The History of the Cambered Bar

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Cambered bars, that is bars with a slight or pronounced bend, are one of the more niche elements of the gym floor. While many of us will be familiar with the EZ Bar, undoubtedly the most popular form of cambered bars, far fewer will have used Safety Squat, Buffalo or straight Cambered Bars as part of our routines. Somewhat unluckily for me, a recent shoulder problem has forced me to use safety bar squats as part of my routine.

Normally the preserve, at least in my mind, of the powerlifting community, the Safety Bar squat has allowed me to continue training my legs at a time when the traditional squat set up of pining the shoulders back is nothing short of agony. Aside from facilitating my obsessive need to squat, the Safety Bar provides the subject for today’s post. Who invented these bars? What advantages do they provide and how can we effectively use them? These are just some of the questions dealt with in today’s post.

History and Terminology

Somewhat frustratingly, the terms cambered bar, safety squat bar and buffalo bar are oftentimes used interchangeably in the fitness community. As evidenced by today’s post however, there is a tangible difference between a cambered/buffalo bar and a safety bar. Trust me…my shoulders know the difference. So starting off, what is a cambered bar and who invented it?

Similar to the grooves of the EZ Bar, whose history we discussed way back in 2016, a cambered squat bar or buffalo bar as it has been termed by some, is in many ways a typical barbell with a slight curve in the centre of it.

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While those at Ironhistory have dated cambered barbells to 1921 when Thomas Inch noted in Health and Strength noted that

I always think in weighing up the men of to-day and the men of the past we must allow a very great margin for the difference in the implements used. They knew nothing of the bent bar to assist the grip in one-handed lifts; bells were jerked, not bent pressed and I fancy the judging was even more strict…

We have to be careful about attributing too much importance to the ‘bent bar’ discussed by Inch. Barbell back squatting had not yet become ubiquitous amongst the lifting community and in fact, it would only become so from the late 1920s onward. Similarly we have to be careful about citing old or broken barbells as cambered. Check out the iconic picture below of mid-century bodybuilder Dave Draper squatting with what appears to be a cambered bar.

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Most likely, this bar had begun life as a regular old barbell before wear and tear, not to mention the heavy weights being used by ‘golden age’ bodybuilders twisted the poor thing into ribbons. To avoid confusion therefore today’s post is going to examine two intentional types of cambered bars used for squats over the past century.

J.C. Hise – The Pioneer of Powerlifting, the Squat and Anything Else That Involves Heavy Weights…

Writing on J.C. Hise in the closing decades of the twentieth-century, Fred Howell labelled Hise the ‘Pioneer of Powerlifting.’ Peary Rader went one better and called Hise the ‘Original Power Man.’  For those unaware of Hise’s prowess, the American lifter’s name was ubitious across gym floors during the 1930s and 40s. A proponent of squatting with heavy weights and high reps, Hise came to fame during the 1930s when he reached out to Mark Beary’s Strongman magazine in 1932. Modifying Beary’s favoured high repetition squat routines, Hise claimed to have packed 29 pounds of muscle onto his frame in less than a month!

As one would expect, Hise became a popular and well respected figure after that. Seeking to prove that he wasn’t just a one hit wonder, Hise subsequently gained a reputation as a formidable deadlifter and presser. It was however Hise’s affinity with the back squat that draws our attention to him today. Thanks to the highly readable, A Century of Squatting Strength Secrets we know that Hise was among the first to use a cambered bar for squatting.

According to legend, Hise came home one day to discover that his brother had bent one of his bars using it as a tool for a Model T driveshaft housing. After presumably chastising his brother, Hise set about training legs for the day and managed to somewhat straighten the bar back to its original position. There was just one problem. The straightened bar kept pinching Joe’s neck so with some difficulty bar placed a small curve in the middle of the bar. This small modification allowed Hise to squat comfortably with heavy weights. Unbeknownst to him, Hise had made yet another impact on the iron game.

There is however another version to this story. According to Dennis Weis’ website, Hise actually ordered a bar from William Pullum

In fact it was Hise and this type of squat that sends kicking and screaming into the Modern Bodybuilding and Lifting World. But Hise used a cambered bar, a bar patented and invented by Bill Pullum in the late 1900s – 1920. Bill had it made since it was easier in the bent press. No one thought of using it for squats. But then Hise came along, ordered a cambered bar from Bill Pullum and off we went

There is reason to be skeptical of this latter story. First Pullum was a British physical culturist. While Americans and Englishmen were aware of each others’ exploits, the logistics involved in international shipping for heavy weights would, one presumes, have been restrictive. Second, Hise was very much a ‘do it yourself’ kind of guy. Maybe he was inspired by Pullum’s bar but it is more likely he made it himself. Finally, the good folks at IronHistory.com have noted that Andy Jackson of EZ Bar fame was one of the first men to mass produce cambered bars prior to the mid-century point. Hise, after some time with his own creations, may have been a Jackson customer. Another possible supplier may have been Peary Rader, whose Ironman magazine began advertising and selling buffalo bars in 1950.

In any case, the Cambered was finally being used for squatting and, returning to our Squatting Secrets Book it is clear that many chose to emulate Hise’s use. Take Bruce Randall for example, the man known for one of the most impressive bulking and cutting cycles in bodybuilding history. Randall himself was a tremendously heavy squatter and, importantly for us, was fond of the cambered bar.

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Dr. Squat and the Safety Squat 

So Hise and those following him kickstarted a new trend still found in gyms today. They are however, only one part of the story. The other man responsible for introducing a new bar, also termed a cambered bar by many, was the late Dr. Fred Hatfield or Dr. Squat to you and me. Lest you get confused however, we have to point out that Dr. Squat did not invent the Safety Bar Squat, despite the many inaccurate posts claiming otherwise. The actual inventor was Jesse Hoagland, a new Jersey inventor who first brought the Safety Bar to the public’s attention in 1984.  His original patent can be found here and the original proofs are shown below

US4274628-1Where does Dr. Squat fit into this picture? Well in the run up to his monstrous thousand pound squat shown below, Hatfield became aware of the Safety Bar. If rumours are to be believed, he relied heavily upon it as part of his training. Thus in the aftermath of his triumph Dr. Squat began publishing the advantages of the safety squat bar, began producing his own and generally associating himself with it at every turn. The lifting community being what it is, Hatfield and not Hoagland, became seen as its inventor.

While this was simply not the case, it was Hatfield who helped popularise it for the mass lifting community and for that, my shoulders are eternally grateful!

Before We Go

As mentioned in the introduction, we can’t leave without showing some of our favourite and undoubtedly unusual safety squat bar exercises. So without further adieu…

As always… Happy Lifting!

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