While researching about strongmen, strength, and various exercises, the practice of lifting stones seem to arise more often than not. You don’t believe me? Keep reading and visit the links at the bottom of this post.
Before proceeding, it is important for Conor and I to add that this post would not be possible without the hard work and dedication of two superstars in the iron game: Austin’s own Jan Todd and the late Terry Todd. Their contribution with Rogue Fitness resulted in three absolutely outstanding documentaries which are attached, and their dedication to the study of the iron game gave the opportunity to people like Conor and I to learn, read, study, and even dream about this strength stuff.
This post is dedicate to the great, the one and only, Terry Todd.
We begin our story with a man called Milo of Croton. As a summary, Milo is known as the “inventor” of the progressive overload concept. Carrying a calf on his shoulders for a determined distance, Milo would do this every day, and when the calf grew, Milo got stronger. By the time the calf grew into a full size Bull, Milo could still carry him around displaying the importance of progressively increasing your weights.
There is no denying that Milo of Croton was a strong individual. He was a six-time Olympic wrestling victor; he would take hold of a pomegranate and challenge people to rip it out of his hand, which no one could; and would even tie a rope around his head and break it simply by taking a deep breath.
For the sake of this post we will focus on one particular feat – stone lifting. One stone in particular was found and, lucky for us, it had clear inscriptions on it. The stone, weighing in at 316 pounds, was supposedly lifted by Milo of Croton himself. The inscription reads: “Bybon son of Phola has lifted me over his head.” According to archaeologists and Greek historians, Bybon refers to Milo of Croton.
Why did Milo lift the stone in the first place? The only hypothesis I can give is, because he could. As noted in his stories, Milo loved a good challenge, surely lifting a 316 pound stone was an endeavor that Milo thrived to accomplish.
The tradition of lifting stones is much clearer when looking to Spain (and the other locations that will be mentioned).
In the Basque region of Spain, stone lifting has been engraved in their history and their heritage for centuries. As a long-standing tradition, fathers introduce their sons to stone lifting, as they were introduced by their father, and their father before them.
Beginning as labour (stones would be carried from the quarry to town), the activity of stone lifting became a rural sport that is still celebrated and followed today.
With various stones available, all personalized for the lifter (various handles, shapes, and grips), competitors and townsfolk meet in El Arenal Square and compete against one another in stone lifting (and various rural sports.)
Similar to the Basque region, Scotland has a long-standing tradition of stone lifting.
The country, being a “big lump of stone, with some lumps of coal, covered in grass,” it seems inevitable that stone lifting would be common practice.
In the early days of Scotland, various cults were spread around the area and all had various tests to prove their worth and to show that they belonged to the group. These tests involved, you guessed it, lifting stones.
In preparation for war, the ability to lift a certain stone (or several stones) marked you as a worthy warrior. Within these groups, lifting stones was indicative of manhood; successfully completing a lift meant you have become a man and was labelled as such for everyone to see.
By the time steady villages were built, the tradition remained. An individual was asked to lift a stone and place it on a wall (similar to the Atlas stone lift) – only then would that person be termed a man. The fact that the stone stood on a village wall showed the habitants that so and so were indeed men and should be treated as such.
Stone lifting continues to be a tradition in Scotland with various stone lifting events featured at the Highland Games. One such event, arguably the most famous, is lifting the Dinnie Stones. Only last month we witnessed the second woman, Leigh Holland-Keen, successfully lift the Dinnie Stones; the first being Jan Todd.
Our last stop is in Iceland; home of the Vikings.
Continuing from the Basque and the Scots, the Icelanders also have stone lifting as a heritage and an ongoing tradition.
With the knowledge that Iceland is a rough place to live (barren lands, ice, cold, short summers), the strength of Icelanders are often linked to their ancestry who settled the land and built permanent communities.
Scattered all over Iceland are historical stones hold sentiment value to inhabitants. Pilgrimages still occur, where individuals visit these specific places and attempt to lift the stone they encounter.
Stone lifting was, like for the Scots, a test of manhood. With stones carrying the names “half-strong” and “full-strong”, the worth of a man was measured with such challenges. Lifting “half-strong” meant you were half a man, while lifting the heaviest one resulted in being a full man.
While manhood is emphasized here, various women were also able to lift the stones and carry them over impressive lengths.
Part of their history, their past times, their exercise, stones seem to have been engraved in Iceland’s history since its discovery, and are still very much present today.
With a tradition of strength being present in the history of Quebec, surely stone lifting is part of that tradition! Well, no. Despite strongmen being seen as saviors and heroes to French Canadians, the link between strength and stone lifting seems to be absent.
While many strongmen of yore (prior to Louis Cyr) have been represented as beings of strength that could lift almost anything, including stones, the stories regarding these men are termed folklore and myth, and will remain that way until proven otherwise (I’m on it.)
If any of you have read Ben Weider’s biography of Louis Cyr, you may have come across Cyr’s strength contest against a man, labelled as his arch enemy, called David Michaud. According to Weider, Michaud and Cyr met in a field where stones of various sizes were lined up in ascending weight. The challenge involved lifting each stone; the man who failed to do so lost the challenge. The contest ends with Cyr being able to lift the heaviest stone “that was dug deep into the mud” and defeating David Michaud.
This story is untrue and has been proven as such by Paul Ohl who analyzed francophone press released in the late 1800s. The contest was a standardized (whatever that meant back then) weight lifting bout featuring various bars and dumbbells. It is possible that Weider, who constantly emphasized the importance of colonialism and the land as justification for Quebec’s strength used the stone tradition as such.
The only proven event we have involving stone lifting is during Louis Cyr’s trip to Lowell, Massachusetts. After being insulted by Irish men, Cyr, rather than fighting, decided to lift a nearby stone to prove his worth and to show the Irish men how strong he was. It is said that the stone weighed in at 517 pounds. However, I must ask, what if instead of a stone the object near Cyr was a tree trunk, or a bale of hay? Surely the stone placement was a simple coincidence and not indicative of a stone lifting tradition in the ‘belle province’.
To end, Conor and I strongly encourage you to watch all three videos attached. These are phenomenal documentaries that offer amazing visuals, a great soundtrack, and interesting knowledge. Please, watch the documentaries and share them with friends and family. The above history of the stone lifting tradition is but a fragment of what Rogue and the Todds offer in these films.