Super Strength - Chapter 14 - Lifting a Bar-Bell From Floor to Chest

By Alan Calvert

Posted on on 02 May 2002

Now let us go back to the difference between the French and German styles of lifting. As I said before, when a German was going to make a one-arm jerk, he would lift the bell from the floor to the chest with both hands, and the Frenchman would lift it all the way with one hand.

If you ask a beginner to lift a heavy bar-bell with one hand to his shoulder, he will instinctively try to make the lift by arm-strength. He leans over, grasps the middle of the handlebar and slowly straightens up. This brings the bar-bell about opposite the middle of his thigh. Then he tries to get the weight still higher by bending the arm; that is, he tries to "curl" it. He quickly finds that his biceps' strength is not sufficient to raise the weight; so he leans his body back at the waist and tries to swing the bell outwards, and the only result is that the weight rises a few inches and then falls back against his thighs.

Here is the way a trained lifter manages it. The method is like that employed in the snatch, except that in the snatch you use the over-grip, but in lifting a bar-bell to the shoulder you use the under-grip. The lifter stoops down, as in Fig. 74, with his knees bent considerably, his body inclined forward from the hips and his back perfectly flat. His arm is as straight as a poker. He then "stands up" quickly; and if he puts enough vigor into the movement, and assists himself by pressing hard against the left knee with the left hand, the bell will fly up in the air until it is about opposite the nipples. Then the lifter bends his knees and lowers his body in a straight line, pulls the bell directly towards his shoulder; and from that point he can lift the bell aloft. If the bar-bell is a light one, a good lifter does not have to employ the second bend of the legs, because the first effort will be powerful enough to make the bell fly to shoulder-height. On the contrary, with a really heavy bell, the first movement will not bring the handlebar much higher than the waist-line; and then the lifter has to go into a deep crouch in order to pull the bell in towards his shoulder. (As in the overhand jerk, some lifters step backwards and some forwards. Some of them practically kneel on the knee of the right leg.)

When a dumbbell is used, it should be put fore and aft between the feet, and the lifter should start in the same way and swing the bell slightly outwards as he pulls it upwards; because it is necessary to turn the bell completely over to get it into pressing position. It is easier to lift a 150-lb. bar-bell clean to the shoulder than to do the same thing with a 120-lb. dumbbell.

In order to get a quick start for a 100-yard dash, the sprinter goes into a crouch, because it has been proven that a man can release more energy and get a quicker start in that position than if he stands upright. A football linesman, when about to charge his opponent, also goes into a crouch; he can push harder in that position. When a lifter is going to raise a heavy weight clean to the shoulder, he crouches almost as low as the sprinter does, although he does not bend either his back as far forward or his legs quite as much at the knees.

There is another example of the superiority of bodily strength over arm strength. I have seen a man who could not make a correct one-arm curl with 75 lbs. pull a 200-lb. bar-bell clean to the shoulder with his right hand.

For some reason or other, when a French lifter pulls a bar-bell clean from floor to shoulder, he uses the over-grip, just as he does in the snatch; and just why the French should elect to handicap themselves in this way is hard to decide. In May 1917, at an exhibition in my factory, Anton Matysek tried to make a record for himself in the one-arm clean and press; but for some reason he used the over-grip in pulling the bell from floor to shoulder. He did 190 lbs. easily and failed at 201. I told him then, and I am still convinced, that if he had used the under-grip he could have pulled 220 lbs. To the shoulder quite easily. The palm of his hand would have been toward him when the bell was at the shoulder, and in order to get the bell in position for the press, all that would have been necessary was to swing the right hand end of the bell backwards. By using the over-grip he landed himself in position, Fig. 75; and then, in order to get the bell so that he could press it, he had to swing the left hand end backwards and duck far to the left, so that the handlebar could pass over his head. However, that position has nothing to do with the fact that he deliberately restricted the amount he could lift to his shoulder through using the over-grip. At that time he could press aloft from the shoulder 240 lbs., any time he tried to do so, and occasionally he'd go over 250 lbs. Therefore, if he had started by using the under-grip, he would have made a record of at least 200, "clean" all the way. As it was, he didn't even get a chance to try to press 201, because he failed--through using the over-grip--to bring the weight to his shoulder.

There is a French, or French-Swiss, family called De Riaz; and three brothers of that name, Emile, George and Maurice, are among the most famous of European lifters. Any one of them can do 180 lbs. in a one-arm swing and 190 lbs. in a one-arm snatch. I think it was Emile who made a one-arm swing with 193 3/4, and Maurice who did a one-arm clean and jerk with 231 lbs. George Lurich, who in his youth was one of the world's greatest lifters, lifted from the floor to the shoulder, with two hands, and then jerked aloft with the right arm, a bar-bell weighing 266 1/5 lbs. From what I have seen of Henry Steinborn, I am sure that he could break either of these records with ease. He once promised me that if there was sufficient inducement, he would make a one-arm jerk with 270 lbs., clean all the way, and a one-arm jerk of 300 lbs., two hands to the shoulder.

Arthur Saxon, whose best public record in the one-arm snatch was around 200 lbs., could pull a 300-lb. bar-bell "clean" to the shoulder, and then "bent-press" it to arm's length. Anything that Saxon could do in the "clean lifts" or the "quick lifts," Steinborn can beat by five percent.

Lifting a bell to the shoulder with two hands, preparatory to a one-hand overhead lift, is a comparatively simple matter. You grasp the middle of the bar with the right hand, under-grip, and with your left hand you take an over-grip the fingers of the left hand encircling the knuckles of the right hand. From the half-crouch, you straighten up and lift with both arms. In some countries it is allowed to stand a bar-bell on end and rock it into position, but that is more a matter of leverage than strength. Fig. 76 shows Matysek about to rock a 220-lb. bell to the shoulder. First, he will tilt the bell until the upper sphere is away from him; then he will make the bell lean in the other direction, so that the upper sphere will fall over his shoulder. As he does this, he will slide the palm of his left hand down the under side of the handle and toward the lower sphere. When the top end of the bell commences to dip backwards, he will allow his legs to bend at the knees, and with his left hand he will raise the front sphere; which will make the bell slowly topple into a horizontal position. Then he will stand erect by straightening the legs and be in a position to start his press.

In lifting a bar-bell with two hands clean to the shoulder, you use the over-grip. When you straighten the body from the crouch, the bell flies up to opposite your chest, and the elbows will be pointed outward and upwards. Then, when the bell loses its momentum, you have to bring your elbows down like a flash and at the same time pull the bell towards you; and if you do the movement correctly, your forearms will be vertical under the handlebar and your upper arms pressed against the sides of your chest; and just as in the other clean lifts, some lifters step forward, some backward, and the best ones squat straight down. The French authorities used to claim that the world's record in the two-arm clean and jerk was Arvid Anderson's 328 lbs., although Des Bonnet recognized Cyr's 345 lbs. Steinborn's official 347-3/4 is the present record, and his unofficial 375 lbs. has never been approached. In German and Austrian competitions the rules formerly required (and may still require) that a lifter about to make a two-arm press should raise the bell clean to the chest; as it was considered that anyone should be able to raise clean to the chest the amount of weight which he could press to arms' length; because in the press you use the strength of the arms and the shoulders, without any assistance from the legs. As said in Chapter 12, the lifter about to make a two-arm jerk was allowed to raise the weight to the chest in any way he pleased. I have no partiality for the Germans and Austrians, but in any discussion of weightlifting, it is necessary to take those nations into account, because they numbered their lifters by the tens of thousands. The reason that they had a number of men who could raise over 370 lbs. in the two-arm jerk, while France had none who could raise 350, and England none who could raise 325, was bed the German rules permitted the lifters to practice with heavier weights. For a long time the French and English lifters never had a chance to show what they really could do in a two-arm jerk, because the amount of weight they could handle in that lift was limited by the amount they could raise clean to that chest. I am not interested in any controversy between the German-Austrian lifters on the one hand and the French-English lifters on the other, but I am vitally interested in knowing the amount of weight which can be lifted by the strength of any muscle or set of muscles. Since everyone knows that a lifter can raise from his shoulders to arms' length above the head a greater weight than he can bring clean from the floor to the chest, it is perfectly plain that any lifter, whatever his nationality, who restricts himself to the "clean" style will never be able to reach the limit of his powers in the overhead lift. For several years the world's record in the two-arm jerk was held by William Tuerk, an Austrian giant, who lifted 364 lbs., and the citizens of Vienna were so proud of him that they presented him with the freedom of the city. His record was later eclipsed by several other Austrians, Tandler, Grafl, Eicheldrat, Witzelsberger and Steinbach. Steinbach took a 386-lb. bar-bell to the shoulders and jerked it aloft twice in succession. About 1912 a new star appeared in the person of Karl Swaboba. This man, while not very tall, was immensely broad and weighed about 320 lbs. (He should not be confused with the Mr. Swoboda who is prominent in physical culture circles in this country.) I understand that Swaboba of Vienna made a two-arm press with 352 lbs., and a two-arm jerk with 402 lbs.; and that in that latter lift it took him five separate motions to raise the bell from the floor to the chest. When he did get it to his chest, he jerked it aloft quite easily. It is further said that on one occasion he made a two-arm jerk with 440 lbs. after four men had lifted the bell to his chest. I do not guarantee the accuracy of the foregoing figures, because I have lost, or given away, most of my old books and magazines which dealt with the subject.

This is not a book about records, nor does it pretend to tell you all about the most scientific methods of performing the standard lifts. One could write a book of considerable size, and deal with nothing except records and the way they were made. What we are concerned with is the creation of bodily strength; and since bodily strength is a great factor in the two-arm jerk, I have to devote a good deal of time to that lift. If you are going to practice it, I certainly advise you to learn the so-called "continental" method of raising the bell to the chest, for otherwise you will be unable to determine how much you really can raise in a two-arm jerk.

Authorities on scientific lifting claim that a well-trained and very skillful man, who has great agility as well as great bodily strength, should be able to raise, in a two-arm jerk, fifty percent more than he can riase in the two-arm press. This is a most interesting subject, because investigation proves that a middle-sized man, well developed and quick in his movements, can deliver much more power in proportion to his bodily weight than can the big giants. Cyr could make a two-arm press with 315 lbs., and could do only about ten per cent more if he used the jerk. When Swaboba did all the lifting himself, his best record in the jerk was less than fifteen percent better than his best record in the press. Arthur Saxon, who weighed about 200 lbs., and was exceedingly quick for a big man, showed a difference of about thirty-three and a third percent, as his records were 260 in the press and 345 in the jerk. Steinborn, who was the quickest heavy man I have ever seen, showed a difference of about forty percent for he has raised 375 in the two-arm jerk clean all the way, and I believe that his best record in the press is about 265.

There are a number of men weighing around 140 to 150 lbs. who have reached the fifty-percent standard. Max Sick, who weighed about 145 lbs., succeeded in raising 300 lbs. in the two-arm jerk, and I understand that his best record in the two-arm press was about 220 lbs. There are several of the European lifters in the 140 to 150-lb. class who can make a two-arm press with about 200 lbs. and a two-arm jerk with about 300 lbs. The ambition of every lifter is to raise double his own weight aloft in the two-arm jerk. So far there are less than a dozen men who have done this, and they are comparatively small men. I know two or three amateurs in this country who are rapidly approaching that standard. This matter of the two-arm jerk should be a great source of satisfaction to the lifter of average size, because it proves that a man does not necessarily have to be a giant in size or weight in order to be possessed of super-strength. Just think! Little Max Sick, weighing 143 pounds, did 330 in a two-arm jerk; and the gigantic Swaboba, who weighed over 300 (which is twice as much as Sick weighed), could raise only about 70 lbs. more than the smaller man could.

Super-strength is as much a matter of muscular development and co-ordination as it is of mere size and bulk. The middle-sized man who can raise twice his weight in the two-arm jerk is a far better athlete than the giant who can raise only a little more than his own weight. Moreover, super-strength positively can be cultivated, which is a very satisfying thought.

In the old days of lifting, that is, up to forty years ago, American athletes were acquainted with only one style of pushing a weight overhead. At that time such a thing as a bar-bell was almost unknown, although there were plenty of short-handled dumbbells. The best lifter of those days was the man who could take the heaviest dumbbell in his right hand, swing it to his shoulder, and then, while standing erect, push it slowly to arm's length overhead. In weightlifting circles that is known as a one-arm "military" press. The lifter is required to stand with the heels together, the legs straight and, as the name implies, to keep his body as upright as that of a soldier standing "at attention." In some parts of the world the lifter is made to stand with the left hand pressed against the outside of his left thigh, and in other parts he is allowed to hold the left arm horizontally to the side. The lift to the shoulder is unimportant, because the weight used is not very heavy; but after it is at the shoulder, you have to hold the bell slightly away from you and slightly in front of you, as in Fig. 78, and then slowly push it up; and if you lean your shoulders back an inch, or an inch to the left, you're disqualified. The force which lifts the bell is supplied by a contraction of the deltoid muscle on the point of the right shoulder and the triceps muscle on the back of the arm. The body muscles are involved because they have to keep the body in an upright position; the legs have but little to do. It is much harder to bring your arm directly overhead when the body is held erect than when you lean the body over sideways or forwards; because when you do lean the body over you are pushing the arm more out to the side, even though the bell travels up in a vertical line.

Arthur Saxon, who could make a one-arm bent press with 336 lbs., could not military-press 130 lbs.; and Sandow, who had a bent-press record of 271, could military-press only 121. The "military press" is a test of pure arm and shoulder strength, and, as I will show you in a later chapter, the bent-press is a feat of bodily strength. I can't tell you the record in the military press. In a previous book I said that Witzelsberger, of Vienna, had done 154 lbs., but I have since been told that while Witzelberger kept his heels together and his legs straight, he bent his body over slightly. It is said that Cyr once made a military press with a 165-lb. bar-bell, and Mr. Jowett says he saw the giant, La Vallee, do 165 lbs. The tradition is that Michael Meyer could make a one- arm military press of 150 pounds without much trouble. (This is the same man who is said to have muscled-out 112 lbs. to the front.) When doing a "strong" act with a circus, Meyer would stand with his back to one of the tent-poles. Attendants would wind a rope around his body, binding it fast to the post, but leaving his right arm free. He would hold his right hand in front of the right shoulder, and the attendants would put a 150-lb. bell in it, and Meyer would slowly push it aloft. This is not as hard as it sounds, because the ropes which encircled Meyer's body gave him a splendid brace. The man who can make the biggest one-arm military press is the man who can muscle-out the heaviest weight; which proves that a powerful shoulder muscle is the thing that counts most. The fact that Cyr could military-press 165 lbs. is explained by his ability to muscle- out 135 lbs.; and the same thing applies to Meyer, to Zottman and others of the big men.

Last summer I saw Robert Snyder make a beautiful one-arm military press with 91 lbs., and he weighed only a little over 140 lbs. He just failed in 96 lbs. He put the bell up easily enough, but he bent a little bit to the side.

In a two-arm military press, the weight should be lifted clean and then pressed aloft without any backward bend of the body or without the slightest bend of the legs. Your record in the two-arm military press should be nearly double your record in the one-arm military press. Shoulder strength is just as important, and back strength is also necessary. If you are of average size, the bell you would use in a one-arm military press is not as heavy as you are, probably not half as heavy as you are; but in a two-arm press it is possible to use more than your own weight, and in order to keep the body upright, your back must be very strong. The reason I can believe that Cyr made a one-arm military pres with 165 lbs. is because his record in the two-arm press is 315, and they say that he hardly leaned back at all when he made that two-arm press.

"Military-pressing," like "muscling-out," is a test of strength rather than an exercise. In making a regular two-arm press, the athlete is allowed to stand with the feet apart and one foot slightly in advance; but he must not bend the legs after the weight has been brought to the chest or while he is pushing it aloft; although he is allowed to lean considerably backwards from the waist.

There is an intermediate lift between the two-arm press and the two-arm jerk that is sometimes called "the push." After the bell is at the chest, the lifter leans his shoulders forward and brings his hips backwards, as in Fig. 79 and then, as he suddenly pushes the bell aloft, he brings his hips forward and bends over backward, as in Fig. 80. I can see no particular advantage in this style of lifting, either as a competitive event or as a training exercise. You can raise more by the "push" than by the press, but not so much as by the jerk. In one-arm lifting, you accomplish a right-arm push by standing with the feet apart and then bending to the right, as in Fig. 81; and then swinging the body to the left and slightly forward as you push the bell aloft, as in Fig. 82. A very strong workman or athlete seems to instinctively adopt this style the first time he tries to "push up" a heavy dumbbell.

There is also a variation called "the side press," and that can be dealt with in another chapter.