If I say a name such as Schwarzenegger, Weider, Lee Haney, or Ronnie Coleman, there is a good chance you know who I’m talking about. But if I say Eugen Sandow? Well, probably not. However, he is none other than Mr. Olympia himself, or, at least, the Mr. Olympia statue that is given to the winners of the Mr. Olympia title. It’s called The Sandow and is made in his likeness.
That being said, the modern body building culture we see today, arrogant guys with bulging veins and massive steroid usage, is not a good representation of the kind of Physical Culture Sandow promoted. In fact, Sandow had a very natural and holistic approach to exercise, one that is refreshing in the light of our modern thoughts on what it takes to become strong. Not only this, but he backed up everything he preached by being one of the strongest men on earth, and certainly the strongest during his day.
Who is Eugen Sandow?
“’Now, Mr. Sandow, how tall are you?’ our man asked.
‘I am just 5 feet 8 ½ inches in height,’ was the reply.
‘And how about the chest?’
‘Forty-eight inches! And the ordinary six-foot guardsman averages only about forty-one inches. This was an astonishment. ‘What does your arm measure round the biceps?’
The Answers man here grasped the athlete’s arm. It resembled iron rather than human flesh, and it is just the same all over his body. Nothing but solid adamantine muscle is to be felt, and not one ounce of superfluous flesh is apparent.” – Eugen Sandow Interview, System of Physical Training
Eugen Sandow’s Early Life
Born as Friedrich Muller in Germany, 1867, Eugen Sandow was an enthusiastic, yet frail child. As was a popular practice in those days (see Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood for example), his father took him to Italy hoping that the sea air and change of scenery would do his son some good. It certainly did, but not in the way his father would have guessed.
As Sandow puts it:
“The desire result of the trip was achieved, but hardly in the expected manner. It was not by strolling under the blue Italian skies in the ozone-laden breezes from off the Mediterranean Sea, but by spending every available moment in the art galleries and museums of the great cities, that I learned of secret of health and strength. The works of the old masters in sculpture and painting roused a thrill of half-envious admiration in me, and the more I studied them the more they fascinated me. Eventually I came home from Italy with the fixed determination that, if training could do it, I would become a strong man.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
Much like the story of Theodore Roosevelt, it wasn’t so much the change of atmosphere as it was a change in will. Seeing the Greek and Roman statues inspired him to achieve strength and a physical form which had been absent from the earth for ages. In fact, most people in Sandow’s day regarded those statues and paintings as coming from the artist’s imagination, not something that could possibly be achieved in reality. Sandow would prove them wrong.
He began taking up exercise with weights shortly afterwards, but was disappointed in the results, as the modern exercises with dumb-bells didn’t properly train the muscles of the body. While still young, he joined a traveling circus act that was passing through town. There he learned some acrobatics and showmanship until the circus went bankrupt in Brussels, where he met a mentor named Luis Attila, who helped him develop his physical structure and showmanship even further. Sandow dedicated his studies to the muscles of the body and developed a system of exercises that would properly work each of the 400 individual muscles. His strength began to increase very rapidly and soon he was entering contest against the more traditional strongmen of the day, and winning. His name began to grow in popularity and he became a regular performer.
The Father of Modern Bodybuilding
“To see such a man as Sandow is to look on an almost ideal form of muscular development.” – Interview with Eugen Sandow, System of Physical Training
Throughout the years, Sandow would return to Italy to visit those statues he so admired when he was a boy. He would take measurements of their proportions and exercise his muscles to match those of the “ideal man”, thus establishing him as the first man to build his body to predetermined measurements. The strongmen that were to come later all harken back to Sandow’s physique and showmanship.
Life as a Strongman
To really appreciate Sandow, you have to understand just how incredibly strong this guys was. We see toughman and strongman competitions today, but these guys can’t touch the level of physical prowess Sandow had achieved.
After gaining some popularity in Germany as a strongman, he headed over to Amsterdam with very little money and a need to promote himself cheaply. At the time, all around the city were these coin operated machines that had a lever which tested your strength. A person could drop a nickel in and test their strength by pulling up on the lever. This gave Sandow an idea. He hired a cab and went around town dropping in his coin and ripping the lever off of the machines by sheer strength. This caused quite a stir around town and the local police wanted desperately to know what gang of marauders was going around and destroying these machines. After 3 days, Sandow was caught in the act. When questioned here’s how he responded:
“When I got to the station, I explained that I had paid the necessary coin into the machine, and was entitled to exercise my arms. Of course, they refused to believe that one man could be strong enough to break the machine, and sent for the chief officer. When he came along, he, too, was doubtful of my story; but when the strongest man at the station accepted my invitation to try his strength on me, the commissary was not only convinced, but became quite friendly, and I was released on my own recognisance’s.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
As for his acts, they were nothing short of extraordinary feats of immense strength. According to one journalist who saw Sandow perform:
“The heaviest weight scales 312lbs., and this Sandow lifts with apparent ease to his head and holds it there. He can even turn a back-somersault whilst holding in his hands two 56lb. weights. He terminates his exhibition by supporting upon his chest, propped by his arms and his legs from below the knees, no less than 2,600lbs., or over a ton of stone, iron, and human bodies.” – Eugen Sandow, System of Physical Training
It has been recorded that his greatest lift was the harness and chain, heaving a weight of 4,800lbs.
Sandow’s Later Years and Untimely Death
After Sandow had reached nearly global fame, his hurried and glamorous lifestyle started to catch up with him. He was a man who denied himself nothing, though all things in moderation, including women, who came at him relentlessly. After all, he was the perfection of male form, and his shows began to focus less and less on his feats of strength and more on his physique. He suffered a nervous breakdown and went back to England to be cared for by his wife, Blanche Brooks. Rather than returning to the spotlight, Sandow began a new phase in his career, promoting his system of Physical Culture. He opened a gym and began training other men on his system which was met with great success. He published several books including The Gospel of Strength, System of Physical Training, and Strength and How to Obtain It, each detailing various aspects of his life and exercises one should undertake if they wished to become strong, but also a great deal of commentary on the rise of the sedentary lifestyle that was quickly becoming common place. He touches on everything from the educational system to the unhealthy dress of women (corsets, heels, and tight-fitting shoes), to the button-pushing, lever-pulling work day that was becoming normal. — His thoughts are more than applicable today; they were warnings that were not headed. We’ll take a look at those in the later parts of this series. It’s good stuff!
His entrepreneurial spirit led him to begin selling various exercise apparatuses as well as Sandow branded cigars and cocoa powder. Financially, he was still doing very well. However, with the turn of the century and WWI, Sandow quickly became a forgotten performer of a fading era.
In 1925, at the age of just 58, it is reported that Sandow suffered a deadly stroke while trying to pull his own car out of a ditch. However, it was widely believed that he had succumbed to syphilis, picked up during his days as a philandering playboy. In retaliation for his infidelity, his wife had Sandow buried in an unmarked grave.
What Can We Learn from Sandow?
Typically, when I choose a subject to write about, I want the story of a man’s life to be one of inspiration; one that ends well. However, that isn’t always the case. Often times we learn through watching the consequences of a man’s actions; we see the direct correlation between his choices and his undesirable rewards.
That being said, we can’t discount the great teachings of Sandow in the area of what he called “Physical Culture“. In the upcoming articles in this series, we’ll take a look at his views on society, dieting, and exercise, and of course look at the exercises he used to get so freakin’ strong.
More on Sandow
Read more on Eugen Sandow in the books he published. Most, if not all, are available on Kindle for a small fee, though you can find many of them in PDF for free, online.