Posted on 27 Oct 2013
10 min read
A country famous for classical music, beer, sausages, hairy women and genocide.
And in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it was also home to some of the strongest – and craziest – men of all time.
Of these, the most famous – and intriguing – was a chap called Arthur Saxon.
This legendary circus strongman and former Greco-Roman wrestler, who was a contemporary and rival of the great Eugen Sandow, was famed for his exceptional feats of strength and reckless consumption of beer.
Perhaps most astonishing was his ability to lift 370lbs overhead with one hand.
A weight which many of today’s athletes would struggle to lift with two!
To this day Saxon (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a musclebound Freddie Mercury) still holds the world record for the “bent press” (not a gay sex position – more on this later) and the “two hands anyhow” lift, two staggering feats of strength that will likely never be surpassed.
To make these exploits all the more impressive, Saxon only had a relatively small physique.
Dressed in jeans and a builder’s shirt, he’s someone that you’d probably fancy your chances with after 8 pints on a Friday night.
Indeed, weighing in at only 200lbs and standing at around 5’10”, his stature was far from Herculean.
But his drinking, on the other hand, was.
It’s probably also a safe bet that Saxon holds the world record for “most amount of weight lifted while smashed out of your fucking mind”.
He could knock back units like George Best at a free bar while still lifting weights that would make Mariusz Pudzianowski baulk.
What follows is the intriguing and inspiring story of Arthur the “Iron Master” Saxon, without doubt one of the strongest men in recorded history.
This guy could lift.
Arthur Saxon was born Arthur Hennig on April 28, 1878 in Leipzig, Germany.
From an early age he was fascinated with feats of strength and when he was 14 he started fashioning weights from stone in his parents potato cellar.
At 15, Arthur, along with his two younger brothers Hermamm and Kurt, began organising strength contests in the backyard of his parents’ house.
The Saxon boys challenged other lads from all over Leipzig at arm wrestling, weight lifting and belt wrestling.
The brothers were never defeated and their fame spread like wildfire.
Over the next few years, this uncouth form of backyard entertainment would evolve into one of the most famous strongman acts of all time, in the form of ‘The Saxon Trio’.
In the early years, Arthur Saxon trained using predominately one-handed lifts.
He did not use a barbell and instead employed dumbbells, kettlebells and ringbells.
His favourite lift – and the one that he would later become famous for – was the bent press.
This move, which you are unlikely to see in any chain gym today (you would probably be asked to leave if you even attempted to complete it) is defined as:
A one-handed lift from the shoulder in which the body was bent away from the hand holding the weight while the non-lifting forearm was braced against its corresponding thigh. The weight was not elevated any higher; instead, the body was lowered until the lifting arm was straight, then the lifter had to stand erect to complete the lift.
For a more visual guide on how to execute the bent press, check out the video below:
In the early days of his training, Saxon would tie weights to the end of his dumbbell to perform the lift.
This made the movement considerably more difficult to complete as the weights would often slip off.
Saxon was not afraid of hard work and would train incessantly at every hour of the day.
In an article recounting his friendship with Arthur Saxon, legendary British strongman Thomas Inch recalls that “Arthur seemed to have an objection to going to bed at a reasonable hour and often sat up right through the night smoking, playing billiards, even lifting at three or four in the morning.”
In 1897 the newly formed Saxon Trio began touring with the Ringling Brother’s Circus, performing their strength act to flabbergasted audiences across Europe.
They were hailed as “The Great German Giants of Strength”, and Arthur was billed as the “Strongest Man on Earth”.
The Saxon Trio were the first strength act to demonstrate the real possibilities of weightlifting.
They shattered records and set new standards, putting on the greatest shows of strength that the world had ever seen.
There were no gimmicks or illusions in their show, as was the case in many other “strongman” acts, just pure, honest strength.
Crowds were left speechless as Saxon performed breathtaking feats of strength.
In one part of the act, Saxon lifted a barbell with his brothers seated at either end – with one hand!
Another act consisted of the three brothers supporting a bridge with their feet while a car with six men inside was driven across.
This was 800lbs worth of weight!
Perhaps Saxon’s greatest feat of strength, however, was the “two hands anyhow” lift of 448lbs.
In this he pressed a barbell of 267lbs overhead from the shoulder with the right hand, after which he picked up and brought aloft a kettlebell weighing 119 with the other.
Such was his confidence in this particular lift that before every performance he promised that if he failed he would donate £25 to local charity!
What’s more, the Trio did what no previous strongmen had ever done.
They threw their stage open to the public, allowing their weights to be tested at any time.
The Trio would often offer a cash prize to members of the audience who could lift the same weights which they lifted on stage.
They would leave out their globe weights before the show, inviting people to test out their strength.
However, these weights would only be half full, thus deliberately misleading the public into thinking that they were stronger than they actually were.
During the show, these weights would be topped up, and the hopes of the audience would be squashed.
The Trio went on to tour the world, achieving widespread fame.
One evening in Sheffield’s Grand Music Hall in February 1898 when he was performing with the Saxon Trio, Arthur, as was customary in his act, went into a spiel about how he could outlift anyone in the world, including rival strongman Eugen Sandow.
Bear in mind that during the 1890s Sandow was the reigning king of strength in England.
His reputation was untouchable.
Unbeknownst to Saxon, Sandow was in the audience that night, and he came on stage to put pay to this rumour once and for all.
He wanted to show Arthur up for being an imposter and a liar.
This was a huge deal – a confrontation between two titans of the strongman scene – and the honour of being the world’s strongest man was on the line.
To the mirth of the audience and the Trio, Sandow was unable to replicate Saxon’s bent press.
He tried again and again to lift the kettle bell over his head.
But each time he failed.
In the weeks that followed, Saxon began to promote his shows with posters and flyers that trumpeted his crushing victory over Sandow.
Humiliated by this turn of events, and riled by Saxon’s brash marketing material, Sandow took the Trio to court.
Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding in court about the mechanics of the lift, Sandow won his claim, and Arthur Saxon was prohibited from marketing himself as being stronger than Sandow.
A few years after the Sandow debacle, the legendary Donald Dinnie, a Highland Games athlete who had not been defeated in the Caber Toss for 40 years, called Saxon out as being a phony.
He refused to believe that Saxon could lift what he said.
So, in October 1904, Saxon visited Dinnie.
Using the Scotsman’s weights, Saxon proved that he could bent press 340lbs, after which he earned Dinnie’s praise and support.
While contemporaries such as Sandow worked hard to fashion an impressive physique and train for size, Saxon was solely concerned with strength and shifting as much flipping iron as possible.
Seemingly, he did not give one solitary shit about obtaining an aesthetic look, and his diet reflected this disregard.
His approach to nutrition was characterised by a wanton consumption of calories, both at the dinner table and from the beer keg.
An article in Joe Weider‘s ‘Muscle Power’ magazine discusses Arthur’s diet, which was disclosed by his brother Kurt.
It comprised the following:
To put it mildly, Saxon was a bit of a piss artist.
Like most strongmen at this time, he drank heavily and frequently.
He was reputed to have drank up to 50 bottles of beer a day and one evening he allegedly knocked back over 100 bottles!
In 1930, Thomas Inch penned an article in Health and Strength magazine entitled, ‘What I’ve Learned from the Super Men’, where he recalled training with the Saxons in their back garden in Leipzig:
After setting out their big plate bell and plenty of discs in the middle of the garden, they knocked the bung out of a barrow of beer, and then set to work, knowing that liquid refreshment was arranged for. It seems that drinking beer and weightlifting together are quite the common pastime on the continent, or so the brothers claimed! It was rather funny to see the trio running backwards and forwards with their jugs to the beer barrel between lifts. It was seldom that any beer was left in the barrel. I must say! They explained to me that this was the proper German custom, and they appeared to always regard me as slightly unbalanced mentally because I did not follow their example.
On one occasion, when he was allegedly trying to impress a girl, Saxon put a bottle of beer between his feet and then brought a 250lb barbell to his shoulder.
He then bent pressed the bar and, reaching down with the other hand, drunk the bottle while keeping the bar perfectly still overhead.
In addition to copious amounts of beer, Saxon’s diet included gallons of milk, which he believed to be the “perfect food” and would mix with raw egg and oatmeal.
He also consumed beans, cheese, meat and peas.
The Saxon’s also created a signature homemade health shake which included stout mixed with gin, egg yolk and sugar.
Frankly, this sounds absolutely horrendous, but if you fancy giving this drink go, please let us know how you get on in the comments section below.
It would make a great follow up article!
In his lifetime Saxon published two books of note, The Development of Physical Power (1905) and The Text Book of Weight-Lifting (1910).
These books explain the mechanics of every lift in Saxon’s routine and feature many diagrams and photographs of him lifting.
“If a man seriously proposes to go in for lifting heavy weights, he should make a point of practising certain lifts every day. This daily practice is essential to the achievement of any real success.”
After fighting in the First World War and suffering from malnutrition, Saxon returned home beset with health problems.
He tried to resume his strongman act but failed to summon the legendary strength he had shown before the war.
Arthur Saxon died from pneumonia on August 6, 1921.
He was 43 years old.
However his colourful legacy and breathtaking displays of strength live on.
He was capable of feats that no-one else could accomplish, being the only man in history to bent press 370lbs.
He also snatched 200lbs with one arm, military pressed 252lbs, and could “two hands anyhow” 448lbs.
Furthermore, his indefatigable approach to lifting revolutionised strength training and his wiry, sinewy physqiue showcased the sheer power of functional muscle over size and ‘cut’.
Arthur Saxon was a beacon of charisma and showmanship, energy and vigour, hard work, and, above all, magnificent strength.
He was a genuine superman of the strongman scene, never to be matched.