Super Strength - Chapter 24 - The Secret of the Bent-Press
By Alan Calvert
Posted on NaturalStrength.com on 03 July 2002
Ever since bar-bells and dumbbells came into common use, athletes have been vying with each other with the object of seeing which man could push the most weight aloft with one hand. In the early days of lifting the only known method was the "military press," which has been already described. The men who used heavy dumbbells soon discovered that when pushing up a weight with the right hand, the body always had a tendency to bend to the left; and that the further the body was bent over the more strength could be exerted by the arm. As the rivalry became keener and lifting knowledge increased, there was a growing tendency to supplement the strength of the arm with the strength of the body, or the legs, or both. Probably the first variation was the one-arm "push." Some of the old-time giants managed to lift 200 lbs. in that manner. Cyclops is said to have done nearly 240 lbs., and Michael Maier and Hackenschmidt 220 lbs. in this style. When the strength of the legs is used to help send the bell aloft, the best method is the one-arm "jerk," in which Lurich did 264 lbs. There are two or three lifters who have jerked 240 odd pounds with the right arm, and dozen of lifters who have done over 200 lbs.
In the one-arm "snatch" and the one-arm "swing," the lifter raises the weight as much by the strength of his body (the back and his legs) as by the strength of his arm. The record of 199 lbs. in the swing, and nearly 220 lbs. in the snatch, proved that a much heavier weight could be raised in those styles than in a one-arm military press.
So far as I know, Eugene Sandow was the first man to demonstrate to English and American lifters the possibilities of the "bent-press." On his first visit to London, nearly thirty-five years ago, he made a bent-press with 250 lbs.; thereby beating by over 50 lbs. the best efforts of the British lifters, who at that time were using the one-arm jerk. A controversy arose, and one group claimed that Sandow's supporters replied that the whole object was to raise the most weight above the head, and that it was better to "use the scientific leverage of the body as Sandow did," than to employ what they called the "tricky and vicious use" of the legs in the one-arm jerk.
That is all nonsense, because the jerk is just as legitimate a lift as is the bent-press. In fact, the jerk is more a real lift, because the weight is actually lifted at least part of the way by arm strength; whereas in the bent-press the bell is held at one height until the arm is straight; and then the actual lifting is done by straightening the body and legs.
Sandow created such a furore, and reaped such golden rewards in London, that all the "Strong Men" of the world were attracted to that city. Sandow increased his bent-press record to about 271 and a fraction lbs. Louis Cyr eclipsed this by making a one-arm press of 273 lbs. but Cyr's lift was more in the nature of a one-arm push, because he was too fat to make a real bent-press. Since Sandow's time, the art of using the body in the bent-press has been developed to a high degree, and many lifters, both amateur and professional, have succeeded in eclipsing his record. The best exponent of the lift was the late Arthur Saxon, who did 336 lbs. officially, and 370 lbs. unofficially. Two English lifters, Thomas Inch and Edward Aston, did more than 300 lbs. in a right arm bent-press. Joe Nordquest as an amateur did 277 lbs. with the left arm, and did 300 lbs. in practice. Cabana, of Montreal, is said to have bent-pressed 311 lbs. with his left arm. At a rough guess I would say that there are at least two dozen lifters who have beaten Sandow's mark of 271 lbs.
The "bent-press" is a combination of bodily strength and acquired skill. It is not a lift which a man will do instinctively - he has to be taught. It is possible to lift so much more weight by this method than by any other, so the lift is well worth learning. When you reflect that Arthur Saxon, whose best record in the military press was about 126 lbs., could raise 336 lbs. when he used the bent-press method, and that Sandow, who could military press only 121 lbs., could bent-press 271 lbs., you get an idea of the possibilities of the method. A star at the bent-press will raise two and a half times as much by that method as he can if he stands erect in the military style and pushes the weight up just by the strength of his arm and shoulder. If you can make a military press with a 50-lb. weight you can, by learning the method, make a bent-press with anywhere from 125 to 150 lbs. The Englishman, Pullum, when he weighed less than 126 lbs., raised 86 lbs. with the right arm in the military style, and 216 lbs. in the bent-press style. Another lightweight Englishman, who weight 120 lbs., pressed something like 221 lbs. A number of comparatively small men have succeeded in lifting, by this method, a bar-bell which weighed 100 lbs. more than their own body weight. Since Saxon weighed about 210 lbs. when he bent-pressed 371 lbs., he did 160 lbs. more than his own weight.
Any real expert at the bent-press can press aloft more weight with one arm than he can with two arms; and there are some men who can raise almost as much in the one-arm bent-press as in a two-arm jerk. If you can make a one-arm military press with 50 lbs., the chances are that you can make a two-arm press (not military) with 110 or 115 lbs.; and, as I have said before, if you master the method you can make a one-arm bent-press with 125 lbs. or more. The odd thing is that it actually takes less exertion to bent-press 125 lbs. with one arm than to make a two-arm press with 115 lbs.
Whoever it was who said that the bent-press was a matter of scientific body leverage, described the lift exactly. In making a bent-press the lifter supplements the strength of his arm and shoulder by the strength of his back, his sides, and his thighs, as well as utilizing the strength of his bones. When a novice first attempts the bent-press he will almost invariably try to shove the bar-bell upwards by a fierce pressure of the lifting arm. The proper way to start the bent-press is to get into the position shown in Fig. 111. The lifters stands with the heels 18 or 20 inches apart, and the toes turned out, so that the feet are at right angles to each other. After he has lifted the bell to the height of his shoulders he thrust his right hip out to the side, bends his body slightly to the left, and rests his right elbow on the top of the right hip bone. If you take this picture, Fig. 111, and hold a ruler over it, you will see that there is a straight line running downwards from the right hand to the right heel. There is no exertion necessary to hold the bell, because the weight is supported on the vertical bones of the right forearm, and that is in turn supported by the bones of the hip and the bones of the right leg. Some of you may have difficulty in getting your elbow on the hip, because you will try to lean directly sideways, instead of leaning slightly to the left and slightly to the front. (The bar-bell should always be turned as shown in the picture; that is, with the handle almost parallel with the shoulders.) By putting the elbow on the hip, the right arm is pressed against the right side of the body.
Now, the lifter leans to the left and forwards; that is, his body rotates slightly on its own axis as he bends. He places the inside of his left forearm right above the left knee as he bends over, and he has to be particularly careful to keep the right arm from sliding off the right side. (In Fig. 112 you cannot see the inside edge of the right arm, but I can assure you that it is still supported by the right side.) As the lifter bends over he keeps his right forearm straight up and down, since the right upper arm is still resting on the right side, it means that the arm is "opened."
In Fig. 113, which is next in order, the lifter has bent a little further over, and now you can see his right upper arm resting on his right side. Since the forearm has been kept perpendicular to the floor, it is now at right angles to the upper arm. The left forearm has been slid along the left thigh into the position shown. By pressing the left forearm firmly against the left thigh the lifter gets an artificial support. Without that support there would be a great strain on the muscles of the right side of the waist, and on the small of the back.
In the fourth position, Fig. 114, the lifter has leaned so far that the right arm has almost straightened itself. He has shifted his left forearm again so that the left wrist is against the thigh. The left arm is completely doubled, but it still acts as a support. Now, for the first time, the lifter commences to push hard with the right hand, so as to straighten the right arm. At this point of the lift his body is firmly braced by the support afforded by the left leg and the doubled up left arm.
Fig. 115 is the last in the set, and shows that the lifter has finally succeeded in straightening the arm. The problem now is to stand erect and complete the lift. The customary way to accomplish this is to bend the right leg at the knee, which thereby lowers the right hip and brings the lifter into a sort of a crouch beneath the bell. Assisting himself by pressing hard with his left hand, the lifter stands erect, and the lift is completed.
If the bent-press is properly performed there is no great strain felt in any of the muscles, except at the stages between Fig. 114 and 115.
Now, to support my statement that the bell is not actually lifted until after the arm is straightened, I invite a closer inspection of the pictures showing the start of the lift and the end of the lift. Measure Fig. 111 (the start) and make a note of how many inches there is between the right hand and the right heel. Take Fig. 114, when the lifter has his arm almost straight, and measure the distance between the right hand and the left heel. Unless I am greatly mistaken you will find the two measurements identical. This proves that the bell has not been lifted. It is held at one height and the lifter gets his arm straight by bending the body over.
This is as concise a description of the bent-press as I can give. There are many fine points connected with the lift, and to describe them all would take many pages. I can briefly mention, as one of the important details, the swinging of the bar-bell. Between Fig. 111 and Fig. 115 the bell has swung through almost a half circle; that is, the end which was originally in front of lifter in Fig. 111, is now behind him in the last picture. As he stands up the bell will swing back to its original position.
No two men will perform the bent-press in identically the same way. There is always a slight variation in the placing of the feet, in the way the right arm is supported on the right side, in the way the body is bent, etc. Nevertheless, all lifters have to conform to the general laws of position. The Germans call this lift the "screw press," because the left shoulder travels downward in a descending spiral motion, like the thread of a screw, or like a handrail of a spiral staircase. The body is never bent directly to the side, but sideways and forwards. If you will make the experiment of standing with the feet properly placed, and without any bell in the right hand, and then lean over and place the left shoulder right above the left knee, you will see for yourself the way the body has to rotate as it is bent forward.
Some lifters handicap themselves by not using the left arm properly. They start out by placing it just as this lifter does, but they keep on sliding it further and further across the left thigh until the arm-pit rests on the left knee. In such a case, the left arm is either waving in the air between the legs, or else the left hand as to be placed on the right knee. This leaves the lifter in an awkward position, and makes it more difficult for him to use his left hand as an assistance in raising his body to the vertical position after the right arm has been straightened.
All the foregoing seem highly complicated, and I can assure you that it is complicated. Some of you will never be able to master this lift; while other will "get the hang" of it after a couple of days practice, and will soon be able to lift weights that they cannot press aloft with both arms.
Some of the European lifters will not attempt a bent-press. Neither Charles Herold nor Henry Steinborn considered it as a real lift; yet Arthur Saxon, who was developed in the same lifting-club that Herold came from, practiced the bent-press more than any other lift, and made his reputation by it. It certainly is a spectacular feat of strength, and it is sometimes used by professionals to discourage the competition of ambitious amateurs. A good professional makes nothing of a right-arm bent-press with 225 lbs. For such a lift he uses a bar-bell with a rather thick handle. If any man from the audience questions the professional's strength, he is invited to take the bar-bell in both hands, and press it aloft. There are comparatively few amateurs who can make a two-arm press with 225 lbs., (that is, the kind of amateurs who make themselves obnoxious) and since it is hard to lift a thick-handled 225 lb. bar-bell to the shoulder, the amateur rarely gets even that far. After it has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of the audience that the amateur cannot raise the bell aloft by the strength of both arms, the professional then makes a right arm bent-press, showing that he can raise the weight by the strength of one arm.
In this connection, I might say that a first-class amateur lifter very rarely interrupts a professional "Strong Man" who happens to be giving a theatrical performance. The amateur fully understands that the professional is paid to entertain the audience, and that it is necessary to perform lifts which are sensational in character. When an amateur lifter goes to such a performance, it is with the object of learning what he can, by watching the professional perform; and since most of these professionals are highly skilled, in addition to being very strong, there is a lot that can be learned in that way. I have known professionals to give sensational exhibitions every afternoon and evening during a week's engagement, and to spend their morning hours at some local gymnasium or lifting club. When in the "gym," they take part in all sorts of friendly contests, and if some members of the club are skilled amateur lifters, the professional will conduct himself just as one of the group, and together with the other lifters will practice all the recognized standard lifts.
When I found that I needed this set of five pictures, I enlisted the services of a Mr. William Langhorne. He kindly volunteered to pose, in spite of the fact that he had not had a bar-bell in his hand since 1907. He weight but a little over 140 lbs. He is now forty-five years old, and has not gained a pound in weight since he stopped training seventeen years ago. He is a master of the bent-press, and his best lift in that style is 214 lbs. His best record at the two-arm press is 165 lbs., and in the two-arm jerk about 215 lbs. Mr. Langhorne is not entirely satisfied with the pictures, and claimed that the positions were not exactly perfect, because the bell was not heavy enough to force his body and arm into the correct positions. The bell used in the picture weighted only about 85 lbs., and Langhorne said that this was too light a weight to be properly pressed, and that the pictures would have been more accurate if the bell had weighed over 125 lbs. When doing the posing, all the seemed to do was to shift his body from one position to another, and the bar-bell apparently went to arms' length of its own accord. The more correctly you do the lift, the easier it becomes.
Mr. Langhorne is a great hand-balancer. He lived in England twenty years ago, and one winter he took second place in the "open" lifting-championship, (being defeated by a man who weighed 220 lbs.), and in the same season he won the gymnastic championship; while the following summer he took a dozen first prizes in bicycle racing, and several prizes for sprinting. Today he can do a one-hand stand with the utmost ease. He says that the bent-press is largely a matter of balance, and that any expert hand-balancer, who can do a one-hand stand, should have no trouble in mastering the principles of the bent-press.
I am afraid that after to read all the foregoing, you may conclude that the bent-press is simply a trick, and requires no strength whatever. It does require strength in a high degree, and the more bodily strength you possess, the more apt you are to succeed at the lift. Lifters are apt to speak of a 200 lb. bent-press as just an average performance; but you should not forget that before a 200 lb. weight can be pressed aloft, it first has to be lifted as high as the right shoulder, and held there. Very few of the outsiders who read this book are able to lift 200 lbs. more than a few inches off the ground; let alone raising it as high as the shoulder, and then holding it there in one hand. In order to make a big bent-press, you have to be about five times as strong as the average man in the back, and in the waist.
I am printing a few pictures showing other lifters doing the bent-press. There is one of Matysek, Fig. 116, showing that an early stage in his career, he made the bent-press improperly, neglecting to use th4e left arm as he should. When the picture was taken, he was just failing to lift 215 lbs. I had him coached by an expert, who taught him the correct style, and shortly thereafter Matysek made the American amateur record of 241 and a fraction pounds. The picture of Carr, Fig. 117, bent-pressing 230 lbs., shows the absolutely correct position, and so does the picture of Roy Smith, Fig. 118. The bell Smith used weighed only 173 lbs., and he pressed the weight aloft on seven separate occasions before the photographer was satisfied with the pose. Smith's best record in this lift was about 245 lbs.
If you will stand as in Fig. 10, and lift a 245-lb. bell from the floor, you will find that it requires a great deal of strength in the back. If you will try to imagine yourself with your body bent over that far, and the same weight supported on the up-raised right arm, you will commence to realize the enormous amount of strength in the back, the sides, the arms, and the shoulders, which a man must have before he can make a bent-press with that weight. You cannot make a bent-press until you do learn the style; but don't fall into the error of thinking that style alone is necessary. Before a man can make a bent-press with a bar-bell weighing over 200 lbs., he has to so strengthen his back and legs by vigorous exercise, that he can lift 600 lbs. off the ground easier than the average man can lift half that weight.