Super Strength, Chapter 4 - The Legs

By Alan Calvert

Posted on on 21 February 2002

Chapter IV - The Legs

The man who exercises in his own room with a pair of light dumbbells, who uses a pair of pulley-weights, or swings a pair of wooden Indian clubs, rarely gets even acquainted with the immense power which is lying dormant in his back and legs. As I said before, mere bending movements will never develop the back or waist muscles to their full size; neither will the ordinary leg-exercises produce a really powerful pair of lower limbs. A bar-bell so heavy that you could not possibly raise it by the strength of the unassisted arm muscles, is a mere plaything for the leg muscles. Take, for example, the lifter mentioned in the story which opens the first chapter. This man could take a 220-lb. bar-bell in both hands, raise it from the floor to the shoulders and, without leaning backwards, slowly press the bar-bell to arms' length above the head. In this lift, which is called the "military press," the work of elevating the bell is done by the extensor muscles of the arms and the muscles on the points of the shoulders. I once saw this same man lie flat on his back and hold on the soles of his up-raised feet, a plank bearing twelve men; a total weight of more than 1600 lbs. After he had the weight securely balanced, he would allow his legs to bend slightly at the knees, thus lowering the plank three or four inches, and then would push the weight up again by the sheer strength of his leg muscles.

The hardest part of any "pressing" is the start. This man might have taken a 300-lb. bar-bell and raised it to arms' length by what it known as the "two-arm jerk," and then have lowered it 4 inches by bending the arms, and pressed it again to arms' length; but even then the pressing power in his arms was less than one-fifth the pressing power in his legs. I am sorry that I can't show you a full-length picture, but I can assure you that his legs were just as well-developed as his arms, which are shown in Figs. 1 and 2. I have seen this man lie flat on his back, lift a 200-lb. bar-bell with his hands, place it on the soles of his feet, as in Fig. 20, and then press it up to the full stretch of his legs two hundred times in succession. Every time he bent his legs he brought his knees down until they almost touched his chest, and every time he raised the bell he was particular to get the legs perfectly straight. He practiced bare-footed, and balanced the bell on the balls of the feet; but if you try it you'd better wear a pair of ordinary street shoes, and let the handle of the bell rest against the projecting heels. When you first attempt it you will have some difficulty in placing the bell on the soles of your feet, particularly if you happen to be stout; because the knees have to be pressed against the chest in order to get the feet so low that you can reach up with the hands and place the bell in position. I advise you to start with not more than 25 lbs., making quite a number of repetitions, and then to increase the weight so often as you comfortably can. This exercise develops most of the muscles in the thighs, and it seems to have a peculiar effect in developing the biceps muscles on the back of the thigh; but you will not get such development if you fail to press the legs to full stretch every time you raise the bell. I once saw in vaudeville a "Strong Man" named Carl Victor, from Pittsburgh. He used several variations of this stunt in his act, and you could see that it was a favorite exercise of his. He had a magnificent pair of legs and probably the best development on the back, or under side, of the thigh, that I have ever seen.

Now, exactly reverse this stunt. When you lie flat on the back your hips are pressed against the floor, and the weight is raised on the feet. If you stand on your feet and lift a very heavy weight by a chain which is attached to a belt around the hips, as in Fig. 21, you use almost the same muscles that you do in the preceding stunt. The picture of Mr. Roy L. Smith, Fig. 22, shows the way in which a "hip lift" is accomplished. Mr. Smith is shown just before he made the lift. When he straightened his legs he raised the axle and car wheels 1 inch from the ground, and the total weight lifted was 2250 lbs. Undoubtedly, Mr. Smith could lie on the back and raise, or support, that amount of weight on the soles of his feet. Mr. Smith's enormous leg strength is due to the practice of the leg exercises described in this chapter. Perhaps his favorite is a modification of the Jefferson Lift (shown in Fig. 23). In this exercise a man stands with his feet well apart and well braced, holds the bar-bell between his legs and allows it to hang at the full length of the arms. When he bends his legs he does not go any further down than shown in Fig. 3, and he keeps flat-footed. Mr. Smith will repeat this exercise a dozen times with a 300 or 350-lb. bar-bell; but the average man should start with 50 or 75 lbs.; and he should remember that all the bending is done with the legs, and that the spine must be kept straight and the body erect. In doing this exercise you positively do not lean the body forward from the hips.

An equally good, or even better, exercise would be to raise a very heavy bell by a modification of the hand-and-thigh lift. Place a heavy bar-bell on the floor in front of you; tie the ends of two ropes around the handle and the other ends around the short handle bar from your outfit. The ropes should be so short that in order to place the knuckles in the bend of the thighs you have to bend the legs about as shown in Fig. 16. Now straighten the legs and raise the weight from the floor and repeat several times. This is much easier for most people than the Jefferson Lift, or the exercise shown in Fig. 23; because when you do the Jefferson style the fingers which grip the bell will tire long before the leg muscles tire. Do not be frightened if I tell you that it is perfectly safe to start this exercise with 200 lbs.; and that after you have been practicing a few weeks you will be able to raise 500 or 600 lbs. several times in succession. If you follow the rules given there is not the slightest danger of injuring yourself or of overstraining yourself. A man who has never seen a dumbbell bigger than the pairs of 5 pounders which decorate the ordinary gym, is apt to be startled if he is told to use 200 lbs. Of course, no one but an experienced man could use 200 lbs. in arm exercises, but leg exercises are an entirely different matter; and it is not until after you have practiced the two foregoing exercises that you will realize how it is that these professional "Strong Men" are able to lift, support, or carry weights which run up into the thousands of pounds. If you use bar-bells as they should be used; that is, as a means of getting magnificent body and super-strength, there is not need for you to ever perform these vaudeville stunts; but, just the same, it is a nice thing for you to feel that you could do them if you wanted to.

I have already said that a muscle exerts its greatest strength just before the point of full contraction. That is why it is safe to use weights running from 200 to 1000, or even 2000 lbs., when the legs have been bent only a trifle at the knees. When you bend the legs all the way and perform the full squat or deep knee bend, you must use a much lighter weight than in the "Jefferson" or "hand-and-thigh" exercises. The best known of all leg-developing movements is the ordinary squat, in which the athlete keeps the body erect and sits on his heels by bending the legs at the knees. If you depend just on raising the weight of your own body you will waste a lot of time in bringing the thigh muscles to the greatest development of which they are capable. There are cases where men have repeated this exercise (without weights) 2500 times without stopping; and I have seen pictures of the men who did it. Some of them had finely shaped legs of evident power; other had legs which were stringy as the limbs of a long-distance runner. Doing the deep knee bend without weights is an endurance exercise, while doing it with weights is a strength exercise. Just the same, no one should use weights until he can perform the deep knee bend fifty times in succession without weights. In order to perform the exercise correctly it is necessary to cultivate your sense of balance. I have seen beginners who could raise 350 lbs. with perfect ease in a hand-and-thigh lift, who could not repeat the deep knee bend without weights five times without losing their balance and sprawling all over the floor. If, after a test, you find that the ordinary squat is easy for you, then place a 35-lb. bar-bell on the shoulders and repeat the squat a few times, as in Fig. 24. Stand erect with the heels together, toes pointed out. As the legs are bent point the knees as far apart as possible. Then hold the bell behind you, as shown in Fig. 25. This time stand with the feet together and parallel to each other and, as you squat, point the knees directly forward. Then stand with the heels about 20 inches apart, hold the bar-bell as shown in Fig. 26 and squat flat-footed. In the first two variations you allow the heels to rise from the ground as you bend the legs. In the third variation you must keep the heels on the ground and push the knees forward and outward. The first variation develops the muscles on the outside of the thighs; the second, the muscles on the front of the thighs; while the third develops the muscles on the upper inside of the thighs and gives special work to the muscles of the shins.

If you start the above exercises with 25 lbs., in a few weeks you will be able to do them just as easily with 75 lbs., by reason of the increased size and strength of the thighs. Positively 40 repetitions with 75 lbs. is equivalent to 400 repetitions without a weight. You could do 120 squats altogether, 40 of each variation, and be through the work in five minutes; and you would finish up with a great feeling of springiness in the legs. If you tried to make 1000, 1500, or even 2000 repetitions without weight, it would take you the best part of half an hour and you would be as tired as though you had taken a 15-mile walk.

Leg-power and lung-power always go together. The proper way to increase the size and capacity of the lungs is not to do those arm calisthenics which are said to "open-out" the chest; but to specialize on exercises which afford vigorous work for the thighs. When doing the deep knee bend with a weight on the shoulder you should stop when the breathing becomes labored and rest a moment before starting the next exercise. For the ordinary man 150 lbs. is sufficient to bring out the full development of the muscles; and, naturally, the more weight you are using the fewer repetitions you have to make. Henry Steinborn used 400 lbs. and squatted only a half dozen times. In using very heavy weights you have to keep flat-footed, as Steinborn is doing in Fig. 27, which, by the way, shows him when half-way down. At the completion of his squat his haunches would almost touch the floor. On one occasion I saw him do the squat with 500 lbs. on his shoulders.

If a man who desired to acquire super-strength came to me and told me that he could spare only three hours a week for his exercises, I would make him spend two of these hours on leg and back exercises, and the other hour on arm and shoulder exercises for the upper body. Back and leg strength is the foundation of the so-called "abnormal" power of professional "Strong Men"; and if you who read this book are sincere in your desire to become very strong, you must never make the mistake of spending most of your time at exercises which strengthen only the arm muscles. By cultivating your back and legs you can get a fund of vitality, and a degree of bodily strength which you will never be able to get from "biceps" exercises.

I have found that while the general public seems to greatly admire the scientific lifts of a Sandow or a Hackenschmidt, it never seems anxious to emulate such lifts. On the other hand, the average man really appreciates what he calls "rough-and-ready" strength, and loudly proclaims that he prefers that kind of strength to the sensational feats of a professional lifter. For my part, I think the public is quite right. A man who can put a 400-lb. trunk on one shoulder and carry it up three flights of stairs without getting winded, has more bodily strength than the man who can "push up" a 100-lb. dumbbell, but who is unable to lift or carry really heavy objects. Most of these professional "Strong Men" could make the average baggage-smasher look like a child when it came to carrying trunks; but there are a great many amateurs who are so infatuated with biceps development that they never take the trouble to acquire the bodily strength of even the average day laborer.

Sometimes when you are out driving in your car you will see an automobile which has slewed sideways so that the rear wheels have gone down into a very deep and muddy gutter; and there may be three or four men grouped around it, trying to push it up on the road. Suppose, while you are watching, some well set-up young man would wave the four other men aside, brace his feet against the curb, put his shoulders against the back of the car and, with one motion, lift it out of the gutter. I saw this very thing done by a friend of mine, and what he actually did was just a simple leg lift; and as he could easily raise 2000 lbs. in a hip lift, it wasn't very much work for him to push the car out of the gutter. One of the young fellows, who had been riding in the car, said, "Gosh, that man must be stronger than all four of us put together!" He possibly was stronger than any two of them, but the reason that he, alone, was able to do more work than the crowd of them, was as much because he knew how to deliver his strength as because of the superior size and strength of his back and leg muscles. That is the one great virtue of training with weights: it teaches you to use your muscles in concert with one another. You should never depend on the strength of one set of muscles when it is possible to employ the strength of many muscles combined.

Any kind of exercise is good in its way; but there are only a few kinds of exercise which will create super-strength for you, or give you the build and appearance of a super-athlete. A great fault with most systems of light exercise is that they aim to develop the muscles individually. The directions say that "this exercise is for one part of the arms"; that the next is for another part of the arms, and so on through the whole body. It is possible, by performing light exercise (and repeating each exercise a great many times), to get a fairly nice development and fairly good-sized muscles; but the trouble is that after you have gotten the muscles, they are not very much good to you, because they have never been taught to act together. If all a man wants is moderate development and "just enough exercise to keep himself in condition," he can do more in that line by playing tennis in summer and handball in wintertime, than by doing free-hand movements or calisthenics; because tennis and handball do employ practically every muscle in the body and they do teach co-ordination.

In order to bring the legs to their full strength it is necessary to practice the variations of the full-squat with moderate weights, as well as practicing the "hand-and-thigh" and "Jefferson" exercises with fairly heavy weights. When you do a full squat you develop the muscles in the lower part of the thigh above the knee and, to a certain extent, you develop the inside and outside of the thighs; but, as the amount of weight you could use in the full squat is limited, you cannot, by that exercise, develop the upper part of the thighs to the limit. The thighs should be biggest right at the line of the crotch and they should taper to the knee. Arthur Saxon (who, in additi0on to being a wonderful lifter himself, was a great judge of lifters) said that when giving a new man the "once-over," he always looked to see whether the muscles in the lower part of the thigh were well-developed; and that he considered it more necessary to have a fine development there than in the upper part of the thigh. While I agree with most of Mr. Saxon's ideas, I cannot subscribe to this one. I have seen many aspiring lifters who had odd-looking legs, because most of the leg work was aimed to develop these lower thigh muscles; and my experience is that such men never have the driving force which is possessed by a man with powerful hips and big upper thighs. To get real super-strength you must work on the rule that your hips and thighs are as important to you as the hind legs are to a race horse. The horse, when running at full speed, gets almost all his driving power from the hind legs. The extended front legs catch his weight and then bring his body forward so that the hind legs can get in another thrust. When we come down to some of the bar-bell lifts, I will show you how the bell can be lifted to arms' length overhead, in a manner where the legs and back do so much of the work that the arms hardly seem to be doing more work than the race horse's front legs do in driving him along.

After you have mastered the other varieties of the leg exercises, you must practice the full squat, while holding a bell at arms' length above the head. The easiest way is to hold the bell aloft in one hand. Start with a 25-lb. bar-bell or dumbbell; push it to arms' length with the right hand, and keep the right arm stiff and straight, and then squat, as in Fig. 28. You will find it easier to keep your balance if you hold the left arm out to the side. The great virtue of this variation is that it absolutely compels you to keep the spine straight and do the bending with the legs. After you can do it easily with the bell supported in either the right or the left hand, try it with the bell held aloft in two hands, as in Fig. 29. Gradually increase the weight of the bell until you are able to squat easily and rapidly while holding aloft at least 75 lbs. Otto Arco, who was one of the few lifters who could raise double his own weight to arms' length above the head, told me that he practiced this variation in preference to all other leg exercises. Anyone who intends to try real bar-bell lifting, especially the quick lifts (such as the "snatch" and the "jerk") should be very careful to master this exercise, since it is about the only one which would teach him the balance and give him the confidence which is necessary for the successful completion of what we call the "quick lifts."