George Hackenschmidt was a wrestler, strongman, and strength sports pioneer. He was born on Aug. 1, 1877, in Dorpat, Livonia, in the Russian Empire. After the dissolution of the Russian Empire, the town was renamed Tartu and lies in Estonia. He earned fame for his wrestling skills and strength feats, popularizing the hack squat and bear hug.
Hackenschmidt was the first-ever World Heavyweight Champion in professional wrestling, earning him the moniker The Russian Lion. He was fluent in seven languages and became an author, speaker, and philosopher after retiring from wrestling. Hackenschmidt won over 3,000 wrestling matches.
|Full Name: George Hackenschmidt (The Russian Lion)|
|218 – 225lbs (98.8 – 102.1kg)||5’9″ (175cm)||Baltic German|
|Year of Birth||Profession||ERA|
|1877||Strongman, Professional Wrestler||1900, 1910|
Who Was George Hackenschmidt?
Hackenschmidt was born in the Russian Empire. His family had no strength sports background, and he later revealed that no one in his family was physically strong or muscular, the only exception being his maternal grandfather, who was supposedly a well-built man.
In his teens, Hackenschmidt stood out for his hulking physique. He was into sports growing up and made the most of the gymnasium at his school.
Hackenschmidt participated in cycling, gymnastics, swimming, running, and weightlifting. Notably, this was the time when weightlifting was starting to gain attention. Hackenschmidt could allegedly lift 200 pounds overhand with one hand during his school days, which shocked his teachers. There are stories of him lifting a small horse off the ground for fun while on his way to school.
Hackenschmidt first gained attention in 1896 when he executed a single-arm 214-pound overhead press. He broke legendary Eugen Sandow’s 116-kilogram one-handed press record with a 122.25-kilogram lift.
Unlike other strongmen and wrestlers of his time, Hackenschmidt had an aesthetically appealing physique. Most wrestlers had bulging bellies, but the Russian Lion maintained a ripped physique year-round.
Hackenschmidt was ahead of his time in multiple ways. He emphasized muscle proportions and symmetry, which were rarely talked about in that era. The Russian Lion also highlighted the importance of keeping your workouts short and intense for hypertrophy.
Beginning of Hackenschmidt’s Weightlifting Journey
After graduating from school in 1895, Hackenschmidt moved to Reval (now called Tallinn) to work in a factory as a blacksmith’s apprentice. The Russian Lion participated in and won several cycling contests during this period.
Since Reval got insanely cold during the winter, Hackenschmidt had to find an indoor hobby, and he stumbled upon weightlifting. The Russian Lion realized his potential after a few training sessions and was committed to learning the sport’s nuances.
Hackenschmidt was 5 feet 9 inches and weighed 218 pounds in his prime.
In his second year lifting weights, Hackenschmidt shocked the crowd at a local club by pressing 214 pounds overhead using one arm. The Russian Lion performed this feat using perfect form. He lifted the weight off the floor, curled it to his shoulder, and completed the lift by pressing it overhead.
Getting Into Wrestling
After making headway in the weightlifting community, Hackenschmidt delved for more. He met Greco-Roman strongman and wrestler Lurich in 1986. Lurich was touring Reval with his company and challenged the city’s residents to wrestling matches. Only a few people took on Lurich’s challenge, one of them being Hackenschmidt.
Lurich recognized Hackenschmidt’s talent and strength early in the match. After the match, the Greco-Roman strongman declared it was the first time he had wrestled someone who matched his strength. The Russian Lion, however, lost the match by a small margin owing to inexperience.
Setting a World Record
Hackenschmidt didn’t take losses lightly. He believed he was stronger than Lurich but missed the chance to prove it during the match. Frustrated with his performance, he went full throttle in the gym to improve his strength and wrestling skills.
The Russian Lion’s wrestling setback helped him take his training to a new tangent. After a few months of hard work in the gym, he set a world record in Jul. 1897 by overhead pressing 243 pounds using a single arm.
Hackenschmidt wasted no time resting on his laurels. Six months after setting his original world record, he set a new single-arm overhead press world record by hoisting 275 pounds. A 32-pound jump within six months on a single-arm lift put him in a league of his own.
In Jan. 1898, he also performed a gargantuan floor press. Describing the lift in his book The Way to Live, he wrote:
Lying on the ground, I lifted and pushed up with two hands, a weight of 304 pounds, following this soon after with a weight of 335 pounds.
In this passage, Hackenschmidt is referring to the wrestler’s bridge exercise. The lift shouldn’t be confused with the bodybuilding floor press exercise. It is, however, believed that the Russian Lion’s floor press made way for the bench press and bodybuilding floor press. The bench press entered mainstream weight training in the 1930s.
Winning His First Strength Sports Contest
Although Hackenschmidt had set two world records in six months, he was still winless. Every pro athlete has a pivotal movement in their career, after which their career and success take a new height. An Apr. 1898 weightlifting meet organized by The Reval Athletic Club proved to be that pivotal moment for Hackenschmidt.
Many top weightlifters from the area participated in the show. Being the fierce competitor he was, Hackenschmidt jumped into the contest to challenge some of the strongest men of his time. Surprisingly, the Russian Lion crushed his competition to lift his first weightlifting trophy.
His contest lifts included:
- Jerk: 251 pounds
- Snatch: 256 pounds
- One-Arm Press: 269 pounds
Hackenschmidt’s 114-kilogram (251-pound) jerk was 1 kilogram less than the world record.
Staying true to himself, Hackenschmidt used the win’s momentum to train even harder for the next six months. With the help of The Reval Athletic Club’s doctor, the Russian Lion improved on his weaknesses and doubled down on his strengths.
Hackenschmidt’s hard work bore fruit as he broke Eugen Sandow’s 116-kilogram one-hand press world record by pressing a monster 122.25 kilograms.
Inventing the Hack Squat
Hackenscmidt was always looking for ways to challenge himself and perform lifts others considered impossible. On Jan. 27, 1901, the Russian Lion set a new world record by lifting 187 pounds behind his back with bent knees. The exercise is known as the hack squat, named after Hackenscmid. This exercise became Hackenscmidt’s third contribution to strength sports.
To perform the hack squat, different from the hack squat machine, place a barbell on the floor and stand facing away from it. Stand upright with a shoulder-wide stance. Lower into a squat and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-wide grip. Keeping your torso upright and head neutral, stand up by driving your heels and mid-foot into the floor. Repeat for recommended reps.
Besides his record-breaking hack squat performance, Hackenscmidt broke the iron cross world record. He held 89 pounds in his left hand and 90 pounds in the right while having both arms extended at his sides.
Hackenscmidt continued wrestling and heavy weightlifting from 1899 to 1901.
In 1901 he won two world tournaments in Vienna and Casino de Paris, earning him the sport’s first World Heavyweight Champion title.
According to some estimates, Hackenscmidt registered over 3,000 wrestling victories between 1901 and 1911. He traveled far and wide and earned accolades for his wrestling abilities and impeccable physique.
Hackenscmidt lost his World Heavyweight Champion title to Frank Gotch, an American wrestler. The match lasted two hours and ended with the Russian Lion submitting.
In true Hackenscmidt style, he returned to the drawing board and pushed himself harder in the gym. This time, however, he sustained a knee injury while training and would only last 20 minutes against Gotch in their rematch.
Retirement and Death
The Russian Lion retired from competitive wrestling in 1911. He then pivoted his focus to writing books and delivering lectures on strength training. His book The Way to Live is still under publication.
Hackenscmidt passed away at the age of 90 in England in 1968. His achievements in wrestling and strongman contests make him a prominent figure in strength sports. The Russian Lion was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2016.
George Hackenschmidt Training Principles
Here are some of Hackenschmidt’s training principles:
You Must Follow A Personalized Training Regimen
Hackenschmidt opined that each individual has different physical capabilities and must train accordingly.
An old man will have to train differently from a young man and a woman differently from a child, while there are various graduations for age and sex.
Keep Your Workouts Short and Intense
The Russian Lion limited his workouts to 30 minutes and encouraged other lifters to do the same.
The exercises should not exceed one-quarter of an hour at the commencement and should only be increased by five minutes in a few months. Afterward, about thirty minutes are fully sufficient for acquiring and preserving strength and endurance.
Limit Rest Between Sets
Hackenschmidt advised against sitting down and resting between exercises as he opined it could lower your training intensity and make your muscles ‘stiff and contracted.’
Instead, the Russian Lion advised wrapping your shoulders with a towel and walking briskly across the room between sets. He believed it could improve blood circulation while your body repaired spent muscle tissues.
Controlled Rep Tempo
Hackenschmidt was a proponent of following a slow and controlled range of motion while training. He also emphasized establishing a mind-muscle connection and breathing mindfully.
Switch Your Exercises
Hackenschmidt believed in constantly switching exercises in your training program as it helps avoid straining a muscle group and promotes muscle proportions and balance.
Do Not Skip Weight Training
The Russian strongman was a fan of resistance training and preferred it over bodyweight exercises.
A man may secure and maintain a condition of fair physical fitness by means of exercising without weights… but he cannot hope to become really strong unless he exercises with weights.
He, however, encouraged lifters to add skipping, jumping, running, and gymnastics to their training regimen for improved mobility and endurance.
Cater To Your Weaknesses
The Russian Lion advocated fixing muscle and strength imbalances by paying attention to your weak muscle groups.
Every human has a certain body part that is more developed by nature than other parts; say, for instance, that the legs of one or the arms of another are naturally strong. Now, the former will be able to perform the leg exercises with perfect ease and comfort, whereas all his arm exercises require more exertion. It would be foolish if this particular individual were to devote more time and attention to his leg exercises because they are easier to him, and neglect the arm exercises, which are harder and more difficult to him.
George Hackenschmidt Workout Program
Hackenschmidt never shared his exact training program. The wrestler’s training philosophies inspire this training regimen and use equipment available in most modern gyms.
|Barbell Bench Press||3||8|
|Single-Arm Kettlebell Press||3||8|
|Close Grip Floor Press||3||8|
|Clean and Jerk||5||3|
|Single-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press||3||8|
|Barbell Hack Squat||3||8|
|Lying Leg Curl||3||8|
George Hackenschmidt Nutrition Tips
The Russian Lion was whittled and had washboard abs. He followed a strict dieting routine that helped him stay in shape. Here are a few of his dieting tips:
Prefer Raw Foods
Hackenschmidt preferred raw, uncooked foods. “Man is born without a frying pan or stewpot” was his mantra. His raw food diet included nuts, fruit, and vegetables. He also avoided processed or fried foods.
Follow a Vegetarian Diet
The first-ever World Heavyweight Champion was mainly a vegetarian. Although he sometimes added meat to his diet, it was never in the main course.
The Russian wrestler avoided meat and dairy as he believed it was difficult to obtain these foods from healthy and grass-fed animals.
I believe I am right in asserting that our Creator has provided food and nutrition for every being for its own advantage. The purest natural food for human beings would, therefore, be fresh, uncooked food and nuts.
What Hackenschmidt achieved in his time is truly commendable, given his limited resources. Few can match his strength and aesthetics despite the fancy supplements and training equipment available today.
To end this article, we’ll leave you with one of Hackenschmidt’s strongest quotes:
The frequent employment of one’s willpower masters all organs of movement and trains them to perform feats that otherwise would have been difficult, painful, and even impossible.