Feats of Strength with Levers
by David Willoughby (in the year 2525)
A direct and practical means of developing and strengthening the abductor muscles of the forearm is simply to swing a sledgehammer, preferably one that is sufficiently small and light to be gripped and swung with one hand. Such a movement is “practical,” because the use of the hammer, in one way or another, is something that has been going on for thousands of years and is still an essential element in many manual occupations. And so long as one is endeavoring to develop muscular strength, why use odd, artificial movements that rarely if ever occur in everyday life, when there are other movements, or exercises, that employ the muscles in a natural, practical manner? Away back in June, 1908, at the Crystal Palace in London, Arthur Lancaster swung a blacksmith’s 8-pound hammer for TWELVE HOURS without stopping. He was said to have “. . . the strongest wrist and forearm of any man alive.”
Many a feat of so-called “wrist strength” – actually, strength of the abductor muscles of the forearm (those that draw the hand toward the thumb side) – has been performed using either a standard, commercial sledgehammer, or “sledge,” or a long wooden bar, like a broom handle, with a light weight attached to the far end of it. Unfortunately, in most of the feats of this kind that have been reported, it has been difficult or impossible for one reason or another, to evaluate the merit of the performance. In some of the reports even the weight of the sledgehammer is left unmentioned; and rarely if ever does the performer state the exact length of the handle and how far his hand was away from the weight when he lifted it. Of course, without these essential items of information, no reliable comparison of the feat can be made with others of its kind.
Some years ago, in order to obviate these difficulties, my friend and co-enthusiast, George Weaver, who was then living in Brooklyn, designed a leverage-lifting bar of specified dimensions, with which he tested the “wrist strength” of many strongmen and weight trainees who were living in that area. In due course this bar became known as a “Weaver Stick.” This was a round stick (such as a mop handle), about nine-tenths of an inch in diameter, cut to the exact length of 41 inches. Here is Weaver’s description of the details of his stick:
Half an inch from one end, cut a notch. EXACTLY 36 inches from the CENTER of this notch, circle the stick with a line. Get two metal right-angles at a hardware store, and screw them into the top and bottom sides of the stick so that the rear edges of the right-angles come exactly to the circled line. The top side of the stick is the side where the notch is cut. lf one angle has once screw hole, and the other angle has two screw holes, the screws will not conflict. You can shave the bottom of the stick a little with a knife at these places, to make a flatter base for the angle. This leaves you with a “handle” just 5½ inches long, which you can tape to a thickness that suits your hand and affords a good grip.
It is important that the following rules be observed. The stick must be lifted approximately parallel to the floor, and not with the weighted end tilted downward. Above all, the stick must be lifted straight up from the chair; there must be no rocking of the stick on the chair before lifting. The lifting hand and arm must remain free of the body. And the heel of the hand must remain on TOP of the stick. If the hand twists under the stick, the lift is no good and cannot be allowed. The stick, when lifted, need not be held for any length of time; but it must be clearly lifted free of the chair (an inch is enough) and held in control (one second is enough).
This lift may also be made by turning the back on the weight and grasping the stick with the little finger toward the weight, instead of with the thumb toward the weight. More weight can be lifted in this manner. When lifting with the back toward the weight, the body may be bent forward as the lift is made.
The accompanying drawing of John Grimek shows the position to be assumed in making a Forward Lift on the Weaver Stick.
Many years before George Weaver thought up his leverage lifting stick, Paul Von Boeckmann, a professional strongman and physical instructor in New York City, by practice became exceptionally capable at feats of “wrist strength,” and used to win bets by raising weights on the end (straw) of an ordinary broom. He, like Weaver, saw that it was essential to establish a fixed distance on the stick between the center of the weight and the front (thumb-side) of the lifting hand. By doing this he eventually made a record by lifting 11½ pounds at a distance of 36 inches in front of his grip. This was equivalent to raising the same amount in a Forward Lift on a regulation Weaver Stick. At the age of 62 (in 1933), von Boeckmann could still raise 9½ pounds in this manner.
Weaver’s tests with his stick revealed a remarkable range in ability among the various persons who lifted on it. In this lift (in the Forward style) the “average” man would seem capable of about 4 pounds. Yet Warren Travis, the one-time world champion in back and harness lifting, who in addition could pick up over 100 pounds in a one-hand pinch lift, could only raise 4¼ pounds on the Weaver Stick. The best lift performed in the Forward style was recorded by recorded by Weaver was one of 10 pounds with the left hand by John Grimek. Later, in York, Pa., Grimek raised 11¾ pounds with his right hand on a stick that was 2” shorter than a regulation Weaver Stick. This would have made his lift, if it had been made on a 42” stick, equivalent to about an even 11 pounds. In any event, Grimek’s lift would appear to be the best on record with the exception of that made long ago by Paul von Boeckmann. But it would be interesting to know how much weight could be raised in this style by such old-time champions of grip and forearm strength as Louis Cyr, Horace Barre, Apollon (Louis Uni), John Marx and Hermann Goerner.
Of more recent weightmen, Mac Batchelor and Douglas Hepburn should have made good showings in this test. However, any guesswork in this direction could be highly unreliable. One would suppose that thick wrists and tight wrist ligaments would be of great assistance in this lift; yet actually some strongmen who possessed these attributes came out very poorly on the Weaver Stick, while others, who had more slender wrists and limber wrist joints, did unexpectedly well. I myself had, and still have, very limber wrist joints (which used to handicap me in heavy one-hand overhead lifts), yet I managed to raise correctly 7 pounds on a standard Weaver Stick, at a time when I was well past my prime.
In view of the fact that John Grimek was capable of raising approximately 11 pounds on a Weaver Stick in the Forward Lift Style, while weighing about 195 pounds and having a wrist of 7¾” and a forearm of 13¾”, it would certainly seem that one of the present-day superheavyweight powerlifters, with correspondingly larger wrists and forearms, should be able to similarly raise at least 12 pounds. However, unless and until such a lift is made, Grimek must be credited with being the contemporary record-holder in this test of forearm strength. Indeed, the nearest lifts to the 10 pounds recorded for Grimek’s LEFT- HAND record of 10 pounds were right-hand lifts of 8 pounds performed by John Davis and Steve Stanko, who were then at the peak of their Olympic lifting efficiency.
In the Backward Lift on a Weaver Stick, a considerably heavier poundage is possible than in the more commonly performed Forward Lift style. In the Backward style the highest possible poundage recorded by Weaver was 12½ pounds. This was accomplished by John Protasel, a heavyweight of New York City. However, in order to be equal in merit to a Forward Lift of 11 pounds, as performed by John Grimek, a Backward Lift (which employs the stronger adductor muscles of the forearm) should be somewhere between 14½ and 15½ pounds.
While, as previously pointed out, it is not possible to estimate with accuracy the probable ability of a performer on the Weaver Stick who had never tried the lift before, this restriction does not apply in the case of a performer who has raised a known poundage on a sledgehammer of known length. Thus it is possible to evaluate the performance of the oldtime Canadian professional strongman, Arthur Dandurand (68 in., 185 lbs.), who at the age of 50 years (!) could hold out at arm’s length with either hand, gripping the handle at the end, a 12-pound sledgehammer assertedly 36 inches in length. If actually 38 inches, this lift would have been equivalent to raising 9.3 pounds in the Forward Lift style on a Weaver Stick; or, if the handle length were 34 inches, to about 8.7 pounds. And if Dandurand could do this at the age of 50, he surely must have been capable of raising over 10 pounds in his prime of strength.
An equally remarkable lift, considering the age of the performer, was made by an oldtime exhibitor in Germany named Josef Siegl. In 1893, at the age of 68 (!), Siegl was able to hold out, on a stick 56 inches in length, a weight of 5 German pounds (equal to 5.51 English pounds). This was equivalent to holding out at least 8 pounds on a regulation Weaver Stick. Siegl, however, had made a specialty of this lift for many years and for that reason was probably, at age 68, almost as capable as he had been in his prime. In any case, he won many a bet by being able to do it (when larger and presumably stronger competitors failed).
There is another style of “leverage-lifting” a weighted handle, such as a sledgehammer or an axe, and that is to first hold the weight by the end of the handle in a position at arm’s length in front, with the handle STRAIGHT UP AND DOWN and the hammer head uppermost. From there the weighted end of the hammer, or ax, is slowly lowered by the performer until it touches his face (nose or chin), from which delicate spot it is slowly raised or returned to the upright position. This lift makes an effective exhibition feat, especially if performed with a heavy ax, the blade being directed downward! In Maine, it would appear that the feat was – and perhaps still is – a popular competitive event among woodsmen. In it, an 11-pound, razor-sharp, wood-chopping ax is used. The champion performer of the feat was a lumberjack named Perry Greene.
However, the dangerous nature of the latter feat may be compensated for by using a HEAVIER HAMMER instead of a sharpened ax! The feat is especially meritorious, and more impressive, if performed with TWO hammers simultaneously. So far as I know, the record in the latter style is still held by the featherweight (!) Olympic lifter, Murl Mitchell, of Los Angeles, who some thirty years ago lowered two 25-pound hammers to his face (he wore eyeglasses!) and then returned them to the vertical starting position. The length of the handle in the hammers used by Mitchell was 30 inches. As may be deduced, this style of lifting (and lowering) uses the same muscles as a BACKWARD Lift on a Weaver Stick, but in a different manner. That is, in the Backward Lift the weight on the bar is being HELD UP by a contraction of the adductor muscles of the forearm, while in the ax-lowering style the same muscles are used in slowly LOWERING the weight to the face. As the handle is raised or returned to the vertical position, however, the muscles work in a similar way to a Backward Lift on a Weaver Stick, only at a more advantageous angle. to readers who may be interested in muscular anatomy, it may be added that the chief muscles used in ADDUCTING the hand (as in a Backward Lift on a Weaver Stick) are the EXTENSOR CARPI ULNARIS and the FLEXOR CARPI ULNARIS; while ABDUCTION of the hand is produced by the cooperation of the FLEXOR CARPI RADIALIS with the RADIAL EXTENSORS OF THE CARPUS (wrist), assisted by the LONG ABDUCTOR and the EXTENSORS OF THE THUMB.
To return to Murl Mitchell and his feat of LOWERING a 25-pound hammer 30 inches in length to the face with a straight arm, it would appear that this feat is about on a par with RAISING approximately 14 pounds in a Backward Lift on a standard Weaver Stick (or, by extension, to raising somewhere between 10 and 10.6 pounds in a Forward Lift). Accordingly, considering his small size, Mitchell’s feat with the two 25-pound hammers ranks as a PHENOMENAL performance. I regret that I do not have a photo of Mitchell performing this feat.
A more recent (1972) performer of the 2-hammer feat is Lawrence Farman (78 in., 212 lbs.), of Pottstown, Pa., a giant in size as compared with Mitchell, but nevertheless a noteworthy performer of leverage lifts with heavy hammers. As shown in one of the accompanying photographs of Farman, he is lowering simultaneously two long-handled hammers to his face, from where he will slowly return them to the upright starting position. Apparently, Farman is left-handed. The hammer in his left hand weighs 21 pounds, while that in his right hand weighs 18. However, the 21-pound hammer is 30 inches in length, while the 18-pound hammer is 33 inches. The latter length would be equivalent to raising a 30-inch hammer weighing about 20.3 pounds. Using a single hammer in his left hand, Farman has raised 23.5 pounds. In the other photo of Farman, he is shown levering up a hammer weighing 18½ pounds (a 16-pound hammer with a 2½- pound barbell plate added), his hand meanwhile resting on a mat or pad, and grasping the extreme end of the handle. His best lift in the same manner is, or was at the time, 19¾ pounds on a 30-inch handle. Evidently, to lift with one end of a 30-inch hammer resting on the floor, is equivalent to lifting about HALF the same poundage on a Weaver Stick in a regular Forward Lift.
So far, in dealing with sledgehammers and the Weaver Stick, we have considered only leverage lifts performed by bending the wrist SIDEWAYS, like a hinge, first toward the thumb side of the hand (Forward Lift), and then toward the little-finger side (Backward Lift). However, a third manner of applying leverage lifts is to employ a TWISTING (or rotating) movement of the hand, wrist, and forearm. One such lift was that demonstrated by Henry Holtgrewe (69 in., 280 lbs.), who about the turn of the century was known as “The Cincinnati Strongman.” Holtgrewe had 15½-inch forearms and was very strong at all kinds of wrist-leverage tests. In the presence of Ottley Coulter, Holtgrewe, who was way past his prime at the time, placed a common brick weighing 6 pounds on the straw of a broom, then levered the broom and brick, starting with the broom in horizontal position, by grasping the end of the handle with the BACK OF HIS HAND UPPERMOST and his thumb toward the brick. This tested the SUPINATOR – rather than the abductor or the adductor – muscles of the forearm. Holtgrewe performed this feat with great ease. Coulter, after some practice, was just barely able to do it, notwithstanding that as a featherweight he had lifted a meritorious 109 pounds in the Rectangular Fix (equal to a Reverse Curl stopped halfway). As will be noted, in Holtgrewe’s style of leverage-lifting the forearm is PARALLEL with the floor, whereas in a Forward Lift on a Weaver Stick the forearm is almost UPRIGHT. What the ratio in poundage is between these two leverage lifts, I do not know, since Holtgrewe is the only one I know of who performed the twisting-style lift. Too, the latter lift can be performed with the PALM – rather than the back of the hand – uppermost, and the lift again made with the weight on the thumb side of the hand, but with the hand (if the right) turning COUNTER-CLOCKWISE rather than clockwise as in Holtgrewe’s style of lifting. As there is no information whatever on what can be done in the hand-PRONATING style of stick-lifting, I shall be grateful for any records that readers may send in stating what they can raise either in one or both of the TWISTING types of leverage lifting.
A somewhat different type of twisting lift was performed by the French professional lifter Ernest Cadine (66 in., 198 lbs.) as one of his stage feats. In this lift, Cadine would hold five standard billiard cues together, grasping them in one hand at their small ends with the thumb side of his hand downward. From that position he would raise the cues in a quarter-circle until the back of his hand was uppermost, his arm being held straight out in front. A regulation billiard cue averages 57 inches in length, 2 inches in diameter at the large end, ½ inch in diameter at the tip, and weighs 18 ounces. However, the weight may range from 15 ounces to 22, and the length and diameter of the cues proportionately. If it be assumed that Cadine’s cues each weighed an average 18 ounces, the five he held out would total 90 ounces or 5⅝ pounds. But the distance from Cadine’s hand to the center of gravity of the bundle of cues would be only about 32½ inches, or appreciably less than the distance from one’s hand to a weight set on the straw of a broom. But again, there’s no way of reliably appraising the merit of Cadine’s feat, since there has been none like it with which to make a comparison. It can only be said that Cadine had a very strong grip and forearms, as was evident from his ability in picking up barbells and dumbells having thick handles.
One more “leverage-type” feat may here be described. This was performed by Paul von Boeckmann, who as noted previously lifted a record 11½ pounds on a stick of the same length as a standard Weaver Stick. In von Boeckmann’s physical culture studio in New York City, he had an oversized iron Indian club, about 20 inches high, that weighed between 80 and 85 pounds. Grasping this club at the small end with his hands close together (in baseball bat style), von Boeckmann could readily lever it up and over his shoulder. But evidently for anyone else it was a terrific feat. Sandow, who tried it, couldn’t budge the club from the floor. Charles Atlas, at a much later date, managed to tilt it slightly. Only one man other than von Boeckmann ever succeeded in getting it to the shoulder. This was Joe Nordquest (67.5 in., 190 lb.), who, after a tremendous effort, was able to shoulder the club in the prescribed manner. And Nordquest at that time (c. 1916 or 1917) had raised over 300 pounds unofficially in a left hand Bent Press and was regarded as the strongest man in America. Now, today, among the thousands of dedicated Olympic lifters, powerlifters and bodybuilders, is there anyone who can surpass Paul von Boeckmann’s Forward Lift of 11½ pounds in accepted Weaver Stick style?