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Book Review: The Amazing Samson

The Amazing Samson is an autobiography written by Alexander Zass himself. As such it contains numerous stories but is quite sparse on training information.

The recently released The Mystery of the Iron Samson, while also biographical for the most part, contains more training information.

Still this book is quite good. The stories and exploits of Zass are quite entertaining.

My favorites are:

  • His strongman match against Ivan Petrov, where Zass had to pull off a iron bar wrapped around his neck before it choked him unconscious.
  • The tempered horseshoe breaking story with one of Zass’ teachers Kuratkin.
  • Bending the bars on the cage of a tiger with Nicholavski.
  • The tales of his not one, but four escapes from Prisoner of War camps during WW1

I’ve featured this video on the site before but I figured it was worth doing again, as it’s the only live footage of Zass in existence.

William Pullum

This book also includes a significant amount of it written by William A. Pullum. Pullum begins the book with a description of many strongman that came around before Zass like Sandow, Saxon, and many others. There’s some stories here that are well known, and many others that are quite unique.

And at the end of the book Pullum describes his “testing” of Zass to see that all of his feats of strength were indeed legitimate.

Zass’ Ideas and Methods of Training

Alexander ZassMuch of the training information that is in the book comes from when he was a boy. While later on training is mentioned, it’s not covered in details, as Zass had a course about to be released at the time this book was originally published.

“I used to make a practice of climbing very high trees, which first, I think, made me powerful in the arms and legs.”

Climbing trees is not often talked about, but it’s also mentioned by other’s like Saxon in his book. It’s a great way to play for kids and start that foundation. Of course, these days people would be so worried about kids falling that most parents wouldn’t allow it.

“In this book (Sandow’s) I read that if anyone wanted to become strong, it was exercise with dumb-bells that would make to body grow. But I had no dumb-bells, nor could I obtain any…I sought to get over the difficulty of not having dumb-bells to use by fixing pieces of stone to wooden sticks, with which I exercised regularly, as told to in the book. Soon my muscles began to get larger, so I fixed bigger stones on other sticks to make them larger still.”

Zass got inspired by Sandow and with his book started on consistent weight training. Dumbbells and barbells were not easy to come by in those days so he had to make do with what he could, even stealing some supplies to create his first barbell.

“I got large stones and laboriously chipped holes in them, sinking iron bars into the holes so made, securing them tightly by pouring in molten lead…With these weights, though, crude as they were, I could now do much more, I soon found. Other interesting movements became possible, and I was always practising with them whenever an opportunity arose.”

Of note is the last sentence. Zass probably didn’t have a written routine. He treated his lifting as a practice. He also didn’t have all different weights to choose from. Instead with one bar he would work to improve what he could do with it until it was easy. I think many people would actually be stronger if they didn’t have as many options as are available today.

“The names of these three Russian teachers were Krelov, Anokhin, and Demetrioff, and all agreed to teach me…For quite a long time I practised the systems of exercise that these professors taught, making great progress under their tuition, and thus securing high praise from them.”

Early in his strength training career Zass had the help of teachers. It doesn’t say much about what they taught him, but it does underscore that no one really becomes super strong by themselves.

“I commenced now to think a lot about developing great strength in my fingers. Many things I tried, all helping, some of which I will tell you. I bent thick, green twigs with my hands, these being better than dry wood, which would not bend much before it would snap. I practised this a good deal until my hands became so strong that I could bend even small boughs of trees till they broke. Also I tried lifting stones off the ground with my thumb and fingers, carrying them in my grip for some distance.”

Again Zass was creative in what he could do for training. I’ve never read anywhere else about someone using twigs and branches to strengthen their hands, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be very effective. Stones and trees were in big supply where Zass lived.

“The secret of all improvement in feats like this is gradual progress from one stage to another, the severity of the test only being increased by degrees that are hardly noticeable.”

This is a big key to strength, yet often ignored as people always like to see what their max is, and what they can accomplish. Nothing wrong with that, but for training, by making these tiny, incremental jumps, you’ll gain much more then to always be stopped at a point.

“To become as strong as I am is, truth to tell, not possible for everybody, and I am going to tell you why. In the first place, to become so strong it is necessary to have that ambition right from childhood. And everyone has not that ambition. Therefore, without it, they cannot hope to reach where I have reached…Yet the way is easily open for strength to be gained far above the average. It means patience and perseverance, and often many disappointments, for nothing really worth while is ever gained very easily. “

I like that Zass says the biggest contributor to strength is ambition, the desire for it to happen. Starting at a young age is important if you want to go really far, but that anyone can become much stronger than they currently are.

“Will-power decides what the muscles shall do, forcing them to accomplish great tasks, or allowing them to give up, according to the strength of mind displayed. If you have a strong will, you can become physically strong, there is no doubt about that.”

Not only can ambition lead you to develop your strength, but the same power is needed to exert that strength.

“Before anyone can become really strong, it is necessary that all the organs of the body should be healthy and vigorous, so that they will regularly fulfill the functions for which they have been created.”

Here he says the health is a preliminary step to strength. While I think it’s a good idea and there is some truth to it, strength can be attained without great health, though I’m sure even faster gains would be had with it. And of course, with proper strength training your health, including your organ function, should improve.

“The great secret of developing strength is to do so in a way which will store up energy instead of dissipating it, and build up the stamina as well; and the only method I know which really does this is exercise against very strong resistance.”

Here is the key difference between Zass’ system and most others like any form of weight lifting. Unfortunately here he doesn’t detail how or why his exercises store energy rather then deplete it. And of course by very strong resistance we know he means isometrics.

“The keystone of the Samson system is the development of the strength of the tendons.”

Zass isn’t the only one to focus on the tendons. Many great strongmen have, and for good reason. This too is where you must focus if you want to develop the strength of Zass or Saxon.

As usual I highly recommend you pick up this book as well as the new one about Zass. When you order The Mystery of the Iron Samson, you’ll be able to pick up The Amazing Samson at a discount as well.

In the future I look to bring you even more from Alexander Zass as he is one of my favorites among the oldtime strongmen.

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