Saturday, August 22, 2015

Feats of Strength: Arm, Shoulders and Chest, Part Two - David Willoughby (1978)

"In simple terms, this book is going to cover seven foundational principles of programming/periodization design for strength training, with particular focus and application to powerlifting training. It’s also going to rank order these principles based on their importance, so that you can make sure your programming is always maximally effective for its level of design, no matter if it’s calibrated perfectly or a very rough guide to training.

This book will delve deeply into what the principles of training are, the scientific underpinnings of why they are, and the practical ways in which they can be properly applied, as well as the ways in which to
avoid common mistakes in their application. This book was not written for everyone. It was written for intelligent lifters who want to think deeply about training as a process, for those who want to understand
the “why’s” and not just the “how’s,” and for those that don’t want to take a coach or guru’s advice on training just at its word. Science is the best path to the truth, and it’s a long path… in this case, several hundred pages of pure scientific training fun."

Table of Contents:


Massive reference compiling the record of athletic performance for all major sports and from sporting events around the world -- 665 pages, First edition, 1970.

David Willoughby (1978)

Repetition Pressing (Standing)

Although "repetition" pressing is not as popular today as it was in this country prior to, say, the year 1900, still from time to time some weightlifter wil pick up a barbell or dumbbell weighing well under his limit for a single lift, and then see how many times he can press it overhead from the shoulders. Here are several notable feats of repetition pressing that have been performed in the United States during recent years.

 Malcolm Brenner

1) Malcolm Brenner (73 inches, 228 lbs) pushed*

*A "push" is where the arms are straightened partially by bending backward and sinking under the weight; whereas in a "press" the arms are steadily straightened and the weight raised to a higher level. Thus, one can "press" while bent backward at the waist, but only if no further bending takes place as the arms are extended. Most repetition presses, even if commenced correctly, develop into pushes because of the natural tendency to bend back farther and farther as fatigue forces a departure from the original upright position.

a barbell of 250 lbs 10 times, and a barbell of 185 lbs 27 times, Los Angeles, California, 1951. The 250-lb lift was equivalent to a push of 332 lbs once, and the 185-lb lift to 334 lbs once. From these lifts, it may be inferred that Brenner in 1951, weighing 228 lbs (and probably carrying very little excess fat) was equal in pressing strength to former World Champion Josef Steinbach (70 inches, 247-256 lbs), of Vienna, who would probably have weighed about 232 lbs "muscular" and who for some years held the record in the "Continental Press" (actually push), with 329.4 lbs (1905). 

    Josef Steinbach

2) Frank Leight (71.2 inches, 209 lbs) pushed 150 lbs 35 times, New York City, 1942. These repetitions with 150 lbs were equivalent to a single push with 307 lbs. 

Frank Leight

3) John Lopez (205 lbs) pushed 150 lbs 37 times, Los Angeles, California, September 30, 1942. Possibly Lopez knew about Leight's record and wanted to improve upon it. Lopez's 37 repetitions with 150 lbs were equivalent to a single push with 316 lbs. Actually, Lopez pushed 300 lbs once; so his repetition lift was somewhat better than his single maximum effort.

4) In a book entitled "Endurance," by the late Earle Liederman, he tells of one of his proteges (Andrew Passanant, I believe) who assertedly "pressed" (pushed) a 100-lb barbell over 75 times consecutively. However, since this would have been equivalent to about 380 lbs once, and since Passanant was only a middleweight, it is evident that either the barbell weighed less than 100 lbs or that it was jerked rather than pushed. And when a jerk rather than a push is used, a great many more repetitions may be performed. A record in this kind of lifting was established in Russia in 1948, when a competitor named Shalva Mdinaradze jerked a 72-lb barbell no fewer than 173 times (!) during a period of 20 minutes. This averages out to between eight and nine jerks per minute for 20 minutes or approximately one jerk every seven seconds. Since 1948, probably even greater "endurance" lifts have been made in the same country.

It should be remarked, however, that feats of prolonged "endurance" are of dubious value as criteria of physical fitness. Many years ago, in a booklet published in Germany, a scale of equivalent repetitions was listed in connection with the pressing of barbells of differing poundages. And when the weight of the bar was only 5 lbs, the expected number of two-arm standing presses was 500, irrespective of whether the performer was a strongman or a weakling. Of course, as the weight was increased, the expected number f repetitions was reduced. One day when I was running my public gym, I decided to test the validity of this system. And the results were both informative and amusing. First, I had a young woman physical culturist try the test, informing her that she would be expected to perform 500 consecutive presses. This she did. Then, just to perform a respectable number, I did 600 presses. Later that day, a lightweight hand-balancer ("top mounter") came into the gym, and I asked him to see how many presses he could do. He said that he would do 500, just to show me. However, just as he was nearing the 500th rep, who should come in but the young lady who had already performed 500 presses that morning. Put upon his mettle, the hand-balancer proceeded to do 600 presses, the same as I had done. Only, he did them in less time than I had taken. Although I was about to leave the gym for home, I took off my jacket, picked up the 5-lb barbell, and with it performed 1,000 consecutive presses. That was 1,600 presses that day; and for several days thereafter my shoulders were stiff. And what had I proven? Not a thing. I am sure that someone possessing some real muscular endurance (which was not my forte) could easily work up to 10,000 or more presses with a 5-lb barbell.

So far as useful or practical strength is concerned, I believe that 20 repetitions of an arm movement -- or at the very most 30 repetitions -- should provide an ample test. As previously noted, a single repetition may not always constitute a true gauge of strength, while 10 repetitions with a lighter weight generally provides a fairer test. On the other hand, when the resistance employed in working the muscles is so slight that thousands of repetitions may be performed (often consuming hours of intermittent effort) it works out that in some tests children may surpass adults. Accordingly, such prolonged performances are of little or no value so far as providing a worthwhile goal is concerned. Too, there is the element of time to take into consideration. Why a busy person, whether man or woman, should go to the trouble of spending an hour or more "jogging" when 15 minutes or less or more intensive exercise (performed in one's home, garage, or backyard) would provide an equivalent amount of the much-advocated "cardiovascular" conditioning, it is difficult to fathom, unless some social or imaginary special virtue is attached to the jogging ritual. [Clearly this author has never enjoyed a long meditative jog outdoors through one of nature's many beautiful locations. Almost reminds me of the putdowns non-lifters sometimes use when considering our time spent lifting weights. Funny how perception works, isn't it.]

To get back to "endurance" pressing in the standing position -- but of moderate rather than extreme numbers of repetitions -- here are some of the best performances on record to date.

1) Karl Swoboda (70.5 inches, 360 lbs) of Vienna, pressed 242.5 lbs, 12 times in strict military style, with heels together, in Vienna, August 27, 1912. Equivalent to 336 lbs once.

2) Josef Grafl (75.5 inches, 286 lbs) of Vienna pressed 220.5 lbs, 18 times, in Vienna, 1912. Not military, but with heels together. Equivalent to 344 lbs once.

3) Away back in 1892, in London, an Italian professional strongman stage-named "Romulus" [a.k.a. "The Sicilian Hercules"] -- Cosimo Molino -- who weighed 167 lbs at a height of only 63 inches, pushed 168 lbs 20 times (which equals 271 lbs once), and 179 lbs, 18 times (which equals 279 lbs once).

"London, The Cradle of Modern Weightlifting, by Gherardo Bonini:

Two other books by Bonini worth seeking out:
"Lifting Back to Athens 1906"
"When the Marquis Lifted Off"

4) Sometime in 1896, in Strasbourg, Germany, Emile Boudgoust pushed 222.66 lbs, 12 times. This was equivalent to a single push of 309 pounds. As Boudgoust weighed only about 185 lbs, this was a splendid feat. He also pushed 198.4 lbs, 18 times in one minute. 

For more on Broudgoust, see this article in Ironmind's Milo Magazine: 
The Strongest Man of Alsatia: Emile Boudgoust by Gherardo Bonini [Milo, 21.2]

In view of the foregoing "oldtime" performances, it is evident that little improvement in sheer pressing power has been made in the standing press during the last 80 years [the 80 years preceding 1978]. Much more progress has been made in the supine press, especially since the introduction, about 1930, of the Bench Press, which style of lifting we may now consider.  

Bench Pressing

Prior to the advent of the Bench Press -- which came into general use in the early 1930's -- a supine (not "prone") press was performed lying flat on the floor (or mat), the barbell first being lifted or rolled from behind head across the face to the position for pressing. If the plates on the barbell were of sufficiently large diameter, the bell could be rolled into position over the chest with little or no actual raising of the weight being necessary. It would appear that approximately the same amount or weight can be lifted in the lying flat on the floor style as in the Bench Press, provided that in both lifts the same hand spacing is employed. If the "collar-to-collar" hand grips are used in the Bench Press, as was the style often used several years ago, at least 10% more weight may be lifted. So far as the effect of the Bench Press on muscular development is concerned, the farther apart the hands are placed, the more the stress will come on the pectoral muscles, and the closer the hands the more on the arm extensors (triceps). Too, in these variant styles, the deltoid muscles are involved in their anterior or lateral portions in accordance with how the hands are spaced on the bar. But it would appear that in any variation of the supine press -- whether on a bench or flat on the floor -- the arm extensors and the front chest muscles are more subject to development than are the deltoids.

 George Hackenschmidt

It was in the flat-on-the-floor style that the famous oldtime strongman-wrestler, George Hackenschmidt of Estonia (Russia), pulled over and pressed a barbell weighing 361.55 lbs. His bodyweight at the time was 195 lbs, and the lift was made in Vienna in August, 1898, possibly on August 2, which was "Hack's" 21st birthday. This lift (which evidently was not practiced by the Viennese lifters) remained the "record" until November 6, 1916, when in New York City, Joe Nordquest, weighing 190 lbs, pulled over and pressed 363.5 lbs.

   Joe Nordquest

In both cases the barbell discs, being 18 or 19 inches in diameter, enabled the weight to be rolled across the face without any lifting of it being necessary. An interesting comparison of these two lifters and their respective performances in the same style of lifting may be made.

When Hackenschmidt established his record, it presumably was a lift upon which he had devoted no more practice than on the regular competition lifts (i.e., the standing presses and jerks, one and two arm snatches, etc.) then in vogue. "Hack" stood 68.75 inches in height, and at 195 lbs had arms that averaged 16 and 5/8 inches flexed, along with a normal chest girth of 46.25 inches. In comparison, Joe Nordquest stood 67.5 inches and had arms of 17.5 inches and a chest of 47.75 inches. However, if Nordquest had not lost his left leg below the knee, he would have weighed at least 205 lbs instead of 190. Yet the latter actual (but incomplete) bodyweight is what was recorded in connection with most of his lifts. If Nordquest had raised a poundage in the floor press that was in ratio to the size of his arms and chest (the chief muscles used in this test) as compared with the size of these parts in Hackenschmidt, he should have made a press of over 1.100 x 361.55 lbs, or 363.5. Hence, Hackenschmidt must have had relatively stronger arm and chest muscles than Nordquest, even though the poundage he lifted was less.

The point of this side-comment is that to be really fair and meaningful, weightlifting records should be based on the size (cross sectional area) of the parts of the body involved in each style of lifting, instead of on gross bodyweight. While such a procedure would, of course, be utterly impracticable in official weightlifting competitions, it could still be used, as an "academic" basis, for determining in different performers the actual comparative strength of the muscles involved, rather than what poundages those performers can lift in relation to their bodyweights. Yet it seems that no investigator to date has made any such comparison between outstanding weightlifters and strongmen, even though all the bodily measurements necessary for making such comparisons have for most of the athletes either been published or are otherwise available.

It may be added that the supine (floor) presses made many years ago by George Hackenschmidt and Joe Nordquest respectively do not rank with present-day records in the Bench Press. One reason for this is that the old-time strongmen, with few exceptions, did not extend their practice over the long periods of time now necessary in order to attain a championship class level of ability. Hackenschmidt was only 20 years of age when he made his Floor Press of 361.5 lbs; and shortly thereafter, he became a professional wrestler and devoted little or no time to weight training other than to keep fit and to increase his strength for wrestling. If "Hack" had not done this, there can be little doubt that he could have attained, through steady practice, a Floor Press of 450 lbs or more, which the date being considered, would have given him a high ranking among bench pressers, assuming that the poundage possibilities in the Floor Press and the Bench Press are approximately equal. Nordquest in turn practiced the Floor Press just long enough to enable him to raise a couple of pounds more than Hackenschmidt had done eighteen years earlier. He, like "Hack," had a potential capability of at least 450 lbs.

Today's record holders in the Bench Press, along with the contenders for titles in bodybuilding, spend countless hours working on their arm and chest muscles. The result has been spectacular, so far as size, development and definition of these muscles (specifically in the Bench Press the triceps and pectorals) are concerned. However, the choice of the type of weight trained physique most indicative of symmetry and all-around capability is still up to the individual. And many men would rather have a chest with moderate musculation rather than one in which the pectorals sag of their own weight, like overdeveloped mammae. Too, when the latter stage of development has been reached, the pectorals even when at rest tend to draw the shoulders forward and produce a warped and faulty posture. It is interesting to note that some of the strongest old-time strongmen had an unobtrusive pectoral development.

Louis Uni (Apollon)

 "Apollon" (Louis Uni) for example, was noticeably lacking in this respect, yet he made an unapproached record in squeezing on the Regnier spring dynamometer     

Apollon with the Regnier dynamometer 

which performance indicated not only a terrifically strong grip, but also required a powerful pressing together of the hands (and arms) in front of the chest. 

And of the most famous of all modern strongmen, Eugen Sandow, Dr. Sargent, in his physical examination of him remarked: "The muscles of the pectoral are not so large relatively as the deltoid, biceps and triceps. This is probably due to the character of the feats he performs every night." 

Pec Dimensions Through the Ages

Yet since Sandow has appeared earlier in the U.S. as a performer on the Roman rings it is evident that he must have had very strong pectorals as well as those of the upper back that also depress the arms. But clearly, the photo above indicates that Sandow did not specialize on the development of his pectoral muscles (indeed, in his day the Bench Press had not come into use). 

As to the evaluation of performances in the Bench Press, it should be realized that from the points I have touched upon previously that in order to properly and fairly rate ANY athletic record -- in weightlifting or otherwise -- the time (date) on which the record was made MUST be taken into account. This for the reason that athletic records constitute a variable, rather than static, statistic, and so must be evaluated on a basis that takes this variability into consideration. Commonly, writers on weightlifting blithely ignore this principle.

Floor Dips or Pushups

A test of pressing strength comparable to that required in the bench press is to do the familiar "floor dip" or "pushup" while supporting additional weight on the upper back. While the extra weight is generally supplied in the form of barbell plates, the lift, if used as an exhibition feat, may be performed with much greater impressiveness if human assistants rather than inert iron plates are employed.

A remarkable pushup in the latter style was performed some years ago by the then professional wrestling champion, Bruno Sammartino (70 inches, 260 lbs), and consisted of the lifting of four persons, totaling "over 500 pounds" in addition to his own bodyweight.

In the starting position of a pushup from the floor -- that is, with the arms fully bent and the body horizontal -- the amount of weight supported by the hands is approximately 70% of the performer's bodyweight. This is assuming that the bodily proportions of the performer are those of a typical weightlifter or bodybuilder. In a woman athlete, the corresponding figures are about 63% and 37%. I say "about" because exact rations or percentages are difficult to establish in an unstable body movement of this kind. I obtained a ratio for men in which the pressure on the hands in the finishing position of the pushup averaged 68.5% of the bodyweight. This figure was derived by having each performer support himself in the finishing position of the pushup, only with his hands pressing on scales rather than on the floor. The pressure in pounds so recorded was then compared with the performer's bodyweight, and the ration between the two poundages thereby determined. It is evident that the weight or pressure on the performer's hands, plus whatever additional weight they are carrying on their backs, must closely correspond with the poundages they can press with a barbell while lying flat (supine) on the floor, since one of these movements is essentially an inverted form of the other. Now, let us see how this "theory" works out in the case of the pushup with extra weight made by Bruno Sammartino.

If it be assumed that the "over 500" (say, 520 lbs?) of live weight (barbelles?) was evenly distributed over his body, and that his arms bore, at the start, 70% of this 520 lbs, plus Sammartino's own weight of 260 lbs, his pushup would accordingly amount to .70 x (520 + 260) or 546 lbs. This poundage, unlike in a barbell floor press, would diminish slightly as the arms were straightened and the body was raised from a horizontal to an inclined position, in which the weight would be progressively lessened on the hands and transferred to the feet. It is interesting to note that Sammartino's best Floor Press was 545 lbs, which corresponds almost exactly with the foregoing estimation. This would appear to confirm the assumption that 520 lbs of "riders" must have been distributed essentially equally over Sammartino's back from his shoulders to his feet. Certainly the 520 lbs could never have even been started had it been concentrated directly over Sammartino's hands. However, on another occasion, he is said to have performed a pushup while supporting the professional wrestler, Gorilla Monsoon, who weighed about 360 lbs. While Monsoon sat well up on Sammartino's shoulders, he faced the latter's feet, so that a goodly portion of his weight came over the middle of Sammartino's back rather than over his hands. This was just the reverse of the standard rider's position.

Needless to say, in a feat of this kind, one should start out by practicing with either some barbell plates or a small child of equivalent weight, rather than an adult. And at first, the extra poundage should be located over the lower back or hips, with the child facing the performer's feet. From there, with time and by degrees, the additional weight carried, as well as the position in which it is located on the back, can be increased.

A further degree of difficulty can be adopted by the performer resting his feet on a chair, bench, or other elevated support. Since the "average" (untrained) young man can perform a single pushup with not more than 25 or 30 lbs on his upper back, to similarly lift a young lady weighing perhaps 100 lbs more than this is in itself a feat sufficient to identify the performer as being an up-and-coming "strongman."

Space here permits the mention of only one additional feat of strength in this extensive department, but it is a mind-boggler!

Back in the early 1920's, the professional equilibrist (an acrobat who performs balancing feats, especially a tightrope walker), Gilbert Neville (66 inches, 126 lbs) could perform some phenomenal feats, such as holding a one-hand stand on a swinging slack-wire; pressing up to a one-hand stand (stiff-armed) on a pedestal, four times in succession; doing a one-arm chin or pullup while carrying 56 lbs on his other hand, etc. But his most astonishing feat was his claim to be capable of doing a handstand (not floor-dip) press-up while carrying an additional weight of 112 pounds! And since in his stage act (which I never witnessed, since it came later than his exhibitions at the Lost Angeles Athletic Club) Neville would have gained little credit, or even credence, had he performed the feat while wearing one of his ingenious shot-loaded leather belts, it is more likely -- if the feat were performed -- that he used his stage partner, Paula Armstrong, who, in her stage costume, weighed just that amount (112 lbs). He must have arisen from his starting position prone on the floor with Paula sitting on his upper back. And, rather than having pressed straight upwards as in a regular handstand press (which Sigmund Klein, weighing 150 lbs, was able to do with a 75-lb dumbbell strapped to his back), it is more likely that Neville had to maintain his body in a more horizontal, floor-dip like position. Perhaps some advanced balancers who read this can attempt the feat and thereby either confirm or disavow its possibility!

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