Having previously looked at the history of the squat, bench press and even the smith machine, it seemed about time that we did a history of the deadlift. We’ve been putting this one off for quite a while, even looking at the Romanian Deadlift en lieu of the actual thing.
The stumbling block in approaching the history of the deadlift is the amount of smoke and mirrors surrounding one of the most popular exercises in the Iron Game. Someone writes something in a training book or blog and suddenly it becomes part of the popular lore. Actual research is a lot harder to come by. Nevertheless, it’s clear that deadlifts and variations on the deadlift have been around since time began. Man and woman kind has seemingly always displayed an insatiable desire to pick heavy things up from the ground.
For the sake of my sanity and timekeeping however, we’ll begin in with the eighteenth-century when a variation of the deadlift, of heavy lifting, briefly took England by storm.
Thomas Topham: The Eighteenth-Century Strongman
Born in London in 1710, Thomas Topham is one of the first recorded strongman of recent centuries. Possessing an enviable strength, Topham performed strongman feats during the mid-eighteenth century. Having failed as a carpenter, Topham moved into the heavy lifting game, touring England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1730s before making it big in the 1740s.
Thanks in large part to his collaboration with the French philosopher and engineer, Dr John Theophilus Desaguliers, Topham’s lifts were recorded for future lifting anoraks like you and me! Perplexed by Topham’s herculean strength, Desaguliers recorded the strongman’s lifts, lifting technique and life story. He even brought Topham to the Royal Society in London to perform for other big wigs in the scientific field.
A short account of Topham’s feats published in 1822 by John Platts shows us why the Frenchman found Topham so fascinating
This person was remarkable for muscular strength. He kept a public-house at Islington, and used to perform surprising feats, such as breaking a broomstick of the first magnitude, by striking it against his bare arm; lifting two hogsheads of water ; heaving his horse over the turnpike-gate ; carrying the beam of a house as a soldier would his firelock, &c.
He also could roll up a pewter dish of seven pounds, as a man rolls up a sheet of paper; squeeze a pewter quart together at arms’ length; and lift two hundred weight with his little finger, over his head. At Derby, he broke a rope fastened to the floor, that would sustain twenty hundred weight; and lifted an oak table, six feet long, with his teeth, though half a hundred weight was hung at the extremity. He took Mr. Chambers, vicar of All Saints, who weighed twenty-seven stone, and raised him with one hand…
The man was strong, no one could deny it. But why I sense you asking, is he included in an article concerning the deadlift? Well, and admittedly this is a somewhat tenuous inclusion, Topham did perform a heavy deadlift of sorts in 1741. On 28 May 1741, Topham was scheduled to perform in London to celebrate Admiral Edward Vernon’s taking of Porto Bello in Panama.
Standing on a wooden platform raised several feat in the air, Topham secured a harness around his shoulders. Attached to the other end were three hogsheads of water, reputedly weighing over 600 kilos (or 1,300 pounds for our American readers). Beginning with his knees bent and torso leaning forward, similar in part to a modern deadlift set up, Topham pushed through the heels and raised the monstrous weight upward. Much to the delight of the onlooking audience comprised of both military personnel and civilians. Remarkably this performance was etched out by C. Leigh and published by W.H. Toms in July 1741. Here it is below
While some may scoff at Topham’s contribution to the Deadlift, I believe this lift merits inclusion owing to two things. First the weight began from a dead stop on the ground and was lifted using the thigh and back muscles. Secondly it was a hugely impressive weight! And after all, half the fun of deadlifting is gripping and ripping, If you’re still unsure, the nineteenth-century case of George Barker Windship will undoubtedly change your mind.
George Barker Winship and the Health Lift
Note, this section is largely a reproduction of our previous post on the Health Lift (found here).
In the mid-nineteenth century, a fitness machine swept across the United States. Costing over $100, roughly $2,500 in today’s money, the ‘Health Lift’ marketed itself as the world’s most complete exercise, capable of restoring health, building muscles and increasing attractiveness. For our interest here, this wonderful machine was effectively a machine assisted deadlift.
As is perhaps evident from the above photograph, the ‘Health Lift’ was very similar to a partial deadlift, whereby a weight was taken at about shin height and brought to waist height.
What made the ‘Health Lift’ somewhat unique was that the lifter grasped the weights at the sides, rather than in front of him, making the lift a somewhat hybrid squat/deadlift motion.
Whilst it is difficult to say conclusively what prompted the creation of the health lift, Jan Todd’s 1993 article on American strength apostle George Barker Windship provides some indications.
George Barker Windship (1834-1876) was a US doctor and preacher of strength. In accounts of the MD, it’s noted that he had a gymnasium built next to his surgery and was found of telling clients that if they spent more time in his gym, they’d spend less time in his offices. Aside from preaching to the sick, Windship was also an inventor and strongman of sorts. Often times he would demonstrate his massive strength to audiences, followed by a lecture on how they too could improve their health.
Returning to Jan Todd’s article, we have some indication of what WIndship’s talks consisted of
THE BODY SHOULD BE MADE AS STRONG AS POSSIBLE, HE CONTENDED, WITH NO WEAK POINTS. IT SHOULD BE BALANCED AND SYMMETRICAL WITH THE MUSCLES FULL AND ROUND AND STRONG… [H]EAVY WEIGHTS AND SHORT WORKOUTS WERE THE SECRET TO HEALTH AND LONGEVITY. TRAINING SHOULD BE SYSTEMATIC, HE ARGUED WITH THE INTENSITY OF THE EXERCISE GRADUALLY INCREASING OVER TIME. HE MAINTAINED THAT WORKOUT SESSIONS SHOULD NEVER LAST MORE THAN AN HOUR AND THAT PROPER REST MUST BE OBTAINED BEFORE THE NEXT DAY’S TRAINING.
After coming across a weightlifting machine in New York based on the deadlift, Windship set about designing his own device, capable of matching his strength. The doctor had been disappointed that the maximum weight on the New York device was a ‘paltry’ 420 pounds. He soon set about constructing his own machine. By “sinking a hogshead in the ground and placing inside it a barrel, filled with rocks and sand (to which he attached a rope and handle)”, Windship then erected a platform above the barrel. The picture below gives a nice indication of Windship’s creation. A creation similar to Topham’s eighteenth-century lift discussed above (suddenly makes sense eh?).
In doing so, Windship managed to mimic the lifting platforms of other strongmen from this period. Using this device, Windship allegedly pulled 2,600 pounds! Not a bad lift by anyone’s standards.
Unsurprisingly word soon spread about the doctor’s invention and his amazing feats of strength and by the 1860s, copy-cat devices known as ‘Health Lifts’ were spreading all around the USA. Some, such as those advocated by American health guru Orson S. Fowler, ranged from a couple of dollars. Others, like the Mann’s Health Lift Machine were priced in the hundreds of dollars. This being quite a disparity.
Who used the Health Lift?
Judging by the advertisements of the era, the ‘Health Lift’ was marketed and used predominantly by middle class American men and women. These machines were found in offices, private homes and exclusive ‘Health Lift’ clubs across the USA. Indeed, Jan Todd has argued that the dispersal of ‘Health Lift’ clubs around North American demonstrates their popularity.
What’s more, people seem to have achieved great results with the ‘Health Lift’. In his book, ‘How to Get Strong and How to Stay So‘ (1879), American physical culturist William Blaikie admitted to using the machine for several years to great effect before moving on free weights. Likewise testimonials from the producers of such machines reveal the thoughts of happy users:
“MY THREE MONTHS’ EXPERIENCE OF THE HEALTH LIFT HAS BEEN ENTIRELY SATISFACTORY. IT FURNISHES A CONCENTRATED FORM OF EXERCISE WHICH I HAVE FOUND SALUTARY, AGREEABLE AND EXHILARATING. IT CALLS THE BLOOD INTO THE MUSCLES AND LEAVES THEM READY FOR FURTHER ACTION, SO THAT I HAVE FOUND MYSELF MORE DISPOSED TO TAKE A LONG WALK AFTER FOUR OR FIVE LIFTS THAN BEFORE. I MAY ADD THAT THE PARTICULAR APPARATUS USED AT YOUR ROOMS, ‘THE REACTIONARY LIFTER,’ IS A MOST INGENIOUS, CONVENIENT, COMPACT AND SERVICEABLE ARRANGEMENT, BY WHICH THE LIFTER’S OWN WEIGHT IS MADE TO DO SERVICE, AND BY AN EASY AND SIMPLE ADJUSTMENT OF LEVERAGE, TO FURNISH A RESISTANCE TO BE OVERCOME, ALL THE WAY FROM 20 TO 1000 POUNDS AND MORE.”
So it was used by men and women across the US and was discussed by William Blaikie as recently as the late as the 1870s. Sadly the Health Lift’s popularity was not to last. In 1876, Windship died aged just 42,which prompted many people to shy away from both the Health Lift and heavy lifting in general.
Nevertheless for the committed weightlifting community, which by the latter stages of the nineteenth-century had begun to emerge, the deadlift and it’s variations were growing in popularity. Indeed in 1891 there were reports of a ‘Health Lift’ competition in Mainland Europe that exhibited many styles of deadlift pulling.
A Time of Great Change
Despite Dr. Windship’s untimely demise, the Iron Game still contained those committed to lifting heavy weights, although incidentally many nevertheless marketed light weight courses. The 1890s were nevertheless it seems the birthplace of heavy deadlifting with one of the first reports of a 661 pound deadlift coming in 1895.
The man responsible? A French wrestler by the name of Julius Cochard. Cochard, pictured below, supposedly weighed 200 pounds at a height of 5 ft 10 inches. A proficient wrestler in his time, mixed strength sports and wrestling with a remarkable ease it seemed.
Indeed aside from favourites like George Hackenschmidt and the Saxon brothers, it appears that a plethora of turn of the century physical culturists were testing their mettle in their deadlift. Hack was supposedly capable of pulling over 600 lbs. in one hand alone! We also have lesser known individuals such as the Canadian lifter Dandurand or German strongman Moerke putting up very respectable deadlift numbers. All of this coming a decade either side of the 1900s. Despite all this however, people writing the history of the deadlift have tended to begun with our next strongman, Hermann Goerner.
Hermann Goerner: The Father of the Deadlift?
Though operating in the early years of the twentieth-century, Hermann Goerner’s rise in the Iron Game came primarily during the period 1910 to 1930. was during this period that the German strongman set a series of records with kettlebells and a variety of deadlift stunts. In the interest of time, we’ll discuss only a few but for anyone interested in learning more about Goerner, I can’t recommend Edgar Mueller’s biography on him highly enough. Back on topic, Mueller credited Goerner with the following feats
- 360 kilograms [793 pounds] in the Two Hands Deadlift, in Leipzig on 29 October 1920
- 330 kilograms [727 pounds] in the One Hand Deadlift
- Snatched 125 kilograms [275 pounds] and jerking 160 kilograms [352 pounds] on 4 April 1920
- Deadlifting a bar with a seat on either end (in which two men sat) for the incredible total weight of 376.5 kilograms (830 pounds) on 18 August 1933
So the man was strong and his feats both in Germany and on tour undoubtedly did much to popularise the deadlift’s popularity. His most impressive feat, in my eyes at least, was a 596 lbs. deadlift using just four fingers (two on each hand). I can only dream of such grip strength!
So was Goerner the father of the deadlift as so many claim online? The answer is doubtful, but he did help promote its popularity, something I think we can all agree on.
Popular Training in the 1930s
Though we’ve only examined the Strongmen and elite athletes from the previous decades, the 1930s was witness to a much great popular engagement with the deadlift as evidenced by some of the mail order workout courses from the time. One such instance came from Mark Berry’s workout courses previously published on this site. In the courses, Berry refers to the regular deadlift as one of the most effective staples of his routines.
Berry was not the only fan of the deadlift either. As detailed by Iron Game historian, Alan Radley, the 1930s York weightlifting team consisting of luminaries like John Grimek, was hugely fond of the movement. Even those not interested primarily in numbers, such as Steve Reeves, used the deadlift as an essential muscle builder. Again returning to Radley we learn that one of Reeves’ many programmes from this period was
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Seated Dumbbell Curl
Full Squat supersetted with Pullover
And the numbers people put up continued to improve. During this period, John Terry pulled over 600 lbs. at a body weight of 132 lbs. Though powerlifting was still several decades away, men became hell bent on pulling heavier and heavier weights.
Stagnation then Success: The Thousand Pound Deadlift
Within a decade of Terry’s achievement, Bob Peoples pulled over 720 lbs. at a bodyweight just over 180 lbs. Deadlifting had become a staple in lifter’s routines by this stage and even back then, people began to wonder just how much an individual could pull from the ground. An ‘arms race’ of sorts fit for the Soviets and Americans!
In 1961, the Canadian weightlifter Ben Coats became the first lifter to deadlift 750 pounds. Unlike Peoples, who weighed in at roughly 180 lbs., Coats came in at a monstrous 270! A disparity, which explains why powerlifting meets are designated on bodyweight and not pounds lifter. Remarkably, while Peoples record stood several years, Coats could only bask in his glory a short while as 1969 saw the American lifter Don Cundy pull 801 lbs. Similar to Coats, Cundy came in at over 270 lbs.
The race to the thousand pound deadlift was on and it only intensified during the 70s and 80s. Vince Anello became the first man to pull over 800 lbs. under a bodyweight of 200 lbs and with powerlifting now a recognised sport, every strong man and woman was getting in on the act. The now physical culture historian, Jan Todd, pulled over 400 lbs. during the 1970s at a time when few women were hitting the powerlifting meets, going some way to proving that it wasn’t just men who were lifting heavy.
The 1970s would be characterised by a series of heavy lifts from both heavy and lift weight lifters. 1974 saw Mike Cross pull 549 lbs. at 123 lbs. bodyweight. The very same year, John Kuc heaved over 849 lbs. from the floor at a bodyweight of 242 lbs. Lifters seemed to be getting stronger and leaner at the same time. While of course anabolic steroids is part of this trend, there is no denying the impressiveness of the numbers being put up in competition.
But lifting fans still had to wait for the big one, the thousand pound deadlift. A waiting game perhaps exacerbated by the fact that a thousand pound squat had been achieved during the opening years of the 1980s. The best the dead lifters could muster was 904 lbs. by Dan Wohleber in 1982. A record which stood for a remarkably long time. Indeed it wasn’t until 1991 that a more impressive feat came along. This being Ed Coan’s 901 lbs. deadlift at a bodyweight of just 220 lbs. This being in comparison to Wohleber’s 295 lbs! You can check out Coan’s remarkable lift below
But impatient lifting fans would have to wait! And wait they did until 2007 when the legendary Andy Bolton pulled 1,003 lbs. off the ground in a truly remarkable display of strength. A record he has continued to improve on.
Since then, the question remains about just how far the deadlift can be pushed.
Though we’ll never truly know who popularised the deadlift, the movement’s story and that of its predecessors, is nevertheless one of hard work and hard lifting. An incredible reminder to get off your ass and pull some weight.
As always…Happy Lifting!
Great article! I love how you included early lifts that may not exactly be what is now considered a conventional dead lift in the world of weight training, powerlifting, et al. But I think those early lifts can certainly be considered forms of dead lift, since they literally involved lifting dead weight from the ground, as opposed to pressing, squatting, etc.
I’m a new blogger writing about all aspects of vintage living in the manner of the mid-century era, and that will include the occasional post about fitness and physical culture from those decades. Your site has a wealth of information about exactly that, so you will be getting a few pingbacks in the near future!
Hi there! Thanks so much for dropping by and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I agree with you re – the early lifts but you know how people can be sticklers about these things!
That sounds very cool, please do keep in touch as I’d love to see what you come up with 🙂 Happy writing! Conor
Thanks! I am putting together an article on home fitness in the 1960s, with a focus on weight sets with colorful concrete-filled plastic weight plates that tend to be dismissively mocked in today’s fitness scene (if ever mentioned at all), but which were ubiquitous in American department stores for many years. 1959 Mr. Universe Bruce Randall was actively involved in marketing those plastic weights, and they even featured in his book “The Barbell Way to Physical Fitness.”
But I don’t want to give away too much here… stay tuned for my article in a few weeks. 😉
That sounds absolutely fascinating. I wasn’t aware of that. Please do keep me informed as I’d love to read it! Happy writing 🙂
Well, I started writing my blog post on mid-century fitness, but it started getting so long and discussing different subjects that I’m breaking it into two separate articles. I just posted the first one, which touches on Jack LaLanne’s promotion of physical fitness, including weight training, despite the naysayers.
Look for my article on Bruce Randall and the infamous colorful plastic home weight sets by next week!
It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole isn’t it? Just read the LaLanne post and really enjoyed it.
Shall be looking out for the Randall edition next week 🙂