Since the dawn of time men have competed against each other in feats of strength and power to attain that coveted title of the strongest man on Earth. It’s no surprise that this behavior was eventually carried into the public arena of the circus, where year after year strongmen competed to outdo one another, and of course to entertain. From the 19th century to the modern-day circus, the strongman has remained as one of the fundamental attractions under the big top.
From its inception, strongman displays were highly popular at the heart of the American circus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Besides being visually stunning creatures to look at, strongmen performed feats deemed impossible by even the most prestigious scientists. By lifting extremely heavy objects, bending the seemingly unbendable, and breaking through raw iron and metal, strongmen performers left audiences awestruck, convinced they possessed superhuman abilities. Most strongmen acts included picking up things like barbells or anvils, bending iron bars, or having blocks of granite smashed on the stomach.
Some of the most famous strongmen stood out from the rest by performing odd or brand new feats of strength, acts they claimed only they could complete, that they would challenge other performers to achieving, and that would definitely make the morning paper. Louis Cyr, a French-Canadian strongman performer born in Quebec, claimed to have lifted a horse off the ground with his initial strongman performance. And while touring with the Ringling Bros. Circus, the 5’10” 230 lbs. Cyr held a platform of 18 men on his back.
Born in France, Pierre Gasnier eventually became known as the “French Hercules.” His claim to fame was breaking an iron chain across his chest by expanding his ribcage. Gasnier, who was only 5’3” and 143 lbs., eventually went on to tour with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, performing other feats as well such as ripping a deck of cards in half and lifting a 260 lbs barbell over his head.
Other notable strongmen included John Holtum, who would catch a fired cannonball using his chest and hands, Siegmund Breitbart, who bent iron bars, bit through iron chains, and lifted a baby white elephant, and Angus Macskill, who at 7’10” and 580 lbs., could lift a ship’s anchor weighing 2800 lbs to his chest!
The strongman show was never just limited to men however. Strongwomen were also very popular, the most famous being Katie Sandwina, a 6’ 200 lbs. strongwoman who performed with the Ringling Bros. Circus. Sandwina, who once lifted a weight of 300 lbs over her head, became known for a trick in which she lifted her 165 lbs. husband above her head using only one arm.
Although modern-day strongmen still perform feats of strength like those listed above, more often the new strongmen shows are designed with duos showcasing control in strength and endurance. Strongman duos, which can be of either sex or mixed, involve the performers completing near impossible displays of strength, balance, and agility using only each other’s bodies. Typical tricks include the one arm handstand on another’s head, the handstand using each other’s hands, and the horizontal toe point. One of the main characteristics of a great strongman duo show is smooth transitions between poses. Duo balancing acts should not show any sort of effort or awkwardness, but rather perform with ease, steadiness, and fluidity. Additionally, strongman duos are often covered in oil, paint, or glitter while performing, to be made to look like living statues.
Zen Arts strongman Nic Judd, as well as our full crew of strength contortionists, put on a one-of-a-kind performance at every event. Their acts are so astounding they’ll have you and your guests believing in superhuman powers too! Call 855-ZEN-ARTS or email to book for your next event!