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#33008 - 12/17/09 07:48 PM Old Time Circus Strongmen

This is a post about the old time circus strongmen and the way they trained in order to build their legendary strength and power.

The best sites to visit are Bill Hinbern’s Super Strength Books, John Wood's Old Time Strongman . com, Atomic Athletic, Ironmind, and Brooks Kubik’s Dinosaur Training website for detailed information and books and DVD’s etc.

The old time circus strongmen tended to train in the following ways:

• They used thin and thick handled barbells, thin and thick handled dumbbells, heavy awkward objects (such as beer kegs and barrels, stones, bags, anvils, car engines etc.)

• The one handed and two handed Olympic style weightlifting movements, with both barbells and dumbbells, which were in fashion during the period of 1890 – 1940 were the corner stone of their training. They believed in plenty of work, involving lifting weight from the floor and up to the shoulder or shoulders, and then from the shoulder or shoulders to an over head position.

• The guys who were less skilled in the clean and snatch spent a great deal of their time doing dead lifting, or engaging in the old Continental style of dragging or heaving the weight from the floor, up to rest on a weightlifting belt, before heaving it up off the belt and up to the shoulders or overhead.

• Barrels, bags and other objects were lifted from the ground and up to the shoulders and then overhead. Be careful though if you try this. I lifted a 70 kilogram sand bag this way once and hurt my shoulders and this was after years of previous conditioning and serious bag and barrel training.

• Squatting was engaged in, but didn’t really become popular until mass produced racks were built.

• They carried weight for distance. Anybody who has carried a heavy bag for distance knows how devastating and effective a training tool that is.

• They spent a tremendous amount of time training their hands, wrists and forearms until they had iron claws for hands and could literally bend steel and break horseshoes and tear license plates in half.

• They trained the entire body in a co-ordinated fashion through full body exercises, rather than dividing the body up and training each part separately.

• They did lots of very heavy support work and very heavy partial work and really built the tendons and ligaments. They also did plenty of heavy core work – no crunches.

• They stood on their feet for about 95% of their training time. Forget benches and machines, where you sit or lie down.

• They did not train in order to look better, but rather trained for tremendous strength and power and they let their appearance take care of itself. Butt ugly? Maybe. Awe inspiring? Definitely!

• They spent a majority of their time training heavy and did not move at a pre-determined speed, unless performing the clean and jerk or the snatch, which as lifters will know must be performed with almost blinding speed.

Best books, in my opinion:

The Textbook of Weightlifting by Arthur Saxon – sold by Bill Hinbern
The Milo Barbell Courses by Alan Calvert – sold by Bill Hinbern
Dinosaur Training – sold by Brooks Kubik
Super Strength by Alan Calvert – sold by Bill Hinbern
The Key to Might and Muscle by George Jowett – sold by Bill Hinbern

There many others (including the second Saxon book and Hackenschmidt’s book etc..)

Those ole timers were crazy bastards! But the ones who lived to tell the tale were strong!

#33024 - 12/18/09 01:15 AM Re: Old Time Circus Strongmen [Re: ]
Hawkeye Offline

Registered: 12/11/09
Posts: 21
Some interesting ideas there, particularly about full body training rather than specific areas, as that is pertinent to every modern day weightlifter, bodybuilder or fighter. I would say to anyone interested in those techniques to speak with a professional fitness instructor first though. Lifting barrels and sandbags is a sure way of injuring oneself if you don't know how to do it efficiently.

For myself, most of my fitness revolves around my martial arts, so my training works very differently. My purpose is to hit hard enough to injure, debilitate or incapacitate my opponent, and to be able to launch multidudes of dangerous strikes as quickly and accurately as possible. I've also had to condition my body to take the most punishing blows, and train my cardiovascular system so that I can keep fighting for long periods of time.

My orginal reasons behind training like this were mostly boredom, but it's become an integral part of my life now. I will give a quick disclaimer too. I'm very nearly 17 years old, and I'm very lucky to have not permanently damaged my body with some of these techniques. I wouldn't suggest them to anyone under the age of 18.

*Firstly, and most basically, bodyweight training. Push ups, pull ups, Hindu push ups, elevated push ups, one armed push ups, vertical push ups, and others. From my point of view, this was one of the first things I trained. A fighter needs to be comfortable with his own weight. These excercises increase physical strength and most importantly functional strength, as well as stamina.

*Secondly, cardio work. This is still simple stuff really. I do lots of running and swimming, but there are plenty of good excercises out there.

*Thirdly, combat weight training. This type of training is rarely found outside of fighter training. This works by wearing weighted equipment and performing bodyweight excercises and combat routines. For example, I wear an 80 lb vest, 20 lb wristbands and 30 lb ankle bands for a basic workout. I'll do elevated one armed push ups, vertical push ups, pull ups, trunk curls, suspended trunk curls and punch and kick routines while weighed down like that.

*Fourth is conventional weight lifting. This includes lots of reps of smaller weights (30-40 kg in each hand works for me), larger weights for dead lifting and bench presses (personal preference here, I tend to lift around 90 kg), and clean and snatch routines with kettlebells.

*Finally, and by far the most dangerous, are my conditioning excercises. These require a partner (trained in first aid if possible), and one who will NOT piss about. I wouldn't suggest these excercises to anyone who can't take a serious beating. Not being afraid of broken bones, internal bleeding and dead nerve endings helps.

The first excercise involves striking. In Muay Thai, metal bars are used for this sometimes. Essentially, it involves slamming your hands, feet, shins and forearms into metal or wood, to condition the arms and legs to pain.

The second method can kill if done incorrectly. You lay down on the floor on your back, knees bent, feet flat, stomach tensed as tight as possible, hands behind your head. Lean your head up off the floor and tense as hard as possible. Your partner then takes a medicine ball and stands over you, holding it directly over the abdomen. Trust is important here. If you flinch and relax those muscles, you will not be feeling healthy afterwords.

Your partner drops it, from a height of 3-4 feet. I wouldn't suggest this to anyone really. You need to be able to take 10 full strength punches to the abdomen and still be smiling and breathing easy before you think about this particular method.


Anyway, I hope someone finds this interesting. I shoulf point out that I'm not trying to hijack this thread, just add to it, this seemed the most appropriate place to post.

Edited by Hawkeye (12/18/09 01:19 AM)

#33028 - 12/18/09 01:36 AM Re: Old Time Circus Strongmen [Re: Hawkeye]

To Hawkeye,

Yes your point is well made. I highly recommend obtaining and studying the books mentioned before beginning old time strongman type training.

And yes, particularly in relation to barrel and bag work I would highly recommend buying Brooks Kubik's DVD Bags, Barrel's and Beyond if available.

You need to do a lot of stand on your feet type work. You need plenty of heavy lifting - lots of heavy standing overhead lifting. A lot of heavy pulling movements and squatting.

You will incur a major injury without that prepatory work, but if you do it you and then go onto bags and barrels you can build a back so strong you will never experience back pain.

My shoulder injury by the way healed after only a couple of weeks. The prior work I had done guaranteed that.

I wanted to just add that the mental and emotional discipline and toughness this type of work can give you is remarkable in my opinion.

This type of work is most ideal for someone in their mid twenties onwards in my opinion.

Hawkeye, do you train by following Matt Furey's works?

Love that kettlebell snatching and cleaning. Another great old time tool which I should have mentioned.

#33029 - 12/18/09 01:47 AM Re: Old Time Circus Strongmen [Re: ]
Hawkeye Offline

Registered: 12/11/09
Posts: 21
Good to hear your shoulder healed with no trouble, a guy I used to train with dislocated his shoulder using some infernal machine at the gym (I refuse to use machines), it cost him flexibility and rotation in his right arm, practically made him arthritic.

As for your question, no, I don't follow Matt Furey, my father taught me most of the techniques. He's Russian believe it or not, and a former Russian national champion in Sambo and Systema. He also used to fight in underground Vale Tudo fights, as well as Lei Tei fighting in Malaysia.

Yeah, I love kettlebells. They're great at putting the burn on muscles that you don't even realize are there.

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