• 3 November, 2022
  • 6 mins

A to Z of The Atlas Stones

The recent Giants Live World Tour Finals, in Glasgow’s OVO Hydro Arena, was notable for its absence of the customary show finale: the Atlas Stones. Such is the regularity that strongman stones, in various forms, have featured in just about every major strongman show of the last thirty-five years, their omittance from Glasgow came as something of a shock. But what is it about these stone orbs that have made them such an iconic test of a strongman and the sport’s most enduring event? In this A to Z of the Stones (and WSM Atlas Stones), you’ll learn everything you need to know about strongman’s best-known event.

A for Albatross – WSM Atlas Stones

Arguably the finest exponent of strongman stone lifting in the sport’s history is Scotland’s Tom Stoltman, who captured his World’s Strongest Man title by defeating Brian Shaw in the Atlas Stones in Sacramento. Nicknamed The Albatross due to his impressive wingspan, Tom owns the world record for Giants Live’s “light set” of stones, completing the run in just 16.01 seconds. He also owns the record for the heaviest single stone lifted over a 4-foot bar, with an unbelievable 286kg/631lb lift.

B for Brian Shaw

Titles have so often been won or lost on the stones in the most dramatic fashion. Brian Shaw won his first World’s Strongest Man title in 2011, coming into the final event tied with Zydrunas Savickas. His blistering run gave him the victory over his great adversary. He repeated that same feat in 2013, in Sanya, pipping Savickas by just fractions of a second.

Brian is considered to be one of the best stone lifters of all time, making tremendous use of his huge frame and massive static strength. In 2017, at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus Ohio, Brian raised the single heaviest Atlas Stone in history at that time when he lifted a 254kg/560lb stone over a 4-foot bar.

C for Castle Stones

Since 2020, at Giants Live events, the Atlas Stones have come to be known as the Castle Stones following their sponsorship by Castle Water. There are two sets: the “heavy set,” which comprises five stones ranging from 120kg/265lb, 140kg/309lb, 160kg/353lb, 180kg/397lb and 200kg/441lb. The “light set” also has five stones from 100kg/220lb up to 180kg/397lb.

D for Derek Poundstone

Arguably the strongest man to have never won the World’s Strongest Man, USA’s Derek Poundstone came agonisingly close to lifting the World title in Sanya, China, in 2008. In the final Atlas Stones event, needing to win to take the overall victory and leading his arch-rival Mariusz Pudzianowski of Poland as he attempted to load his final stone, Derek’s stone slipped off the lip of the plinth, just as it appeared it had been successfully loaded and fell agonisingly to the ground, handing Pudzianowski an unprecedented fifth title. Poundstone’s pain was palpable, and he would never get a better chance of winning WSM again.

E for Elevation

One of the most controversial and challenging aspects of the strongman stones, especially for some of the more vertically challenged athletes, is the height of the platforms they are loaded onto. Athletes who stand well clear of 2.00m/6’ 6”, such as Tom Stoltman or Brian Shaw enjoy a distinct advantage when loading the lighter stones, in particular, as the platform heights are greater. Shorter athletes are forced to lift the implement well above chest height in order to reach 6-foot plinths and have, on occasion, had to press the stone overhead in order to reach the platform.

F for Fullsterkur

The roots of strongman stone lifting lie to a great extent in the Icelandic tradition of lifting stones or steintökin, where men would need to prove their strength to qualify for work onboard fishing boats. Perhaps the best-known stone is the Húsafell stone, which has featured in World’s Strongest Man on numerous occasions. Somewhat lesser known are the Dritvik stones, which include four stones of ascending weight that lay on a beach in Djúpalónssandur in western Iceland and need to be lifted to hip height onto a ledge. The ability to lift the heaviest stone, known as Fullsterkur, or “full strength,” at 154kg/340lb, would qualify the fisherman for better pay. The other four stones are Hálfsterkur or “half strength” at 100kg/220lb, Hálfdrættingur or “weakling” at 54kg/119lb and lastly the Amlóöi or “useless” stone, at just 23kg/51lb.

G for Girth

As well as having to contend with the weight of the stones, strongmen and women must also get to grips with their circumference and diameter. Sizes vary according to the construction and density of the material used; some stones are carved from granite, others are made with concrete, with inserts that can alter the total weight. The lighter stones (100kg/220lb – 120kg/265lb) of most standard men’s five stone sets will have a diameter of around 20” or 51cm. Heavier stones of around 200kg/440lb may reach 22” or 23” (56-58cm). The diameter of the manhood stones at the Arnold Classic was 21”/53.5cm.

H for Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson

Another man who could lay claim to being the world’s greatest stone lifter is the 2018 World’s Strongest Man winner, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, of Iceland. The winner of countless Atlas Stone events, “The Mountain” is also the world record holder for the Giants Live “Heavy Set” of stones, ranging from 120kg/265lb to 200kg/441lb.

In the final event of the 2017 Europe’s Strongest Man contest, at Leeds First Direct Arena, Hafþór was paired against arch-rival Eddie Hall. Needing to beat Hall to secure victory Björnsson loaded all five stones in a blistering 17.54 seconds – a time that has not been approached since.

I for Inver Stone

As well as having Icelandic roots, “manhood stones” known as Clach cuid fir have been used as tests of strength in Scotland for centuries, where a young man would prove his strength by lifting his clan’s stone to waist height. Among the many notable stones across Scotland, including the famous Dinnie Stones that have been used in strongman competition, is the Inver Stone, which is one of the most famous in the world and was key in inspiring the McGlashen Stones, that would later become the Atlas Stones.

Weighing 118kg/260lb, despite the 265lb engraving, it’s history dates back to the early 1700’s where it was used as a lifting stone. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, it was relocated to the Inver Inn where it was temporarily used as a weight measure, before it returned to the lifting stone status it still holds. It has been lifted by many enthusiasts and famous strongmen over the years and is even pressed overhead, notably by Bill Kazmaier in the 1980’s, where he was rumoured to have carried it to the bar of the Inver Inn, although this may be a myth.

J for Jón Páll Sigmarsson

Perhaps the best-known strongman of all-time, Jón Páll was an accomplished stone lifter, holding the world record in the McGlashen Stones and becoming the first man in history to load a 150kg/331lb stone, without tacky. He also won the first ever McGlashen Stone event at the 1986 World’s Strongest Man. Sigmarsson, perhaps more than any other strongman, is responsible for the rise in popularity of strongman, and Atlas Stone Lifting. His showmanship and charisma, not to mention his tremendous athleticism and strength, ensured the sports’ public appeal and paved the way for the growth the sport currently enjoys.

K for Kieliszkowski

Though it wasn’t performed with an actual Atlas Stone, the Polish competitor Mateusz Kielizkowski made one of the most impressive feats of stone lifting in history at the 2019 Arnold Strongman Classic. In the Stone to Shoulder event, he managed to lift Odd Haugen’s Tombstone, weighing 186kg/410lb onto his shoulder five times in the 150 seconds allotted. The next best competitor, Martins Licis, managed just two successful lifts, and only four men completed a single attempt with the odd-shaped, smooth stone. The incredible Pole has also shouldered a 217kg/478lb stone in training.

In Giants Live competition, Mateusz was the former world record holder for the “Light Set” of the Atlas Stones. At the 2018 World Tour Finals contest in Manchester, he completed the run in just 16.09 seconds.

L for Last Man Standing

An earlier version of the stone-off from World’s Strongest Man was the “Last Man Standing” event used in 2017, where the four athletes placed second to fifth from the heat battled it out for the final qualification spot for the final. The fifth and fourth placed strongman would lift a stone alternately until one man dropped out, at which point the third placed athlete would join the fray, and finally the second placed. The second placed athlete would carry the advantage by virtue of joining the action when the other competitors were more fatigued.  The previous year, strongman stones were allocated double points as the final event in the heats.

M for McGlashen

The World’s Strongest Man Atlas Stones have served as the contest’s climax on most occasions since their introduction in the 1986 event in Nice, France. Known back then as the McGlashen Stones, they were the brainchild of Dr Douglas Edmunds, though he had certainly been influenced by traditional Scottish testing stones. The set of stones he commissioned became known as the Atlas Stones at the 1998 World’s Strongest Man competition, held in Tangier, Morocco, and were named after the Greek titan Atlas, who was condemned by Zeus to hold the earth on his shoulders for eternity.

N for Nummisto

In the 1986 World’s Strongest Man contest, held that year in Nice, France, Ilkka Nummisto, a 42-year-old Finn, who was a four-time Olympic sprint canoeist, became the first man to complete the Stones of Strength five stone run at World’s Strongest Man. The event was inaugurated at this contest and was eventually won by that year’s champion, Jón Páll Sigmarsson who’s time eclipsed that of the only other man to finish all five stones, Geoff Capes. The final stone weighed in at 140kg/308lb and no tacky was allowed.

O for One-Motion

In order to increase the speed by which a stone can be raised from the floor and placed on the plinth, the one-motion technique involves the athlete lifting the stone in one fluid movement from ground to platform height, rather than “lapping” the stone, by resting on the thighs before re-gripping to finish the movement. This requires enormous strength and explosivity and is generally only performed on lighter stones, except by the elite stone lifters who are capable of performing this move with stones at or in excess of 200k/441lb.

P for Pfister

In one of the most memorable strongman Atlas Stone showdowns in World’s Strongest Man history, in Sanya, China 2006, USA’s Phil Pfister trailed defending champion, Mariusz Pudzianowski by just half a point, meaning the winner of the strongman stones would take the WSM title. Five years earlier in Victoria Falls, Zambia, Pfister had made a verbal promise that he would one day become World’s Strongest Man.

In slightly wet conditions, their stone run was neck-and-neck, although Pudzianowski was first to load the fourth and lap the fifth stone. However, Pfister was somehow able to load the final stone fractionally ahead of the Pole, who realising he had lost, let his stone roll off the plinth as Pfister roared his celebration. In taking the title he became the first American since Bill Kazmaier in 1982 to win the trophy.

Q for Quintessential

“There’s no other way to finish a strongman show,” has so often been the opening line of Giants Live’s co-owner and presenter, Colin Bryce, as he performs his customary pre-event link to the cameras. The stones are perhaps the event most synonymous with strongman and the one discipline that has remained a constant as others have moved in and out of prominence. They could be described as the quintessential strongman event.

The sport of strongman has always tried to separate itself from weightlifting or powerlifting through its incorporation of unique and colourful events. The stones by their very nature are as far removed from regular weightlifting as is possible, with no bar to grip or weights to load. They link the sport to the more ancient roots of strength culture and stone lifting which dates back thousands of years. Perhaps this is why they resonate so much with fans of the sport.

R for Rogue

The Rogue Record Breakers event at the Arnold Classic Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, has provided a stage for several of the world’s greatest stone lifters to set world records in the Manhood Stone Over Bar discipline, which is essentially a single Atlas Stone lifted over a four-foot bar. This event was first featured in 2007, where stones weighing 220kg/485lb and 237kg/522lb were used. In 2010 Derek Poundstone and Brian Shaw both lifted a 242kg/534lb stone for three repetitions. In 2016 Shaw lifted a 252kg/556lb stone and then the following year 254kg/560lb. The record was then increased to 273kg/602lb by Scotland’s Tom Stoltman in 2020.

S for Stone-off

One of the more recent incarnations of strongman Atlas Stone lifting has been the “Stone-off” which has concluded the World’s Strongest Man heats since 2018. The second and third placed athletes of each heat must lift a stone alternately until one of the athletes cannot continue. It is a gruelling test of strength endurance and has caused much controversy, since several athletes placed comfortably in second have had their qualification place overturned by a superior stone lifter. The obvious question for such competitors is why should stone lifting ability be given greater significance than other events?

T for Tacky

The use of tacky pine resin in stone lifting is a relatively recent addition that has allowed for much faster and exciting competitions as well as much heavier stones to be lifted. Athletes coat their hands and forearms in this sticky substance, enormously improving their grip on the orb’s smooth round surface.

The preparation and use of tacky has in fact become something of a fine art, with different mixtures performing better in different temperatures and humidity – vitally important in a sport where the world championship is often held in exotic and often tropical locations. A few percent better purchase on the stones can make a huge difference to an athlete’s time and has often proved the difference between defeat and victory.

U for unlikely

In a turn of events that was unique to even seasoned strongman fans, Luke Stoltman, the older brother of Tom Stoltman, the 2021 and 2022 World’s Strongest Man, profited from an unlikely mishap to be gifted the 2021 Giants Live World Tour Final trophy at Glasgow’s OVO Hydro Arena in 2021. Trailing his younger brother and the USA’s Evan ”T-Rex” Singleton going into the final event – the Castle Stones – Luke posted a decent run, but fully expected the final pairing to beat his time and keep him in third position. Amazingly, both athletes almost simultaneously dropped their fourth stone off the plinth, only for the stones to fall, knocking their fifth stones away from the platform. The pair were forced to re-load the fourth stone, then retrieve the fifth stone before finishing the run. This knocked them both sufficiently down the standings to hand victory to Luke in front of his home crowd.

V for Variations

Over the years organisers of strongman contests have sought many ways to incorporate the Atlas Stones into their competitions. The traditional five or six stone run is most common, with stones of ascending weight loaded in turn onto barrels, plinths, or platforms. Single stone lifting over a four-foot bar, for maximum weight is less common, and often performed more as a record-breaking exhibition type event. Stone to shoulder, though most often carried out with a rough, natural stone is a further variation that has appeared in World Strongest Man finals. Dyed in the wool fans may recall László Fekete’s wayward stone, in the 1989 San Sebastián final, rolling onto the bare foot of Ab Wolder’s helper, the late Jim Pollock.

Yet another version is the overhead stone press, such as used in the 2020 Europe’s Strongest Man contest in Allerton Castle, Yorkshire. This lift is fraught with danger, as was seen when Estonia’s Ervine Toots let the stone fall back onto his head.

W for Women’s World Record

The heaviest single stone lifted by a female athlete weighed in at 171kg/377lb and was lifted over a 48-inch bar by Britain’s Donna Moore in 2020 during the third season of the WUS Feats of Strength World Record series. In completing the lift Moore added 9.5kg/21lb to her own world record.

Donna also holds the world record for the heaviest single stone lifted without the use of tacky, at 147.5kg/325lb. It’s little wonder she’s known as the “Queen of the Stones.“

X for X-Rated!

Many a final stone has fallen agonisingly short of its platform, with the athlete bent backwards as the stone is poised, balanced on the lip. Audiences know only too well what can go wrong. A falling 200kg/441lb stone can cause a lot of damage; many biceps tendons have been ripped from the bone and falling stones have caused a multitude of injuries over the years. Sheffield’s Phil Roberts sustained a completely broken shin at the 2019 Britain’s Strongest Man after he cramped up mid-lift, causing the stone he was holding to fall onto his lower leg.

Y for Yarn

The ancient practice of stone lifting is unsurprisingly full of a few yarns, myths, or legends, some of which seem hard to credit, others more believable. Donald Dinnie, the Scottish sporting superstar of the nineteenth century was reputed to have carried the 332.49kg/733lb stones across the bridge at Potarch, Aberdeenshire – a distance of 5.22m. This feat has bested some of the most successful modern strongmen in the world.

Iceland’s heaviest lifting stone, the Brynjólfstak Stone, which weighs 281kg/620lb, was reportedly carried by a mighty farmer named Brynjólfur Eggertsson up a hill to a nearby ridge where it currently can be found. The stone was named in his honour.

Stone lifting can be traced back to ancient Greece and Bybon’s Stone can be found bearing the inscription: “Bybon son of Phola has lifted me over head with one hand.” The stone dates from the sixth century BC and weighs in at 143kg/315lb. Whether the inscribed claim is credible or not, it shows that stone lifting was practiced during that time and that physical strength was a revered trait.

Z is for Big Z

Zydrunas Savickas of Lithuania, the four-time World’s Strongest Man, didn’t achieve all that he did in the sport without being a phenomenal stone lifter. The man who has been called the “Strongest Man in History” won his first WSM title in Valletta, Malta, denying Mariusz Pudzianowski a sixth title by defeating him in the Atlas Stones. The following year in, in Sun City, South Africa, his third place in the strongman stones secured him a points tie with Brian Shaw and another World title, on countback.

Being the last event, victory is so often dependent on a solid performance in the strongman stones. In the 2014 WSM final in Los Angeles, Savickas was yet again forced to close out victory in the stones. Leading Hafþór Björnsson by 1.5 points he needed to beat the time set by Brian Shaw – a blistering 23.94 seconds. Savickas could not defeat the Icelander, but with 23.53 seconds, he did enough to beat Shaw and take his fourth WSM title by just half a point.