Around the mid-19th century the popularity of weight training and bodybuilding grew rapidly. The Strongmen entertained crowds with their different feats of strength, such as pulling massive weights and lifting unbelievable pounds.
The audience was fascinated only by these feats, paying very little attention to the muscularity of the men’s bodies. However, this would all change when Friedrich Wilhelm Müller took stage.
Eugene Sandow (1867- 1925)
Sandow was born in Prussia by the name of Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, and was a pioneering bodybuilder known today as the "Father of Modern Bodybuilding".
Unlike other strongmen of the late 1800s, Sandow was not only incredibly strong, but he had a muscular quality people had not seen. He was good at exhibiting feats of strength, but more than that, he was a sex symbol and the first to capitalize on displaying his muscular body.
While touring in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Trocadero Vaudevilles, Sandow, at 5’8” and 220 pounds, attained stardom in the United States where he performed his flexing routine in front of Thomas Edison’s movie camera.
His first trip was to Europe and then in the 1890’s to the United States where he was named the "World's Strongest Man". Yet, everyone knows that Louis Cyr was much stronger.
As stated above, the people enjoyed watching the many feats that Sandow performed, but they equally enjoyed watching him twitch his muscles as he twisted and turned his body. The way Sandow’s showed off his body is now referred to as “The Bodybuilder’s Posing Routine,” which had been called “Muscle Display Performances."
Sandow’s created some of the first bodybuilding equipment and he was a muscle superstar. He is also responsible for the first bodybuilding magazine to be published. It was first called “Physical Culture,” but later changed to be “Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture.”
Due to Sandow’s popularity of his bodybuilding and weightlifting contests The World Championships in 1891 and two weightlifting events that took place in 1896 in the Olympic Games were promoted.
In 1901 the first major bodybuilding competition was held in the Royal Albert Hall, London. It was to be known as "The Great Competition". And Sandow was one of the judges alongside Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well as athlete and Sculptor sir Charles Lawes.
In 1925, Eugene Sandow had a stroke and died at the age of fifty-eight. His legacy still lives on as a statuette known as a “Sandow” and is given to the winner of Mr. Olympia; the most prestigious bodybuilding competition in the world.
Ernest Cadine (1893-1978)
Cadine was a French weightlifter. In his primary school years he showed his interest in bodybuilding. At the age of 16 he dropped out of school, becoming an apprentice at a mechanic’s workshop.
He enjoyed picking up large objects that most of his school mates could not and throwing them. He began his sport career with gymnastics, wrestling, weight training and swimming.
Prior to leaving for military service he participated in the Championship of Paris where he ranked 3rd in the middle rank division – “snatch of an arm” (The objective of the snatch is to lift the barbell from the ground to overhead in one continuous motion). He was able to snatch 165 lbs. with one arm, 198 lbs. with both arms and throw 275 lbs. with both arms.
During the 1914-1918 war he continued to train with makeshift means, wagon wheels or axles.
After the war he went through some serious bodybuilding training and he built his muscles to the point that he, with one arm, could throw a 200 lb. dumbbell.
Also in 1919, he gave the Championship of Paris another shot and took 1st place in the heavyweight category and won the championship of France.
Cadine was appointed by the Federation to represent France at the Olympic Games of Antwerp in 1920 and became the 1st Olympic French champion in the heavyweight category.
His results at the Antwerp Games are 198 lbs. in the snatch of an arm, 187 lbs. on the fly with an arm, 220 lbs. in the snatch with both hands, 209 lbs. in developed two arms, 310 lbs. at two-arm cast.
On November 21, 1920, Cadine broke the world record in all categories, the deadlift right hand, with 396 lbs. (previously held by the Switzerland Maurice Deriaz at 374 lbs.).
Cadine met his greatest rival at the Paris Olympics in 1924, Charles Rigoulot. Rigoulot won the bout and two world records were broken: “the jerk” by Rigoulot (343 lbs., 328 lbs. was the previous record) and the “deadlift” by Cadine (575 lbs., 573 lbs. was the previous record).
Joseph L. Greenstein (1893- 1977)
Greenstein was born in Suvalk, Poland and was known as “The Mighty Atom.”
As a child he had respiratory problems and at the age of 14 a team of doctors predicted that he tuberculosis, but that obviously didn’t happen. It was around this time that he met a Russian circus strongman, “Champion Volanko,” who took him under his wing.
Greenstein traveled with Volanko and the Issakoff Brothers’ Circus for eighteen months, learning the strongman’s training regimen. He then returned to Poland and married Leah. From there he became a professional wrestler and moved the United States, Galveston, Texas.
He wrestled under the name of “Kid Greenstein.” In 1914, a local Texas man that was obsessed with his wife stood 30 feet away from him and shot him between eyebrows. Amazingly, Greenstein left the hospital on the same day – the bullet never entered his skull, but was flattened by the impact.
Due to the event Greenstein became interested in the mental powers associated with strength, and began creating numerous strongman feats.
He was only 5’4″ and weighed in at 40 pounds, but became one of the 20th century’s leading strongmen. Some of his feats were:
- Driving 20 penny nails through a 2½ inch board with his bare hands.
- Lying on a bed of nails while supporting a 14-man Dixieland band on his chest.
- Changing a tire on a car without any tools.
- Breaking as many as three chains by chest expansion.
- Bending an iron bar or horseshoe by holding one end with his teeth while one end of the bar was held fixed in a vise.
- Bending half-inch steel bars with his hair.
- Biting nails in half with his teeth (he could perform this feat with a 25-cent coin).
- Resisting the pull of an airplane with his hair. This feat was performed at the Buffalo Airport and was documented in the Buffalo Evening Times on September 29, 1928.
In 1939, Greenstein had allegedly beaten 18 members of the German American Bund (an American Nazi organization established in 1936 to succeed Friends of new Germany) with a baseball bat, but he was not injured in any way. He was charged with aggravated assault, grievous bodily harm, and mass mayhem.
The Judge asked him about fight and he replied, “It wasn’t a fight, your honor. It was a pleasure”. Many of the witnesses were too injured to testify so due to lack of evidence the case was dismissed.
Greenstein continued his strongman acts well into his eighties. His last performance was performed at his great-grandchild’s first birthday, 5/11/77, at Madison Square Garden.
He had been featured several times on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and in the 1976 Guinness Book of World Records.
After he fully retired from being a Strongman he would drive his Model A truck to fairs and farmers’ markets and sold coconut oil soaps and health elixirs.
Greenstein also volunteered to teach jujutsu to the New York City auxiliary police during World War II. This was many years before it was known of in the United States.
At the age of 81, he dazzled the Madison Square Garden audience by bending horseshoes and driving spikes through metal with the palm of his hand. He died of cancer at the age of 84.
Joe’s son, Mike, at the age of 93 and wearing a T-Shirt promoting “The Mighty Atom & Sons” appeared on America’s Got Talent in 2014 and pulled a 3,500 pound car with his teeth.
It’s clear that the act of bodybuilding began in 19th Century Europe. While men like Sandow were training themselves to build lean muscle and force, the United States was interested in the health movement and was in the process of promoting different exercises.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, bodybuilding made its way across the ocean. Sandow arrived in Chicago in 1894 at the World Fair and promoted his show, “Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles.” In his show he awed the audience, especially the women, with his incredible strength, massive muscles, and ripped abs.
Sandow had visited many different countries to promote bodybuilding and he invented the “Sandow’s Dumbbell” that was made of springs. He sent a dumbbell and an owner’s manual to all the kingdoms of Europe.
Read more about the history of bodybuilding in, “Bodybuilders to Mention: Twentieth to Twenty-First Century, Part 1 of 2.”