Circus performers and entertainers more often demonstrated their incredible strength in the late 19th century and early 20th century than competitive athletes. The strongmen and women who competed against each other for prestige and popularity originated in Europe and spread to the United States. Eventually, the bodybuilding culture developed from this.
Historically, strongmen performed various feats of strength, such as bending steel and breaking chains (not to be confused with bench press, which did not exist at the time). These feats required tremendous wrist, hand, and tendon strength, as well as prodigious oblique power. The performers also bent iron bars, did hand balances, lifted weird objects (barrels, anvils, anchors, people), and did various other crazy tricks. Strongmen who stood out from the crowd often performed peculiar or unusual acts, saying they could only do them and challenging other performers.
By the end of the 20th century, the term strongman was applied to someone who competes in strength athletics. Strongman competitions are modern strength competitions in which competitors display their raw functional strength by lifting rocks, toting refrigerators, pulling trains, pulling eighteen-wheel trucks, etc. Below are some stunning historical photos of some of the strongmen of the early 20th century.