Identifying the strongest man in history is somewhat controversial, as several different metrics can be used to award the title. This designation is typically given to the man with the heaviest confirmed lift of any kind in terms of raw weight lifted. Technically speaking, this is the record for the most mass lifted any distance away from its support. Though this is the most common metric used, it does not take into account the actual work performed (the force used to displace the mass a certain distance) or the power of the lift (the speed at which the work is performed). However, for the sake of simplicity, mass lifted is typically preferred over these arguably more accurate measures of strength.
Limiting the title of strongest man in history to verifiable lifts essentially disqualifies all strongmen from before the modern era, as notable lifts from the Middle Ages and earlier are typically only known through written, unverifiable records. This also disqualifies mythological figures such as Hercules in Ancient Greece or Badang in Southeast Asia. Coincidentally, even the heaviest of these lifts still does not exceed the heaviest confirmed modern record, detailed below.
Louis Cyr – 4,337-Pound Back Lift
Louis Cyr (1863–1912), often regarded as the strongest man in history, was a French Canadian strongman famous for his impressive feats of strength from a young age, most notably for the heaviest confirmed lift of any kind in recorded history. In 1895, Cyr performed a back lift (lifting a load off of raised supports using the back) of 18 large men on a platform, weighing 4,337 pounds in total. Though there have been claims of even heavier lifts by other athletes, this remains the heaviest confirmed lift in history.
In addition to this record, Louis Cyr was known for a few other notable feats of strength, often using only one arm. For example, a 273-pound bent press, a 553-pound one-finger lift, and a one handed lift of a 314-pound barrel of cement to his shoulder are among his most celebrated lifts. Some of his unusual feats include pushing a freight car up an inclined track, restraining ropes pulled by four draught horses (two in each direction), and besting a 7-foot 8-inch, 365-pound “giant” in a wresting match.
Unconfirmed Notable Lifts
Paul Anderson – 6,270-Pound Back Lift
The 1985 Guinness Book of World Records gave Paul Anderson (1932–1994) the record of “greatest weight ever lifted by a human being” for a back lift of 6,270 pounds in 1957. By this metric, this would make Anderson the strongest man in history. However, this record was later retracted, as there were neither official witnesses nor official records of the lift. The lift may have been valid, but there is unfortunately no way to verify it.
William Bankier – 3,584-Pound Back Lift
William Bankier (1870–1949), a Scottish strongman and performer, was famous in part for his signature back lift of a harnessed elephant. The validity of the lift itself is not questioned, but rather the weight of the elephant. Some sources claim this elephant weighed 32cwt (centrum weight), or 3,584 pounds, but this is unconfirmed.
Orm Storolfsson – 1,433-Pound Walk
Orm Storolfsson (11th century AD) was an Icelandic Viking known for famous for his impressive feats of strength. One of the Icelandic Sagas, written around the 11th century, relates that Orm Storolfsson had 50 men raise the mast of the Norwegian longship Ormen Lange, weighing approximately 1,433 pounds (650 kg), onto his shoulders. The text tells that he took three steps with the mast before breaking his back, ending his lifting career.
Eumastas, son of Kritobolos – 1060-Pound Unknown Lift
Eumastas (6th century BC) was a strongman from Ancient Greece who we know of only through an inscription on a large stone, currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Thera. The 1060-pound volcanic boulder reads, “Eumastas, son of Kritobolos, lifted me off the ground.” As this inscription is all that is known of this feat, it isn’t possible to know what type of lift Eumastas may have performed.
See Historical Strongmen and Weightlifters for a list of other notable athletes.
Debon, N. (2007). The strongest man in the world: Louis Cyr. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Kent, G. (2012). The strongest men on Earth: When the muscle men ruled show business. London: Robson Press.
Smiley, J., & Kellogg, R. (2000). The sagas of Icelanders: A selection (O. Thorsson, Ed.). New York: Viking Adult.