• History of Strength Sports

An interview with leading strength historian, Conor Heffernan

Where did your interest in physical culture came from?

When I first began training in my mid to late teens, my gym (Hercules Gymnasium) was a hotbed for the history of physical culture. It was created in the mid-1930s, had several lifters from the 1970s and 1980s who trained alongside me and the stories they had were absolutely captivating. I was blessed that this happened the same time that Randy Roach’s Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors was just published. Lived experience met with book learning to fuel my interest.

What is it like to have a career based around a genuine interest, at UT, one of the epicentres of sports history in the world?

It is Disneyland for strength nerds! The Stark Center was created by Professor Jan and Terry Todd, whose reputations in the Iron Game are beyond reproach. Aside from being elite level powerlifters and organisers, the Todds have produced crucial pieces of history. At the Stark Center we have magazines and books published hundreds of years ago, old exercise equipment, individual’s scrapbooks and everything in between.

As someone who studies the history of strength, this place is a treasure trove. It is honestly overwhelming at times with how much is there but it is a good problem to have. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently finishing a book on physical culture in Ireland from the late nineteenth century to 1939 ( which will thankfully be out in January 2021. At the moment I’m working on a new book dealing with the history of Indian clubs in Britain and America in the 1800s. I’ve worked on this in the past but this will be my first deep dive into the subject and I’m really enjoying it. Few people swing Indian clubs these days (although the numbers are growing) so it’s very cool to study their popularity a hundred or so years ago.

Have you found any 'gaps' in the history, any 'unsolved' questions or lost pieces of memorabilia?

There’s been some pretty cool finds in the past few years. I’ve tracked down the first Irish bodybuilding show from the 1900s, written a full scale biography of D.L. Dowd (one of America’s most interesting physical culturists of the 1800s) and written on Eugen Sandow’s medical interests. Undoubtedly the best ‘gap’ came when I was conducting research on Arthur Saxon for Rogue Fitness’ wonderful documentary on Saxon. Using Census records from England myself, and the Todds, were able to track down where Arthur and his family lived, who his wife was and even how they met! 

The more time you spend in this area the luckier you get. Especially if you work alongside the wonderful people at the Stark Center.

How do you see the research of physical culture / strength sports developing in the future?

I think we’ll see a lot more work on the ‘hidden’ history of physical culture both in terms of countries and people. My own work on physical culture in Ireland was the first case to examine Ireland. Simon Creak has done something similar for Laos, Tiago Maranhão has just published a dissertation on physical culture in Brazil. So I think we’ll see a lot more work on uncovering individual country histories.

More importantly I think more work will be done on Black, Latin, Asian histories in this field. For many years the history of physical culture has been a history of white, male bodies. A lot of great work is being done now on other races and genders. In the future I think we’ll see more work on women from the 1900s, on black physical culture in the United States and so on. It’ll be difficult to find at times but it will certainly be worth it!

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