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Strength History: Performance vs Training

By: Barbell Logic Team

Performance on the stage for the Vaudeville performer was an expression of the performer’s capabilities in which he or she set and determined all the variables: The feat to be performed the load used, and the method of demonstrating strength. The goal for any performer was the most awe-inspiring possible demonstration of physical capacity. As Calvert noted the part of the public that attended the theaters “has very little interest in barbell and dumbbell training.” They want to be entertained.

Strength History: Alan Calvert and the Difference Between Performance and Training

The oldtime strongmen of the early 1900s would use a particular type of lift to discourage amateur upstarts. To perform this lift, the lifter would hoist a weight to shoulder height holding it in one hand. He would stand with his feet about shoulder-width apart with the arm supporting the weight fully bent and braced against the shoulder and body. He would then bend to the side and forward slightly, away from the weight. As he bent, he would unkink the lifting arm. The other arm would act as a support, bracing against his thigh, providing braking power to help control his bodily movement, using the bone structure of his arm and legs to help support the load that he was gradually pressing away from his body. The shoulder of his supporting arm would travel downward in a corkscrewing motion, keeping braced on his leg the entire time, giving this lift one of its names, the “screw press.” Once he had fully extended the arm holding the weight, the lifter would finish the bent press, with his arm locked straight, by then standing upright holding the weight directly overhead.

This lift, better known as the bent press, is a great example of how strength performers have used particular techniques to make their already impressive strength seem even more so for audience consumption. In a well-executed bent press, the weight in the hand would not actually change its vertical position during the entire bending over the phase of the lift. The lifter would, essentially, push his body downward, keeping the weight supported against his body for as long as possible, using first his bodily orientation to support the load, then standing up with it using his entire body with his arms locked out overhead. As anyone who has pressed a weight overhead knows, it is much easier to support the load overhead with locked out elbows than it is to press it there.

The bent press is a high-skill movement. The manner of positioning the body allows the lifter to press his body down rather than pressing the weight up single-handedly. And when the lifter does stand upright it is with the use of his entire body. This makes the lift look like a feat of upper body strength but is actually one that involves the whole body. With this technique, a good bent presser could lift significantly more weight than he could with a strict (two-handed) press overhead. Eugen Sandow once bent pressed 271 pounds, and another strength performer, Arthur Saxon was said to have lifted 371 pounds in the bent press. And, while these performers competed against each other in these types of feats, the only purpose to them was to entertain.

Feats like the bent press and personalities like Sandow’s were the means by which average joes became familiar with strength training. This posed a problem for some proponents of lifting for strength and health. It is the same problem often faced by coaches todaythe difference between performance and training. Do the two ever mimic each other? Is there value in performance if your only goal is to get stronger?

Alan Calvert and “Super Strength”

Fortunately, there was at least one man who set out to standardize much of the Vaudeville image of the strength performer. He argued for progressive training of the basic exercises and pioneered strength training as utilizing the barbell as the optimal tool (indeed he invented the loadable barbell as we know it). In this manner, he was a direct precursor to Mark Rippetoe and Starting Strength, and his reasoned responses to the strength performers echoes the logic and reason of the Matt Reynolds and Scott Hambrick in the Barbell Logic Podcast. Alan Calvert, the inventor of the most useful training apparatus ever invented, wrote a book titled “Super Strength,” that sought to clarify the relationship between strength training and strength performance. He wrote:

That part of the public which patronizes the theaters has very little interest in bar-bell 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 bar-bells, they lift and support enormous quantities of live and dead weight. They try to make their acts spectacular. [1]

Calvert discussed how he received many letters from 40+-year-olds who wanted to get stronger and believed in the use of the loadable barbell, but who 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. (“If I use a bar-bell, 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?”).

Invariably, I tell the writers of those letters that a man who uses a bar-bell 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. [1]

This is an important distinction. Performance on the Vaudeville or circus stage was an expression of the performer’s capabilities in which he or she set and determined all the variables: The feat to be performed, the load used, and the method of demonstrating strength. The goal for any performer was the most awe-inspiring demonstration of physical capacity possible.

In another famous stunt, the performer would assume a bridge position and would have planks placed across his knees and shoulders. In this position, the performer could support prodigious loads, often using anything from trained horses to automobiles. Calvert said of this feat:

I saw Sandow do this stunt with three horses on the plank and I have seen other men support automobiles. What the record is I don’t know; but I have seen a 125-lb woman support 2000 lbs. In this “human-bridge” position, and I believe that any amateur bar-bell user, after a few months’ experience, could support over 3000 lbs. [1]

The takeaway for the wannabe strength lifter should be that these performers were exceptionally strong and exceptionally skilled at their acts.

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 bar-bells for the purpose of improving their bodies.

….

The professional “Strong Man” is an adept at this kind of work. He is the very last word in combined strength and skill.[1]

Calvert didn’t disparage the performance feats of the oldtime strength performers. Rather, he wrote and worked to clarify the nature of performance as being distinct from the process of training with progressively loaded weights. He also argued for the standardization of certain lifts as a means to compare the strength of different lifters.

Calvert’s writings on the difference between strength development and strongman performances, and his detailed descriptions of how performers used special techniques, contraptions like specially built harnesses and dumbbells, and theatrically exaggerated claims, made him less-than-popular among many strength performers. However, he consistently argued for standardization, logic, and reason in training with weights, making him an important figure in strength history.

References

[1] Alan Calvert, “Super Strength” (1924).

[2] Kim Beckwith, “Weight-lifting ‘as a sport, as a means of body building, and as a profession’: Alan Calvert’s The Truth About Weight-Lifting,” (https://www.starkcenter.org/igh/igh-v10/igh-v10-n4/igh1004p22.pdf)

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