Adventures and Experiences of a Famous Professional Strong Man
by Adolph E. Nordquest

Reprinted from the AOBS Newsletter.

My main object, years ago, was to acquire great physical development and a degree of strength that would enable me to exhibit my wares on the vaudeville stage. To this end I practiced muscular control and gained the physical strength required for the performance of lifting feats of the order that appealed to the public. Instead of lifting weights, I selected feats of strength wherein my partner, Otis Lambert, served as the weight to be lifted. The theater audience is skeptical regarding the poundage claimed of dumbbells and other weights used in exhibitions, but people are convinced at once by the athlete's lifting his team-mate in the one-arm press or any of the other styles of lifting.

But these spectacular lifting stunts do not require the physical power necessary to make a record with a barbell in any of the standard lifts. In my case, I was satisfied with the acquirement of just enough strength to carry me through a period of twelve minutes, the time allotted to our act. It was not until later years that I really tried to make some sort of weightlifting record. And whatever I have accomplished with the weights is due to the influence of my brother Joseph.

In 1917, at O'Rourke's Cafe on Park Row, New York City, I made what I consider my best lift. In this very popular place was a huge solid dumbbell which weighed 648 pounds. The few capable of lifting it did so by inserting through a ring in the handle of the weight a cotton hook. This enabled the lifter to stand nearly erect while in the act of lifting the dumbbell with two hands gripping a wooden crosspiece. In place of using this aid in lifting the weight, I bent over the dumbbell and then, gripping the thick handle with both hands, lifted the weight several inches off the floor. I was informed that this was the first time that the dumbbell had been lifted in this manner. And I never had before that time any practice on that particular weight.

In all, I have spent only two months of my time in any serious attempt to create records with the weights. While sitting on a chair with hands gripping sides of chair seat and right leg extended, I have supported a two hundred and twenty pound man who stood on my ankle. With this heavy burden, my leg would sag, but I managed to prevent my heel from touching the floor. At the start, my leg would be fairly straight, but in holding the man on my extended ankle for a few seconds, the muscles would gradually play out. To prevent the chair from tipping over it was necessary to have someone hold on to the back. This supporting stunt is an excellent exercise for thigh development. Both legs can be exercised in this manner. After supporting a convenient weight on the right ankle, alternate with weight on the left ankle. Then, while sitting on the chair, extend both legs to the horizontal position for the test. It will be found that in employing both legs together you will be capable of holding out about one-third more weight that you are able to support with only one leg.

Thigh development is very important, for there is no other part of the body that registers more truly a person's vitality. These great thigh muscles impart to a person that springy step that indicates a thoroughly alive condition of the body. In the athlete they indicate just what he is capable of doing, and when the thighs weaken, the athlete is relegated to the class of has-beens.

My brother Joseph is an excellent example of the athlete with powerful thighs. In measuring his right thigh, the tape recorded thirty inches. And the strength of his arms is proportioned to the strength of his legs. There is no part of Joe's body that exceeds in strength any other part, for his is fashioned on the plan of a well-made steel chain.

I have witnessed several of Joe's greatest lifts. At the Police Headquarters gymnasium in New York he broke a world's record in the two-arm barbell press while lying flat on his back. He pressed with his two arms, on this occasion, three hundred and sixty-three and a half pounds, and in the shoulder-bridge position, which differs from the other lift to the extent that the athlete bridges his body from shoulders to heels, I saw Joe do what I consider one of the greatest lifts every made by a strong man. In this manner he lifted with two arms a barbell weighing four hundred and one pounds. The lift was made at Coney Island, at Brill's Coney Island Circus Side Show, in the season of 1917. And unfortunately he did not take the pains to have the record entered in the list of official records.

On the occasion of my brother's shoulder-bridge performance at the Milo Bar-bell establishment in Philadelphia, he succeeded in making a world's record in the two-arm press of the three hundred and eighty-eight pounds. (A "press" is a steady push-up with the arms, contrasted with the "jerk," which is done largely by a heaving action of the legs. --Editor.) And during his training activities at the Greek Athletic Club in New York, he established a left arm barbell press record of three hundred and one pounds. This is considered by some authorities as the world's record in the left arm press.

It was here, at the Greek Athletic Club, that I met for the first time Tofalos, the world-famed champion strong man of Greece. In weightlifting he is best known for the records he established with the weights in one of the Olympic meets, held many years ago. I saw him work out with a barbell that weighed considerably over two hundred pounds. He lifted the weight about ten times in succession with his two arms. His style of lifting a barbell is the last word in this science, which, coupled with his great strength, made him a world's champion.

Joseph has several more lifts to his credits of standard styles of lifting, many of which are mentioned in weightlifting annals. In New York several years ago, in our own room, Joe pressed me with his left arm five times in succession. As I was fully dressed excepting my coat, I weighed two hundred ten pounds. Joe could have made it six times if I had been able to remain outstretched on his hand, but I could stand the strained position no longer.

Regarding the bent press, when I was in vaudeville with Otis Lambert, on occasion I would perform the one-arm press with my partner and repeat the lift. After the first press I would lower his body to my shoulder, using only the right arm in doing so. It is far more difficult to lower to shoulder the body of a man than it is to press his weight to arm's length overhead, because as you lower the weight there is a drop that is difficult to check. Lambert weighed in stage attire about one hundred seventy pounds, and he had all the appearance of a two-hundred-pound man because of his tremendously broad shoulders. However, we did not leave the question of our weight to be guessed at by the audience, for at every performance I announced our bodily weights in connection with our lifting each other. I stripped, at the time, at one hundred ninety pounds, though as I got older my weight increased to two hundred pounds.

One of the best lifts I have ever made was in Ashtabula, Ohio, my birthplace. At the railroad car repair shop at Ashtabula Harbor, I lifted one end of a pair of car wheels with two heavy men sitting on the axle nearest to the side I lifted. One man weighed two hundred forty pounds, and the other man weighed two hundred thirty pounds. The car wheels must have weighed about one ton. In performing this lift, I got the end of my back under the rim of the wheel and with both hands gripped the end of the axle, so it virtually was a question of leg strength, the thighs doing the major work of lifting. This was in 1918 when, as I recall, I weighed (with my overcoat) two hundred thirty pounds. It was the heaviest I have ever been and, I may add, I was then at my strongest period, as the extra weight imparted an increase in my bodily strength.

The strong man who is inclined to be very heavy and of what we term the "beefy" type is, on the average, stronger than the athlete who possesses finely drawn muscles. But it is, nevertheless, pleasing to behold the well developed athlete who is capable of creating strength records and is also able to give a good account of himself in all-around athletics. We admire the beautifully proportioned person, be it man or woman. And the women of today are fully as ambitious as the men to acquire rugged and enduring bodies. This means that the human race is bound to improve.

I am a great believer in walking as a physical conditioner. Today, before I sat down to write, I had completed a ten-mile walk, the walking being interspersed with several short sprints as I circled the reservoir in Central Park. Each day, around this huge water basin, athletes may be seen engaged in running and walking, preparing for their strenuous, competitive tests of physical endurance.

The greatest thriller in sports, in my estimation, is the one-hundred-yard sprint. And when I was considerably younger than I am today, I could give a good account of myself in fast running and jumping. The splendid thing in favor of track athletes is the fact that that participant enjoys physical activity with the advantages of breathing fresh air. This purifies the blood stream as the vital fluid courses through the lungs, gathering its supply of life-giving oxygen. [Mr. Nordquest modestly neglected to mention that he has been credited with running a hundred yards in ten seconds flat.--Ed.]

Early in my career, I spent a considerable time in Boston, Massachusetts. While in the great city of culture, I made the best of my time by keeping in physical condition at Boston's famous gymnasium, the Young Men's Christian Union. There I met the famous strong men John Y. Smith and Thomas E. White, one of the best all-around athletes I ever had the pleasure of meeting. Mr. White, a very compact and finely developed specimen of manhood, weighed one hundred sixty pounds. And he manifested a degree of strength and energy that was difficult to match. My friend Thomas, on several occasions, has bent-pressed my body three times in succession, with the greatest of ease. [The "bent press" is a one-arm push-up from shoulder over head, accomplished by bending over to the other side when starting the lift.]

Along with his many lifting accomplishments, Mr. White is a very capable acrobat. He performed the niftiest back somersault I have ever witnessed. I would take a standing position facing him, my chest thrust forward. Then my energetic friend would run toward me, leap into the air and plant one foot against my chest, from which he would turn a cat-like back somersault. He was the star who stood in popularity along with Boston's price, the mighty John Y. Smith. This dates back to the youthful days of 1903 and thereabout.

Everyone who follows the records of strong men knows that John Y. Smith was one of the strongest men in the world, regardless of weight division or competitors. Smith weighed around one hundred seventy pounds, yet he met in competition men in the heavyweight division of lifting. He would bar no man who wished to match his strength with him. Some of Smith's feats of strength have never been duplicated, particularly the lifts that required strong fingers.

On one occasion, we loaded his dumbbell to about two hundred thirty pounds, and I tried my strength in one particular lift. I stood the weight on one end, the other end of which rested against my lower body, and the right hand gripping the bar. With the one arm alone employed, I succeeded in shouldering the dumbbell, from which position I pressed it aloft to arm's length overhead. I never tried for records in lifting weights overhead, for my time was wholly taken up with vaudeville engagements, covering a period of several of the best years of my physical prime.

Having the quality of showmanship in mind, I realized that the theater-goers are more interested in the athlete's physical appearance than in the degree of strength he possesses. So Otis Lambert and I developed our bodies to the limit of our capabilities. And in posing in our lighted cabinet, the muscles appeared to the best of advantage.

It was a marvelous sight to behold the master strongman, Eugen Sandow, exhibiting his beautiful muscular body under lights on the stage. He was, in his prime, one of the greatest drawing cards that the vaudeville stage has ever known. It may be said that whatever popularity the modern strong man enjoys is in great measure due to Sandow's inspirational influence in elevating the strength athlete to a feature position in the theatre and the circus.

But before I go further, in would include with Sandow the great Canadian strong man Louis Cyr. I do not believe that Cyr ever lifted to his utmost capability. Weighing as he did, three hundred twenty pounds, it was not necessary for this physical giant to extend himself to better the records of most of the contemporary weight lifters.

No man has enjoyed greater popularity, no matter what calling he follows, than that which was bestowed on the good-natured giant from Montreal. In that Canadian city several strong men have shown the quality of strength that was Cyr's. But in his time, the Montreal hercules could do as much in the one-arm side press as the other strong men did by employing the scientific bent press. His great girth prevented him from bending low under the weight he lifted. His feature performance was the back lift, with all the men who could be crowded on the platform. The popularity of the back and harness lifts is, in great measure, due to Louis Cyr's efforts in these major tests of strength. The old timers pay their respects to the champion weightlifting of his time. But as the years roll on, and as long as strong men are mentioned, Louis Cyr's name will always stand at the top of the list, a pioneer who instilled in others a just pride in the manly endeavor of strength building.

In 1902, after I closed the season at Coney Island, where I met all comers at wrestling, I had the good fortune to secure a position in Jack Cooper's gymnasium in New York. At this highly popular physical training headquarters gathered the best athletes of the day, the champion boxers and wrestlers. As I was very young at the time, just twenty years old, I was quite eager to learn the principles of bodybuilding. As an instructor in physical training, Mr. Cooper is very thorough with his patrons. The thing that interested me greatly was the value he ascribed to the massage treatment of the muscles after exercise. Under his instruction I learned the proper methods to employ in what athletes term the rubdown. The kneading of the muscles did away with the stiffness that follows strenuous and prolonged exercise, so that every man who attended Jack Cooper's gymnasium left after his workout in the finest of physical condition, for the thorough massage of all the muscles of the body prevented any stiffness or soreness following the daily exercise. Massage represents a good half of the value attaching to physical training.

There were, in the old days, many strength athletes who came into prominence at the same period of time, and who are about as capable today as they were in their early twenties.

Almost all of these men hail from the Alliance Athletic Club of New York City. There is Benjamin Belleclaire, of the famous act of Belleclaire Brothers, whose astounding feats of athletic skill with his partner were a drawing card in vaudeville for many years. Then we have Sam Kramer, who with his partner has thrilled audiences with feats of strength and equilibristic skill that have been a wonder to behold. Mr. Kramer has a fine physique; I have never seen better developed arms than his. So many athletes have paid particular attention to the development of the biceps. Kramer has the ideal arm development, for his triceps round out as full and pleasing in outline as his biceps, giving his arms the power of complete development. The triceps is a very important muscle, as it is used in lifting weights overhead and in all movements in which the arm is forcing outwardly.

Abe Boshes is another great athlete who has helped to make athletic history, and today he looks in as fine physical condition as he was at the time of our first meeting. There is no muscle in his body that has failed to get proper attention, with the result that he now possesses one of the most superbly developed bodies of any athlete in the world. Harry Blickman, another athlete of the popular Alliance Club, could display about the most wonderful set of abdominal muscles that I have ever seen.

Physical perfection is the term to apply to the bodies of the athletes just mentioned. It is their inspiration as living examples of the benefits of exercise that is largely responsible for the growing interest in bodybuilding. The spirit that activated these athletes was carried to the public, resulting in the movement that included physical training for the boys and girls in our public schools. Such men have translated into living reality the ancient saying, "A sound mind in a sound body."

The body is the vehicle in which we live, and we should build it to the fullest expression of life, not only for ourselves, but with a thought to posterity. To this end we should study the values of nutrition as well as exercise. When the food is not selected to meet the body's various needs, a full stomach is not an indication of a "square meal."

So as to acquire the necessary vim to carry us through our strenuous calling, Otis Lambert and I would, on the average of about three times a week, include in our meals a large, juicy tenderloin steak. To balance this, we ate freely of fruits and vegetables, cooked and raw. And when we were exercising daily in the gymnasium, it was our plan to partake of a frugal breakfast, which after two hours of assimilation would leave us fit for the workout. While we were in New York, Bill Brown's gymnasium served as our training quarters. Brown's large, airy training headquarters was very popular with all of the athletes. It was there that I frequently met the greatest one-arm press lifter the world has ever known--Arthur Saxon.

In this celebrated place I met some of my best friends--boxers, wrestlers and acrobats--the best natured gathering one would wish to meet. Around 1909, the world's champion wrestler, George Hackenschmidt, was doing his daily workouts at Brown's place. And I was included on one occasion when the mighty Hackenschmidt asked me to give him a workout on the mat. In all my varied experiences, I have never felt such tremendous physical power as he was capable of exerting. On the day in question, he took on three men, one after another, and the two others and I were just about all in from exertion. Not so Hackenschmidt. Before he left the mat, he turned a perfect forward somersault, landing on his toes as lightly as the tripping steps of a ballet dancer.

Years later I had the pleasure of joining George Bothner's gymnasium also in New York City, and operated on the plan best suited for professional talent of all kinds. Here I found the same faithful followers of athletic sports as I did at Bill Brown's. Everyone who follows athletic history knows that Bothner held the wrestling championship in his division for many years.

I should say a word about Wills and Hassan, the world-renowned hand balancers. They performed one of the most difficult acts I have ever witnessed. In the feature performance, Wills tosses Hassan high in the air from one foot placed in his hands. At the start, Hassan faces Wills, but as he mounts higher and higher Hassan completes a half-turn and drops into a one-hand to hand balance. This difficult feat was a performance that was never duplicated by others. All the teams of performers have some particular stunts that are all their own, having in many instances taken years to perfect.

It is a great pleasure to recall these bygone days of my happy meetings with these athletes who have helped give worldwide popularity to the physical culture movement that has since reached every quarter of the earth.