1920 Strongmen: The Post-World War 1 Era

As we enter the 1920’s, strongmanism, like vaudeville, has already seen its best days come and go. The long ago strength feats of men like Louis Cyr, Eugen Sandow, and Arthur Saxon are now stuff of legend and remembered fondly by older lifters. For the younger generation however, the real strength stars are of more recent vintage: men like Siegmund Klein, Henry Steinborn, Hermann Goerner, and others

The Saxon Trio strongmanThe first World War (1914-18) had a disruptive influence on the careers of many strength professionals in Europe, the Saxon Trio being one good example. The long standing dominance by Germany and Austria in weightlifting matters was likewise affected with other nations anxious to assume new leadership roles. During the 1920’s this would all have a trickle down affect on American weightlifting as their own fledgling efforts began to assume a more European flavor.

Control of weightlifting in America: George Jowett vs. Mark Berry

George JowettWho is George Jowett? This 20th century strength icon (1891-1969) was born in the United Kingdom and became inspired to seek muscular marveldom after seeing Eugen Sandow in 1900. Jowett would initially make a name for himself as a wrestler and at 19 emigrated to Canada where he worked as a blacksmith and professional strongman.

Strength Magazine OldschoolBy 1921 he had won the “World’s Best Built Man” title in Chicago and a few years later became the editor of Strength magazine.

weightlfiting rules jowett georgeDuring the 1920’s Jowett was instrumental in organizing the A.C.W.L.A (American Continental Weight-Lifter’s Association) and because of this is sometimes referred to as the “Father of American Weightlifting”.

And who is Mark Berry?

Mark Berry (1896-1958) is better known for his considerable body of written work. He also wrote numerous training courses and books, among them Physical Training Simplified (1930) and his three Mark Berry Barbell Courses (1936). During the late 1920’s Berry organized the Association of Bar Bell Men (ABBM)

weightlifting federation ACWLA oldschoolControl of weightlifting in America vacillated between rival organizations during this decade. During the early to mid 1920’s George Jowett‘s American Continental Weight-Lifter’s Association (ACWLA) attempted to put the sport in order. Then the Association Of Bar Bell Men (ABBM) under Mark Berry rose to prominence. It would be the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) however, that ultimately took total charge of American weightlifting after 1927. The AAU had been sanctioning local weightlifting events for years but it wouldn’t be until 1929 that they held their first national championship.

In his 1939 book Weightlifting, Bob Hoffman describes what he considers to be the first official American weightlifting meet, held in 1925. Five events were contested: the one hand bent press, one hand clean & jerk, two hand snatch, two hand clean & jerk, and the deadlift. The bent press event was unusual in that many considered it more of a supporting stunt than a true measure of strength. Its popularity had peaked many years before during the golden age of strongmanism and its days as a mainstream lifting event were numbered.

oldschool barbell 19th century Barbells in the USA had been undergoing a transition from hollow globe to plate loading configurations for many years now.

Lifting Gear Advertisement OldschoolAs American weightlifting went through this nascent period, it’s also interesting to examine what many of their weightlifters and strength athletes considered useful lifting accoutrements and weight room furnishings.

Strongmen Stars from the early 20’s

Arthur Giroux

Arthur Giroux oldschool weightlifterArthur Giroux (1887-?) was a Canadian strongman and weightlifter of considerable renown who started training at age 34. By the mid 1920’s the 250 lb Canadian was considered by many to be one of the strongest men on the continent.

Charles Rigoulot (1903-62)

Charles Rigoulot Weight LifterOne of France’s greatest weightlifters and strongmen, Charles Rigoulot (1903-62) set 57 records during his career. He won the light heavy class at the 1924 Olympics and was the first weightlifter to ever clean and jerk 400 lbs. During World War II he was imprisoned after hitting a Nazi officer.

Ernest Cadine (1893-1978)

Ernest Cadine French weightlifter strongman oldschoolAn outstanding Olympic Weight-Lifter, he helped revive our beloved sport in the dark days after the first World War. He was born on July, 1893, at St. Louis, a town loacated just a few miles north of Paris. He was one of the most muscular and impressive strongmen of his size ever seen. Cadine became a professional strongman afterward his Olympic triumph and travelled widely. Cadine had, in 1924, began being billed as ‘World’s Strongest Man’ because he had defeated Arthur Giroux.

On Oct 6, 1925 Cadine decided to turn professional by competing against strongmen. Cadine’s main rival in France was Charles Rigoulot, whom he met and lost to in 1925.

Charles Rigoulot vs. Ernest Cadine strongman competition results oldschoolRigoulot weighed 216 lbs at 5’7-3/4″ and Cadine weighed 200 lbs at 5’6″, and was about 20 years senior to Rigoulot.In September, the month before the event, Rigoulot has lost his father and his sister. The match was held in Cirque de Paris. 

Eugene Caouette

Eugene Caouette oldschool strongmanThis gigantic French-Canadian lifter who stood over six feet in height and weighed, at one-time, well over 400lb. He was quite a promising strongman and was very good at deadlifts. He was expected to be a world beater but died at a youthful age.
Best Lifts: Military Press 303lb one rep. Failed on 313lb. Two Continental Jerk he succeeded with 421lb, Two Hands Dead Lift: 820lb. Everything was officially performed before reputable referees, judges and witnesses and a City Inspector of Scales verified his weight.(source: 1927 issue of Strength)

Hermann Goerner (1891-1965)

Hermann Goerner German StrongmanHermann Goerner was born in Haenichen Germany. Goerner was one of the last great professional strongmen of the 20th century. Hermann served in WW 1 and he was hit by more than 200 pieces of metal shrapnel.
A surgey removed most of the shrapnel from his body, but not all. He never stopped working out despite being injured by shrapnel and losing an eye! This man was a total beast!! Full Biography: Hermann Goerner!

Henry Steinborn (1893-1989)

Henry Steinborn german strongman

Henry “Milo” Steinborn was a 5’8″ 205 lb German who first started weightlifting as a military prisoner during World War I. It was during this time that he also became the first man to ever squat 500 lbs. After returning to Germany, Steinborn became his country’s national weightlifting champion in 1920 and also set a world record in the squat of 553 lbs. This poundage would not be officially exceeded until the early 1950’s by Douglas Hepburn. In 1921 he migrated to the United States and was largely responsible for popularizing the deep knee bend as a training adjunct to weightlifting. In addition, Steinborn was celebrated as both a professional wrestler and strongman until his retirement in 1963.

Karl Moerke

Karl Moerke Jerking 375 lbHe was born in Köln, Colane, Germany in 1893. As a boy he was always fat or roly-poly in type. He was 14 years old when he started training, and was able to press 60lb. with one hand. In the picture he is Jerking 375lb.

Josef Straßberger (Born in 1894 Died in 1950)

Josef Strassberger germany weightlifter strongman oldschoolSouthern Germany is the country where the heavy athletes are at home: Josef Strassberger: This German bear in the picture is lifting and pushing weigths. He lived in Munich, Bavaria. Mr Strassberger was an innkeeper. In 1928 he setted a new world record in the Olympic heavyweight triathlon with 371.5 kilograms.

Frank Petruske

Frank Petruske oldschool deadlifter post world warFrank Petruske, a rangy built man with very broad shoulders, established a deadlift record in 1928 of 552 lbs. Because of his untimely death due to drowning July 4, 1929, his eventual capabilities were never proven.

Bill Lilly Muscle Artist

Bill Lilly Oldschool StrongmanLinwood “Bill” Lilly was an outstanding middleweight lifter from the 1920’s and 30’s. Although well known as a muscle display artist, Lilly was also a bona fide strength athlete. While weighing around 165 lbs at 5’6″, Lilly held the following records: a belly toss of 485 lbs, a bent press with a 200 lb dumbbell, and a crucifix with 126 lbs.

William Gerardi

William Gerardi Strongman with big legs oldschoolWilliam Gerardi of Brookly, New York. He stand 5 feet 6 inches in height, and weights about 180 pounds stripped.
I have never seen such massive thighs in this era of strongmen. His chest measures 46 inches, upper arm 16 inches, waist 30 inches and thighs 26 inches, so that his thigh is only about 4 inches smaller than his waist. There is no informations about his strength level or training routine.

Siegmund Klein

Siegmund Klein's Gym Above you can see Siegmund Klein’s Gym, he was born in Germany (1902-87) but settled in Ohio as a toddler. By age 19 he was doing a strength and balancing act. Klein stood 5′ 4″ and weighed 150 lbs. Despite his small stature, he was a lightweight and middleweight lifting champion capable of a 270 lb clean and jerk and a 190 lb snatch. His physique was also noteworthy, especially for its abdominal development. The French were so impressed that in 1925 he was voted “World’s Best Built Man” by La Culture Physique magazine. Klein’s motto “train for strength and shape will follow” was the credo for many famous physique and strength notables of yesteryear.

Deadlifts in 1920

Deadlift english style oldschool heels touchingDeadlifts had apparently gained in popularity during the early 20’s but like the bent press, its days as a weightlifting event were slowly drawing to a close. Proper technique for the dead weight lift varied during this era. There were those who practiced the “English” style of lifting with bent legs and heels touching, others spaced their feet several inches apart and stiff-legged it (the “American” style). The narrow stance techniques were the only correct styles for competition but the wide stance was occasionally practiced in training

Odschool Deadlift Technique ACWLA The English-style deadlift was actually one of five competitive lifts sanctioned by the American Continental Weight-Lifter’s Association (ACWLA) through 1925. (A “heels apart” style of lifting was permitted in 1926.)

Karl Moerke Competition Weightlifting Deadlift 19th century

oldschool deadlift siegmund klein

Other ACWLA shows where the deadlift and squat were performed as exhibition lifts are described in the oldschool Magazine “Strength”. Despite their evident popularity, deadlifts were eventually dropped from the “five lift” competition roster of the ACWLA and replaced by other movements.

Karl Moerke vs. Hermann Goerner

Hermann Goerner vs. Karl Moerke

In Germany, as in other parts of the world, deadlifts and squats were sometimes contested in mixed format events (incorporating various standard lifts plus an optional movement). One famous challenge match of this type occurred in 1920 between Karl Moerke, the world weightlifting champion and future immigrant to America, and Hermann Goerner, a man Moerke had defeated the previous year in the German Championships.

Moerke chose the squat for his optional lift and Goerner the deadlift. After the standard events Goerner was leading Moerke 1317 to 1234 lbs. In the final round Goerner pulled 661lb while Moerke squatted 528lb. Totals: Goerner 1978lb, Moerke 1763. Hermann Goerner used this triumph to catapult his professional strong man career. Later that year he pulled a two-handed world record deadlift of 793 3/4 lbs. In 1920 he also set a one-handed deadlift record of 727 lbs.

The Germans weren’t the only ones who were good at the deadlift: By 1926 two of France’s best heavyweights, Charles Rigoulot and Ernest Cadine, had pulled 622 and 617 respectively. (The French version of the deadlift forbade the reverse style grip.) Across the Atlantic, French-Canadian heavyweight Arthur Giroux had been handling nearly 650 lbs in the deadlift and was widely considered to be one of the strongest men on the continent during the early 20’s. Most incredible of all however, was the story about another French-Canadian named Eugene Caouette. He was able to deadlift 820lb! (see above: Strongmen Stars).

Adolph Nordquest deadlift 638lb 1917

After a shift in control to the Association of Bar Bell Men (ABBM) in 1927, both amateur and professional American weightlifting records were established under ABBM rules. Interestingly, the ABBM lumped deadlifts in a competition category known as the “body lifts”, along with the harness lift, teeth lift, hand and thigh lift, and two finger lift.

ABBM Records 1927 deadlift curl competition oldschool powerliftingProper form in the deadlift would now be in the American style for acceptance by the ABBM. As with the ACWLA, squats would remain a non-competition lift. Strength magazine (above) would likewise continue to report meet results and new lifting records as it had done previously with the ACWLA.
 Accordingly, the above excerpt contains a report of a 1927 ABBM deadlift from Arthur Giroux, 650lb!

Press on the back and the belly toss: Old School Bench Press Style

press on the back oldschool strongmanpress on the back belly toss

As for the press on back variations: a new professional record was set in January 1928 by Bill Lilly. Weighing just 151 lbs, Lilly made a 353 lb ABBM record in his weight class for the press on back with bridge, narrowly missing 363 lbs. Besides his ability in the belly toss, Lilly was also renowned for his extraordinary flexibility and muscle posing displays. This would not be the last record he would set in this particular movement.

For the heavyweights, Joe Nordquest’s old ACWLA 388 lb belly toss record from the previous decade was not exceeded during the 1920’s but unfortunately would not be accepted by the ABBM due to the “oversize” 18″ plates he used at the time (1917). The official ABBM world record of 373 lbs had been made by Harold Wood, an Englishman, while using the official 15″ plates. Bill Lilly would soon move this up to 381 lbs before the decade was out.

Record setting continued to progress for both variations of the Press on Back/Belly toss during the 1920’s despite the exercise’s relative lack of popularity. Although supine pressing exhibitions could be seen at strength shows during this decade, overhead movements would remain the clear favorite for strength athletes at this time. 

These five standard lifts would remain in place until the 1936 National AAU Weightlifting championships afterwhich the one-handed lifts were dropped. The deadlift, unfortunately, would never again count towards any kind of weightlifting total and was relegated to “exhibition lift” status. Despite their diminished stature within the AAU lifting hierarchy, the power movements and other assorted “odd lifts” would remain popular staples at strength show exhibitions across the country for decades to come.

Leave a comment

Consent Management Platform by Real Cookie Banner