Alan Calvert was one of the most important strength entrepreneurs in twentieth-century America. The founder of Milo Barbell and Strength magazine, Calvert helped bring barbells and weights to the masses in the early 1900s. What makes him an even more fascinating figure is that in later years, Calvert became deeply disgusted with America’s burgeoning fitness industry. The below text, taken from his 1926 pamphlet on lifting, was done to expose the trickery of his contemporary strongmen. As a modern reader, it is fascinating to see how things have changed. The creation of World Strongest Man and Woman have, for example, ensured that we do see strength feats being scrutinized. Where fakery exists, I would argue is the presentation of lifters in the online sphere. Oh that and the eternal question of ‘natty or not?’ Anyway, enjoy the acerbic writings of Alan Calvert below
About 1911 I wrote and published a book called, “The Truth about Weightlifting.” In it, I told a lot about the unfair methods of professional lifters. It was the first expression of my resentment against the conditions which I found to exist in the lifting fraternity. I believe it helped the cause of amateur lifting; although undoubtedly it made me extremely unpopular with many of the professionals.
I remember one stage-performer who protested quite violently. He was a little chap; so short in stature that he had, on his shoes, heels nearly two inches high. I saw his act. He had a trick scale; on which, after weighing himself, and the various parts of his bar-bell, he convinced the audience that the bell when assembled would weigh over 300 Ibs. And after he had put the bell together, he would gaily toss it to arm’s length overhead.
‘Well; he was a finely shaped young fellow, with an attractive development; but he could no more have “put up” 300 Ibs. than I could. I wanted him to make some lifts with the bells in my show-room. He declined. I asked him why he made such ridiculous statements about his lifting ability. He said, “You don’t understand me. I do not claim to be a strong man, but a showman. What difference does it make’? The audience does not know anything about lifting records. I give them a nice act, and they are satisfied.” Just the same I noticed that he traded on his reputation of being a record-holder. The fact that the record was fictitious did not worry him. He told me with great gusto, about the curiosity his scale excited, and how his professional rivals were always trying to find out the “secret,” or the “trick,” of his scales. He was rather flabbergasted when I produced from Illy library, a “Book of Mechanical Movements” and showed him the principle on which you can construct a balance scale which will balance even if the weight in one pan is several times as heavy as the weight in the other pan. (He was exposed in England and, I believe, has forsaken the stage.)
I could go on, and on, and tell you stories which would thoroughly disgust you with professional tactics. I got so disgusted fifteen years ago, that I vowed I would have nothing to do with any lifter or strong-man who faked his stuff. I devoted practically all my time to the body-building end of it, and finally got impatient with that. So much downright labor for such meager results. Oh, yes. You have heard of some who got great results. Some! How many? A few dozen at most. That about the few thousands who slaved and struggled, whom you never heard of? I calculate that about one thousand barbells are sold every month. Where are the thousands of very strong men?
About 1914 I was persuaded to help a man get together a “strong act.” I paid the training and coaching expenses; provided the material, costumes, etc. Being a crank on the subject, I insisted that every stunt be a real lift; that the exact weight be announced. True, the act included a one-arm bent-press, but the showman had to lift, not a dumb-bell, but two men sitting on either end of a metal bar. Also there was a stunt of carrying three men seated on a bicycle, at arm’s length aloft; and one of the pedals was removed; and, for it, was substituted an iron strap which fitted over the athlete’s shoulder. At that it was hard work. There were several try-outs, but none of the managers would book the act. They told me that “the act was not sensational enough”-that audiences did not want to see “straight stuff”; that if I would change the act and substitute a lot of strength fakes-where the lifter claimed thousands of pounds, but actually lifted, or supported, only hundreds of pounds-they would “consider it.” I didn’t. That was my first and last experience with stage stuff. (To the eternal credit of that particular “strong-man” let it be said that eventually, he returned to me every cent I had advanced for his training and equipment.)
Then this booklet was announced, I got an indignant letter saying that I would be a “bum sport” if I exposed the tricks of professional “strong-men; that I knew that a stage performer had to ‘fake,’ because the audience did not care for straight and honest lifting. And concluding with the rather extraordinary statement that “deep down in your heart you know those things are legitimate. (In the same way, certain concerns are circulating letters containing the statement that “deep down in his heart” Mr. Calvert still believes in heavyweights. When I see those letters I know I have them on the run.)
In the little old “Strength” magazine-not the present periodical of that name, but the one I published in 1914-1918-1 continually attacked faking and explained stage fakes. I still am against it. If theatre-goers prefer to see fakes, that is not my funeral. What I object to is stage-performers getting a spurious reputation for strength and then using that reputation to induce a lot of earnest, but uninformed, physical culturists to try violent exercise to their own harm. For years I did the best I knew how to popularize straight, honest lifting. Exposing fakes was part of my program.
I suppose about every physical culturist knows that stage-performers use hollow weights; that their acts are mostly supporting feats and that their claims as to the amount of weight supported and lifted are terrifically exaggerated. That every one of them is billed as “The Strongest Man in the World.” It is said that “they have to do it.” Perhaps it is necessary for them. I happen to be trying to show people, not how to become bar-bell lifters, or stage-performers, but how to become enduringly strong, and healthy, and shapely. It will take some talking to convince me that I can best serve the public by saying “Ssh, Ssh,” and by protecting the shaky reputation of a lot of precious fakers. Anyway, I am not the first. Professor Des Bonnet, of Paris, has always been a great advocate of straight stuff. In one of his books, he shows the picture of a well known old timer doing a harness lift; twelve men are standing on a platform and the athlete (?) on an upper platform had lifted the load a couple of inches off the floor. Des Bonnet had a note, saying, “Owing to the arrangement of the supporting chains, the athlete has to lift only a fraction of the actual weight.” Des Bonnet always made a point of the difference between stage-stunts and actual lifting.
Nothing angers the average stage strong-man so much as to publicly analyze his feats of strength. He considers that he has the right to fake. His only safety lies in making people think that he is the “one and only.” Sometimes he invites people up to try his weights, but that is only so that he can make them ridiculous. On one occasion a young friend of mine was so foolish as to accept the challenge of a “side-show” strong man. The performer would lie on his back, pull over a 200 lb. bar-bell and push it to arms’ length. ;Not a hard stunt, by any means. The friend was not only invited but urged to try it. He was about to complete the press-had his arms almost straight-when the performer yelled, “Oh, he is going to drop it”; and rushed over, and under the pretense of helping, actually threw his ·whole weight on the bell; and, of course, jammed it down so hard that the handle nearly caved in my friend’s breast bone. When the poor fellow, in intense pain, got up and staggered off the stage the performer said to the audience, “And he thinks he is strong.”
You have probably heard of the “heavy-end” dumb-bell trick, of the bell with the mercury loose in the handle, of the substitution trick, where the stage-performer juggles with a hollow iron dumb-bell, and forces his competitor to use a solid lead bell of the same size, and of rolling one end of a barbell under a curtain and unloading it out of sight of the audience, etc., etc.
To change the subject, did you ever hear of any two celebrated professional strong-men getting together and having a match. It has not happened in my time. True, there have been “matches” between minor strong men; those in the show business; but rarely in this country; so that the American public never hears of them. I used to be asked to give them publicity. For example, a series of matches would be projected in this style. I quote the promoter’s words, as I remember them. “I was to win the first match in T —-. A second match was to be held in 0 — at the other fellow’s lifts, and he would win that. Then having ‘worked it up,’ a third match would be held in : M , the other fellow’s hometown, at still another set of lifts; and since my tricks are the best, I was bound to win.” Just the same, you see, as in the fighting business.
I have never seen a genuine competition between widely advertised strong-men. I have read challenges galore; heard defiances hurled back and forth; read long arguments over which lifts were to be performed; and then after a lot of publicity had been secured, seen the whole match quietly dropped.
As I said before, not all the “strong-men” are like that. Some of them are really strong men as well as accomplished lifters. Of them, you rarely hear; since they are as modest as they are strong. They refuse to exaggerate their lifts, or to blow their own horns. Among that class I have many warm friends. I will tell you a good way to pick out a genuine strong-man. Such a chap is chary of making claims, and if he publishes his own picture, refuses to permit his photograph to be “retouched.”
On the other hand, you should discount all the claims of the professional who publishes pictures of himself, and has the photographs touched up–has muscles painted on his photograph-, so as to make his development seem much greater than it really is. A man who uses faked pictures is almost sure to make fake statements about his strength and measurements.