I believe that the greatest mistake weight lifters have made is their ignoring of the Bent Press. There is no lift that calls forth the admiration of athletes as does this lift. It is more fascinating than any in the 40 odd lifts weight men have been practicing for the past 50 years, yet it is seen so little today that unless something is done to revive interest in the bent press it will soon be nothing but a faded memory.
The history of the bent press really dates from the time Sandow made it popular back in the late 1880’s. He was taught this lift by Professor Attila. Others have claimed credit for popularizing the Bent Press. Richard Pennel used it in this country before Sandow, and the Brothers McCann used it also, but it was Sandow who really made it famous among English speaking athletes. The Bent Press was the rage of weight lifters from 1890 until about the time of the First World War.
The Bent Press was never very popular with the continental lifters… most of them were too bulky to perform it… they could not lean forward or sideways enough to make a good lift in this style. Not that they didn’t try… they all wanted to make good in this lift since one can put up more weight with one hand this way than it is possible with any other one-handed lift. There have been men who could put up more weight with one hand in the Bent Press than they could with two hands in any other style.
Continental lifters called the Bent Press “a trick”… said it was harmful… that it was not a true lift, but a supporting feat. As a result of their wails the lift was eventually barred from competition on the continent. What a mistake! How you would enjoy seeing what some men could do in this lift had its popularity been maintained.
I have always been an admirer of this lift. But like thousands of others I have been reading for years about the harm that could come of doing the Bent Press… and so I, who always craved to do a creditable performance in this lift, finally abandoned it — or rather I never attempted to do much with it. But I have done enough with the Bent Press to know what marvelous body building possibilities there are in this lift. It develops practically every muscle in the body, requiring not only strength in the muscles that lift, but strength and suppleness in nearly all other parts of the body to maintain balance.
Some authorities continue to warn lifters that the Bent Press will retard them from making good on the quick lifts. But all you have to do is to refer to such sterling examples of speed as Hackenschmidt, Saxon, Sandow and our own Rolandow. Rolandow was about as fast a lifter as the world has ever produced, and he was a wonder at the Bent Press and most enthusiastic about this lift. He has always said, and still says, that a lift good enough for Sandow should certainly be good enough for today’s lifters.
In my opinion if an athlete cannot Bent Press at least his own weight he either has not practiced the lift thoroughly or he is one of the few, very few indeed, who never get the finer points of this lift. Professor Attila used to say that anyone who will practice the lift will master it, but Alan Calvert told me he, Calvert, believed that some men were not physically put together to succeed in this lift. Personally I am a little inclined toward Calvert’s view.
However, I have seen men that one would not expect to be good at the Bent Press turn in a very creditable performance. It has always been the opinion of many athletes that a man of stocky build, particularly in the waist region, is not flexible enough to get the proper bends to perform this lift. If a slim build is necessary then how can one account for the records of such champion bent pressers as Saxon, Hackenschmidt, Neubauer, Wareing, Nordquest and other stockily built men? I will admit that these men probably had a bit more of a job getting started on this lift than men of the type of John Grimek, Matysek, Roy L. Smith or Owen Carr for they, being more slender in the waist region, probably found this lift easier to master right from the start. On the other hand it has been my observation that while small-waisted athletes have little difficulty up to the point where the arm is locked, they have a much harder time getting up with the weight than do the heavier-built men.
The Bent Press is without a doubt the most difficult lift to learn and it takes a real enthusiast to master it, which is, I am convinced, the chief reason why so many present-day lifters do not use it. I am of the opinion that most lifters have at some time in their careers tried this lift during their training and, finding they could not manage a creditable poundage, fell into agreement with those who called it a trick rather than a lift.
Let us say that you are a great lifter in the Olympic lifts… you are frequently asked, “How much can you lift overhead with one hand?” Be careful how you answer that! If your questioner has a barbell thicker than the regulation Olympic-type bar I defy you to lift your usual poundage. But if you can do a Bent Press then the unfamiliar thick grip of his barbell will give you no troubles at all.
I believe that most lifters who will give the lift a fair trial, and by that I mean train for about six months paying particular attention to the preparatory exercises, will succeed in doing a creditable Bent Press. The great tendency is to “rush” the lift… to try for a record too soon. Naturally this discourages a man. Be patient… it takes time to develop the suppleness and flexibility necessary to the proper performance of the Bent Press. Start with a weight that you can put up more or less easily. Concentrate on form, master the technique of the lift. Use a weight that you never need to struggle with, for only in this way can you concentrate on the proper form which is so essential to the ultimate attainment of success with vast weight. Master form in practice and you will instinctively use the proper form when you finally begin working with heavy poundage.
You must keep your wits about you at all times throughout the lift. You must remember always to keep the forearm perpendicular to the floor, to force the hip back, as soon as you commence to bend sideways and forward. You must remember when to begin to bend the right leg, when to press with all your strength against the weight, when to make the final squat, how long to stay under the weight before coming up, and just how fast to come up. All these are very important details to master and failure to master them will surely spell defeat. Mastery of them will be easier with a comparatively light weight… let the heavy weight stand in the corner until you do all these things without thinking about them until you do them instinctively. ‘
Learning the intricate movements of the Bent Press is something like learning to do a handstand. In balancing one must control balance by knowing how to place the hands, how to kick or press to the upright position, when and how much to arch the back, when to apply pressure with the fingers against the floor, how to place the feet, when to raise the head and a host of other points. After a while all of these things blend into an instinctive relationship so that the man does not have to give them individual thought… he “just does it.” There is no doubt that some people have a better sense of balance than others, but practice will overcome much of any natural lack of this sense. I have noticed that most good bent pressers are good hand balancers… I think it is probably true that most good hand balancers would be excellent at the Bent Press.
I have heard many lifters remark when viewing a photograph of an athlete in the “down” position of the Bent Press that he has not completed the lift. Many lifters, unfamiliar with the Bent Press, assume that the squat is the finish of the Bent Press. Some writers have gone so far as to state that the “old timers” did not consider this the finish of the lift. This is not true and never was. The reason that one saw, years ago, so many photos of lifters in that position was to show their particular form; furthermore, the “down” position, one must admit, makes an interesting study. It conveys to the onlooker just how the athlete squats and how his free hand is placed. It really makes an all-around interesting study, and I would advise all would-be bent pressers to make a careful study of all positions in the bent press pictures they can find. Each picture should teach the enthusiast something, and, as I mentioned before , you will probably see each lifter has a little different style in performing the lift, yet each one of the lifters may be an expert in its execution. Each lifter has some particular method in bending that is suited for his particular build, and I would advise the beginner to try a few of the styles and then he will know just which is best suited to him. Some lifters keep the toes of the right leg pointing straight in front, others will turn them out; some will have their elbow of the lifting arm more forward towards the side than others and some will carry the bar quite high up on the back while others will let it go as low as comfort will permit. All these things should be tried and studied.
Once you succeed in bent pressing your own weight you can consider yourself an accomplished lifter. How much farther you get will depend on what others of your body weight do or have done in this lift. To press 25 pounds more than your body weight is a good performance . . . 50 pounds is excellent… 75 pounds is most exceptional.
A heavy man will probably Bent Press less weight in proportion to his body weight than a lighter man. I know of men of about 135 pounds who bent pressed 236 pounds… a hundred pounds more than their own weight. Yet men like Saxon, men weighing 200 pounds or more, bent pressed little more than a hundred pounds over their body weight. (Saxon did 371 pounds while weighing 210.) All of these men moreover were outstanding athletes in this respect, so be content if you manage to get above your own weight.
You will not need special weights for the Bent Press. Once you have acquired the skill to do this lift you can do it with any style of weight, provided it does not exceed the poundage you are accustomed to.
There are two fundamental exercises that one should do in learning the Bent Press. First is the Side Press – stiff-legged at the start, later bending the left leg at the knee while pressing the weight with the right arm. This will give you the foundation for the Bent Press. And it will accustom the muscles to lifting in that position. This lift is very beneficial. In the straightened position, with the weight held overhead, lean forward and sideways keeping the legs straight at the knees.
Another helpful exercise is, with the weight at arm’s length overhead, squat and rise. Lean a little forward and to the sides as you do this.
Practice these exercises without fail… they are the key to mastery of the Bent Press, especially if you are a little stiff in the sides.
Again… don’t be discouraged. Don’t try this lift and finding that you cannot bend sufficiently, try by brute force to put the weight up. I can assure you that if you will be patient and exercise diligently you will, almost like magic, find yourself actually bent pressing. It will be one of the greatest thrills of your lifting experience.
I strongly urge the beginner to practice with a dumbbell. The reason is obvious… balance is easier. Bring the weight to the shoulder with two hands. The position of the feet is very important at this point…it is something which depends largely upon your height. The foot spread must therefore be left for the individual to determine. In a right-handed press the right leg must be kept perpendicular, the elbow brought back so that it is not actually resting on the hip but that the triceps will just about rest on the upper back (or the latissimus dorsi) muscle. To properly support the weight the hip will be thrust back and toward the side. The left leg is somewhat forward with the toes pointing in the direction the body will be moving — in other words at an angle about 45 degrees from the axis of the shoulders. Now the feet are in position, the right leg straight, the left leg bent at the knee, eyes on the handle of the weight, the forearm perpendicular, and you are ready to go to work on the Bent Press.
I believe I made it clear that form and position should be practiced to perfection before attempting to elevate heavy weights. The old adage that “practice makes perfect” is a good one, but there is also a grave amount of untruth in this. for instance, if you have started on the Bent Press using the wrong style you may get to elevate a fairly heavy weight with this faulty style, for the simple reason that practice has perfected your errors.
But the man who learns the correct method first will eventually elevate much more weight.
I suggest you return to the first part of this article showing Bob Hoffman in various stages of the Bent Press, as I will occasionally refer to it as I go along.
Now, to continue, you have grasped the bar in the center with both hands, the lighting hand placed in the proper position, the other laid over the top merely to facilitate pulling in to the shoulder. The elbow is comfortably placed on the hip and well back, then the feet must be brought into proper position, which as I said was a matter for the individual to determine.
I place a great deal of stress on keeping the leg on the same side as the pressing arm straight and perpendicular, so there is a rigid support from the floor all the way up to the weight. You will notice this particularly in Hoffman’s second position shown in the previous article, and in Matysek and Saxon shown in this article.
All this movement in pulling the weight from the floor to getting it set in proper position on the hip should be performed as quickly as possible and the pressing started, for as Saxon said, “the strength of one’s arm begins to wane the second a weight is at the shoulder.”
Now the elbow is lifted back and the hip thrust as can be seen in the same mentioned photographs, the toes of the opposite foot are pointed outward in the direction the body is about to travel.
Always keeping the eyes on the bell, steadily lean forwards and sideways still keeping the elbow on the hip. Most novices make their mistake at this point, they want to suddenly press the weight away from the hip, when, theoretically, there should be no pressing other than the arm lock. For it actually is possible for a man to be so limber in the waist and flexible in the thighs that he could lean forwards and sideways until the arm was fully extended, but the elbow still on hip.
However, you should start pressing about the time your upper body is about right angles to the legs, as can best be seen in the third and fourth poses of Bob Hoffman and the second position of Saxon.
Keep the forearm perpendicular and carry the weight a bit back as you keep pushing against the bar. Now the arm is beginning to straighten out, and it is here the lifter must press with all his power. The arm is almost three-quarters straight now and the leg, which has been kept straight up to this point, will now commence to bend at the knee.
Continue to bend both knees, while exerting pressure against the bar, the arm gradually straightening. As the arm reaches the reaches the “locked” point, you should be in a position similar to photos four and five of Bob Hoffman, or the very low position of Gasnier.
Here again the novice will make a mistake by trying to arise immediately from this position. When the thighs are horizontal, you drop the hips to the full squat position, bringing the weight back carefully so the body is more directly under it, and the pressure distributed on both feet.
The other hand plays an important part in supporting the upper body by resting the shoulder against the upper thigh or knee and the hand on the opposite leg. But now it must come to assistance in pressing against the leg to come to the upright position.
There are a few fundamental points that should always be uppermost in the lifter’s mind; and that is always keep your eyes on the weight, and above all the forearm must be perpendicular during all stages of the lift.
The heavier the weight the longer duration the elbow will remain on the hip. But here is another thing — a man with a very large arm will not be able to make his elbow touch his hips as he starts leaning and twisting, as in the case of Bob Hoffman and Saxon, because the muscles above the elbow are so large, but you will observe the whole upper arm is resting on the side or rather the latissimus muscle, which gives greater support.
In looking over the great masters of the Bent Press, Saxon stands out supreme. His record of 371 will probably never be broken. Here is what Saxon says about bending in the lift: “In allowing the body to fall forward, the speed of the movement must at all times be governed by the balance you feel you have attained.” Of course it is best to get the lift over as quickly as possible, but a fair speed in pressing may be obtained only when it is felt that a perfect balance has been gained, otherwise to hurry it will only cause the lifter to lose control and the weight to fall.
Another point brought out by Saxon was that he did not allow the bar to swing while he was pressing. Always start with the bar parallel to the back and not at right angles. (Notice Matysek’s position).
Remember the scientific principle behind the Bent Press is to keep the bar at the same level and bend the body away from underneath it.
In gaining a good balance of the bar it is best to always keep it level; this will take a lot of strain away from the wrist that you would feel if there was too much back hang or front hang, although some performers actually allow the bar to have a slight back hang.
Those who have practiced this lift gain terrific bodily strength, for the bent press really does give one great body strength. Gasnier had terrific body strength, although he was only a lightweight his ability to break steel chains was indeed remarkable. The dumbbell he is shown pressing weighed 236 pounds. Although no man has ever raised double-bodyweight in the Bent Press some have been very close to it. For instance, Pullum at about 125 pounds raised 238. Prof. Attila could press double his weight into the lowered position but could not stand erect with it.
I really believe that if you practice this lift as I said in the first part of this article you will gain the greatest enjoyment of your lifting career and become an ardent devotee of the most scientific and fascinating lift of them all.
- Health & Strength, March 1936.