Super Strength - Chapter 23 - Some Out-Worn Superstitions

By Alan Calvert

Posted on on 02 July 2002

I can state positively that the easiest and quickest way to get a magnificent build, and the super-strength that goes with it, is to practice a progressive schedule of developing exercises with an adjustable bar-bell; but if your friends learn that you contemplate training with a bar-bell they will endeavor to dissuade you. You will be told that using bar-bells will make you slow and "muscle-bound," will make you die young, that it will strain your heart, etc.

Years ago, when I first got interested in bar-bell work, I was told just these things, and I admit that I used to worry about them and wonder whether or not they were true. When your friends tell you these things, it is likely that they will sincerely believe all the things they say; and so, their objections are worthy of serious consideration. You cannot dispose of an opponent's arguments just by saying that what he says is not true, and that what you say is true. You should have some facts on which to base your arguments, and happily, I have those facts. I admit that some of the popular ideas about bar-bell exercise are supported by the experience of the lifters and "Strong Men" who were produced in this country from fifty to seventy-five years ago. In those days, there was no such thing as an adjustable bar-bell, that is, one which could be easily and quickly changed in weight. All they had were short-handled, solid dumbbells. The big gymnasium would probably have a pair of 25-pounders, a pair of 50-pounders, one 75-pounder, one 100-pounder, and possibly a still bigger dumbbell, weighing 150 pounds. With these bells, the athletes could do only a limited number of exercises, and those exercises developed only the muscles of the arms and shoulders. Practically all they did was to slowly "curl" a dumbbell from the hip to the shoulder, in order to develop the biceps' muscles, and then "push" the dumbbell overhead, in order to develop the triceps and shoulder muscles. With such dumbbells as they owned, that was about all they could do; or at least all that they knew how to do. It seems they knew nothing whatever about any of the "quick lifts," or any of the exercises which develop the chest itself, or which strengthen the back, or which develop the legs. Their idea seemed to be that with a pair of heavy dumbbells, you did exactly the same exercises which you would do with a pair of 5-lb. dumbbells. (As a matter of fact, there are still many people who cling to that idea, thinking that if you use heavy bar-bells, you take one in each hand and go through a drill consisting of many arm movements, the way you do when you're using a pair of light dumbbells.)

If a man did take a 50-lb bell or a 75-lb. dumbbell and practice half an hour or an hour, and just did "curling" a bell and pushing it aloft, I can quite see that his arms and shoulders would be developed out of all proportion to the rest of the body, and if he made his practice too strenuous the arm and shoulder muscles could become stiffened, and, consequently, slow in action. I understand that such cases happened, although they were before my time, and I have never seen a man so stiffened.

I can also understand that if a man had only solid dumbbells to work with, and, consequently, was unable to adjust the weight of the bells to suit his strength, he might quite possibly overexert himself, and overexertion frequently results in heart strain.

These old-timers who trained in the manner above described were tremendously handicapped. They reaped but few of the benefits which can be gotten from the intelligent use of the present-day adjustable bar-bell. Such strength as they obtained was entirely in their arms and shoulder, and, consequently, many of them were top-heavy in build. Notwithstanding the fact that they specialized on arm exercises, they never were able to realize their own possibilities in the way of bodily strength, nor to do as much with their arms as they should have done. Their "curling" and "pressing" records seem like kindergarten stunts compared with the records of the modern lifters.

Nevertheless, a few very strong men were develop4ed in the middle of the last century in this country, and the surprising thing is, that most of those "Strong Men" in their own cases contradicted all the accepted ideas; that is, instead of being slow and "muscle-bound," dying young, and having weak hearts, they were unusually speedy, lived to a great age, and had no heart trouble whatever.

The first great American "Strong Man" was a certain Dr. Winship, who lived in New England. The first great American advocate of bar-bell living was Thos. Wentworth Higginson. Mr. Higginson was a very prominent literary man of his time, and he happened to contribute to the Atlantic Monthly. He used to take a great pleasure in recounting the sensational strength feats of Dr. Winship, and he advocated the use of bar-bells and weights, not for the means of record making, but as what he called "health lifts." Mr. Higginson was far ahead of his time. Apparently, he was the first man to realize the possibility of creating great bodily strength by lifting really heavy weights by the strength of the back and legs.

I don't know what became of Winship, nor how old he was when he died; but I do know that he did all kinds of lifting, and that he was prodigiously strong. Following Dr. Winship came two gentlemen by the names of Curtis and Buermeyer. The first named was known in his later years as "Father Bill Curtis," and for a great many years before his death he was connected with the Amateur Athletic Union, and probably did more than any other individual to popularize track and field sports. In his youth, Curtis was a great user of dumbbells. According to the old record books he took in each hand a 100-lb. dumbbell, "curled" them slowly to the shoulders and "pushed" them slowly aloft. To "push" that much weight is a stunt that any modern amateur can do with ease; but "curling" 100 lbs. in each hand is a great feat of strength. Curtis lifted about 3600 pounds in a "back" lift. He was big and tremendously powerful; but his bulk and great development did not prevent him from making an official record of 10 seconds in a hundred-yard dash. When he died, Curtis must have been 55 or 60 years old. He and a friend named Ormsby made an ascent of Mt. Washington, were caught in a blizzard and frozen to death. Up to the time of his unfortunate accident, Curtis apparently retained most of the activity and most of the strength he had as a youth.

His friend and contemporary, Mr. Buermeyer, was also a great sprinter and a great lifter. I believe this gentleman died a year of two ago, in Brooklyn, at the age of 83, and it was said that even when he was 80 he would practice regularly with a 100-lb. bar-bell. The use of bar-bells did not seem to affect either the speed, the health, or the heart strength of these two men.

I became actively interested in bar-bell work in 1902. At that time I was instrumental in persuading a lot of young men to take up bar-bell exercises, and I am happy to say that almost all of these men got great results from their exercises; that is, they became very much bigger, stronger, well developed and healthier. I am still in touch with most of those men, who are now at, or past, middle age; and I am happy to say that those men have retained their great strength and development, and that they seem to be just as healthy and just as active as they were when they finished their first training with bar-bells.

In 1902 there were several well-known professional and amateur lifters who must have been between 30 and 40 years old at that time. Those men, while they have retired from active competition or exhibition work, are still living, and each one of them is still two or three times as strong as the average. No one of them seems to have suffered any of the ill effects which the use of bar-bells is supposed to produce.

In the Strength magazine for April, 1924, I wrote an article about my friend, Mr. George Zottman, who first appeared as a professional lifter about 1890, who retired a few years later, and who today, at the age of 57, is a physical marvel. His picture is shown in Fig. 109. Another man, a little older than Zottman, is John Y. Smith, of Boston. There are few men in athletic history who have ever done as much lifting as this man. Smith retired from professional work in 1903, when he was 37 years old. One of his friends, hearing that Smith had retired, said to him, "Now that you have stopped lifting big weights, you will go to pieces and die soon." "Nonsense!" replied Smith, "I will meet you here when I am 50 years old, and I will put up 200 lbs. with either hand." An argument ensued and a bet was made. In 1911, when 45 years old, Smith emerged from his retirement and gave a wonderful exhibition of lifting. On his fiftieth birthday, in 1916, he happened to remember the bet, and determined to win it. As he had not even touched a bar-bell since 1912 he put in a few days training, and a few days after his fiftieth birthday he went to the gymnasium and put up a 203 1/2-lb. dumbbell first with the right hand and then with the left hand. Early in 1924 I had a letter from one of my Boston correspondents, who said that Smith still occasionally went to the Y.M.C.U. in Boston, and that he had recently seen his making a one-arm "push-up" with a 200-lb. dumbbell. Pretty fair for a man of 58! Smith's picture is shown in Fig. 110. That picture was taken twenty years ago; but his friends say that it would be a good picture of him today, and that although he takes but little exercise he still retains his figure and his immense strength and energy.

When it is said that a man has an "enlarged heart," it does not necessarily imply that his heart has been damaged. In some cases enlarged heart is quite serious, because, as a result of some strain, the wall of the heart has been stretched, and thereby became weaker and thinner; or it may be that the heart has been enlarged in a way that affects one of the valves, so that it no longer fits, and thus causes a leakage. The walls of the heart are of muscular tissue, and if one trains correctly, it is possible to thicken and strengthen the heart walls, just as you thicken and strengthen an exterior voluntary muscle. If a man builds up his exterior muscles he should build up his heart muscles at the same time. The condition just described is known as true, or concentric, hypertrophy. A heart so developed will be somewhat bigger and stronger than before, and there is not the slightest danger of that heart deteriorating after a man stops training.

Heavy exercise of any kind makes a great demand on the lungs, and bar-bell work is no exception. By performing the leg and back exercises described in Chapters II and IV, you can increase your lung power just as easily as by long-distance running. One of the first things that a beginner must learn is to breathe in rhythm with the movements when he is exercising. He should breathe in as the muscles are contracted, and breathe out as they are relaxed; or vice versa. If in any exercise the body is bent at the hips, it is wisest to breathe out as the body is bent, and breathe in as it is straightened. For example, when doing a back exercise like the one shown in Figs. 10 and 11, you should breathe out as you bend over, and breathe in as you stand up, because as you bend over the body is compressed in a way that leaves you less lung room. In the same way, when doing the abdominal exercise shown in Fig. 36, you should breathe out as you bend and raise the body, and breathe in as you lower the body.

Never attempt to hold the breath while making several successive and vigorous motions, because if you did that the effect on the heart would be just as bad as when swimming under water. When making a very heavy lift it is sometimes necessary to exhale and inhale several times during the course of the lift. Some lifters have the business of breath down to a science; as, for example, Mr. George Jowett who, when making a one-arm "bent press," breathes in at three separate stages.

There is a theory that one can exert more strength when the lungs are full of air. This is true in regard to some bar-bell lifts, because if the chest is slightly expanded and the air retained in the lungs for these few seconds while the arm is being used, the ribs are held in one position, and so the muscles attached to the ribs have a stationary, instead of a moving, anchorage, and can be flexed with greater force.

There is a popular superstition to the effect that the use of heavy bar-bells is hard on the heart; yet I, who have known (and still know) thousands of lifters, have never known one man who contracted heart trouble from the use of bar-bells or in doing actual lifting.

One of the causes of heart trouble is overstrain, but heart trouble can be caused by under feeding and holding the breath just as easily as by any overexertion. In your experience you have frequently heard references to the so-called "athletic heart," and it is possible that you, like many others, may believe that indulgence in any form of athletics causes a permanent lesion of the heart. From what I can learn swimming produces more cases of heart trouble than any other kind of sport, because in swimming all the muscles are used simultaneously, and the breathing has to be done in a certain way. Nevertheless, a man can swim moderately for years and never injure his heart the slightest. It is when competing in swimming races, and particularly in swimming under water that heart strain takes place. It is the height of folly to make continuous vigorous exertions at the same time you are holding the breath, and for that reason I consider swimming under water to be the most dangerous of sports.

In the same way a man may practice running for the exercise he gets out of it, and actually build up his heart and make it stronger. If a man strains his heart through running, it is almost always as a result of taking place in some strenuous race in which he forces himself to continue long after he is exhausted. The hardest of all competitive sports is rowing, especially the four-mile college boat races. No man with a weak heart has any business in a racing shell; although a man with a weak heart would never last long enough to win his place in the boat. Although the exertion is strenuous in the extreme, it does not seem to cause heart trouble. An investigation proved that college rowing men lived longer on the average than the non-athletic members of their classes, and in this investigation they collected statistics on classes that had graduated as long as fifty years ago.

Heavy gymnastic work does not cause heart strain, and neither does bar-bell work.

I understand in the history of lifting there have been two or three men who have broken a blood vessel or sustained heart failure when making some strenuous lift. I say that I understand this to be so, because I have never been able to find the names of those men.

Progressive exercise with an adjustable bar-bell is just about the safest of all ways of making yourself big and strong. This is because every sensible person who uses a bar-bell naturally adjusts it to weights that he can handle with ease and comfort, and he increases the amount of weight he is using only when his increased weight and development shows him that it is safe to do so.

In this respect bar-bell exercise has many advantages over gymnasium work. If you go to a gymnasium and try to develop yourself by practicing vigorous stunts on the swinging rings, horizontal bars, the parallel bars, etc., you have to handle the weight of your body in every stunt. You find that either you can lift or support your weight, or else you cannot, and in the second case it is impossible to make yourself lighter by cutting off an arm or a leg. With a bar-bell you can readily adjust the weight to suit the strength of one muscle, or of any other muscle of set of muscles. With a combination-set you can adjust the kettle-bells to fifteen or twenty pounds for arm exercises, and a minute later you can be practicing heavy back-and-leg exercise with the bar-bell form adjusted to three or four hundred pounds.

Suppose you and a number of other men had agreed to get together and build a tennis court. Your job might be to trundle a wheelbarrow and transport dirt from one part of the court to another. If you were told three or four days in advance that such was to be your job, you would not consider it necessary to do a whole lot of light exercise as a preparation; but when the day came you would report with your sleeves rolled up ready for work. If, after wheeling a few loads, you found that the other fellows were overloading the wheelbarrow, you would say, "Look here! You're making this thing too heavy. Put less dirt in this time." Your protective instinct would immediately assert itself. You would know that if the wheelbarrow was overloaded to such an extent that it made you struggle along, you would overexert yourself, and you might strain your back. Therefore, you would do less weight each trip. In using a bar-bell you do exactly the same thing. If you attempt an exercise of lift and the weight seems to be too heavy, you immediately reduce the weight by removing some of the iron plates until you get a weight which you can handle with a fair amount of ease, and with benefit to yourself. In the old days when they had nothing except solid dumbbells, a lifter did not have this advantage; and if a man of that period hurt himself, it was probably because he tried to push up a 150-lb. dumbbell when he was strong enough to push up only 110 lbs. Having nothing between 100 and 150 lbs. he had no choice.

I have heard of some men straining their backs or their shoulders by lifting heavy bar-bells or dumbbells, but invariable these were men who were using a bar-bell for the first time. It has always seemed very strange to me that the average man is very reluctant to admit that he is less strong than any of his friends. He will willingly admit that some big stranger may be stronger, but he will not yield the palm to any of his friends, especially if they are about his own size. If a crowd of young fellows happen to come across a 100-lb. dumbbell, and one of their number "puts it up," then every other man in the crowd will have a try at it; and in that case it can easily happen that one or two of them can strain their shoulders or back. It is just as foolish for an untrained man of average size to attempt to push up a 100-lb. dumbbell with one hand, as it would be for a non-swimmer to jump off a ferry-boat in the middle of a deep river and try to swim ashore; or as foolish as it would be for you to try to ride a hundred miles the first time you got on a bicycle. When you learn swimming you do not start in forty feet of water, but at a four-foot depth; when you start to ride a bicycle you first have to learn to stay on, and then for a few days you ride only short distances. When you start to use a bar-bell you should apply the same principle. You begin with your bar-bell adjusted to light weights and by gradually increasing the weight, build yourself up. After a few weeks or months of such training, you will become so strong that you can handle large weights with ease, and with perfect safety.

There are people who claim that if a man uses bar-bells for a certain time and then stops his training, he will go to pieces physically. I have never known this to happen. I correspond with a large number of lifters, and hardly a day passes that I do not get a letter from a man who says, "Although I had not used my bar-bell for fifteen years, I picked it up the other day and found that I could lift just about as much as when I was still in regular training." And most of them say that they still keep the development they got from their bar-bell exercises. The most interesting case of this kind is that of George Zottman (previously referred to), who retired from the stage nearly thirty years ago, who still keeps his 46-inch chest, his 34-inch waist, his 18-inch arm, who has gained only five pounds in weight, and who is today, at the age of fifty-seven, one of the strongest men in the country. He used his bar-bells continuously up to the time that he was 30 years old, but since then he has not touched a bar-bell oftener than twice a year.

Why should a man "go to seed" physically because he stops his exercise? As far as I can find out, the idea seems to be that during his training his organs have been overworked in the effort to support his muscular development, and that when he stops his hard muscular work his organs continue to work at the same pace as before; and that in some mysterious way this causes the man to suddenly decline in health. For the life of me I cannot see why this should be so. I know men who did the hardest kind of labor as young men, who changed the character of their work when they became about thirty, and who today as elderly men are just as vigorous as ever. For example, one of my friends is the superintendent of a rolling mill. In his youth he was a roller, and made steel rails. With a pair of tongs he would pick up one end of a very heavy iron rail and put it between the rollers. He worked on an eight-hour shift, and in the course of a day's work he would handle more tons of iron than a bar-bell user would handle in a month. He spent his young manhood at his job. At twenty-eight he became a foreman, and at thirty-five was superintendent. Today he is over sixty, and he is as vigorous a specimen as you would want to meet. This man when a roller had a killing job. He stopped it abruptly, but that stoppage did not seem to make him go to pieces of to make him any less healthy. I have known bar-bell lifters to have just the same experience. They would first spend a year in getting a wonderful muscular development; then for a couple of years they would be very much interested in actual lifting and would spend considerable time at it. Then they might move to some other town or take a job which made it impossible for them to continue their lifting. In the course of my business I see such men every day, and so far as I can see they enjoy just as rugged health as they did when they were training, and there is no sign of any deterioration in their lungs, heart or kidneys. If I had space and it was worth while, I could fill the remained of this book in giving you the names and describing the development and accomplishments of such men. I do not have to theorize on this subject because there is such conclusive proof constantly before me. If you will give the matter consideration, I think you will admit there is no reason why a bar-bell user should go to pieces any more than a rowing man should go to pieces when he abandons his daily practice on the river. As a matter of fact, strength once made stays with you practically the rest of your life; and the stronger you have made yourself, the longer that life is apt to be.

In conclusion, I must admit that competitive lifting by absolutely untrained men can easily be dangerous, but then - there is very little competitive lifting, and there is absolutely no need for a man to take part in such contests unless he wishes to. As I have said several times before in this very book, it is much better to use bar-bells as a means of building up your body than to use them for the purpose of making lifting records.

Boxing enthusiasts are apt to tell you that the use of heavy bar-bells will make you slow and "muscle-bound." There seems to be some mystery connected with that last phrase. Personally, I have never been able to find out what it just meant by the term "muscle-bound." If you will ask five of your friends what they mean by those words, the chances are that each one of the five will tell you something entirely different. The general idea seems to be that when a man is muscle-bound his muscle are so big, and so stiff in action that he is unable to move about with any degree of freedom. I suppose there is such a condition. If a coal-heaver stands in a bent-over position and shovels coal for two hours without stopping, you will notice that when he finally drops his shovel he will have considerable trouble in standing erect. His back muscles have become so tired through the continued labor that the act of standing erect has to be performed very slowly, and seems to be accompanied with considerable pain. You might call that being "muscle-bound"; and I believe it is true that men who do that kind of work gradually get in such a condition that they are permanently stooped. I believe this condition comes from maintaining the body so long in one position, because the oarsman who uses his back just as vigorously does not seem to suffer the same effects. But then, the oarsman straightens his back at the finish of each stroke, whereas the coal-heaver rarely stands erect as he wields his shovel. As I said previously, I believe that if a man took a dumbbell weighing say seventy-five or a hundred pounds, and spent quite a time each day in just pushing it aloft, he could eventually stiffen the shoulder muscles just in the way that the coal-heaver's back muscles became stiffened. It happens that I have never seen such a case, although I have heard such cases did occur in the early days of lifting.

When Sandow first came to this country he caused a sensation by his muscular development. In his stage act he lifted enormous weights, and some critics, who admitted that his development was undoubtedly due to bar-bell exercises, circulated the story that he was so "muscle-bound" that he could not raise his hands far enough to adjust the collar button at the back of his neck. I suppose there were people who believed that story. The fact was that Sandow's muscles when at rest were as pliable and elastic as the muscles of a light-weight boxer; and Sandow was almost as supple as a contortionist, as well as being quick with his hands as a professional juggler. I saw him turn a back somersault with a fifty-pound dumbbell in each hand; and he had his ankles tied together, and was blindfolded. A back somersault under any conditions requires great suppleness and agility, but under Sandow's conditions it required what you might call super-agility. You can see how he looked when relaxed in Figure 143.

The adept at modern lifting has to possess unusual speed for movement, for without such speed he cannot make respectable records. I have never seen another two hundred and fifteen-pound man who could equal the lifter Steinborn for sheer speed of movement. Refer back to the section of the lifts known as the "snatch" and the "jerk," and you will see that at a certain point in those lifts it is necessary to completely change the body position, and that change has to be effected in a very small fraction of a second. Steinborn's speed was simply dazzling. Consider the time that he made the two-arm jerk with 347 pounds. The first shove of his arms and legs carried the bell about as high as the top of his head. Before it had the chance to drop a quarter of an inch, Steinborn had squatted to his heels and had his arms perfectly straight under the bell. He changed from a standing to a squatting position with such speed that it seemed magical. He had to be quick. There he was for an instant with 347 pounds at the level of his crown. Either he had to get under the bell or else it would crash to the floor; and you can take it from me that it does not take long for a 347 pound weight to start to drop.

Another happening on the same evening gave another demonstration of Steinborn's speed. Like many foreign-trained lifters, he was in the habit of letting the bell fall to the floor if he saw that he was not going to successfully "fix" it. He attempted the one-arm snatch with 218 pounds. If he had accomplished it, it would have been the biggest "snatch" ever made in America. The first heave sent the bell all the way from the floor to arms' length, but the tremendous effort threw him slightly off his balance. Realizing that he could not hold the bell without danger of over-balancing, he let go of the handle bar and hurled himself to one side. The bell came down with a crash, but by the time it hit the floor, Steinborn was sitting against a wall ten feet away.

(This might make you believe that when you use a bar-bell it is necessary to continually drop it. If you are practicing a "snatch" or the one-arm bent-press, you can learn to lift a greater weight if you are doing your lifting in some place where you can drop the bell without damaging anything. When you are doing developing exercises and moderate lifting, it is never necessary to drop the bell. Thousands of men today are using bar-bells in their own bedrooms. You can use a bar-bell in any space where you have room enough to use a pair of five-pound dumbbells, and when using your bells you need not be afraid that anybody in the next room or in the room below you will hear you exercise or notice any vibration. It is just as easy and just as safe to exercise with a bar-bell in your own room as it would be for you to learn to do the one-step in the same room.)