There is some magic association of numbers and strength poundages. For example, the first 1,000 pound barrier in the three Olympic lifts was made by Steve Stanko back in York in 1941. Later, much later, we had Dr. Fred Hatfield actually squatting with 1,000 lbs. and many others have followed. Another earlier barrier was the 500 pound bench press - now it's over 700 lbs. with Anthony Clark achieving highest total to date powerlifting. For most non-weightlifters, 300 lbs./136 kgs. Is just about enough to deadlift; so with such an appreciative weight, it would take a real strong man to lift that overhead.
In the United Kingdom, on July 24, 1913, at Crystal Palace, London, Edward Aston became the first Englishman to lift 300 lbs. overhead with one hand. Amongst his variety of feats, Aston could do a single arm snatch with 180 lbs. and single handed clean to the shoulder with 250 lbs./113.3 kg. Later, Ron Walker did 320 lbs. in this lift. Single handed lifts always appear impressive as they truthfully suggest that the performer could lift twice as much with two hands. This common misconception was capitalized upon by most of the old time professional strength performers and still fools the layman today.
Most weights look very much the same to an audience (i.e. 300 lbs. or 400 lbs. from a short distance vary little in appearance.) Most of the old timers substituted human weights, which are far more impressive than solid iron. Aston copied his predecessor Thomas Inch and lifted two young ladies overhead. Inch, in his turn, got the idea no doubt from Eugene Sandow. Sandow used to lift overhead with just his right hand, two immense spheres (via a "dumbbell"). On lowering the dumbell, from out of the two hallow weights would jump two men dressed as clowns, or at times young ladies in bulky - to give the impression of being heavy - dresses.
Sandow, although a great showman and pioneer of bodybuilding, was never, as he often claimed, the World's Strongest Man - that title was better fitted in his era to others like Cyr, Saxon, or Goerner. Saxon's power in single-handed lifting was frightening. He far exceeded Sandow's poundages; for example, regularly during his stage act, he pressed two men seated in a sling affair overhead, then passed them from one hand to the other. The combined weight of that lot was at times said to be 314 lbs./142 kgs. His best official poundage in the bent press - a single handed lift, often described as the "screw" lift because of the technique required to turn when lifting - was 371 lbs. in Stuttgart in 1905. Unofficially, he lifted as much as 386 lbs. witnessed by William Bankier (Apollo) and others, reported in detail at the time in Health and Strength magazine. With just his little finger, using a leather loop, he once raised overhead 297 lbs./135 kgs. - surely the most weight ever lifted aloft with just a single digit.
Lifting weights from the ground with a single padded finger ring has seen some mighty records made especially by men who specialized on such stunts. I recall a conversation with John Grimek when he mentioned he too used to practice such lifting, using 300 lbs. for reps, but gave up because it hurt too much. The record for such a lift was claimed by a relatively unknown weightlifter R. Weeks, who also claimed a world record chest expansion with 760 lbs. circa 1941 as reported in Strength and Health mag at the time. Better witnessed and believable is the poundage of the Coney Island strongman, Warren Lincoln Travis, who lifted the equivalent of four men with one finger, or the weight of 667 lbs./302.5 kgs.
The French Canadian Louis Cyr lifted 552.5 lbs with one digit. In the one handed deadlift, no doubt Hermann Goerner gets the award with a right hand deadlift of 727 1/2 lbs./330 kgs. On 8th Oct., 1920. Later Goerner, again using one hand, deadlifted a block of sandstone with a handle attached which weighed 734 1/2 lbs./333 kgs. Goerner, like Saxon, did many fine feats during his time with circuses, with both men being fine all around lifters.
John C. Grimek has always been an all rounder practicing a "thousand and one" exercises, including many feats of strength. On discussing Saxon and the bent press to me in a letter dated Jan. 26, 1984 - and later in direct conversation in London - he [Grimek] said, "...I may have related to you or some others that around 1960 or '61 when we moved to our gym on Ridge Ave., one afternoon I wanted to see how [the] over 400 lbs. would feel at my shoulder that Saxon experienced when he bent pressed over 400 lbs. I loaded the bar to 415 lbs. which weighed 418 1/2 lbs. After getting (rocking) it to my shoulder, it felt so comfortable I began to bend...just to see how it felt. Yet, I had pushed the weight to arms length, but did not make any attempt to straighten up, but allowed the weight to come down on the platform. Of all the times I would have appreciated having a picture taken, everyone in the gym apparently was too stunned to take one..." There is nothing I can add to that demonstration of power.
John Grimek, better known to most readers as a legendary bodybuilder, was as you can now imagine a tough all round lifter. Quoting his other single handed lifts as follows, "...side press, best effort during the 1940s was 265 lbs., keeping legs locked. One handed clean; I could clean anywhere from 225 to 270 lbs. Power snatch with right hand 210 lbs. and the one handed swing for a time was [my] favorite. I meant to bring this swing bar to London in 1949 for my exhibition. I was going to demonstrate at least 240 to 250 lbs..."
The range of lifts or feats of strength classified as "single handed" is enormous; from the dumbbell swings, snatches, cleans, presses etc. to one arm press ups, usually practiced by devotees of the martial arts. From giant lifters such as Paul Anderson, the first "squat machine, " who could do repetition presses with a 300 pound dumbbell; to the diminutive, but powerful Lillian Leitzel, who at just 4'9" and a bodyweight of 90 lbs., held the record for one handed chins doing 27 reps in Philadelphia U.S.A. back in 1918. Lillian, a circus performer, used to do over 100 reps regularly on a trapeze of her "one arm dislocation," or single arm giant swings (the audience used to count the reps) building up to a climax. Once, she performed 429 reps during a performance around 1920-30. She was very famous and popular in her time. During a performance on the high rings, she pressed into a handstand, only to have one of the rings collapse. She fell 29 feet to the floor, dying 28 days later on Feb. 13, 1931.
Certainly, the recently deceased Mr. Universe, Jack Delinger, could manage three or more reps of one arm chins with either hand; hopefully, current champs are also capable of demonstrating their ability along with muscle size.
It is encouraging to discover that many muscle only shows are now once again reverting to spacing our the physique line ups with strength acts and competitions. For example, maximum rep bench presses with bodyweight; high rep press ups or dips; or someone once again rolls out a challenge dumbbell.
It worked well before, let's hope it revives interest in single handed lifts...
IRON GAME/PHYSICAL CULTURE HISTORY