There are many great people who have inspired me both living and long gone. They are not all from the same areas of strength but all of them use either the old time methods or are legendary strong men. The order they are placed does not mean I rate one above the other but obviously it is slightly bias as to who has influenced me the most. I will include more and more as time allows not only from the world of strong man but also martial artists mystics and so on who possessed incredible strength of mind and body.
Alexander Zass The Mighty Atom, John Greenstein Dennis Rogers The Great Gama
1. Alexander Zass (Russia)
Alexander Zass was born 1888 in Vilno and died 26 September 1962 his nick
name and professional wrestling name was The Amazing Samson or Iron
Samson. He was as so many legendary strong man not particularly big at ony
167 cm (5 ft 6 in) tall and weighing in at just 80kg.
Billed weight 80 kg (176 lb). He was among other things a Russian strongman, a professional wrestler, and an animal trainer being credited as the "first Russian champion in weightlifting in the pre-Revolutionary era".
The Zass training philosophy was mainly based around the art or isometrics and the bending of tree branches or steel objects. Indeed while still a young man, Zass' strength training included "bending green branches". Which goes to show that if Zass didn't need a gym but simply relied on tree branches then that in itself speaks volumes. During World War I, Zass served in the Russian army, fighting against the Austrians. However, Zass was taken as a prisoner of war four times, but managed to escape each time.
His training took on a more isometric focused approach ironically when he was imprisoned as a prisoner of war in WW2. As a prisoner, he pushed and pulled his cell bars as part of strength training, which was, is and should be cited as an example of the effectiveness of isometrics. At least one of his escapes involved him 'breaking chains and bending bars'. After the war he went on to promote the use of isometric exercises.
I also use his methods in my own strength training regime simply buying a metal chain and calipers from a hard ware store and puling or pushing on it. As can be seen on my isometrics training page.
Following the war, Zass joined a circus to perform feats of strength, touring internationally. His first wife, Blanche, died in 1928 while still a teenager.
Zass has been credited with various feats of strength:
Carrying his injured horse in wartime
Carrying on his shoulders two lions as part of his circus act
Carrying on his shoulders simultaneously a grand piano, a pianist and a dancer.
Catching a woman fired from a cannon
Suspending a piano from his teeth
Bending with his bare hands an iron bar 5 inches long and 0.625 inches square into a U-shape
Being able to "pound a 5-inch spike through a 2 inch thick plank using only the palm of his bare hand"
From the 1950s until his death, Zass lived in Hockley, Essex, staying in a bungalow. Zass died in 1962; after a dawn funeral, he was buried in the parish church of St Peter & St Paul in Hockley, England. He was honored with a statue in a museum in Orenburg, Russia.
2. The Mighty Atom: John Greenstein
Joseph L. Greenstein (January 2, 1893 – October 8, 1977), better known as "The Mighty Atom", was a 20th-century strongman.
Greenstein was born in Suvalk, Poland in 1893 (yes another Strong man of "East Europe" or East European heritage. ) However, before the reader jumps to any conclusion that there must be some genetic factor in having a swathe of East European strong men let it not escape you that Greenstein was actually Jewish). Greenstein was very remarkable not only due to his athletic feats but also due to the fact that he was a very sickly child and never a large man in adulthood; indeed quite the opposite. As a child he suffered from respiratory ailments, and at age 14, a team of doctors predicted he would die from tuberculosis. Around that time, he became acquainted with a Russian circus strongman called "Champion Volanko," ( yet another great Russian Strongman) who took Greenstein under his wing. Greenstein traveled with Volanko and the Issakoff Brothers Circus for eighteen months, learning the strongman's training regimen. After this, he returned to Poland and married his wife, Leah, and began a career as a wrestler. Due in part to rising anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, he then left for the United States.
Greenstein first went to Galveston, Texas, working as a dockworker and oil field worker (yet another old time strongman with a manual laborers' background) Greenstein wrestled professionally at this time under the alias of "Kid Greenstein." In 1914, a local Texas man who was obsessed with Greenstein's wife shot him between the eyebrows from a distance of 30 feet. Amazingly, Greenstein left the hospital on the same day - the bullet did not enter his skull, but was flattened by the impact. This experience sparked Greenstein's interest in the mental powers associated with strength, and he gradually developed an array of strongman feats. The mental aspect of Strongman training is also what inspired me to write this website and put myself through a grueling strength training regime well into my forties and soon into my fifties. Indeed as Greenstein demonstrates you don't have to be big to be strong and can even overcome child hood deficits in nutrition, access to sports facilities et and Still be strong. The way I look at strength is on a pound for pound basis. Sure against the Strong men of today weighing in excess of 220 pounds Greenstein stood only 5'4" and weighed 140 pounds, Greenstein became one of the 20th century's leading strongmen. Some of his alleged and proven feats of strength included:
Driving 20 penny nails through a 2˝ 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 also 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's life was not without controversy and once faced a long sentence in jail for a fight with 18 members of the German American Bund (a group of Americans trying to set up a Nazi party in Germany). Greenstein armed with a baseball bat and beat up the whole group black and blue while suffering no personal injuries.. When the judge asked him about the fight, he replied "It wasn't a fight, your honor. It was a pleasure". Out of sheer disbelief, anti-Nazi sentiment, and lack of evidence (many witnesses against him were too injured to testify) the case against him was dismissed. Later in life he sold coconut oil soaps and health elixirs at fairs and farmers' markets. He traveled in an old Model A truck with panels that opened to show his extensive collection of news clippings and citations from civic leaders and organizations. NYC Mayor LaGuardia issued a proclamation thanking Greenstein for showing his skills to the NYC police department. Greenstein had volunteered to teach jujutsu techniques to members of the New York City auxiliary police during World War II. It was many years before the technique was known to most Americans. He was also featured several times in Ripley's Believe It Or Not and in the 1976 Guinness Book of World Records.
Greenstein continued performing his strongman feats well into his eighties, giving his last performance at his great-grandchild's first birthday on May 11, 1977 at Madison Square Garden at the age of 84. He dazzled the audience by bending horseshoes and driving spikes through metal with the palm of his hand. He succumbed to cancer five months later on October 8, 1977. The story of his life has been told by Ed Spielman in the book The Mighty Atom. The life story of Greenstein seems to be the inspiration for the fictional character of Al Pratt, a costumed crime-fighter who went by the alias of "The Atom".
Joe's son Mike Greenstein appeared as a 93-year-old on America's Got Talent in 2014 and successfully pulled a 3500 pound car with his teeth. He wore a T-shirt promoting Mighty Atom & Sons (1940).
Dennis Rogers is one on my list who is from the present day but I would term as having old time strength or as an old time strongman. He is also a living inspiration to pretty much anyone who wants to be freaky strong but not necessarily freaky big. Dennis Rogers has been featured in many TV programs and has many you tube videos that I suggest anyone interested in old time strongman feats such as bending steel, pulling vehicles, hammer work, ripping phone books, bending horse shoes etc should watch Dennis Rogers.
Dennis Rogers was born in 1958 and noticed his strength at a young age when he and his brother were trying to replicate strongmen that they had seen on TV. He was able to repeat the feats with ease. Dennis had a tough time at school in the 70’s and was less than 80 pounds at the beginning of high school and not only weak, but clumsy as well. He struggled with believing in himself in the early days, thinking that he was too small and not gifted enough to do anything related to sports. However 40 years and he is not only a Grand master Strongman but a former World Arm-Wrestling champion. It is said that Dennis Rogers (I do not have that from him directly) believes that the strength in your hands and grip strength is the to is core to the strength of your entire body. Although I may not 100 percent agree with that I do personally believe that grip is certainly one of the most neglected and important aspects of strength. If you take a trip to your local gym and see the shapes of serious body builders you many notice that many have thin or weak looking forearms. It is generally the forearms that can give you some indication of a man's grip strength either by large forearm muscles or obvious thick tendons. This is not always the case but generally it is true that a strong man will possess a good pair of forearms. Indeed anyone who has arm wrestled with any seriousness will know. Dennis Rogers is not a big man but even a man of his relatively small stature his forearm strength is clearly visible without him even having to show an feats of his almost unbelievable strength. However, Denis Rogers should in my opinion not just be thought of as a man with freaky strong hands and wrists, but as a man with a freaky strong mind body connection, And It is easy to dismiss modern day strong men as being weaker on a pound for fund basis than their modern counterparts but there are some present day living strong men who definitely could give the old timers a run for their money and Denis Rogers is among them.
The Great Gama
The "Great" Gama Pehelwan was born on 22 May 1878 in Amritsar, Punjab, British India and Died 22 May 1963 (aged 85). Most readers of the website have probably now realized that nearly all of the old time strongman passed away late in life and they seem to share a longevity whereas today's strongest men who are generally much larger with a much lager body fat ratio tend to pass away very early indeed. This is likely to be linked to their diet with phenomenal calorie input and more often than not the large intake of steroids and growth hormone. It seems to me that a Strongman should also be a healthy man that is able to take part in other sporting exercise as well, In other words an old time strong man is one who is fit, healthy, flexible AND strong not just massively overweight and strong. The Great Gama is yet another old time strong man who was fit, strong healthy, flexible and amazing at other sports in particular wrestling. He was awarded the Indian version of the World Heavyweight Championship on 15 October 1910. Undefeated in a career spanning more than 50 years, he is considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. After Independence in 1947, Gama moved to the newly created state of Pakistan.
Gama was first noticed at the age of ten when he entered a strongman competition held in Jodhpur, which included many grueling exercises such as squats. The contest was attended by more than four hundred wrestlers and young Gama was among the last fifteen. At that point the Maharajah of Jodhpur announced Gama as the victor due to his remarkable show of enormous stamina and dedication.
Gama’s daily training consisted of grappling with forty of his fellow wrestlers in the court. He used to do five thousand Baithaks (Hindu squats) and three thousand Dands (Hindu pushups). Gama’s daily diet was 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of milk, a pound and a half of crushed almond paste made into a tonic drink along with fruit juice and other ingredients to promote good digestion. This high protein and high energy diet helped him accumulate muscle mass. It should be noted that the milk he was consuming was fresh unpasteurized and hormone free from grass fed cattle. Unlike today's milk which is generally full of growth hormones, and from non grass fed cattle. (Yes not all cattle are fed grass now in fact most are fed cattle feed and I suggest the reader research what is included in many cattle feeds, it can be quite stomach churning and shocking). Gama's diet also included much attention to digestion and high fiber.
Fame came to Gama at the age of 17 when he challenged then-Indian Wrestling Champion, middle-aged Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala, a Muslim wrestler from Gujranwala, now in Punjab, Pakistan. At about 7 feet tall, with a very impressive win-loss record, Raheem was expected to easily defeat the 5'7" Gama. Raheem's only drawback was his age as he was much older than Gama, and near the end of his career. The bout continued for hours and eventually ended in a draw. The contest with Raheem was the turning point in Gama's career. After that, he was looked upon as the next contender for the Indian Wrestling Championship. In the first bout Gama remained defensive, but in the second bout, Gama went on the offensive. Despite severe bleeding from his nose and ears, he managed to deal out a great deal of damage to Raheem Bakhsh. By 1910, Gama had defeated all the prominent Indian wrestlers who faced him except the champion, Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala. At this time, he focused his attention on the rest of the world. Accompanied by his younger brother Imam Bakhsh, Gama sailed to England to compete with the Western Wrestlers but could not gain instant entry, because of his lower height (I am myself a fairly tall man but I really cannot understand the often produce against shorter strength athletes, height is no barrier to being a Strong Man as the famous Might Atom and Great Game both attest). In some strength feats it will prove a disadvantage and in some an advantage.
In London, Gama issued a challenge that he could throw any three wrestlers in thirty minutes of any weight class. This announcement however was seen as a bluff by the wrestlers and their wrestling promoter R. B. Benjamin. For a long time no one came forward to accept the challenge. In order to break the ice, Gama presented another challenge to specific heavy weight wrestlers. He challenged Stanislaus Zbyszko and Frank Gotch, either he would beat them or pay them the prize money and go home. The first professional wrestler to take his challenge was the American Benjamin Roller. In the bout, Gama pinned Roller in 1 minute 40 seconds the first time, and in 9 minutes 10 seconds the other. On the second day, he defeated 12 wrestlers and thus gained entry to official tournament.
He was pitted against world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko and the date of bout was set as 10 September 1910. The match was contested over prize money and the John Bull Belt as winning prizes. Within a minute, Zbyszko was taken down and remained in that position for the remaining 2 hours and 35 minutes of the match. There were a few brief moments when Zbyszko would get up, but he just ended back down in his previous position. Crafting a defensive strategy of hugging the mat in order to nullify Gama’s greatest strengths, Zbyszko wrestled the Indian legend to a draw after nearly three hours of grappling, though Zbyszko’s lack of tenacity angered many of the fans in attendance (sounds like the tactics of some recent MMA fighters that just hold and smother rather than fight).. The two men were set to face each other again but Zbyszko didn't show up and Gama was announced victor.
During this tour Gama defeated some of the most respected grapplers in the world, "Doc" Benjamin Roller of the United States, Maurice Deriaz of France, Johann Lemm (the European Champion) of Switzerland, and Jesse Peterson (World Champion) from Sweden. In the match against Roller, Gama threw "Doc" 13 times in the 15 minute match. Gama now issued a challenge to the rest of those who laid claim to the World Champion's Title, including Japanese Judo champion Taro Miyake, George Hackenschmidt of Russia (an extremely famous wrestler and strong man) and Frank Gotch (Also very famous mainly for the only man to have beaten George Hackenschmidt) of the United States - each declined his invitation to enter the ring to face him. At one point, in order to face some type of competition, Gama offered to fight twenty English wrestlers, one after another. He announced that he would defeat all of them or pay out prize money, but still no one would take up his challenge.
Shortly after his return from England, Gama faced Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala in Allahabad. This bout eventually ended the long struggle between the two pillars of Indian wrestling of that time in favour of Gama and he won the title of Rustam-e-Hind or Champion of India. Later in his life when asked about who was his strongest opponent, Gama replied, "Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala".
In 1922, during a visit to India, the Prince of Wales presented Gama with a silver mace, which was symbolic of the one that is carried by the Hindu deity Hanuman, who represents strength and valor. Gama did not have any opponents until 1927, when it was announced that Gama and Zbyszko would face each other again. The day finally came in 1928 when both wrestlers met again in Patiala. The result of the bout was quick when Gama threw Zbyszko in only 42 seconds. At forty-eight years old he was now known as the "Great wrestler" of South Asia.
Interestingly Bruce Lee was an avid follower of Gama's training routine. Lee read articles about Gama and how he employed his exercises to build his legendary strength for wrestling, and Lee quickly incorporated them into his own routine. The training routines Lee used included "the cat stretch" (Hindu push-ups), "the squat" (known as "baithak" in India), and also known as the "deep-knee bend." Gama was also an avid user of isometrics and was well known from pushing and pilling against larger trees on an almost daily basis.