Single Handed by David Gentle

The competition for a new Health & Strength logo carried out recently created great interest, with plenty of good ideas and lots of entries submitted. Of equal interest at the time, a time of even greater readership was the original competition staged in Volume VI (1903) with thousands of designs submitted many of which were published in the magazine, with a process of elimination deciding upon the eventual logo, which stood for many decades until its cessation at the birth of NABBA.  

Most people are aware that the famous NABBA emblem was based on a popular pose of John C. Grimek, our first Mr. Universe winner in 1948, far fewer remember that the old Health & Strength badge was modeled after a selected and posed-for symbolic figure of Edward Aston. Aston, who also had his portrait statuette form exhibited at the Royal Academy in London (1912) won the title of Britain’s Strongest Man from Thomas Inch in 1911, holding the title for 23 years, retiring undefeated. Amongst his all-round variety of feats, Aston could do a single-arm snatch with 180 lbs and single-hand clean to shoulder 250 lb/113.3 kg (later Ron Walker did 320 lb in this lift).  

There is some magic association of numbers and strength poundages, for example the first 1,000 lb barrier in the three Olympic lifts was made by Steve Stanko (York, 1941)… later (much later) we now have fiery Fred Doc Hatfield actually squatting with 1,000 lb. Other earlier barriers were the 400-500 lb bench press, now it’s Ted Arcidi with over 700 lb… For most non-weightlifters 300 lb/136 kg is just about enough to deadlift, so with such an appreciative weight it would take a real strong man to lift that overhead.  

Edward Aston was more than your average man. On 24th July 1913, at Crystal Palace, London, Edward Aston became the first Englishman to lift 300 lb overhead with one hand. Single-handed lifts always appear impressive, as they untruthfully suggest that the performer could lift twice as much with two hands. This common misconception was capitalized upon by most of the old-time professional strength performers, and still fools the layman even today.

Most weights look very much the same to an audience, i.e. 300 lb or 400 lb from a short distance vary little in appearance. Most old-timers substituted human weights which are far more impressive than solid iron. Aston copied his predecessor Thomas Inch and lifted two young ladies overhead. Inch in his turn got the idea no doubt from Eugene Sandow. Sandow used to lift overhead, with his right hand, two immense spheres via a ‘dumbbell’. On lowering the ‘dumbell’, from out of the two hollow weights would jump two men dressed as clowns, or at times young ladies in bulky, to give the impression of heavy dresses. Sandow, although a great showman and pioneer of bodybuilding, was never as he often claimed, the World’s Strongest Man, with that title better fitted in his era at least to former Health and Strength cover man Arthur Saxon.  

Saxon’s power in a single-handed lifting was frightening. He far exceeded Sandow’s poundages, for example regularly during his stage act he pressed two men seated in a sling affair overhead, then tossed them from one hand to the other. The combined weight of that lot was at times said to be 314 lb/142.4 kg. His best official poundage in the bent press (a single-handed lift, often described as the ’screw’ lift because of the technique required to turn when lifting) was 371 lb in Stuttgart in 1905.  

Unofficially he lifted as much as 386 lb, witnessed by William Bankier (Apollo) and others, reported in detail at the time in H&S. With his little finger, using a leather loop he once raised overhead 297 lb/135kg, surely the most weight ever lifted aloft with a single digit. Lifting weights from the ground with one finger (again, using a padded finger ring), there have been some mighty records made, especially by men who specialize on such stunts. The record is held by a relatively unknown weightlifter, R. Weeks (who also claimed a world record chest expansion) with 760 lb circa 1941. Better witnessed and believable is the poundage of the Coney Island strongman Warren Lincoln Travis, lifting the equivalent of four men with one finger, or the weight of 667 lb//302.5 kg. The giant French Canadian Louis Cyr records 552 1/2 lb with one digit. Using the whole hand, i.e. via one hand deadlift, no doubt Herman Goerner gets the award with a right-hand deadlift of 727 ½ lb/330 kg on 8th October 1920. Later, Goerner, again using one hand, deadlifted a block of sandstone with a handle attached which weighed 734 l/2 lb or 333kg. Goerner, like Saxon, did many fine feats during his time with circuses, with both men being fine all-rounders.

John C. Grimek has always been an ‘all-rounder’ practicing a ‘thousand and one’ exercises, and practised over his long career a host of strength feats. On discussing Saxon and the bent press to me in a letter dated 26th January 1984: “I may have related to you or some others that around 1960 or ’61 when we moved to our gym on Ridge Avenue, one afternoon I wanted to see how over 400 lb would feel at my shoulder that Saxon experienced when he bent pressed over 400 lb. I loaded the bar to 415 lb which weighed 418 ½ lb. After getting (rocking) it to my shoulder, it felt so comfortable I began to bend…. just to see how it felt… Yet I had pushed the weight to arm’s length, but did not make any attempt to straighten up, but allowed the weight to come down on the platform. Of all the times I would have appreciated having a picture taken… everyone in the gym, apparently was too stunned to take one.” There is nothing I can add to that.  

John, better known to most readers as a legendary bodybuilder, was, as you can now image, a tough all-round lifter, quoting me other single-handed lifts as follows: “Side press, best effort during the 1940’s was 265 lb keeping legs locked. “ One hand clean: “I could clean anywhere form 225-270 lbs.” Power snatch with right hand, 210 lb, and….”One-hand swing. For a time was favourite. I meant to bring this swing bar to London in 1949 for my exhibition. I was going to demonstrate at least 240-250 lb”. The range of lifts or feats of strength classified as ‘single-handed’ is enormous, from the dumbell swings, snatches, cleans, presses etc. to one-arm press-ups, usually practised by devotees of the martial arts.

From giant lifters such as Paul Anderson, the first ‘squat machine’ who could do repetition presses with a 300 lb dumbbell, to the diminutive but powerful Lillian Leitzel who, at just 4 ft 9in and bodyweight 90 lb, held the record for one-hand chins doing 27 reps in Philadelphia, USA, back in 1918. Lillian, a circus performer, used to do over 100 repetitions regularly on a trapeze of her ‘one-arm dislocation’ or single-arm giant swings, once performing 429 reps during a circus performance around 1920-30.

To left:  Paul Anderson, capable of reps with 300 lb in one arm side press (shown here with about 200 lbs!)

Very famous and popular in her time, during a performance on the high rings she pressed into a handstand, only to have one of the rings collapse, falling 29 ft to the floor.

She died 28 days later, on 13th February 1931. No need for you to kill yourself attempting single-arm chins or pull-ups, and if you do manage one or more, then let us know at H & S as it is praiseworthy stunt and one not too often practised today.  

Seen left:  The famous circus star, Lillian Leitzel did record one arm chins - 27 reps with the right hand and 17 reps with the left in 1918

Earlier NABBA Mr. Universe winners for an example Jack Delinger, could do three or more reps of one-arm chins with either hand, and no doubt current champs are capable of similar demonstrations of power.  

It’s encouraging to discover that many contests or shows are once again reverting to spacing out the physique line-ups with strength acts and competitions for most press-ups or challenge dumbbell lifting… all makes for more interest. I see there is such a thing as a British Single-Arm Championship run annually by BAWG (the British All-Round Weightlifting Guild), using a combination of single-arm clean and jerk/press and snatch and dumbbell swings, so let’s hear of what standard you have reached so as to update the record books.  

Single Handed © Copyright by David Gentle All Rights Reserved Acknowledgements to Health & Strength 

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