Alan Calvert, ‘Are Weight-Lifters Stronger Than Other Men?’, Confidential Information on Lifters and Lifting (Philadelphia, 1926)

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I frankly confess that when I was young I was just as much hypnotised by pro­fessional “strong men” as you are today. I was as strong as the average boy; maybe a little stronger, for I could take a 65 lb. solid iron dumb-bell and push it slowly above my head with my right arm. But then I had done a lot of gym work, especially on the parallel bars, and consequently the pushing muscles in my arms were strong.

But when I went to see Sandow perform, and saw him push up a weight said to be over 300 lbs. I immediately thought “that man is nearly five times as strong as I am.” I was at an age when .I believed any darn claim that a stage-performer chose to make.

After I got into the business of making weights, you can imagine my disillusion­ ment when I found out that the weight Sandow pressed on the stage was only a little over 200 Ibs.; that he used what is called the “bent-press method”-which is not a real lift. That when he lifted the way I had done, (or, as any other unskilled man would do) he could press up only 121 Ibs. So instead of being five times as strong as I was, he was less than twice as strong, in that particular direction. And he was called “the world’s stl:ongest,” and weighed, say, 190 lbs.; whereas I was by no means a “strong man” and weighed 135 lbs.

That is just an example, but it will show YOll how some of these “strong men” get by. They get a weight overhead by some method requiring skill; and because it is several times as much weight as the average beginner can hoist, they claim they are several times as strong.

For a while, records meant a lot to me; but the more I found out about how these records were made, the less they impressed me. As I continued in the business, I found myself getting more and more interested in help;ng men to get shapely and really strong; in helping them to improve their health and to increase their vitality. Finally I devoted my whole time to the body-building end of it. If adjustable weights are used in moderation, with trained judgmeut, they will increase a man’s develop­ ment, if he is absolutely sound to start with. I have seen, in the past, some men make what seemed to be extraordinary gains in size and strength; but they could have made the same gains by other methods, and without any of the risks. And, I have seen hun­ dreds of men who gained only a little in measurements, and lost it as soon as they stopped slaving with the weights; still others who never gained a thing; and still others who have lately written to me and said that they “vere actually harmed.

Please don’t imagine it was a pleasant thing for me to admit that I was wrong; or that I did not fight and fight against the idea that most of my fanner heroes were,after all, only experts in doing strength tricks. No! I was just as stubborn as some of you. For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge that some men whom I had thought to be perfect demigods of strength, were actually no stronger, if as strong, as were many outdoor athletes, workmen and others.

I recall that soon after I started, away back in 1902, a young fellow of my own size came to see me and told me that he could “put up” 175 lbs. with one arm. I said nothing to him, bllt to myself I said, “This chap is a liar! Why he is no bigger or heavier than I am. His arms are not even as big as mine.” So I “called” him; asked him for proof, and to my intense astonishment he did it; bent~pressed a bar-bell which I had laboriously loaded up with shot ulltil it weighed 175 lbs. I suppose I must have shown my bewilderment, for he laughed and said, “Ooh, that is just knowing how. You are probably just as strong as I am.” So we made a few tests, and found that ill straight pushing aloft, one hand or both, I could do almost as much as he could.

A month or two later, I took one of my few pupils (call him friend No.2) to a photographer’s. He had been llsing a bar-bell and had rapidly increased his records­from a 75 lb. “put up” to 125 Ibs. He was a big fellow-a ISO-pounder, with an enormous chest and thick arms and had been big and strollg for years. Just outside of the photographer’s we met friend No.1, the expert; and took him along.

I had sent to the studio a dumb-bell weighted to exactly 125 lbs. Friend No.2 leaned over, grabbed it in his right hand, heaved it to his shoulder, bent over just a little to the left, and pushed that weight slowly aloft. He had a struggle, but he did it by sheer pushing power. \lVe snapped the picture. Friend No. 1 rushed acrosssaying, “lYIy heavens! You arc one of the strongest men I have ever seen! Why! That was wonderful!” Of course the other man was pleased, especially when I told him that No. 1 was an expert. 011 being urged the expert made a bClIt-press with the 125 lb. bell. Stuck it up as though it weighed only 25 lbs. That in tum interested

No.2, who said, “Say, how much can you lift that way?” “Oh,” replied No.1, “I call bent press 175 lbs. or maybe a pound or two more. Rut that is different. If I could push up 125 lbs. by pure arm strength the way you did, I could ‘bent press’ 225 lbs.”

Many professional “strong men” have made a reputation just on that lift. People hear that so and so can “put up” 250 lbs. with one arm. Immediately these peoplecompare him with themselves and figure because the professional can “put up” so much more thaJl they can, he can beat them equally badly at any other thing reqlliring strength-which is not the case.

The best all-round strength test I ever heard of, was the one which used to be all annual event in Paris; a competition to sec which man could push the heaviest loaded wheelbarrow up a slight grade. Scveral times the most famous dumb-bell lifters entered, but I never heard that one of them was the victor. On the contrary, the winner usually was some husky workman or porter, who had a powerful grip and immense strength ill his back: and legs.

In dead-weight lifting,-raising immense weight from the floor,-the profes­ sionals have no monopoly of the records. Now, if you are not informed on the sub­ ject, you might suppose that if a man could “put up” 250 lbs. with one arm he would not have the least trouble in leaning over, and grabbing hold of a thousand pound weight and lifting it as high as his hips. But they can’t! When the test comes the average dumb-bell lifter can’t raise as much weight off the groulld as many a laborer can. There is, I believe, an association of lifters who keep the records for raising

weights. Also, I am informed, that in the stunt called the “dead weight lift,” the so-cailed American Amateur Record is somewhere between 500 and 600 lbs. I venture to say that there are scores of laborers, foot-ball players, lumbermell and others who could do at least 500 lbs. and undoubtedly a few who could do 700 lbs. That is not guess work. I know. I am not denying that 500 lbs. is a good performance, or that the man who does it is strong. vVhat I am driving at is that the trained bar-bell and dumb-bell lifters are no better at it thall many untrained men. If you believe the claim that “weight-lifters and dumb-bell experts” are twice as strong as anyone else, then if a workman can lift 500 lbs. to his hips, the weight-lifter should do twice as much.

Then consider weight-throwing; if these liftcrs are as terribly strong as they claim to be, why don’t they go out and break all the records. In the last fortnight, two young middle-westerners, have each “put the shot” over 50 feet. Ask one of your weight­lifting heroes to go out and beat that. You will be told that “shot putting takes a lot of skill and practice. You got to be big and heavy and quick.” You will be told that there is a “knack to it.” Well, don’t you suppose there is a “knack” to some kinds of lifting?

Let me tell you another. Around about 1910, I had under observation a young man who was greatly enamoured of lifting, and who also had rather an exalted opinion of his own strength. Maybe he had reason to be, although he had an experience which rather shook his confidence. He had become able to “bent press” 210 lbs. with the right arm; very good, of course, for a lad weighing 160 lbs. Nevertheless he could not actually push up 80 lbs. in military fashion. But his friends had made such a fuss over what they called his wonderful arm-strength that the young man could hardly be blamed for considering himself something truly extraordinary. He carne to me one day and announced that he was going to break the world’s record for putting the shot. I ventured to suggest to him that he was neither big enough nor heavy enough to beat the giants at that event. But he had a scheme to use a hollow sphere weighing only a few pounds; to learn to put that 50 feet; then to make it a pound or two heavier, to put that 50 feet and so on and so on. The scheme sounded good, but failed to work.

My recollection is that he never became able to put the sixteen pound shot farther than 41 feet. Now get this. I found that the same thing applies to the “progressive weight” system of training with bar-bells; which I may not have originated, but certainly did make widely known. It sounds great and I pinned my faith to it. The experience of thousands of pupils showed me that not one man in a hundred ever got anywhere near the goal of strength which he set for himself. Mere kids start out with the expressed determination to be a Sandow, a Cyr or a Saxon; positively sure that nothing but plugging away is necessary, and never get one-half as strong as they expect to be. I tell you I blame myself for propagating that idea. Give me credit at least for now trying to set people straight.

Some twentysears ago (maybe thirty) there was at one of our largest universities, a student who created the then amateur record of “putting up” 205 Ibs. in one hand. He weighed only 145 lbs., but was a skillful “bent presser.” The newspaper started to make a fuss about it. A reporter (who naturally knew no more than most people about the difference between a real push-up and a “bent press) wanted to boom the young lifter as “the strongest man in all the colleges.” The lifter demurred, saying, “Oh! that is not true. Some of these big foot-ball men are far stronger. In a man-to­ man tussle they can handle me as the)1would any other light-weight.” “But,” said the bewildered reporter, “you can put up 205 lbs., and they all admit they can’t do it.” To which the lifter, who was a modest, truthful and frank young gentleman, could only reply that the reporter did not understand that lifting was not all a matter of strength.

It would be a good thing for lifting if all the “strong men” were so engagingly frank, instead of making lifting a mystery, and trying to get reputations from feats which seem more difficult than they really are.

Again, I was once asked to settle an argument between a young athlete and his trainer. The lad was–I think-trying to become a fighter. He thought fighting was all a matter of strength. That the man with the thickest arms was bound to hit the hardest blow. So he had been using weights to make his arms bigger. Unfortu­nately, instead of using the exercises which might have helped, he made the mistake of judging his progress by the amount he could push up. Some one showed him the “bent press.” He became able to do 150 Ibs. Meanwhile his trainer, a big, naturally strong man, was furious. He insisted that using the weights was making the boy slow. The boy retorted that he was far stronger than the trainer, he could “put up” 150 Ibs. and the trainer could do only 100 Ibs. They had two solid dumb-bells, one weigh­ ing 100 lbs. and the other 150 Ibs. The lad bent-pressed .the heavier bell; the trainer could. not do that but could take the hundred and push it straight up.

When the young fellow asked who was the stronger, on the showing made, I immediately said, “Your trainer is very much stronger. 1 don’t believe that you will ever be as strong as he is. But leave the weights out of it. Can rOll beat him in a tussle’?” The lad then ad­ mitted that the big man could grab him right above the elbows and hold him so that he could not move. When asked if he could do that, he answered, “Oh, no. He can break away from me as though I was nothing.” “\Vhy then,” I asked him, “do you think you are stronger?” The only answer was, “”Vell I can put up 150 Ibs. and he can’t.” That is a sample of the way some lifters think. It is hardly their fault; they are encouraged to think that way.

My stars, I know! I used to believe it like gospel. There was a time when to me the only “strong man” was the fellow who could “put up” hundreds of pounds ofiron. However I got converted. It was the “strong men” themselves who disgusted me with weight lifting, especially those ones who admit that lifting is “all tricks”; who rejoice about the way they can “put it over” on an opponent, or on the uniformed public.

I would be the last to deny that there are some very strong men among the lifters But many of them are lifting because nature fitted them for it-not because the use oi bar-bells made them strong. Not so long ago a young German drifted into my town, and made his headquarters at a local gymn. Almost immediately I was told that he was a great lifter; and was invited to inspect him. I found him to be in some respects the best I had ever seen. A tremendous chap with silky, smooth muscles. At lifting he ,vas a treat; had absolutely perfect style. He weighed 215 Ibs. and was far faster than any of the bulging-muscled “slow pressers.” An exhibition was arranged and he broke a couple of world’s records. (You can be assured that I had an official to test the scales; weighed the stuff in front of the audience; sa\v that he actually did the lifts; and had creditable witnesses take oath that they had seen the lift and the scale inspection. )

I was enthusiastic. I wrote a couple of magazine-articles about the athlete; saying just what I found him to be-a strong and a great lifter. Shortly thereafter a weight-lifting concern ran an advertisement in a magazine and said that this man was a product of their system; as though he had been a pupil; whereas, it had only been a few weeks since they first heard of him. The athlete came to me very much disgusted. “Mr. Calvert,” he said, “why do they do that? They advertise that I got strong by practicing their system. It is a lie. Wlty! 1 was always strong. 111y people have always been the strongest in my section of the old country. I used weights, it is true. I learned how to lift them for sport; but I was very strong years before 1 ever saw a bar-bell. Can’t you stop them?” Unfortunately I couldn’t. It was out of my jurisdiction.

A year or so ago that same man came to my office, said that he thought of going into the teaching business, and wanted me to help him get up a “course.” “You see,” he said, “I cannot speak English any too well, and I have never written for publication. I could tell you about my exe1″Cises, and you could write them up so that people could understand how to do them.” I would have liked to help him, but for one thing I was too busy, and for another I had already determined not to advocate lifting even indi­rectly. I told him so. But he said, “1I1r. Calvert, I am not going to teach heavy­ weight exercise. Weights! You must NOT use them to get strong. You can use them

AFTER you are strong, if you -want to test your strength. Weights are not for every­ body.” Which was exactly what I had found out myself. It took me a long vvhile, I admit, but it finally got to where I would have been no better than a criminal to advo­cate heavy-exercise after I had found out what it would do.

Here is my position. The average weight-lifter is no stronger ill the back than are many workmen. He is no stronger in the legs-not as strong-as many outdoorathletes. His one claim to superiority lies in the fact that he can lift more weight at arms-length overhead. (I’ll tell you more about that in the “scientific lifting” section.) But are his arms so strong? If you know a lifter make him demonstrate that arm­ strength. Say to him, “you say that a lifter’s arms are vastly stronger than other peo­ ple’s arms? The record for throwing a baseball is about three hundred and forty feet.

Here is a baseball. Let’s see you throw it four hundred feet.” Make him show how far he can throw it. Introduce him to a sixteen-pound shot, and ask him to make a put of sixty feet; so that you can see how much stronger his arm is than those of these husky college athletes, who put it only forty-five or fifty feet; make him show you. Or, ask him if he can do a simple feat of arm-strength, such as “chinning” himself with one hand. Don’t let him say, “Oft, I can do that easily.” MAKE HIM DO IT. If he comes anywheres near fifty feet with the shot put, or three hundred and thirty feet with the baseball, give him credit; he has a good arm. But if he can’t, you might ask him what good his big arm-muscles are to him.

No, sir! Weight lifters as a class are not stronger than others. A selected few are strong, and so are a selected few oarsmen, football players, weight-throwers, work­men; and some non-athletes. The weight-lifting promoters may tell you that the best weight-lifter is the strongest man, but they can’t make me believe it. I have alw’ays been interested in strength; but I have tried to keep an open mind. I have seen strong men-wonderfully strong men-in all walks of life, and in all varieties of sport and work. I have seen big football-players whose magnificent physique and appalling strength simply made me gasp. I have seen workmen, famous prize-fighters, and mem­ bers of athletic clubs, who were terrifically strong men; not strong arms only, but strong MEN; big, shapely, healthy, vital men. If you tell me that they are not strong because they cannot do some particular “scientific” lift with a dumb-bell-you will only make me laugh.