Saturday, September 1, 2012

Norbert Schemansky - Jim Murray

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Training Programs and Best Lifts of Norbert Schemansky
by Jim Murray (1954)

"Professional is the way they describe bespectacled Norbert Schemansky's appearance. "Scientific" is the term applied to his lifting 400 pounds overhead. "Ah, that Schemansky! If he just had the size, he'd clean & jerk 450! 

You hear this kind of thing all the time, even from some of the "experts." But is "Skee" the introverted, absent-minded professor type? Is he a weakling who lifts 400-pound-plus barbells with sleight-of-hand alone?

He is not!

I've never seen anyone who seems to have more fun, even when under pressure, than Norb. And if he's weak, Brother, get me an iron lung.

At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, lifting against the Russian superman Grigori Novak, Skee was on the spot. All kinds of reports had been circulated about Novak, including rash statements about snatches of more than 300. Was Norb worried; was he withdrawn and apprehensive? Looking as mild-mannered as ever, he said, "I'll send him back to the salt mines."

When Novak left the platform after pressing 308.5 pounds, taking a slight lead over Skee's 281, "The Professor"  proceeded to give him a lifting demonstration, compiling a record 980.5 total by snatching 308.5 and jerking 391.25, also records for the 198-pound class.

Novak? Oh, he finished with 903.5, but he sure did get to see some real weightlifting.

As for his lifts being pure science, Schemansky's best strength feats explode this notion as effectively as meeting him will debunk his "professorial" personality. Norb is primarily a three-lift specialist, but he does some squatting for overall body strength, and he has made some impromptu tries at other stunts. Never weighing more than 215 at his 5' 11.5" height, he has squatted for a single with 490 without extending himself. On one rare occasion when he tried heavy dead lifting, he succeeded with 600 and did not try more. How many men do you know who can dead lift 600 pounds? Can this be sleight-of-hand? He has one-arm military pressed 130 and has continentalled & jerked 430. "This continental & jerk is double Skee's heaviest bodyweight and requires no little overall strength in addition to speed and coordination.

It is the second heaviest unassisted overhead lift ever made -- second only to Arthur Saxon's two hands anyhow with 448.

In the continental alone Norb has hauled 450 pounds to his chest in two movements. In pulling power, Schemansky has plenty on the ball. This does not refer to his split clean with 412.5 (which he also jerked January 17, 1953, for a world heavyweight record), but to his pull-up cleans without foot movement.

He has cleaned 370 pounds without a split, using only a slight knee dip, and has cleaned 350 for 2 reps without splitting.

With his strength, Norb has the qualities needed to be a champion at any sport. He can move as quickly as anyone in weightlifting. He is well-coordinated. He can joke and relax at one moment and approach a world record attempt with deadly, determined concentration the next.

Although no one in the world would suggest that Skee doesn't make maximum use of his speed and coordination in getting into the ultimate low positions under the bar when snatching, cleaning, and jerking, it will doubtless interest many "experts" to learn that men who really understand lifting feel Norb does not make full use of his great pulling power, especially in the snatch. In other words, he usually splits too soon. This can be contrasted with John Davis' lifting. John, whose best clean is 10 pounds behind Schemanksy's, holds the snatch record at 330.5 pounds, having made full use of great pulling strength and also having reached  a deep split position quickly to make the lift. Davis probably pulls as hard as Schemansky on heavy lifts, but doesn't go nearly as low into the split position.

Here, Olympic Coach Bob Hoffman presents Norbert Schemansky with a trophy while Jack Ayars, Dan Leone and Steve Stoyan check to see that Norb's heavyweight clean & jerk record of 412.5 pounds is official. Schemansky weighed 212 pounds after making the lift.


Schemansky's training is hard to describe, since it varies from workout to workout. Generally, Monday is his heavy training night at the Northern YMCA in Detroit, and his routing is as follows:

Press - 240 pounds to start; increase in 15-20 pound jumps to limit for 3 or 4 singles.

Snatch - same as above.

Clean - Start with 325 and then jump to 370 or 380. If 370-380 clean is successful, the weight is jerked 2 or 3 repetitions.

On an average training night Norb works in sets of 3 while pressing and snatching, not working too close to his limit, but he does "push" a little on the clean & jerk. A sample program is as follows:

Press - 230 x 3 reps, 240 x 3, 250 x 3, 260 x 3.

Snatch - Same as press.

Clean & jerk - Clean: 300 x 3-4, 330 x 2-3, 360 x 3 and some jerks with this weight.

On a "hot" night Norb has cleaned 370 for 2 reps. The repetition cleans are pulled from knee-height hang position, after one from the floor.

He usually practices the jerk separately about three times a month. On two different occasions he has made SEVEN SINGLE JERKS WITH 400 POUNDS, taking the weight from squat racks. His best jerk from squat racks is equal to his continental & jerk - 430 pounds.

Training alone very often makes Skee's gym lifting very "peculiar." When he works out with his brother Jerome and other top-notchers like Don Van Fleteren, friendly competition spurs him to handle heavy poundages, but when he trains alone he cannot predict what he will do in competition. During one stretch of training alone, Norb's top clean was 320 and he often had trouble lifting that weight. In the contest he was training for, a meet in Detroit, he cleaned 400 successfully on three separate attempts.

When he established his world record of 408 (bettering John Davis' mark of 402), Norb was concentrating on the press and snatch to improve his total. His best training clean prior to setting the record was 360 pounds. When he moved his record up to 412.5 pounds he was concentrating on the snatch, making as many as 5 to 7 singles with 300 and hardly doing any cleans.

At Stockholm, where he successfully defended his world title in the middle-heavyweight class and made a double-bodyweight clean & jerk of 398.75, training sessions found him going along in top form in the press and snatch, making 303 in each, while his clean was down to 352.

"You figure it out," says Norb.

He doesn't believe the practice of heavy continentals has helped his cleaning, since he hasn't done more than 25 or 30 continentals in his life. Almost half of these were in exhibitions. At York, when he cleaned & jerked 412.5, he also did a continental & jerk with 440 to solidly locked arms -- but just couldn't get up out of the deep split under his jerk with it, although he did hold the weight at arms' length for long seconds.

An exercise he occasionally practices which he feels does help his pull is the clean without a split. He does this when he doesn't feel like doing the regular lifts and on a good night can make three or four with 325 pounds. As mentioned previously, he has done a double with 350 and a single with 370 in this. That, my friend, takes pulling power.

The Schemansky physical measurements are interesting, primarily because they're plenty impressive and were obtained through weightlifting, rather than concentrated bodybuilding. At a height of 5' 11.5" and top weight of 215 pounds, Norb has a 48" chest, 34" waist, 41" hips, 26.5" thighs, 17" calves and 18" arms. When he reduces to 198 pounds his measurements drop to 46" chest, 32" waist, 40" hips, 35" thighs, 16.75" calves and 17" arms.

Norbert began weight lifting at the age of 16, following in the footsteps of an older brother, Dennis, who won the National Jr. Heavyweight Championship and made 800 totals back when 800 totals were rare. The present world champion gave no special indication of greatness when he first tried to lift a barbell -- and made a press-jerk of 135 pounds at 160 bodyweight.

His athletic ability was apparent while still in high school, however, when he won the Detroit All-City shot put championship in track and field. He won the weight throwing title in his junior year of school, after which he left school and went to work in the well known "Three C's" of the post-depression era (Civilian Conservation Corps). Before entering the C.C.C., he had progressed to clean & jerk 235 pounds. Upon his return, without any training, he entered the Michigan A.A.U. championships and placed second with lifts of 170 press, 190 snatch, and 250 clean & jerk. He had gained to a bodyweight of 187 pounds by this time.

Success spurred Schemansky on to train seriously, and Norb won the state championship the next year, 1942, making his first 300 pound clean & jerk. In 1943 he entered the army, where he was to spend three years, most of this time overseas. Before serving Uncle Sam he made his first 800 total with lifts of 230, 260 and 310. Returning from army service in 1946, Norb resumed lifting and won the Outstanding Lifter award at the national championships. Since that time he has ranked as one of the world's leading lifters in both the heavyweight and mid-heavyweight classes. He placed second to John Davis as a heavyweight in 1947 and at the 1948 Olympics.

With the advent of the 198-pound mid-heavyweight class in 1951, Skee really came into his own. He totaled 915 to win the national championship that year and at the world championships (Milan, Italy) scored 940.5. He has continued to dominate the 198 division and lifted 281, 308.5, and 391.25 to win the Olympic Games at Helsinki. His 980.5 total is so far unapproached by any other lifter in his class, and his latest clean and jerk record as a mid-heavy (398.75), made in winning the 1953 world title, has been exceeded by only two heavyweights, John Davis and Paul Anderson.

Lifting as a heavyweight, Skee has totaled over 1,000 and he has officially pressed 310, snatched 310, and jerked 412.5. These lifts, if all made at the same time, would give him a 1,032.5 total, right up with the all-time best.

Norb was born May 30, 1924, so he will be 30 this year. At this age most of the really great lifters seem to reach peak performance, so we can look for record-breaking lifting by Skee during the next few years. Olympic Coach Bob Hoffman expects him to total 1,000 as a mid-heavy, and it certainly appears he will reach this goal and more. 


Following the 1954 World Championships in Vienna the U.S. team (including Norbert Schemansky, Tommy Kono and Pete George) made their way to Lille, France while on a barnstorming tour across Europe. Bob Hoffman decided to have them drop in at Robert Cayeaux's Paris gym for a workout. While making arrangements to use the gym with his old friend, Hoffman inquired about the famous Apollon barbell.

The Apollon bell was a ponderous 360-pound weight made of two giant boxcar wheels with a thick axle thrust them. The improvised barbell had originally belonged to a 6-foot, 300-pound French giant named Apollon, who had actually never lifted it overhead but had instead used it in various stunts. While a generation of strongmen had deadlifted the weight, only two men had ever been able to lift the train wheels overhead. The first was the French professional strongman Charles Rigoulot, who did it in 1930 -- but only after practicing for weeks beforehand. In 1950 John Davis gave it a go, and his small hands and the chunky circumference of the bar caused him much grief on his hold. After several attempts Davis finally cleaned the bar by flipping it up to his shoulders, and then reversing his grip in mid-air in order to catch the bar at his shoulders. After this he was able to jerk the train wheels overhead. During one of Davis' unsuccessful tries the weights had crashed down heavily to the ground, badly bending one end of the bar and making it that much harder to grasp for anyone who might want to replicate the feat in the future.

It turned out the Apollon bell was no longer at Cayeaux's gym, but was being stored in the basement of another local gym. When Hoffman suggested the sensation of the recent World Championships might be interested attempting to lift the "unliftable" Apollon bell, volunteers were quickly mustered to move it via truck to its former home. "It as a very impromptu arrangement," Norb recalled. "I had no idea I would be asked to try it. But what the heck, I was game."

Word spread rapidly. The Americans changed tense to add tension . . . 

Word spreads rapidly. The Yanks arrive at Cayeaux's gym where a large crowd has already gathered, including a number of reporters and photographers. Hoffman wishes out loud that the event was taking place in a large hall and witnessed by thousands of people. He forecasts the greatest display of strength which has ever taken place, a feat of strength unsurpassed and which will give Norb Schemansky just claim to the mythical title "World's Strongest Man." 

The American lifters warm up with snatches, presses and jerks with a standard plate-loading Olympic barbell before taking turns attacking a 358-pound weight with a thick non-revolving handle. At this point the Apollon wheels were rolled out, more like dragged out as the Apollon bell's handle does not revolve. 

Photographers ready their cameras . . . Norb takes the wheels . . . then, devoid of any personal drama . . . lifts them on his first attempt . . . and jerks the weight overhead . . . not once . . . not twice . . . but THREE TIMES --- before gently setting the bar back down on the ground at his feet.

He had literally handled the famous weight like a toy. It was over so quickly -- wham, bam, thank you Stan -- and then a moment of stunned silence filled the gym. 

"My God, it was terrific!" said Hoffman. 

Recalled Clyde Emrich: "Norb just walked up and stood over it, did a slow dive, whipped it to his shoulders, jerked it three quick times and then set it back down easily. It was tremendously impressive."

A half-century later, Pete George had basically the same memory of the event: "Norb just walked up to it and whipped it up like nothing. He completely awed everyone in that gym."

Norb felt he could have done six or seven reps with the Apollon bell. The most difficult part was the bend in the bar. "The bend made it hard to hold because it slips in your hands and the weight turns and shifts around," he explained.

Typical of Schemansky, when asked countless times over the years how he did it, his answer is short, sweet and always the same:

"I squeezed like hell and pulled."

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