Saturday, January 28, 2023

George Hackenschmidt: The Russian Lion That Defined Wrestling & Weightlifting - By James Athanasiou

George "The Russian Lion" Hackenschmidt: A man that redefined what is naturally attainable, a pioneer that shaped physical culture as we know it today. A presence so strong in physical culture, George Hackenschmidt was a man of sheer, unmatched strength, incredible athleticism and – above all – a kind spirit paired with a highly intelligent mind. Few men get the chance to define a sport, let alone two different ones. Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt possessed the physical prowess to dominate nearly 3,000 matches in the heavyweight division through his astounding 15-year Wrestling career, all while being one of the greatest innovative minds in physical culture. It's high time we explore this Incredible man's journey.

Part 1: The Early Beginnings

Born in 1877 in Tartu, Estonia, George was one of the three children of an Estonian - Baltic German family. While his parents did not possess any special physical characteristics, George claims his genes were passed down to him by his maternal grandfather, described as a huge and powerful man.

As a student, Georg got hooked on physical development. A true sportsman, he excelled in swimming, jumping, cycling, running, gymnastics, weightlifting and a then-popular sport called gorodki, similar to bowling. Many of these activities would accompany him till the very end of his life. It didn't take long before he astounded his teachers and peers with his surreal strength feats, as he was able to lift a small horse off the ground, 200 pounds overhead with one arm.

After graduation, he entered a local cycling club, where he picked weightlifting as a training  alternative during the winter months. At the same time, he worked at the Lausmann factory as a blacksmith's apprentice when one day a fellow Greco-Roman wrestler by the name of Georg Lurich toured through the area. Hackenschmidt took the opportunity to challenge him, but was beaten due to his limited experience. Despite that, the mere fact that George finally met a man that could rival his strength ignited his competitive spirit.

While at work, an accident occured that slightly damaged his hand. Doctor Krajewski was astonished by George's build as he examined the injury and invited him to St. Petersburg to train and live with him, recognizing soon after that he had the potential to become the strongest man in the world. Although his parents remained very much against it, George left to join the St. Petersburg wrestling club in spring of 1898. It wouldn't take long before Krajewski told George that he could "become the strongest man in the world".

Part 2: The First Steps To Conquering Wrestling

In terms of weightlifting, George surpassed all his team members. A pivotal point in his career occurred during a competition held by the Reval Athletic Club, where he went on to Snatch 256 lbs, Jerk 251 lbs and Press 269 lbs in his right hand. Soon after his 6 month weightlifting focused training, George broke Sandow's one handed press record at 116 kg by lifting 122.25 kg (270 lbs), almost 15 lbs more! Sadly, when time  came to treat his arm injury, the electrotherapy methods proved to do more harm than good, forcing him to take a full year off training to recover. 

Later on in his career, a shoulder injury occurred – so serious that it almost paralyzed his tricep. Understanding how this meant the end of his weightlifting career, Hackenschmidt dedicated his soul and effort to conquering wrestling. It took George less than five years to win his world title and almost all major wrestling events – at one point having to wrestle with 3-5 opponents a day!

Part 3: A Unique Personality And An Appaling Loss

His rise to fame didn't take long to occur. George was described as a handsome and beautifully built young man, possessing a soft spoken personality, great charm, an intelligent mind that allowed for a philosophical and innovative spirit, as well as admirable eloquence. All these traits made him adored by women and admired by men, but had little to do with excelling in wrestling and strength training. However, his tendency to give into depression and irascibility truly hampered his growth from time to time.

George got exposed to this negative mentality when he suffered the loss of his trainer and mentor Krajewski in 1901, a man he considered to be his second father. Even though he was devastated, he found the courage to compete after 9 months in the World Championships of Wrestling, receiving two gold medals. Having dropped down too much weight due to the heavy training, George seeks the guidance of a famous trainer by the name of Siebert in Alsleben, going through strenuous training methods, such as jumping over a table with his feet tied together for over 100 times, or climbing up the tower of a church with two 20kg kettlebells!

Part 4: A Goodbye To Wrestling - A Rivalry For The Ages

After defeating the American heavyweight champion Tom Jenkins in the Royal Albert Hall and winning several bouts in England, George traveled to the United States in order to fulfill the promise of wrestling with a fierce rival, a lightning fast and strong athlete by the name of Frank Gotch, as his lightning fast reflexes would allow him to match Hackenschmidt's superior strength.

Unfortunately, it was during the preparation for their first match that George's training became sluggish and his mental health started to decline. No one knows exactly what led him to "quit" – maybe his injuries and the loss of his coach began to take a toll on him. On the day of the match, Goth was accused of using dirty tactics like excess oil on his body and punching to control the first two hours of the fight. George surrendered in the second half of the bout, realizing that he was fighting a lost battle.

Their second encounter gathered a massive 30,000 spectators on September 4th  of 1911. However, people saw a similar result, with Gotch exploiting George's knee injury early on. This loss marked Hackenschmidt's retirement from professional wrestling, with a 3000-2 record. Yet, it was this very defeat that would spark a new era of greatness.

Part 5: The First Two Brilliant Innovations

As soon as George devoted himself to strength training again, his innovative mind never stopped working wonders. Amongst his greatest discoveries are the Bench Press – pressing 300 lbs the first time he attempted it. This exercise descends from the Supine press, a movement similar to the floor press which Hackenschmidt used to perform by starting off with a pullover. This made the exercise way more difficult – yet George was able to lift 335 lbs this way! This exercise was utilized by many Silver Era greats, as it "tied in" together the activation of the chest, shoulder and tricep muscles, building tendon and ligament strength while allowing for huge poundage to be used.

George's second invention came in the form of a brutal exercise called the Hackenschmidt Squat, better known today as the Hack Squat. The first version of the lift was performed with a barbell lifted behind the back in a similar position to that of the deadlift with the heels raised, first curling the bar to the hip and then lifting it. With this variation being way more difficult than it sounds, George set a record at 187 lbs.

Part 6: The Training Methods Still Used To This Day

Hackenschmidt also established the poundage progression, as he believed that "Health can never be divorced from Strength". His advanced athleticism was proof that weightlifting did not stunt sports performance, thus influencing the modern standard of strength and conditioning used in almost all sports.

George understood early on that specificity is a huge factor in one's training, and thus poundage progression is required for the sake of growing stronger – as well as the fact that stronger and bigger muscle groups require very high intensity to be forced to grow, something that light-weight repetitions cannot achieve. Being one of the first pioneers to suggest progressively increasing the weight to achieve higher strength and intensity, George had this to say about his methods:

"Some trainers recommend to their pupils for the training of all muscle groups one and the same (light) weight and believe they are able to obtain the same effect by frequent repetitions. My experience has taught me that this is wrong, for the muscles of men or animals who are distinguished for certain feats of endurance are by no means over-developed. A long-distance runner or long-distance cyclist always has comparatively thin legs, as have a racehorse, stag, or greyhound. Nature does not act without aim and purpose. Hence there is a great difference between feats of endurance and feats of strength. One must consider that, although it is quite possible to enlarge muscles by certain light, prolonged exercises, at the same time the development of the sinews may be neglected, and it is the sinews which transport the action of the muscles to the bone x frame. The sinews can only be exercised and strengthened by correspondingly heavy muscle work. Besides, to take a paradoxical example, it is quite impossible to improve strong muscle groups, as, for instance, the hip muscles, with light-weight exercises. A further illustration of the fallacy of attempting to develop the muscles by frequent repetitions with the same light exercises may be found in a comparison with any and every other form of athletics, in which a man would never think of merely repeating his training programme. In order to improve himself either in pace or distance, he must set himself a steady progression of arduous effort".

By incorporating the principles he learned through his years as a wrestler, George promoted an increasingly more difficult way of training as the only way to build muscle and strength beyond a certain point – something quite contradictory for his era. He was also a big proponent of improving one's flexibility and mobility alongside his strength, thus securing a healthy and high performing body. This led him to train in creative and varying ways, including the jumps, climbs and outlandish lifts we previously talked about. As a result, he was one of the first people to introduce various exercises for targeting specific muscle groups, including the neck.

Part 7: A Deep Philosophical Spirit and "The Way To Live"

With Hackenschmidt devoting himself to training and writing soon after his retirement from wrestling, we are now gifted with the collection of physical training and philosophy, some of which include "The Science of Wrestling" and "The Three Memories and Forgetfulness". In his greatest book titled "The Way To Live'', the barbell and dumbbell training methods introduced principles like the 5-15 reps per set and progressive overload still used to this day – almost exactly the same way, while the book itself is a complete manual including the proper way to sleep, train, eat and think in order to acquire health, longevity and fulfillment – as well as personal information.

Perhaps the most important fact, however, was that his books made physical fitness accessible to all ages, with countless exercise demonstrations for each body part and limited to no equipment. With numerous illustrations of bodyweight and weighted exercises that stressed every muscle of the body, any person could pick exercises corresponding to his own capabilities and get really good training done at home. Within "The Way To Live'', George put great emphasis on proper breathing and aerobic conditioning to not only enhance one's athletic ability, but also his overall health. In his words: "Run as much as you can and as often as you can. Whenever you come across a hill, run up it… I cannot lay too great a stress upon the great usefulness of proper breathing, by which means we introduce into our system the essential oxygen and discharge a quantity of waste matter."

There's also reports of George hosting lectures in Harvard and Yale on philosophy, debating well known professors on varying subjects. He always treated the body and mind as a union, with one complimenting the other. In fact, he was so admired for his noble and kind character that president Theodore Roosevelt famously said "If I weren't the President of the United States, I'd like to be Georg Hackenschmidt".

Regarding his diet, George always supported eating natural foods and avoiding processed products. His diet shifted greatly over the years, as it's reported that he ate a lot of animal products and meat during his prime – even though the exact amount of meat he consumed is debatable. In fact, he went into a 6 month program under Krajewski where he consumed 5L of milk a day in addition to his normal meals! After retiring from wrestling, Goerge became a big advocate for natural and uncooked food, including nuts, eggs, legumes, fruit and vegetables. He was heavily against the consumption of processed foods, smoking, drinking and sugar, as he believed they were all toxins that should be avoided. Some of his suggestions included eating at a ratio of ¾ plant based food and ¼ meat (including the organs and – if possible – uncooked), while also securing a high protein intake from natural foods like milk, eggs and legumes.

Part 8: A Crazy Strong and Lifelong Athlete

Throughout his career, George set world records in almost all lifts, with highly notable that of the Iron Cross, where George managed to hold 90 lbs in each hand. Perhaps more astounding was the fact that he did all his lifts with strict and near perfect form! One of his most impressive feats was accomplished around 1898, when George managed to get a 335 lbs barbell to his chest and overhead… in a wrestler's bridge, while lying on his neck!

It is perhaps his balanced and active routine that allowed George to stay strong and active well within old age. When asked about it, he suggested the following daily schedule: Rising up at 7am, taking a bath (cold if possible) and drying out with 15-20 minutes of light exercise. At 8am there was breakfast, followed by a long walk until 11am. The main and vigorous training for the day took place between 11-12 am, followed by lunch and an hour of sleep (if needed) at 1:30. At 5-6 pm, George would do the second workout of the day, this one being muscle focused, followed by dinner at 7:30 pm and recreational activities (preferably outdoors) up until 11 pm: bedtime. Lastly, he recommended taking Sundays off, keeping room for a good brisk walk.

More than anything, George stuck true to his teachings until the very end of his life. It is said that even through his mid 80s, George was able to jump over a chair 100 times a week, Bench Press 150 lbs and run 7 miles in 45 minutes! His perseverance to remain athletic provided him a healthy and long life until he passed away in 1968, at the age of 90.

Part 9: The Russian Lion's Legacy

Despite the fact that he stopped his professional weightlifting career at the young age of 25, George put up some incredible numbers, including a 361 lbs Power Clean, a 330 lbs Jerk, a one arm overhead press of 286 lbs and a 280 lbs standard press. During his peak, George weighed in at 204 lbs, with a height of 5 ft 9.5 inch, a 22 inch neck, 19 inch arms, 18 inch calves, a 32 inch waist, a 52 inch chest and 27 inch thighs.

Needless to say, George's contribution to the advancement of physical culture and competitive wrestling is alive to this day. I can hardly find any strength training practitioner that doesn't utilize the Bench Press or the Hack Squat on a regular basis. His revolutionary training methods like poundage progression, emphasis on heavy compounds and well rounded athleticism and recovery shaped today's physical culture – not to mention how Wrestling would have most likely never been the same without his astonishing career.

However, I'd like to argue that his greatest impact came from his writing and his philosophy. By always keeping things simple, George was training in a balanced but intense way, promoting intensity and heavy loads with proper recovery and general athleticism. He proved that anyone can reach their peak self by sticking to the basics, while showing the world the necessity of a physically strong and healthy body for retaining an equally bright mind. 

George truly believed that many mental and physical illnesses derived from a weak body. By inspiring people to get physically stronger, he boosted the willpower and shifted the life of numerous readers and pupils of his for the better. A true pinnacle of what's naturally attainable, George Hackenschmidt was a wrestler, an incredible strongman, a pioneer, an intellectual and – above all – a passionate athlete and a generational role model.

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