Strength History: Lifting Heavy

"I say that if I can take a man and layout for him a course of progressive exercises, which will give him a better shape and far more physical and vital energy than he had when he was twenty-one, then I do not care a particle about how many pounds he can lift."

Strength History: Lifting Heavy for Strength

Last week, professional strongman, Hafþór Björnsson (“Hafthor”) deadlifted 501 kg. (a world record, if it had been done in competition), forcing everyone who lifts weights  into a contextual scramble: how much do you deadlift compared to the heaviest weight ever lifted? For scale, a man who deadlifts half of Hafthor’s best is stronger than most trained, non-competitive lifters. The specialization of the professional strongman puts him in a different category of athletes than the majority of lifters who train for general strength, health, and fitness. Yet, people will always be fascinated and inspired by the Feat of Strength and the inevitable comparison to the squats, deadlifts, and presses done in the privacy and quiet of our home gyms and recorded only in our training logs.

Something as dramatic as a >1000 lift raises questions about the relationship between feats that are part of a performance or competition and those that are part of a routine strength training regimen: What is the difference between the demonstration of strength and the process that builds it? Do the two ever mimic each other? Is there value in performance if your only goal is to get stronger? These questions are not new ones. They go back over 100 years to circus strongmen and the original home gyms.

The late 19th to early 20th century is full of stories of circus and vaudeville strongmen and strongwomen. They delighted, inspired, and amazed in traveling shows. They published magazines and wrote about their secrets to training for strength, health, and aesthetics. But, even if the average person wanted to lift weights, finding equipment was difficult. Barbells were specialized equipment for professionals. Usually, a professional performer would have local smiths create the iconic spherical dumbbells or fixed barbells for their training and shows, but “the average man who wanted to emulate these showmen had difficulty finding weight training equipment.” (Todd 1995, no. Vol.3 No.6) 

In America, people wanted to emulate strongmen performers. In the late 1800s, there had been an explosion of home training and fitness guides in the US. In the same way that we use Amazon and online ordering today, people ordered everything from home gym equipment to houses through mail-order catalogs and magazine ads. Early training guides relied on light-weight dumbbells, calisthenics, and makeshift equipment. From William Blaikie’s 1879 “How to Get Strong and How to Stay So”:

All that people need for their daily in-door exercises is a few pieces of apparatus which are fortunately so simple and inexpensive as to be within the reach of most persons. Buy two pitchfork handles at the agricultural store. Cut off enough of one of them to leave the main piece a quarter of an inch shorter than the distance between the jams of your bedroom door, and square the ends. On each of these jambs fasten two stout hard-wood cleats, so slotted that the squared ends of the bar shall fit in snugly enough not to turn. Let the two lower cleats be directly opposite each other, and about as high as your shoulder; the other two also opposite each other, and high above the head as you can comfortably reach.” (Blaikie 1879)

Here Blaikie gives us the beginnings of the instructions for parallel bars and a pulley-weight system. It’s better than nothing, but there was a problem with light-weight training—one solved by Alan Calvert. 

The lone lifter owes much to Alan Calvert and his Milo Barbell Company. As a boy, Calvert bought popular training books like William Blaikie’s, having become interested in his own physical development from circus and vaudevillian performers. He was dissatisfied with the results. As written about in Iron Game History, the light-weight training that was most popular at the time “left him vaguely dissatisfied. He wasn’t really muscular. He wasn’t truly strong.” (Beckwith and Todd 2005) Calvert would have seen the man who epitomized both a muscular physique and strength at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. What was different about Eugen Sandow that he was able to build such impressive muscle mass and demonstrate incredible feats of strength? Perhaps connecting Sandow’s strength and physique to the heavy weights he lifted both on the stage and in training, Calvert eventually solved the home gym equipment problem. (Id.) Calvert created shot-loaded and plate-loadable barbells, kettlebells, and other home strength training equipment. He published “Strength” America’s First Muscle Magazine and sold his equipment via mail-order. Advertisements for the Milo Barbell company would note that they allowed you to use the same training protocols that “Made all ‘Strong Men’ strong.”

Eugen Sandow. (Public Domain)

Despite this marketing, Calvert was a proponent of the everyman strength lifter. About the tension between performers and regular lifters, he wrote:

That part of the public which patronizes the theaters has very little interest in barbell and dumbbell lifting. They enjoy seeing “Strong acts”; but their preference is for marvelous and seemingly miraculous feats of strength. Therefore, professional lifters cater to the taste of their audiences. Instead of lifting barbells, they lift and support enormous quantities of live and dead weight. They try to make their acts spectacular.(Calvert 2012)

Calvert wrote about the letters he would receive from 40+ year old’s who wanted to get stronger. They believed in the use of the loadable barbell but were confused as to whether the type of lifting they would need to do would need to mimic the feats they had seen on stage or read about newspapers and magazines.

If I use a barbell, is it necessary for me to do the muscle-racking stunts that I have seen on the professional stage, and will I be compelled to use tremendously heavy weights?

Calvert would respond:

Invariably, I tell the writers of those letters that a man who uses a barbell does not have to do any sensational lifting stunts in order to become either beautifully proportioned, very strong, or very healthy. Many of the writers of such letters are middle-aged men; and why should a man of forty try to become a record-breaking lifter? If I answer such letters, I say that if I can take a man and layout for him a course of progressive exercises, which will give him a better shape and far more physical and vital energy than he had when he was twenty-one, then I do not care a particle about how many pounds he can lift.” (Id.)

Today, when lifting pops into the general media, the emphasis tends to be on certain voyeuristic ideals of strength and fitness. Everything from the Hafthor’s earth-shaking 501kg deadlift to the fitness-influencer to the bodybuilding scene represents some kind of performance. The professional strongman athlete is perhaps one of the cultural descendants of the circus strongman. Bodybuilding is somewhat the same, a performance of muscular aesthetics equally inaccessible and equally intriguing for the sheer rarity of it in our daily experience. Neither genre has completely shed its sideshow roots. Both delight or amaze because they are not part of our regular experience, both may inspire us to lift, eat, and train a certain way, but neither mimics the day-to-day work that it takes to train for general strength.

Fortunately, there are more and more people who value strength training for its intrinsic benefits—the way Alan Calvert seems to have preferred. We follow in Calvert’s footsteps to encourage people to train for themselves with an equal amount of reverence for this simple act and affinity for sticking to what is simple, hard, and effective.

Performances are fun and inspiring. They are what you see, but the unseen work of building strength is where our focus lies, in the strength of what we do:

The exhibition stunts you see performed by professional “Strong Men” have very little to do with the creation of strength. The professional does his training before he gets on the stage. For every one professional who does exhibition work, there are a thousand men and boys who use adjustable barbells for the purpose of improving their bodies. (Id.)

References

Beckwith, Kimberly, and Jan Todd. 2005. “Strength, America’s First Muscle Magazine: 1914-1935.” Iron Game History 9 (1). https://www.academia.edu/3009307/Strength_Americas_First_Muscle_Magazine_1914-1935.

Blaikie, William. 1879. How to Get Strong and How to Stay So.

Calvert, Alan. 2012. Super Strength. Createspace Independent Pub. (Originally published 1924).

Todd, Jan. 1995. “From Milo to Milo.” Iron Game History 3 (6). https://www.starkcenter.org/igh/igh-v3/igh-v3-n6/igh0306c.pdf.

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