Sunday, July 13, 2008

Flat Back - Alan Calvert

Flat Back
by Alan Calvert (1924)
with an introduction by Mike Dietz (1945)

The pioneer teacher of weight lifting in this country was the late Alan Calvert. Early in life he had the opportunity to see Eugen Sandow in action on a number of occasions, and he became so impressed with the extraordinary physique and physical ability of this greatest of the old timers and so convinced by his writings and teachings concerning physical training that he made a life work of teaching and promoting weight training. Observing and analytical by nature, Calvert had the happy faculty of writing well upon the subject in which he was interested. Therefore the pamphlets, catalogues, advertisements, articles and later books which he wrote interested hundreds of thousands of people in weight training, the system that Calvert had found to be the best form of training. 

Calvert saw Sandow at every opportunity, not only once when he appeared in the east, but a number of repeat performances. He studied the man thoroughly, studied his system of training, and fortified with this knowledge he launched himself upon the business of selling barbells and dumbells to others after founding the Milo Barbell Company in 1902. Later he was to found Strength magazine, the first regular copies of which were issued in 1914. Calvert related to the writer personally, when he visited York, how Sandow had been his inspiration. Calvert became convinced when he read the following statement by Sandow which appeared in one of his books. “When I was a young man I was a mere stripling, and thought to strengthen my frame by a little light exercise like the working of a wooden wand or a light iron bar. This loosened all my muscles and made them pliant, but no great amount of development came from the exercises. This set me to thinking and I finally found just what exercises were best to develop various parts of the body and certain kinds of muscles. Using my knowledge with the weights I had at my command I began to gradually increase my weights, and soon found that I could easily put up a 100 pound dumbell,” and Sandow added, “the dumbell and the barbell have been my chief means of physical training.”

When considering the matchless physique of Sandow and his extraordinary feats of strength, Calvert was certain that he had found the best way. 21 years later, after devoting the best years of his life to intense promotion of weight training, to assisting in the development of many of the world’s most extraordinary physical specimens, after writing hundreds of magazine articles, and many, many thousands of letters to pupils and prospective pupils, he wrote his famous book, Super Strength. And it is interesting to note that, after the first introductory chapter, Calvert devoted his first chapter to the back. Considering that this man had more experience than any other in the world of weight training, that he was the leader, the pioneer in American weight training, it is interesting to note that he considered the back the keystone of a man’s strength, the seat of his vital power and of such great importance that it comes first in his famous book. Bob Hoffman started a series of articles on back development, but considering so many things have happened this month to take his time and not allow him to turn over his next installment by the necessary date, he suggested we use this chapter from Calvert’s book, until Bob has the opportunity to continue with the back developing articles. We have the right to do this, for some years ago when we purchased the Milo Barbell Company, we also purchased the rights to many books and periodicals at bankrupt sales. Strength magazine, Boxing and Wrestling, Correct Eating, The Strong Man, all national magazines and The Key to Might and Muscle, The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived, Physical Training Simplified, two volumes of Physical Improvement, Your Physique and Its Culture, Wrestling and Jiu Jitsu, Feats of Strength and Dexterity, The Way To Live, and a great many others in addition to Calvert’s book, Super Strength

And now to the first chapter.

The keystone of the arch of a man’s strength is the “small” of his back. A man may have wonderful arms and fair legs, but if he is weak in the loins and the lower part of the back he can never be classed as a real strong man. Gymnasts and trapeze performers frequently have wonderful arms and shoulders. Some of the vaudeville artists who specialize on Roman-ring work are noted for their arm development. Some can take hold of a swinging ring with the right hand and chin themselves several times in succession; but almost all of these men have small legs and puny hips. Lightness of weight in the lower half of the body is a positive advantage to a man who earns his living as a professional gymnast, because the smaller and lighter his legs are, the easier it is for him to do stunts on a trapeze or a pair of rings. But put that man in a big packing establishment where he would be required to carry a quarter of beef on one shoulder, or in the line of a varsity football team, and his big arm muscles would be of little good to him. I mention this because there are some physical culturists who cling to the idea that chinning the horizontal bar and dipping on the parallel bars is the kind of work which best prepares a person for weightlifting. According to my experience, it is easier to make a good lifter out of a person who has powerful legs, a strong back and but moderate arms, than a man who has big arms and poor underpinning. Most ground-tumblers could easily become high-grade strongmen, because performing such stunts as turning handsprings, cartwheels and somersaults created far more bodily strength than one can get by doing arm-stunts on the bars. I once witnessed a friendly tussle between a tumbler and a gymnast. Both men weighed about the same, the gymnast had 15-inch arms and 20-inch thighs; whereas the tumbler had 14-inch arms and 22 ½-inch thighs. When they came together the tumbler took hold of the gymnast and ran him backwards across the gym, and then upended him and stood the man on his head. The tumbler’s constant springing, leaping, bending and twisting had given him great strength in the thighs, hips and waist. And that is the kind of strength which enables a man to push against great resistance, and to keep his feet against the onslaught of a powerful resistance. 

It may surprise you to know that only a strong-backed man can lift great weights overhead. Anyone who has never used weights, upon seeing a lifter raise a barbell overhead to arm’s length in easy fashion would be apt to exclaim, “My! That chap must have strong arms!” If the lifter invited the bystander to try to push the bell aloft, here is what would probably happen: In the first place, the novice would have considerable difficulty in raising the bell from the floor to the chest, owing to a lack of strength in his back; and if he did get it to the shoulder, he might press it to arm’s length, but, as he did, his body would be bent over backwards at the waist-line, he would have to make a tremendous effort, would get red in the face and, after he lowered the bell to the ground. would likely complain that he had wrenched the small of his back.

The above is not a suppositious case. It is a thing that I have seen happen dozens of times, even when the novice at lifting was a man who had spent several months, even years, at light exercises. I have seen gymnasts with fine upper arms fail to press aloft a weight so light it would be a joke to the average lifter. In such cases, the gymnast is usually quite puzzled. He knows that his arms are as big as are the lifter’s and he thinks that he has failed because he has not acquired the “knack” of lifting; whereas, the reason for his failure is merely lack of back strength. Here is one thing that you, who read this book, must get firmly fixed in your mind. When a man is standing on his feet he positively cannot exert the full strength of his arms unless the strength of his back and legs is in proportion to the strength of his arms. I do not mean that the back must be just as strong as the arms, but that it must be many times stronger.

I understand that in many college “strength tests” when they wish to get a record of a student’s back strength, they pout a leather collar around his neck, have him stand with legs straight, lean forward from the hips, and then attempt to bring his body to the upright position. The collar referred to is a loop of strap attached to a chain, which in turn is attached to some spring registering device. After this test is completed the student is told to stand with his body upright, his legs slightly bent, and then to endeavor to straighten the legs so as to get a register of his leg-strength. 

I find that it is almost impossible to disassociate the strength of the legs and back. In the back test referred to above it might seem to you that, in the act of bringing the body to the upright position, the student would use only his back muscles; but, as a matter of fact, he also uses most of the muscles of the haunches and those on the back of the thighs. When you stand with the legs stiff and straight and bend the body over, the hips are the joint which forms the hinge. Supposing you wished to hang a very heavy door. You would naturally buy a pair of heavy hinges, but, of course, the leaf of the hinge which fastened to the door would be no thicker nor heavier than the leaf which fastened to the doorframe. You would not think of picking out a pair of hinges with leaves of different thickness. Even if the leaf which fastened to the door were a quarter of an inch thick, you would know that the hinge would be no good if the leaf which fastened to the doorframe was made of tine and only one-sixteenth of an inch thick. When you lean over in the manner described and pull against a registering machine, or pick up a heavy weight, your back corresponds to that part of the hinge which is fastened to the door, and your legs to that part which is fastened to the doorframe. Therefore, unless his legs are powerfully developed, no man can show a high mark in a test of back strength. In fact, as we go along, you will become more and more impressed with this interdependence of the muscles. You will find that in any feat of super-strength the athlete who accomplishes it uses as many muscles as possible. The reason that so many strength records were made, and are held, by men who have practiced with is due the fact that when a man uses weights he is practically compelled to use his muscles in interlocking groups.

In this chapter, when I refer to the back, I particularly mean the muscles in the back which control the action of the spine. On either side of the spine there are long muscles which run all the way from the base of the skull to the hips, and these muscles are called the erector spinae. That is, the muscles which straighten or erect the spine. In the lower half of the back these muscles are plainly visible, and when fully developed they appear like two ship’s cables. If you wish to gauge the strength of a man’s back don’t look at his shoulders, but at the small of his back, his loins, his haunches and the back of his thighs.
If you were to embark on a program of exercise to improve your body, and if you happened to select some system of light exercise, you would find that there were a great many of these exercises in which you held moderate weights in each hand and motions to increase the development of the arms, shoulders and muscles on the upper part of the trunk. You would get comparatively few exercises for the lower part of the back and for the legs; and it is likely that you would be told that merely bending and doing other movements which compelled you to raise the weight of your own body would be sufficient to develop the back muscles sufficiently.

This is very far from being true. The lower back muscles are prodigiously powerful when fully developed, and it takes more than raising the weight of your own body or a light barbell to bring out and develop that power. the simplest of all exercises for developing the muscles which control the spine is the one in which you stand with the legs stiff and straight and bend the body over by arching the spine and touch the floor with the tips of your fingers. When you bend over, all you do is to stretch the muscles along the spine and the back of the legs. It is contraction, and not stretching, which develops muscles, so that these muscles do their real work as your body is raised again to the upright position. Yet nine men out of ten think the important part of the exercise is bending over. (In fact, most people use this exercise to reduce the size of the abdomen). In order to get even minimal development of the back it would be necessary to repeat the exercise several hundred times in succession; whereas, if you put a further tax on the back muscles by holding a weight in your hands, you can develop back muscles of much greater strength, size and quality.

The proper way to perform this exercise is shown in the corresponding photo. The beginner of average size should use 20 or 30 pounds, and after he can use that amount of weight without perceptible exertion should add more, gradually working up to about 75 pounds. A big man can safely start with 40 or 50 pounds and can go as high as 100 pounds as an exercising weight. This is not a lift or a feat of strength; neither is it the best way to raise heavy weights from the ground. It is just an exercise, but by keeping the legs stiff and straight and doing all the bending by arching the spine, you can get a remarkably strong set of erector-spinae muscles. To those of you who have never had a weight in your hands the idea of “exercising” with a 100-pound weight in your hands seems almost fantastic. That is just because you have not even the faintest conception of the possibilities of your own body. To do this exercise with 25 or 30 pounds is no harder than carrying a scuttle of coal up one flight of stairs, and most of you can do that without trouble. Continued practice of the foregoing movement for a few weeks will so develop the back muscles that you can then use 80 or 100 pounds with no more exertion than was necessary when you were at first using 30 pounds. Furthermore, you will find that when you use 100 pounds this exercise will have the most surprising effect on the way you walk. Where you had formerly gone upstairs one step at a time, you would now find yourself going up tow or three steps at a time, just for the pure joy of it; and if you could stand between the big triplicate mirrors at a tailor’s shop you would fink that, along the small of the back, you had two cables of muscle newly developed.

In some systems of exercise, instead of merely bending over and touching the floor with fingertips, you are told to stand stiff-legged with the feet spread apart, and then to take a light dumbell in each hand, bend forward, swing the bells backwards between the legs, and then swing them to arm’s length overhead. This is a better exercise than touching the floor, because the light bells are swung backwards at arm’s length and this movement, on account of the increase in leverage, gives fairly vigorous exercise to the back muscles, even when a pair of light bells is used. But that is still just another spine exercise. If you wish to gain strength it is absolutely necessary for you to teach your back to work in concert with the legs. Many so-called “back-lifts” are really “back and leg lifts” in which the legs do much of the work.

Every great strong man, whether amateur or professional, has had to master the secret of the “flat back,” which is one of the most vital requisites of strength. The description of the position in which a strong man uses the flat back belongs just as much in the chapter about legs as it belongs here, but we might as well have it now. The main point to be remembered is that any individual, athlete or otherwise, can deliver several times as much power when his back is flat and his spine straight, as he can when his spine is arched. This applies in practically any feat of weightlifting, or actual labor, where it is necessary to move, shift, lift or carry an article weighing several hundred pounds. When a truckman or porter wants to move or upend a square case containing, say, 1000 pounds of material, he does not stand close to it and push with bent arms and arched spine. He stands at arm’s length, rests his hands against some part of the case, keeps his arms straight and back flat and does all the pushing with his legs. In that position he is able to employ the full strength of his back. 

About the best exercise for strengthening the back and legs, and for teaching them to work together, is the one shown in the accompanying photograph. It takes considerable practice to master it; but it is worth all the trouble, because it is one of the fundamentals of super-strength. You stand with the feet about 16 inches apart and strongly braced, then take a bell and swing it backwards between the legs. As the bell goes backwards you bend your legs slightly at the knees and lean the body forward from the hips; but you must not arch the spine. In the photograph you will see that the back of the athlete is almost as flat as a board. From this position you swing the bell forward, and, as you do so, bring the body to an upright position. This will make the bell swing at arm’s length straight in front of you and at about chest height. At that exact moment you must release the bell with the right hand, grasp it with the left, and swing it back again. After each swing you must change hands and, as you bend over, you rest the free hand on the knee.

Start this exercise with 20 or 25 pounds and learn to do the movement smoothly and easily. At first, you will be inclined to fumble when you change hands. I have seen beginners try to slowly and painstakingly shift the bell from one hand to the other. The right way is to open the fingers of the lifting hand and let the bell start to fly away from you, and then to grab it with the other hand before it has had time to travel even an inch forward. After a few days’ practice you will get so that you can change the weight from one hand to the other at the top of the swing without the slightest interruption of the rhythm of the swinging movement. As soon as you have mastered the movement, commence to add weight to the bell. It will not be many weeks before you can use a 75-pound bell in this way, and not long after that before you can handle 100 pounds.

This exercise has so many beneficial effects that it should be included in the training of everyone who aspires to super-strength. It you keep your back flat there is not the slightest danger of hurting yourself. do not be so anxious to keep the back flat that you go to the other extreme and make the back hollow. The whole idea is to keep the spine as straight as possible and to do all the bending with the hips and knees.

Here are a few of the things you will gain from this exercise: You will learn to instinctively keep your back flat when making a great exertion; you will get a much firmer grip on the ground with your feet; you will learn how to “time” a heavy moving object; you will increase the gripping power of the hands and increase the development of the front part of the shoulder muscles; you will become able to jump higher and further. I know a lifter 40 years old and 220 pounds who can clear almost 11 feet in a standing broad jump. At the age of 25, when he was lifting professionally, he could jump even further, and, what is more, he could sprint 100 yards in 10 seconds flat. Incidentally, he holds two records in lifting heavy weights from the ground.

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