Super Strength - Chapter 5 - Harness and Platform Lifting

By Alan Calvert

Posted on on 28 February 2002

There are so few who ever get a chance to practice this branch of lifting that it seems hardly worth while to describe it. However, it may help you to master the whole subject of super-strength if you learn the principles of back lifting. First comes the ordinary "back" or "platform lift," where the athlete gets under the weight and lifts it on his flat back. There are a few photographs available, but you may be able to get an idea by looking at Fig. 30. This shows the Canadian, Wilfred Cabana, performing a back-lift with 3652 lbs. It is customary to place the weights on a platform which is rested on two trestles (or wooden horses), and these trestles must be so high that in order to get under the platform the athlete need bend his legs only a trifle at the knees. The body is at right angles to the legs, and the hands are supported on a strong stool, or low wooden horse, the arms slightly bent. The athlete raises the weight by simultaneously straightening the arms and the legs; but most of the work is done by the legs and, therefore, platform lifting is really more of a leg lift or a "hip-lift" than it is a true back lift. So far as I know the record in the back lift is held by the late Louis Cyr, who managed to raise about 4125 lbs. There are several other lifters who have raised in the neighborhood of 4000 lbs. Most men who use adjustable bar-bells for the purpose of developing their legs and back are able to make good records in the back-lift. In writing about the present crop of bar-bell lifters in Canada, Mr. Geo. Jowett says that DeCarie can do 3640 lbs. in the back lift; Cabana has done 3652, and that an amateur, by the name of La Vallee, did 400 lbs. on the first attempt. Another man, named La Tour, did 3214 lbs., and little Marineau, who weighs only 142 lbs., has raised 2809 lbs. on his back. Every one of the men just mentioned is a bar-bell lifter as well as a "back-lifter." In Canada, lifting clubs are equipped with the proper apparatus for "back" and "harness" lifting; whereas in this country it is hard to find a club which has a "back-lifting" platform.

I understand that in "back" and "harness" lifting, much more weight can be raised if the lifter is familiar with the correct positions, and the correct method of applying his strength. I have been told that in both these styles there is a method called the "wedge motion," in which the lifter shifts the weight a bit forward as he raises it, and that it is possible to lift more weight in this style than if you attempt to lift it directly upward. All that is fairly in the game. Naturally, if you wish to make your own individual record in any style of lift the thing that counts is the number of pounds you manage to raise; and it is perfectly proper to employ the method which has proven to be the best. People judge a man of super-strength by what he can do; not by what he might do if he knew how. Therefore, a man of great strength who knows how to employ that strength and raises 4000 lbs. on his back is a better athlete than the man of even greater strength who fails to lift 3600 lbs. because he does not know how to use his body.

Perhaps the best authority on this style of lifting is Mr. Warren Lincoln Travis, who, I believe, is the present world's champion. He specializes on this style of lifting, and long-continued practice has given him back and legs of enormous strength. One time I paid him a visit, and, after doing several other stunts, he showed me an endurance "hip-lift." He stood on a high platform, under which there was a 900-lb. weight. This weight was attached by a chain to a big belt, which was fastened around his hips. This lift is just about the same as the one shown in Fig. 21, except that the shape of the weight was different. At the start of the lift he stood upright, with his legs very slightly bent. Every time he would straighten his legs he would raise the weight about an inch; and, if my memory is right, he raised it about one hundred times in one minute. Although the gymnasium had a cement floor the whole building soon got to quivering as though an immense engine were running. As a matter of fact, the 900 lbs. was not a "lift" for Travis, but merely a developing exercise. Any feat that you can repeat many times is an exercise - not a lift.

Travis is an exception to the usual rule. Back lifting is his hobby, and bar-bell lifting is just his occasional pastime; whereas most men of super-strength specialize on bar-bell lifting and only occasionally do "back" and "harness lifts"; but then, Travis has all the necessary paraphernalia which most of the other lifters lack. (While Mr. Travis is naturally proud of his records in back-lifting, he is prone to speak very disparagingly of his own ability as a bar-bell lifter. But that is just his way; he is a first-class bar-bell lifter and darn sight better than he claims to be.)

In making a harness-lift, the athlete stands on a platform above the weight. The lower platform, which bears the weight, is usually suspended by four chains, which join to one chain which passes through a hole in the upper platform. This chain, in turn, is attached to the lifter's harness. In many cases, this harness consists of nothing more or less than a loop of broad leather strap, which passes from the lifter's shoulders and runs down to a point just in front of the hips. The athlete stands with his legs bent slightly at the knees, his body inclined forward from the hips, hand resting on a pair of railings or other firm supports, as in Fig. 3. In making the lift the athlete simultaneously straightens his legs and arms, and brings the trunk of his body to a vertical position. When only the shoulder strap is used the contents of the body are compressed, especially if the lifter arches his back instead of keeping his spine straight. Real experts in harness-lifting use a belt around the hips as well as one around the shoulders, as this distributes the weight and enables them to lift far more than with only a shoulder belt. One can make a back-lifting platform without much trouble and at small expense; but a harness-lifting platform is an expensive affair, and, consequently, you rarely see "harness-lifting," except on the vaudeville stage. While it is a simple matter to estimate the amount of weight an athlete is raising in a back lift, it is a difficult thing to even guess the amount of weight a man is lifting with a harness. There are ways of rigging the lower platform which greatly reduce the amount of effort necessary to lift that platform. Fig. 31 is reproduced from Prof. Des Bonnet's book. It shows a well-known, old-time lifter at the completion of a harness-lift; but Des Bonnet says that when the lifter did this stunt as an exhibition feat he had the platform so rigged that he actually lifted only one-tenth of the weight; that is when he had 2400 lbs. on the lower platform he could raise it with no more exertion than if he had a 240-lb. weight attached by a single chain to his neck harness. However, this is not a discussion of the methods of professional performers, and there are comparatively few of these professionals who resort to trickery in order to make their strength seem more surprising. Most of them are so very strong that they do not have to use any artificial aids to enable them to juggle with, or lift enormous weights.

One famous "Strong Man" told me that in harness-lifting it was a great mistake to stand in the position shown in Fig. 3, and that one should never rest the hands on the side supports. He said that the lifter should stand with the left foot slightly in advance of the right foot, and that the side supports should be so high that he could rest his elbows on them. Then, when he was ready to lift the weight, he should thrust forward as well as upward, which seems to be the same "wedge motion" that the experts use in back-lifting.

"Harness-lifting" is no game for the weak or untrained man, and for that matter, neither is back-lifting. If, however, a man has developed the back and legs by practicing the back and leg exercises, in Chapters II and IV he can safely practice harness-lifting or back-lifting. In a book which I wrote a dozen years ago I said that the average 170-lb. amateur, who could lift a 250-lb. bar-bell above his head (with both hands), should be able to do 2500 or 3000 lbs. in a "back" or "harness-lift"; and I am still of that opinion.

The fact that you may never have a chance to try a back-lift or a harness-lift does not mean that you should fail to practice the back and leg exercises with weights running from 50 to 500 lbs., according to the exercise. Five hundred pounds sounds like a whole lot; but since there are lots o porters, stevedores and day laborers who move or lift 500-lb. cases and crates all morning and all afternoon, then any man scientifically trained can use those weights for a few minutes with perfect safety.

This reminds me that I am frequently asked that, if handling heavy weights creates great strength, why is it that some of these porters do not develop enormous strength. Some of them do, although the majority of them do not. You would think that a foundryman who spends all his day in carrying heavy ladles of molten metal, or in lifting heavy castings would become enormously strong, and that muscles would stick out all over him. Likewise, you'd think that a coal heaver would naturally develop a back of prodigious strength. The reason why such men do not develop is because the have too much of such work, and that they have to continue working for hours after the body has become tired from the exertion in the first part of the morning. That, by the way, is one reason heavy laborers sometime appear to be loafing on the job. The truth is, their work is so exacting that if they worked at full tilt that would be "all in" by 10 a.m. They are compelled to economize their strength and to work at a slow, steady gait, if they are going to last out the eight-hour day. The coal shoveler or ditch digger must have frequent rests. Their work is neither light enough to be easy nor heavy enough to force them to use great muscular strength. Frequently their diet is almost suicidal, and their hours of sleep insufficient. Any man who uses weights scientifically three or four hours a week can become vastly stronger and infinitely better developed than the average man who earns his bread by heavy labor.