Are We Really Getting Any Stronger ?
Powerlifting started off as an offshoot of Olympic Lifting and the early powerlifters were usually Olympic lifters past their prime or who were too slow. Squats and deadlifts of 700 and a 500 bench were found. around the late 1960’s Soon lifters began to specialize in powerlifting and 800 squat, 600 bench , and 800 deadlift were happening. Training techniques were improved and strength became a science . Then by the early 1970’s Jon Cole squatted the first 900 with only ace bands which offer very little mechanical support, and deadlifted 885..Cole weighed only 280. Big 340 lb Jim Williams benched 675 and narrowly missed 700 ( Jim worked all three lifts) Now if Jon Cole had stayed a heavyweight a little longer 900 would have been possible in the deadlift he was no near his potential in that lift.. That barrier actually fell around 1980. Had Jim Williams gone bench only he would have gone 725-730 . In the 242 lb div George Frenn squatted 855 and had a 540 bench and 815 deadlift. At 198 Larry Pacifico did a 700 squat and deadlift with a 540 bench. Lamar Gant deadlifted 600+ at 123. Don Rhienhout squatted 935 with no wraps or support in the mid 1970’s . These lifts were done with little or no mechanical support and are raw by any standard.
Powerlifters are goal and number oriented and got to keep pushing the envelope. In other words the numbers must keep getting bigger!! In the old days, harder work payed off , then in the late 1960’s to 1970’s steroids became the method of pushing the envelope. But steroids can only do so much as muscle tissue and the human body has it’s limits. Then in the mid 1970’s powerlifters discovered their pandora’s box and began to incorporate more and more mechanical means of assisting a lift, mainly in the squat. With the new wraps and suits, we could now lift more and more in the squat . From 1972 to the mid 80’s the squat went up 100 lbs while the deadlift went up only 20. When bench shirts were developed in the mid 80’s Jim William’s 675 and Bill Kazmaier’s 661 fell as several lifters cracked 700 . Now the squat and bench amounts went up mostly as the deadlift is not helped very much by today’s assistance. Look at how many deadlift records get broken compared to squat and bench. Then in from the mid 1980’s to the mid 1990’s the record setting pace slowed down to a trickle. As soon as the records began to stabilize, then we had to manufacture higher numbers. Are we getting stronger? Compare us to other sports. In Olympic lifting, the closest sport to powerlifting, the records kept going up into the late 1970’s to early 1980’s. Then the nature of the human body put the breaks on. In 1976 The Russian Vassili Alexeev Clean and jerked 565. By the mid 1980’s the most done was 585, and that still hasn’t been broken yet!! Swimming records which used to be broken by seconds are now broken by thousandths !!! Track and field and other sports have similar results. Smaller incriments or looser rules are needed to keep records happening.
As soon as the record breaking pace slows , powerlifters have always found a way to manufacture new records. In the late 1990’s the Pandora’s box of powerlifting opened even wider with more layers of materials like denim and canvas. Squat suits and bench shirts capable of adding 200 lbs to one’s lifts appeared. Now in 2003, Pandora’s box has been opened all the way. Not only do we have equipment to add hundreds of pounds to our lifts, but we have meets that allow incomplete forms of the lifts to be passed. Add a high squat to the equipment or rule infractions in the bench, and almost anything is possible. To keep up the record breaking pace, lifters are turning to the latest piece of equipment, and manufacturers are willing to supply .
No getting back to the origional question, are we really getting any stronger? It is indeed hard to compare one lifter who uses gear to one who doesn’t , but for arguement’s sake we’ll do it . Take Jon Cole who did 905 squat 580 bench and 885 deadlift and if he had today’s gear on him would do 1050-700-900 or about 2650 at 280 !! Don Rhienhout at 365 and lifts of 935-615-885 could do 1100-740-900 , both totals approximate Garry Frank’s If you put Bill Kazmiaer in today’s gear you could get 1075-775-900, about 100 lbs over Frank’s total , and that’s 1980 !!! What if you put today’s gear on Paul Anderson??? Remember George Frenn the 242 who did 855-540-815 ? In today’s gear, he could do 1000-675-825 and approach the 2500 Ed Coan was shooting for. Mike Bridges benched 523 in the 181 lb class in the early 1980’s before bench shirts and he squatted big too. He’d been well over 600 with today’s apparatus. Mike McDonald the origional bench press only lifter, did 560 at 198 , 600 at 220 and 625 at 242, about the same or more as today’s armored lifters could do without their armor. In about every weight class , there are 1970’s lifters , that in today’s gear, could produce a similar result. And had big Jim Williams only worked his bench press, and put on today’s gear, he’d be trying 900 too!!! And More !! Now look at the powerlift that benefits very little from assistance. Around 1980 both Dan Wohleber and Doyle Kennady in did 905 the deadlift . Even with today’s erector shirts and suits which do help only a little, the deadlift record has gone up about 30 lbs and at least half of that is due to technology, So it appears that the true human strength level had about maxed out in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the same with other sports.
Results improved in the strength sports during the 50’s and early 60’s because lifters simply trained harder . Then along came steroids and lifts kept going up until the 1980’s when they became illegal and the quality of what could be obtained became suspect. During the 1970’s and early 1980’s we learned to train better and that combined with proper nutricion gave results and increases. Let’s realize that the human body can get only so strong as it is. Powerlifting is bound to attract some genetic freaks but even then there is a limit .In the mid 1980’s all sports with records began to slow the record breaking pace down, including powerlifting The maximum weight lifted overhead has not changed since the mid 1980′S . The only way some other sports can claim records is to have them broken in smaller increments or change the rules.
Powerlifting is a sport that is record driven. Powerlifters need to set records! Now let’s follow one record ..the most coveted one..the heavyweight of heaviest bench press. When powerlifting started it quickly rose into the 500’s and then in the mid 1960’s the legendary Pat Casey lifted it to 635. In 1972, James Williams moved it to 675 and almost 700. Now these were lifters who worked all three lifts and not just benched as is common now . That alone adds many pounds to the bench. Now to break 700 Ted Arcidi had to put on a bench shirt and solo in the bench. Several more rose over 700. now to hit 800 a tighter or more fortified bench shirt had to be used as well as relaxing the rules as well as the lifter having to solo in the bench as least for a while. now to go from 800 to 900 the 100 lb distance will be covered by sheer technology . All the lifter will have to do is get a better shirt . The 900 “bench press” will happen not due to increased strength , but the shirtmaker understanding the laws of physics. Soon then some group will allow elbow wraps and who knows what will happen. Or they will allow the spotters to force the weight to the chest with a tight shirt. It is totally ridiculous that a lifter can not get 8-900 lbs down to the chest ! Call it a bench press..I say not!!! Having been around for it all I would say that the absolute bench press might be close to 700 in a three lift meet and 720 or a bit more solo. Anything more would be sheer fabrication. No pun intended. And it would take a rare person to do that. It is natural that man due to his competitive nature keeps pushing the envelope. But modern man needs to realize that there are limits and we have approached the strength limits. We have tried to get added limits out working harder, scientific training, drugs, and now powerlifters are wearing gear that amounts to an ant’s exo-skeleton to push up the numbers by up to 200 lbs above what the lifter could do normally.
Do I blame the lifter? One can’t blame human nature. Or Do I think that it is all wrong what we are doing? What is wrong however is to claim the mechanically assisted lift as true human strength which it is not!! Is is incorrect to claim that we are significantly stronger than before. If fact, many of today’s powerlifters are weaker!! Just look at the average deadlifts! Powerlifters who train exclusively for the materially assisted lifts train more partial movements to train specifically for their event. This makes them not as strong at the bottom of the movement. Take someone who does the big shirt bench or the canvas squat suit and extra long wraps and 1) See what they could deadlift 2) see what they can squat or bench without any mechanical help. You will find that many of today’s lifters compare with the results from 1972-1982. Probably this reliance on mechanical devices has slowed down any increase in human strength as the focus has gone from man to manufacturer!!! Lifters are more worried about what gear to use than how to train. Instead of full movements they do partials.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here? We should go back to the origional idea of sports competition. Man vs Man and Man vs the weight and realize that we just can’t keep breaking records at that fast of pace. Man isn’t just getting any stronger. And what will we do when equipment manufacturers reach their limits on what they can do. That is happening as we speak. Oh loosen up on the rules again? NO ! ….I don’t know if there is any simple answer except we must realize that since around the late 1970’s and the 1980’s man hasn’t gotten any stronger. There are limits and we must realize them, We must put some limits on just how far we are going to aid the human body. If not the laws of physics will.
What about the better training techniques of today? Once again they had their roots back in the 70’s and 80’s. I talk to many of the old timers and find that they did much of what we do now, and with all this emphasis on equipment, we have overlooked a lot of good information. The modern collection of training techniques does make one improve a bit faster and is more defined in it’s goals, but man has his limits and unless we surgically or genetically alter man (another Pandora’s box) we are just not getting any stronger, and we need to come to terms with it.
Then what about powerlifting? ..We need to realize that records are not made to be broken by large amounts and all the time. It’s ok for a record to last for a time. We need to break records by human strength, even if it is at a slow rate. Then we can appreciate it more. Just how much do I think our absolute strength level has gone up since the 1970’s ? In the powerlifts, probably about 15-25 lbs each. What about the future? I think we are close to maxed out and the ultimate in human strength is near and only to be broken by people with superb genetics.
Since mankind is not getting much stronger, let’s just enjoy how strong we can get, and enjoy what we do with our strength and use it wisely. Powerlifting is the sport of the super strong in human spirit and strength and should remain so. We have had many strong athletes in strength sports over the years and will no doubt have many more. If we were to put all the strongmen together from all the ages, what a strong assembly of humanity it would be!
By: Bob Strauss