Some Amazing Feats of Grip Strength

By David Gentle

Reprinted with permission of The Iron Master



The passage of time is such that all man's early achievements are eventually beaten. The field of strength is no different to any other sphere as witnessed almost monthly by some amazing power feats in the sport of Powerlifting, especially the deadlift.

Walter Thomas, World Champion, with a mass of accomplishments which include being heaviest man in powerlifting to total 10 times his own bodyweight, came up with all time best lifts of a 771 lb. squat, a 518 lb. bench press and a deadlift of an amazing 821 lbs. in the 198 lb. bodyweight class.

Prior to this, I have at hand miscellaneous examples of other deadlifts: Texas lifter, Joe Hood, deadlifted 793 lbs. (360 kgs.) at a bodyweight of 220 lbs. This lift equaled the weight of the long standing record of the amazing strength athlete Herman Goerner, who did this feat back in 1920 at the same bodyweight.

The deadlift is truly the greatest test of power devised, merited according to bodyweight, with the diminutive yet tough eleven times World Champion powerlifter Hideaki Inabi deadlifting in excess of 500 lbs. (226.7 kgs.) at just 114 lbs. (51.7 kgs.) Bwt. A great deadlifter was John Kuc with 854 lbs. (387 kgs.) or Scott Warman of Houston, Texas with a 859 lb. deadlift and Doyle Kennady's 903 lb. (409.5 kgs.) deadlift done way back almost ten years ago at the Budweiser Hawaii P.C. contest. Before we leave this dreaded lift, we have to mention the previous named Goerner who did a One Handed Deadlift of 734.5 lbs. (333 kgs.) on the 20th July 1920 in Dresden (this was actually a block of sandstone with a handle attached). In more recent times, Peter B. Cortese from the USA achieved a One Arm deadlift of 370 lbs., (167 kgs) which was just 22 lbs. (9.9 kgs) over triple bodyweight..

Without tough fingers and a strong grip, your poundages would obviously be limited and the best exercise for the third powerlift is deadlifting itself, in high sets of low reps, adding poundage as you progress with occasional doubles and singles, working up to limit lifts and personal bests. Many stalwarts in an attempt to toughen fingers and hands, try variety of themes, lifting with several or single digits or via "pinch lifts." To excel in any type of lift, be it standard or so called "odd lift" requires time and effort and some understanding of previous standards and records to assess your own performances and set targets. With almost over-emphasis placed today on basic favorites, even say curls, rowing, press behind neck, etc., in most instances you have to delve back into the past for an era when greater all-around ability was expected and encouraged in physical endeavors. To give you some ideas while you are getting your batteries re-charged after the last set of deadlifts, let us roam around a little in the archives for examples of finger, hand and forearm power, hopefully to both interest "The Iron Master" readers and perhaps to inspire you into giving just a little extra time training Grip Strength...

The early Roman Emperor, Cains Maximus, who was reputedly 8 foot tall, was said to be able to squeeze stones into powder with his fingers. Salvins, a strong man from Ancient Rome, could climb a sturdy ladder with a 200 lb. (90.7 kg) weight tied to both hands and another 200 lbs. attached to his feet -- not so unbelievable with similar climbing stunts with weights (usually a horse) being exhibited in more recent times by Kate Sandwina's father Phillip Brumbach and later "King of the Wrist Wrestler's", the mighty Mac Batchelor (1910-1984.) In the middle ages, a Richard Joy from Kent (England) could break a rope which had a breaking strain of over 35 hundredweights with his bare hands.

One of the most famous early English strongmen was Thomas Topham (1710- 1749), a publican (inn keeper) living in London. He was not a huge man compared to some, being about 5 ft. 10 inches and around 14 stone. Topham, although possessing all around strength, excelled in gripping feats, most of which are faithfully documented in a contemporary authors witness of his strength namely Dr. John Theo Desagulaiers work (London 1763) called, "A course of Experimental Philosophy." Topham (sometimes spelled Thopham) could snap pipe stems in his outstretched fingers, could crush pipe bowls by squashing them with his first and second fingers with just lateral pressure, bend thick pokers by stroking them in a blow across his forearm (as did John Grimek in the 1950's after his posing exhibitions) and would bend thick iron bars around his neck. He is also credited with being able to lift 224 lbs. (101.6 kgs) overhead "easily" with just his little finger (using a loop)...

A superb exercise to develop grip and flexor strength of the hands and forearms, is the practice of "pinch gripping" weight, lifting the weights by pinching the edge of the discs with the fingers. Recognized lifts are only those which use smooth ended side plates, not the type with a sunken ridge which would naturally make the feat easier. While lifting chalk is accepted to counteract against wet or slippery fingers or discs, no other help is allowed. The weights are to be lifted purely by finger and thumb power. The system used to increase power in pinch gripping is as in all other strength methods, for example via steady progression against increasing resistance. Start with small, light discs and work your way up to large ones, using low reps and single attempts for power progress.

Although the discs can be lifted as just single large plates or several gripped together, the most usual practice is to load two or more onto a central bar for convenience, but still using grip strength alone. Using this method of a centrally loaded bar, Herman Goerner (1891 - 1956) lifted 111 lbs. (50. 3 kgs) on 10th July 1934.

I hasten to add Goerner did the above lift without any previous practice (I think the center "bar" was in fact a chair leg!!) and was no doubt capable of lifting far more with practice. Another stunt of Hermann's was to write his name on a blackboard in chalk with a 110 lbs./50 kg. weight dangling from his thumb. Goerner is recognized by most strength historians as probably being the greatest exponent of gripping power in history, despite his reluctance to train (e.g. his biographer Edgar Mueller stated, "[Goerner] could never be persuaded to train on dead lifts and he always lifted within his power," leaving to ones imagination what he could really have achieved. His grip surpassed that even of Louis Uni or Apollon who's forearms were some of the largest muscular developed ever recorded.)

In more modern times, however, powerlifter and competitor in the World's Strongest Man contest, the huge Cleve Dean of Atlanta, Georgia, at a height of 6 ft. 7 inches and at a bodyweight an incredible 450 lbs. (chest normal 62 inches, biceps 23 inches) had a forearm size measured by the late David Willoughby (and when he measured, he measured correctly) of 18 inches, and a wrist of 10 inches.

Without the use of a bar onto which assemble the discs, but using instead larger discs or harder still several discs pinched tight together, many fine records have been achieved. Including the feat of the pre-mentioned Apollon, who using his four fingers and the palm of his hand in a bent position lifted a 90 lbs. barbell plate which he then muscled out for example, held with straight arm at shoulder height in front of him circa 1892.

Looking at an early edition of the now defunct Strength and Health mag (June 1941), writer Robert L. Jones described the amazing feats of one Al Berger from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Al specialized on being able to "chin" himself by pinch gripping onto 3 inch rafters -- a stunt at which he excelled. He also practiced lots of lifting barbell plates by pinch lifting.

In the article, Al is mentioned as being able to pinch grip the flat sides of two thirty five pound York barbell plates (total being 34 kgs) lifting the discs to his shoulders via the weight lifting move known as the clean. The same article also mentions Al's ability to pinch grip a York 75 lb. plate with an extra 33 lbs. attached. Berger's bodyweight was at that time about 193 lbs. with a height of just under 6'. Berger could reverse curl with palms facing downwards a barbell weighing 150 lbs. (68 kgs). World Champ David Horne continues to push the pinch grip records currently at the time of writing. Holding the World Record left hand pinch grip with 61 and a quarter kgs., he also lifted with his left hand 45 kgs., walked 35 ft. put the weight down, turned around and then pinch gripped it again to return. He has also made a 182.5 kgs. middle finger deadlift (403 lbs.) at 87 kg b/w (using his middle finger in each hand.)

Few men could emulate former Mr. America Mike Dayton, a sensational strongman renown for his ability to break regulation handcuffs. It was good to meet up again with Mike in London at the 1994 Mr. Universe contest in Birmingham UK. Mike belongs to that elite group of men who have been capable of bending and in some cases breaking coins. Throughout the history of strength, less than a handful of men have been capable of such a demonstration of strength, for example bending or breaking coins by the pure power of their fingers alone. Peter The Great, first Czar of Russia was said to be able to break silver coins with the strength of his tough hands and fingers. John Marx (Grunn) the Luxembourg strongman (1868-1912) better known for his ability to break horseshoes was also reputed to have and broken American coins (an American dime or 10 cents coin) in front of witnesses of repute. Polish strongman Franz Bienkowski who's stage name was "Cyclops" was known as "The Coin Breaker" busting apart coins again in front of expert witnesses, for example lifters and other strongmen of note, using just thumbs and fingers.

Charles Vansittart billed as "The Man With The Iron Grip," could bend an Old English penny by holding it in one hand with finger and thumb and pressing it against the ball of his other thumb, continually bending it until it broke. Remember however the old English penny was quite large, a modern penny is both smaller and harder to grip, being almost impossible to bend other than in a vice.

Another British strongmen credited with coin bending was William P. Caswell who also broke pennies. By contrast, Joe "The Mighty Atom" Greenstein specialized in biting through chains and nails of steel. Yes its true, he could actually bite through metal and would bend coins by holding them between his front teeth then pushing upwards on the coin with his thumbs.

Just to end, talking about tough "pinkies," how about Arthur Saxon's (1878-1912) lifting of 297.61 lbs. 135 kgs. overhead with his little finger (the weight was attached to a hook, but it still must have hurt like hell).

In 1933, Goerner deadlifted a barbell using just two fingers of both hands which weighed 595.75 lbs. (270 kgs). Using just one finger of each hand (the second usually being the toughest) a relatively obscure lifter weighing 198 lbs., named John McLoughlin, lifted a massive 411 lbs. via the deadlift circa 1954. And for the finale, Warren Lincoln Travis using a special padded ring, lifted with one finger on 5th Nov. 1907 in New York the enormous weight of 667 lbs. (302.5 kgs) -- which to bring into context is just about equivalent to lifting four grown men.

Well that's enough inspiration. If you wish to learn more about these stunts and how to train for them, obtain "Developing Grip Strength by David Gentle and David Webster," also John Brookfield's "Mastery of Hand Strength."

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