science, tailored training regimes and nutritional supplements, strongmen drew huge crowds who would gaze in awe at their incredible feats of power and poise.

For these original hard men, their bodies were their trade. Here we take a look at what they did and how they fueled their bodies to do it.

Eugen Sandow 1867 – 1925

Eugen Sandow
Aiming for the ‘Grecian ideal’
Source: The Nation

The father of modern bodybuilding, Sandow honed his physique to what he called the ‘Grecian ideal.’ In fact, he went so far as to measure Greek and Roman statues in museums, to make sure he got it right.

His books, ‘Strength and how to attain it’ and ‘Sandow’s system of physical training’ laid out in detail exactly how to attain the proportions so admired by the ancients. Of course, Sandow was immensely strong but his show grew beyond pure weight lifting, into what he termed, ‘muscle display.’

So what did he eat? Sandow tells us, that he has no special diet. He writes in 1894, that ‘the old nonsense on this subject about raw eggs and underdone meat seems to be passing away, and more rational views now prevail. I eat whatever I have a taste for without stinting myself unduly; nor do I restrict myself seriously in what I drink. Commonly I abjure anything intoxicating, confining myself to beer and light wines. Tea and coffee I never suffer myself to touch.’

No hign protein shakes for Sandow then!

The mighty atom 1893 – 1977

Joseph Greenstein
Just 5″5 and 145lb, Joseph was still lifting heavy well into his 80s
Source: Weightlifting Org

He stood just 5’5’’ and weighed in at a mere 145 lb. But Joseph Greenstein punched well above his weight. His feats of strength included bashing spikes into wood with his bare hands, bending horseshoes and breaking chains across his chest.

Still demonstrating his superhuman strength into his eighties, the man once capable of holding back airplanes with his hair did so by learning to circumvent the body’s natural limitations. He practised Asian concentration techniques, believing that if you truly think you can do something, you can.

As for fuel for his muscles. No red meat or egg yolks for this man. He is widely thought to have been vegetarian.

Louis Cyr 1863 – 1912

Louis Cyr
Louis could put away 6 pounds of meat in one sitting
Source: Culture Physique

By the time he died of Bright’s disease at the age of 49, Louis Cyr had for some time subsisted on nothing more than milk and yoghurt. But prior to the failure of his health he was nothing if not a bon viveur. Renowned for his capacity for food and drink, the occasionally corpulent French Canadian could put away six pounds of meat at a single sitting.

The high protein diet seems to have worked though. In 1895, Cyr is reported to have hefted a platform bearing 18 men onto his back. The combined weight of the human dumbbell – 1967kg. No wonder Ben Weider said the strongman’s records were ‘uncontested and incontestable.’

He is quite possibly the strongest man ever to have lived – and his nutrition – simple. Meat, meat and more meat.

Angus MacAskill 1825 – 1863

Angus MacAskill
At 7″9, Angus dwarfed most men
Source: Intellectual Revolution

The Nova Scotian was the son of immigrants from the Scottish Highlands – and with an 80 inch chest, one of the biggest ever ‘natural’ giants – he was a well proportioned, and suffered no physical abnormality.

Simply put, at 7ft 9 in he was a man mountain. A fisherman, whereas envious colleagues had to endure the drudgery of bailing out their boats at the end of each day’s fishing, Angus simply lifted his half ton boat on its beam ends and poured the water out of it.

MacAskill most famously lifted and carried an anchor weighing 1200kg. But while he may have been vast, this gentle giant was not a man of particularly gargantuan appetite – indeed he is said to have consumed less than some in the fishing village in which he grew up.

His only nutritional supplement appears to have been a bowl of cream and oatmeal, called crowdie which he ate at the end of every meal.

Arthur Saxon 1878 – 1921

Arthur Saxon
At 7″9, Angus dwarfed most men
Source: Ditillo 2

The mustachioed German, Arthur Saxon was commonly known as the ‘Iron Master’. And with lifts like a 370lb ‘bent press’ and a ‘two hands anyhow’ lift of 448lb to his credit, it’s easy to see why. Along with his brothers, Kurt and Herman, the ‘Saxon Trio’ performed to packed circus audiences across Europe. During their act, Arthur would lift both his brothers with one arm as they sat on a barbell.

As for nutrition, between the three of them, a day’s eating would include: for breakfast two dozen eggs and 3 pounds of smoked bacon; porridge with cream, honey, marmalade and tea with plenty of sugar. Dinner was at three: ten pounds of meat with vegetables followed by raw or cooked fruit, cakes, salads, sweet puddings, cocoa and whipped cream and very sweet tea. For supper, after the show, they had cold meat, smoked fish, butter, cheese and beer.

Not that’s what you call a Mediterranean diet!