Monday, October 12, 2009

Hermann Goerner - Charles A. Smith

Hermann Goerner: A Man of Super Power
by Charles A. Smith (1986)

If I told you Hermann Goerner was strong, I would be guilty of a monumental understatement, the same as saying that the Crab Nebula is just down the road apiece and light travels rapidly. The aforesaid nebula is 5,000 light years away from Earth, and since light travels at 186,000 miles a second, you’d have some idea of the vastness of the Cosmos, and by inference the immensity of Hermann Goerner’s might.

When he reached his prime, around 1920, the world had never seen a man as powerful as the giant German Hermann. His was a special strength, an all-round body power that few, if any, of our modern strength athletes could equal, let alone top. He could exhibit his muscular might in a score of ways. Today’s strength men use, in powerlifting competition, there lifts – the Olympic men use two. These are hardly standards to warrant their claims of being the strongest men in the world. So to whet your appetite, and before I get into the meat of this article, let me give you a few instances of what Goerner did and you may judge for yourself just how strong he was.

No one has ever deadlifted – WITH ONE HAND – as much as Goerner. His right hand deadlift, performed on an international revolving bar, with hook grip, was 727¼ lbs. The strength historian, David Willoughby, considered this to be the greatest documented feat of bodily power ever performed. Goerner also did a one hand deadlift of 734 with a block of sandstone. His best two hands deadlift was 793¼, again using an international revolving bar, a hook grip and with the knuckles of the hands facing forward.

Then there’s his feat of sitting on a chair, taking hold of two 100 lb. dumbells and swinging them, with straight arms, to arms’ length overhead. And there was his feat of sitting on a chair, bending forward and pressing a 220¼ lb. steel ball between his hands, lifting it up to a shelf two feet above his head, letting it rest there, then taking it down and putting back on the floor again. All with the pressure of his hands, arms and shoulder muscles. Try it some time. That his one hand deadlift record still remains unbroken after more than half a century, a record made without any of the chemical muck that some of today’s athletes stuff themselves with, is a testament to his uniqueness. So think over the feats I’ve mentioned. Try to imagine what power of arm, hand, shoulder and body they took, and wonder at Goerner’s power. And remember that many of his feats of strength were done before judges so strict as to cause many modern lifters to sob into their steroids.

I knew Goerner, saw him perform, and the experience has remained with me over the 58 years that have passed. The time was 1927 and I a mere 15 years of age and into competition swimming. I’d won a few school and district championships and had hopes of making the British National Team. I also had an idea that lifting weights would help me reduce my 220 and 240 times, and said so to my coach, who hit the roof and asked me if I was determined to ruin myself. He said lifting would slow me down, make me muscle-bound – all those old shibboleths that were once used to mock weightlifting. But with the obstinacy of youth, I followed my star and, living at the time in London, England, paid the Camberwell Weightlifting Club a visit.

The club was run at the time by the immortal Bill Pullum, and on entering the gym I saw at the far end of the gym a cambered bar with an enormous amount of plates on it, and standing over the bar a man so broad who, despite the fact that he was more than six feet tall, appeared short. Muscular wasn’t the word to describe him. He made the Farnese Hercules look like a 97 lb. weakling. His breadth of chest, muscularity of lats and traps gave him the appearance of an inverted triangle.

Standing nearby and watching him was Bill Pullum and a solemn-faced young man around thirty years of age who was accompanied by an extremely pretty French girl, whose presence in the gym had the lads there bug-eyed, hyperventilating and bedewed of brow. The solemn-faced young man was Jean Paul Getty, who was in England at the time buying up a string of gas stations and who later was known as the world’s wealthiest man.

I heard him ask Pullum, “What’s on the bar, Bill?’ and Pullum told him “Six hundred. Hermann’s just done a one hand deadlift with it.’ Said Getty, with one side of his mouth raised askance, “Let’s see him do it again.” Whereat Goerner replied in fractured English, “Too tired. Come tomorrow. Do it then.” And Getty answered, “I’ll be here and you’ve got a hundred bucks if you do it and Bill passes it.” I was back at the gym the next night when Goerner lifted, Pullum passed and Getty paid. Weight of the right hand deadlift 602½. And as I’ve said, this was back in 1927 with NO STEROIDS. I left the club that night amazed, my mouth opening and closing like a song-singing gold fish. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. I’ve never forgotten my one and only meeting with Hermann Goerner.

I’m not one for citing measurements, believing that it is performance that counts, but I can’t resist the temptation here. I’m quoting from memory, but for complete accuracy there’s a book written about Goerner by his friend, Edgar Mueller, and if you know anyone who has a copy, do one of three things: beg, borrow or buy it from the owner.

Mueller put the tape round Goerner when the latter was 43 years of age in 1934 and past his muscular prime. Height 72½ inches. Weight 290. Relaxed shoulder circumference 59 inches. Shoulder breadth 24 inches. Chest normal 51 inches. right biceps contracted 19 inches. Wrist 9 inches. Forearm, straight, 15¾ inches.

Some of his strength feats approach the realm of the impossible. Take for example his going up and down “The Chain” or “Die Kette” as is its German name. Many German gyms were not only places where you went to improve strength, health and muscularity. They were also social centers, places where friends met, where you took your wife or girlfriend. They were, at the turn of the century and well into the 1920’s attached to a beer garden or close to one. The gym space was large, a platform at one end with an International Type bar, and the usual assortment of glove barbells, kettleballs and solid dumbells of various weights.
Around the four walls of the gym were benches, and above them the shelves where you kept your personal beer stein. In Goerner’s gym, running up the side of one of the walls was the “Chain,” a rack with solid kettleballs resting in its notches. These ranged in weight from 13 kilos, or 28 lbs., to 52.5 kilos, or 115 lbs., with jumps of 5 to 10 lbs. The trick was to see how far you could “go up the chain,” swinging, pressing, curling, then pressing again each kettleball – using alternate hands as you went up. Only Goerner could go the length of the rack from the lightest to the heaviest. This was his regular warmup.

It must be remembered that Hermann lifted weights in dozens of different ways, and that some of his feats don’t appear to be remarkable by modern standards because he didn’t attempt to specialize in any particular lift. Not much of a presser he nevertheless did a right hand military press of 137½ lbs. But his right hand snatch of 229¼ lbs. allows us to see how powerful he really was, since it was done as a power snatch and since only a few years ago the most Alexeyev could power snatch with one hand was 220. Goerner also did a right hand power clean & jerk with 264¼ lbs., and a two hands push press from behind the neck of 411 lbs. This feat was performed on a stiff bar, with Hermann dressed in street clothes with two men sitting at the bar ends in a thing the Germans called a Sitz- Apparatus. And, after jerking the men and bar overhead, Herman made three complete turns before lowering the weight to his shoulders. He also power cleaned 390¼ lbs., then jerked it overhead with only a slight bend of the knees, and he did a one hand clean with 297. Remember, this was back in the 1920’s.

Another of what he called his “special ways” of lifting was curling, then pressing, a bar weighing 209¼ lbs. while seated on the floor. While seated, the bar was placed across his thighs, curled from there, then, without altering the grip, pressed to arms’ length overhead. His best two hands curl was 242¼ lbs. Body strictly erect, upper arms tight against the sides of his body and with only a slight backward bend of his trunk.

His best deadlift, rather unorthodox insofar as the makeup of the weight lifted was concerned, was 830 lbs., done in the following manner. Goerner took a bar weighing 441, had two men stand, one on each end of the bar, then deadlifted it to full competition height and held it for several seconds. He was 42 years old.

John Dawe, famous International referee and a friend of Hermann’s for several years, learned from the German many things about his personal lifting history; and Dawe remarked in a letter to me that though many of Goerner’s strength feats have been chronicled in Edgar Mueller’s biography, it would take a mighty thick volume to record the thousands of lifts performed by Goerner during his long career.

Consider the following manifestations of power and ask yourself how many of our modern strength athletes could duplicate them. He CARRIED and WALKED with four men hanging on a bar on his right shoulder – not across his back but across the shoulder itself. Total weight 1100 POUNDS.

As a performer for Pagel’s Circus in South Africa he danced with an elephant, its front legs resting on his shoulders. At the start of the circus tour the elephant weighed 700 lbs. By the end of the tour the animal scaled 1500, but there Hermann was, dancing with it as easily as at the beginning.

Another of his amazing feats was to stand upright, a ramp running from before him, over his shoulders and down behind him. A motor car was then driven up the ramp, over Goerner’s head and down behind. Total weight supported, in a standing upright position, 4000 lbs.

While in England in 1927 he supported on his feet, while lying on his back, a plank with 24 men on it – total weight 4100 lbs. Neither of these feats has been matched.

Another supporting feat he performed led to a little trouble between Hermann and his wife Elsie. Someone came up with the idea of Hermann supporting a troupe of chorus girls on a plank held across his chest and knees. Hermann was to lie on his back while the girls went through their routine. The plank itself weighed 330 lbs. The girls were 12 in number and got on to the plank two at a time. Starting off with six and without stopping their terpsichorean movements, two girls added themselves to the plank until all 12 were doing their stuff. And everything steady as a rock, under perfect control. Total weight, over 2000 lbs. The trouble was that Elsie, who was very jealous of Hermann, caught the old boy looking too long and lovingly up the ladies’ knicks. That was the end of that feat of strength.

I’ve already mentioned his two hands deadlift of 793¾. But in a letter, John Dawe reminded me that this was done on the 29th of October 1920, at Leipzig, Germany, before Goerner reached his full strength. And he also stressed that it was NOT, contrary to popular belief, performed with a reverse grip, but with an ordinary grip, both hands knuckles forward and with a hook grip. Though this is repetitive, it is so for the purpose of clarification.

And the lift was performed on a Berg Hantel barbell, from which our modern International type bars sprung.

Goerner was also possibly the only man who could, any time of the day or night, over a period of 20 years, without warming up and clad either athletic attire or street clothes, do a two hands power clean & push jerk with a solid globe barbell weighing 330¾ lbs. What most remarkable about this, besides the long period when he could do it, is that the shaft of the non-revolving barbell happened to be 2⅜ inches in diameter. He is generally considered to have the strongest hands of any man who ever lived.

John also remarked that in the feat of dancing or wrestling with the elephant, the weight didn’t bother Hermann in the slightest. Any man who had the strength and fortitude to support 1100 lbs. on one shoulder certainly wouldn’t be bothered by being leaned on by a 1500 lb. elephant. What did get Hermann upset was the roughness of the animal’s hide. Their little tussling around often left Goerner with skinned arms, neck and shoulders.

What was Goerner like personally?

Let John Dawe tell you. And one thing we can gather from John Dawe’s remarks was that Hermann liked to live it up. His idea of a wild time wasn’t exactly watching concrete harden or office buildings depreciate. According to John, Hermann was a skilled girl-watcher, and he liked his stein of the national German beverage. He was also a delightful and entertaining man. He had a quick wit, a tolerant outlook on the foibles of men and world affairs and, in short, had a live and let live attitude. He lived through two wars, had seen much of the world, profited immensely from what he had seen and could converse with common sense about his experiences and living. He also had a broad sense of humor without any of the maliciousness that sometimes drifts to the surface. There’s the story of how he once lifted and placed a large battleship’s shell, weighing over 800 lbs., onto the oak desk of a pompous official of an armaments firm he was working for prior to World War One.

He had the instincts, says John, of a natural gentleman. His manner was quiet and his behavior kind. He was very fond of music and performed well not only on the piano but on the accordion. He also had a pretty good voice, sang in the local church choir, was a good chess player and possessed the reputation of being a bit of a pool shark. Meeting him for the first time, says John, you were impressed not only by his great size, but also by his modesty of manner. No air of braggadocio, no attempt to impress you with his power or reputation. No bombast, no desire to make you aware of his abnormal strength. Just a quiet, modest, gentle man before you.

Born in the town of Haenichen on April 13, 1891, Goerner was strong from the start. His father was a giant of a man, six feet three inches tall. But his mother was a small woman, just over five feet in height. Herman started lifting when he was ten years of age. He, more than most men, had the genetic factor in his favor. When he left school at 14 years of age, he scaled 185¼ lbs. and stood 5 feet 6 inches tall. At that age he could swing, with one arm, a kettle bell weighing 110¼ lbs. to arm’s length overhead. And as the years passed his strength grew and grew.

Hermann Goerner lived out the last years of his life in the little village of Klein Heidorn, in lower Saxony, Germany, and died there on June 29, 1956, never having completely recovered from the privations he suffered during WWII. But he had many good years, during some of which he may have had as good a claim as anyone ever has had to the title – strongest man in the world.

As Edgar Mueller, his friend and biographer, said, we may never see his like again.

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