Editor’s note: The following is a reproduction of a booklet published in 1952: How to Perform Strong Man Stunts by Ottley R. Coulter. Coulter (1890-1976) was a devoted physical culturist, weightlifter, and circus strongman. He also served for decades on the Lemont Furnace, PA police force, and taught his fellow officers hand-to-hand combat techniques as an alternative to using firearms. As an avid collector of weightlifting books and magazines, Coulter is considered bodybuilding’s first historian, and he authored his own piece of work in the form of this pamphlet, which taught readers the tricks behind many classic strongman stunts. Enjoy, and considering busting one of them out at your next cocktail party.
One of the truest statements ever made is, “All the World Loves a Strong Man.” Every man, woman, and child admires strength, and there is not a man who does not crave it. To be stronger than your friends is to be looked upon as a natural leader, and an invincible defender. Strength is the biggest hallmark of manhood. It demonstrates true he-man masculinity. Because this is true, it rouses a great desire in every manly heart to be able to do the great feats of strength which hold people breathless when they are demonstrated to them.
While some feats require herculean strength, yet many, if not most, of the strong man stunts usually performed by the professional strong man, are fairly easy to perform with a little practice. Most of them involve a knowledge of leverage, and of the bony supports of the human body. To know these is to be master of over fifty percent of the technique necessary to perform the stunt.
The following are a series of the most popular strong man stunts. Most of them can be performed at the parlor party, using your friends as weights. Nothing is more impressive than to be able to lift a friend, or group of friends, for all know there is no trickery behind their bodyweight. They know it is real, and not hollow like most of the strong man exhibition dumb bells.
Ottley R. Coulter
How to Tear a Telephone Book in Half
Grasp the telephone book with the hands on the free page side where you leaf it open. Place the book firmly on your knee, and with the heel of each hand push the pages back so that they slant towards the edge of the book farthest away from your body. The more you slip the pages back, the easier will it become to tear the book, because you actually only tear a few pages at a time in succession.
To your beholders, it looks as though you were tearing the whole book through at once. They never realize what you are doing, as the act is so natural. When you have slipped the pages as much as possible, begin to tear, pulling up with the right hand as you tear downward with the left. Once the pages are broken, the rest tear easily.
Of course, you will not be able to do it first time you try. Like everything else, it takes practice. One you have mastered the trick, it will be an easy stunt for you to perform.
Many are able to progress on this stunt by tearing the telephone book into quarters.
How to Tear a Deck of Cards in Halves
This trick is not hard to do after a little practice. Place one end of the pack upon the palm of the left hand, and cover the other end of the deck with your right hand as shown in the illustration. Actually you do not tear the cards. You break them first by bending them in the middle.
Grasp each end of the deck firmly and then bend the cards forward. Next, bend them backwards. Do this two or three times in rapid succession, then twist the hands away from each other. This will cause a twisting tearage on the cards, right in the middle of the deck where they are broken from bending. Twist first to the right side and then to the left side until the deck is completely torn into halves.
It is a good idea to let the back of the left hand rest on the right knee for support when bending and twisting the cards. Later, when you become more adept at the trick, you can do it with the hands free of the knee.
Many become so expert with this trick, they can tear a deck of cards into quarters, and even tear a corner out of the deck. Many are able to tear two decks of cards in halves at one time. It is a real trick that always brings a rousing cheer.
How to Drive a Spike Through a Board or Sheet of Metal
This really is an easy stunt, but it sure makes your watchers’ eyes pop out. It is done so quickly, the combination of speed and strength amazes them.
You need a good sized spike for this. Start off with an 8 or 10 penny sized nail. Again, as in all spike stunts, it is the way you apply the wrapping that does most of the trick.
Wrap your handkerchief heavily around the head of the nail so that the head of the nail is always in the center of the cloth which should fit like a ball in your hand.
Grasp the wrapped end firmly in your hand, and allow the spike to pass between the middle of the two fingers of your hand. This not only allows you to get a firmer grip on the nail, but gives it the necessary control in driving it through the wood. This done, place a piece of board between two chairs. Allow your free hand to hold the board down to steady it. Now, raise high the hand grasping the nail, and with all your force bring the nail STRAIGHT down upon the board. It must come straight down otherwise it will strike the board a slanting blow and spoil the stunt, so you must practice in order to be sure each time you strike, the nail descends in a straight line upon the board.
To begin with select a rather thin board, and as you improve select a thicker board, but always be sure that you use soft wood. Your watchers do not know the difference between soft and hard wood. Also be sure to wrap the head of the nail heavily with the cloth. The larger the ball of wrapping in your hand over the head of the nail, the easier will the stunt be to perform. The wrapping acts as a surface for greater striking power as well as to absorb the concussion of the blow when the spike hits the wood.
Later on, you can improve the effect of the stunt by placing a thin sheet of tin on the board. The spike will go through both metal and wood, and further dramatize the stunt.
How to Bend a Heavy Steel Spike With the Hands
This is always an imposing stunt. It is the kind of trick you can progress on by first starting with a light Penny Nail, and as you get used to the way of bending the nail, you can gradually increase the size and strength of it until you are easily bending a penny nail of a very formidable size.
Begin with a sized nail well within the limit of your physical ability, and wrap it up in your handkerchief. Be sure to wrap the ends of the nail well with the cloth so that neither end cuts into the hand from the applied pressure. The best way to do this is to place the nail lengthwise across the longest part of your handkerchief, and wrap the ends of the cloth around each end of the nail. The thicker you wrap each end the better hand grip you will have, which also gives you a greater leverage.
It is this that enables you to bend big, strong nails. You get your leverage from the size of the wrapping over each end of the nail. This done, bend the nail over the edge of your knee, then, when you have got the nail kinked in the middle, place one end on the knee in the palm of your one hand, and with the upper hand press down with all your might. Your knee and under hand will act as a floor for the other hand pressure. You will be surprised how easy it is once you get the right wrapping of cloth over each end of the nail.
How to Lift a Man Overhead With One Hand
There is nothing that will set up a chorus of “Whom are you kiddin’?” at a party as when you say you can lift any man in the gang over your head with one hand and walk away with him. That usually is just too much for them. You may lift a weight twice as heavy as your friend, but it will not have half the impression on the gang as lifting one of them.
Do not be too ambitious at the start. Choose a fairly light man. Have him stand on a chair and under his arms fasten a belt, a heavy scarf, or a rope strong enough to hold his weight.
Knot the belt under his shoulders then stand in front of him, and grasp the belt with your right hand about the middle of his chest. This done, straighten the arm by bending your legs under you. At the same time turn your back to his body. Now, by straightening your legs and keeping your straight arm stiff and locked at the shoulder, you will lift him easily clear off the chair as you straighten your legs. This done, allow his body to lean on your back so as you walk you are carrying him more on the back than with your arm.
Actually, it is your legs that lift him. They are several times stronger than your arms. When you carry him, as said before, you do so more with your back than with your arm. The main thing is to be sure you do not allow your arm to bend at any time during the feat, otherwise you will fail.
A little practice will give you an improved control over the features of the stunt, so that soon you will be able to lift and carry a very heavy man with ease. Instead of carrying him, you can dance a few steps to show how easy it is, and impress your friends more with your strength.
How to Smash a Rock With a Blow of the Fist
This stunt is made to appear the more impressive because you do not need to cover the fist with a glove or mitt. It looks terrific.
The trick lies in the kind of stone you use, and the preparation you give it beforehand.
Get a good sized piece of limestone and soak it over-night in plenty of water. Limestone is so porous it absorbs water like a sponge, which actually rots the stone.
This done, place the stone on a solid block of wood, or table, and see that the stone rests flat upon the table. It must not have any wobble, and the top should be fairly flat, as limestone usually is.
Now raise your balled fist over your head and bring it down with all your might upon the center of the stone, and it will break into smithereens. Be sure when you strike that you hit the stone with the balled edge of your fist, and not with the knuckles.
You need not be afraid that the water absorbed will show when the stone is broken. It has become soaked into the pores of the stone which rots it by gorging the stone tissues. It is like hitting a blown up balloon. You will get a rousing cheer for this stunt. With practice, you can make it more dramatic by your approach to the act, with several mock attempts to hit the stone before you actually do.
How to Support 1,000 Lbs. of Living Weight With Ease
This hardly seems possible, but here is where the immense strength of the bones come into action. It is said that no engineering feat accomplished by man has the resistance comparable to the resistance of the bones of the body when they are employed to the best of their natural strength.
This particular feat I am going to describe is one you can perform in the parlor any time you are having a party.
Your position is the most important part of the act. First sit on the floor on your haunches, with your arms behind you, supporting your body. Draw your heels up close to your buttocks. From this position raise your body so that it is supported on the floor only by the feet and the hands. The calves of the legs should be perfectly perpendicular with the floor, and so should the arms. See that the palms of the hands and the feet are flat on the floor. Raise the body as high as possible so that the thighs are in a level line with the rest of the body. You will now be assuming a body bridge. Take extra care to be sure that your feet and hands are firm with the floor. You cannot afford to slip during this stunt.
Now have your friends place a long plank across your knees, and as close to the edge of the knees as possible. The plank must be well balanced on the knees. Now you are ready for the act. Have six or eight of your friends line up in front of the plank, placing each person so that the bodyweight of half of them about equally balances the other half. Two at a time let them sit on the plank — one on each side, until the entire six or eight are seated on the plank, then at your given word tell them to raise their feet off the floor so that the entire load is borne on the bones of your lower limbs.
This act is called the Human Bridge. Strong men performers commonly support twenty or more people in this stunt. It is a simple, easy feat, but one that will make your friends believe you have the strength of Hercules.
How to Lift More With One Finger Than Others With Two Hands
Very few people would believe you could lift more with your middle finger alone than they could with both hands, but it is true. In fact, it is much easier to lift more weight with the one finger than you can with both your hands.
To do this, you need a short hook made with a loop at the other end so you can just insert your middle finger. Then you should tape all around the loop so that you have to force your finger through the loop. The finger must grasp the loop close to your hand. That is, you force your finger in the loop as far as possible, but it must come tight to the hand so you have a good hold when you crook your finger. Whatever you are going to lift, whether it be a heavy block or iron or a heavy bag of sand, it should be placed between your legs. As you insert the hood into the right of the weight, or the rope around the bag, place your free hand on the corresponding knee, with the arm kept straight throughout the performance. The legs should be slightly bent at the knee, and the lifting arm should be straight and at full length.
As you begin to lift, you press heavily with your free hand on the knee, and straighten the legs. The lifting arm must not be bent. It acts more like a suspended cable from the body. The actual lifting is done by straightening the legs, and pushing on the knees with the free hand. Of course, you must grip the loop with the lifting finger as tightly as possible, and if the finger has been inserted snugly enough, nothing short of tearing the finger off would cause the weight to pull open the finger grip.
Many men lift over 500 lbs. in this manner. And among the best of strong men, you will not find many who can lift near that much with two hands in lifting a weight off the floor.
How to Lift and Swing a Man With Your Teeth
The Teeth Lift is one that generally fills the watchers with amazement. They cannot understand how one can have such strong teeth. Actually the teeth are but very little employed in this stunt. All the pressure of what is called Teeth Lifting is borne by the pull against the concaved upper part of your mouth.
To perform this stunt, you should make what is termed a Teeth Strap. It is a flat piece of leather turned over with a ring and a hook held loosely in its fold. You rivet the two pieces of leather together, and on the one side rivet, or sew, another piece of leather that is cut and trimmed to fit snugly into the alcove of the upper part of the mouth. The leather should be long enough so that when you clench your teeth you bite on the leather. By this, I mean the ring and hook inserted in the fold of the doubled-over leather should be about an inch from the mouth, so as not to interfere with your bite.
To the hook, you attach a chain which you wrap, or insert, into the object you are going to lift. If you are lifting a man, see that he is well balanced into whatever he is bound. As you begin to lift, bend the knees and press with each hand on each knee. This is where the lifting is really done. The weight is merely suspended from the mouth. If you wish to swing the man, or weight, after the lift, do so by turning around in a circle. The momentum of his bodyweight will carry him into a good even swing without any undue strain on you.
The strain of the weight is borne by the neck muscles which are extremely powerful, enough to handle a man’s weight with ease. When through with the feat lower the weight, or person, to the floor before unloosening your bit on the Teeth Strap, to protect your teeth.
These stunts will make you the life of the party, as well as greatly admired. At the same time, the fun you enjoy from these performances will build your body stronger and peppier, giving you a never-ending thrill in your increasing might and muscle.
How to Resist the Pull of Four Men
This is always a spectacular stunt, and one in which you can have a lot of fun. Of course, you can start with two men, but at that, you will not have any trouble challenging two friends in a party to pull your folded arms apart.
Stand erect with the feet well-spaced apart and the arms folded high on the chest. Around each upper arm, close to the armpit, have a towel loosely knotted so each man can grasp. You tell them it provides a better hand-hold which, in a way, it does. But it makes your position stronger as it keeps them pulling where you want them to pull. They will not be able to pull your arms apart. Then, if you feel sure enough in your ability, you can challenge four — two on each side — to try and pull your arms apart.
Chances are you will beat them. They will pull and twist to the merriment and cheers of the rest of the party, but you will hold them. If they want to pull with their hands on your arms, see that they grasp the upper part of your arms. Do not let them get down to your elbows for that can throw you off balance. As they pull, keep the chest lifted high and the arms crossed high over the chest.
It is always a good party stunt, and apart from being very impressive, adds greatly to the fun of the party, which increases with the futile efforts of your friends.
How to Break a Spike With the Teeth
Here is a stunt that knocks ‘em cold. People just cannot believe you can break a spike with your teeth. Actually you do not, but it looks like you do and that’s all that matters.
For this stunt you need a 10 penny nail, a good heavy hammer for impression, and a heavy block of wood. Place the ends of the wood between the seat of two chairs, and with slow, deliberate blows pound the spike into the heavy block of wood. Drive the spike into the wood about one third of its length. This done, wrap the head of the spike with your handkerchief, and then bite the head of the nail firmly in the mouth.
Grasp each side of the plank, or block of wood firmly with each hand, and with the force of your neck muscles bend the nail back and forth, and the first thing you know it will break off flush with the wood.
To all appearances you have bitten the nail off, but what has happened is that the two-third nail leverage out of the wood acts as a fulcrum on the one-third firmly locked in the wood. The wood acts like a vise on the imprisoned nail end, and your neck muscles add to the leverage which breaks the nail. The trick is easy, and is quite a dramatic stunt to perform.
(via The Art of Manliness)