These days, strongmen can show off their power in weightlifting competitions and WWE wrestling matches, but in earlier times, men hoisted bulls, iron wheels and seemingly immovable carts to prove their might. Here are some of the most legendary strongmen in history.
Milo of Croton made ancient headlines with his outlandish training regimen
Ancient Greece had plenty of legendary heroes, but one of them—Milo of Croton—was no myth. The Olympic wrestler and strongman’s feats of strength and daring inspired art and literature millennia after his death.
During the sixth century B.C., Milo won 10 Olympic wrestling titles and multiple other titles during an athletic career that spanned decades. He quickly gained a reputation not just for his wins, but for his training regimen. He “reportedly ate twenty pounds of meat, as much bread, and drank eighteen pints of wine each day,” writes historian Michael B. Poliakoff, “and once carried a four-year-old bull around the stadium at Olympia before eating it in the course of one day.” He also reportedly saved people in a collapsing building by holding up a pillar until they could escape.
As with many ancient tales, it’s impossible to know how many of Milo’s feats were real and how many were legend. His death certainly sounds like it: According to lore, he was devoured by wolves after he got stuck in a tree.
Maximinus Thrax intimidated ancient Romans with his massive physique
Maximinus Thrax was the first non-Roman Emperor, and is widely considered to be one of Rome’s most ineffective leaders. But he was noteworthy for another reason: What historian Paul N. Pearson calls “his freakish physique.” The muscular leader impressed the public during a series of athletic events in which he crushed rocks with his bare hands and pulled heavy wagons by his own strength.
Part of the reason for his strength was undoubtedly his physical size. Ancient Roman writers claimed that Maximinus stood 8 feet, 6 inches tall. In his History of the Empire, ancient historian Herodian writes that “He was in any case a man of such frightening appearance and size that there is no obvious comparison to be drawn with any of the best-trained Greek athletes or warrior elite of the barbarians.”
That strength didn’t translate to the strongman’s political career, however. His rule of Rome only lasted from 235 to 238, and came to an end when he was assassinated by his own soldiers after a disastrous, war-mongering rule.
Louis Uni popularized free weights
During the 19th century, the world was swept by reports of the feats of a strongman known only as “Apollon the Mighty.” In reality, he was Louis Uni, a French weightlifter who took his show on the road. As a teenager, Uni ran away from home to join the circus, convinced that he should be a strongman. He spent the rest of his life traveling, wrestling and doing competitive weightlifting.
Wrestling was a dominant strength-building sport at the time. However, Uni preferred to train using free weights—or whatever weighted objects he could get his hands on. Eventually, they became part of his act: train wheels, iron bars and other pieces of metal.
Uni’s strength, writes historian Edmond Desbonnet, “can be traced to his massive bone structures and unusually large muscles.” During his heyday, people made casts of his arms. Compared with those of other strongmen, they are massive, with biceps measuring over 20 inches.
Louis Cyr added showmanship to strength
His name is not well known today, but during the late 19th century Louis Cyr was considered the world’s strongest man. Even now, his feats of strength may just qualify him as the strongest man who ever lived. Born in Quebec, Cyr was reportedly inspired by Milo of Croton as a teenager and took the ancient athlete’s lead, eating massive amounts of food and honing his developing muscles by doing things like pulling heavy carts and picking up objects that weighed as much as Milo’s legendary bulls. His feats of strength included lifting a horse off the ground, lifting a weight of more than 500 pounds with his finger and pushing a train car up a hill.
Historian Josh Buck thinks Cyr was the epitome of a “vaudevillian strongman”—a strongman whose flair for entertainment was just as muscular as his physique. Though his life story has been romanticized, he is still considered the strongest man ever. But if he hadn’t traveled the world doing things like attaching himself to horses and raising a platform on which 20 large men stood, he may never have gained that oversized reputation.
Žydrūnas Savickas smashed modern records
Modern powerlifting has an undisputed hero: Lithuanian Žydrūnas Savickas, whose almost unworldly feats of strength have earned him a dizzying number of trophies and honors. For 25 years, he’s competed in strongman competitions and earned a reputation for his power and unbridled strength.
Savickascan bench press 285 kilograms—the equivalent of 628 pounds, and deadlift the equivalent of nearly 900. He reportedly became interested in the sport after seeing it on TV. Though he was just 17, he immediately began setting records. To date, he has eight Arnold Strongman Classic titles.
Widely considered to be the world’s most challenging strongman competition, the event requires participants to do things like lift timbers weighing over 800 pounds, carry a 1,116-pound yoke on their shoulders for 35 feet, and lift a dumbbell used by classic strongmen—feats that would make Milo, Maximinus, Uni and Cyr proud.
Watch a preview of The Strongest Man in History. Premieres Wednesday, July 10 at 10/9c.