I was simultaneously shocked and shamed by the site’s recent post on Jackson Powell. For those who haven’t seen it, Powell, a seventeen year old powerlifter from Tennessee, recently posted a video on Instagram of him squatting 885 lbs. Two things immediately came to mind. First that Powell completed the squat with incredible style and, second, that people’s perceptions of strength have increased exponentially in recent decades. When I was seventeen, a 300lb squat was otherworldly. Powell nearly tripled that for fun.
That a 17-year-old could even consider squatting 885 lb shows how advanced the powerlifting community has become. We know from previous posts that powerlifting, as a recognised sport, only originated in the 1960s. In the first official US powerlifting contest, the late Terry Todd topped the charts with a 600lb squat. In 1972, Jon Cole squatted over 900lb in a lifting suit. The progression from then to today is downright staggering and, in light of this, today’s post looks at a seminal moment in powerlifting history: the first 1,000lb squat.
In 1954 Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile. Since that time, it has been broken by hundreds of athletes.(1) This goal had eluded runners since they first began targeting it in the 1880s. When Bannister proved it could be done, a mental barrier was broken which opened the floodgates to the masses. The 1,000lb squat is, to my mind, a powerlifting equivalent. What is even more remarkable about the 1,000lb squat is how quickly, and how seriously, powerlifters began to attack the goal soon after the sport’s official creation. Their story is one of strength, strain and, ultimately, success.
I. Powerlifting’s Progression
Powerlifting, as a sport, officially began in the 1960s. This does not mean, of course, that strong men and feats of strength did not exist prior to this time. Eddie Hall, Brian Shaw, Nick Best and Robert Oberst did a good job of showing the longevity, and indeed impressiveness, of old strongman feats in their recent Strongest Man in History series for the History Channel. Looking closer to home, BarBend has featured several posts on old time strongmen, like the French Canadian lifter Louis Cyr, who proved that humans have long appreciated and sought out strength.
What changed with the introduction of powerlifting in the 1960s was our perceptions and expectations of strength. With the introduction of powerlifting, the lifting community no longer cared about odd lifts, back lifts or circus exhibitions of strength. Instead attention turned to the now holy trinity of the bench press, deadlift and squat. Where Olympic Weightlifting, at least until 1972, had the clean, snatch, and press, powerlifting now had its own clear set of lifts.
It’s hard to stress the importance of this fact. As late as the 1950s, people disagreed on the best lifts to include in strength competitions.(2) For a brief time many argued for the inclusion of strict bicep curls in strength competitions, which is undoubtedly music to the ears of anyone brazen enough to use the squat rack for curls. When the powerlifting community finally settled on a ‘Big 3’, it paved the way for lifters to specialize on three lifts only.
With specialization comes strength and with strength comes seriousness. Ben Pollack, Dominic Morais and Jan Todd published a series of articles on this very subject a number of years ago.(3) Examining the early decades of powerlifting, these ‘Iron Game’ historians found that within a decade of powerlifting’s official creation, athletes were using a variety of weird and wonderful ways to increase their lifting numbers. This included the use of lifting suits, bench press shirts, half-cut tennis balls behind the knee cap to help squatting proficiency and, of course, the use of anabolic steroids.(4)
This, I hasten to add, is not to take anything away from the hundreds of men and women who helped powerlifting’s progression. Instead this is my way of highlighting how quickly the sport began to push the realms of what was previously thought possible through the use of new equipment and new drugs. How else can we explain the disparity between Terry Todd’s 600lb winning squat in the 1960s, with Cole’s 900lb squat a decade later?(5) That powerlifting enjoyed television coverage and a not insubstantial print following during these decades heightened the importance of narrative and record breaking within the sport.
Narrative, or story telling, is one of the most important parts of fandom and powerlifting was no exception. Just as runners began speaking of the four minute mile, and sprinters of the sub-ten second 100m sprint, powerlifters began targeting the 1000lb squat during the 1970s. When Cole squatted 900lb in 1972, it seemed that this target would soon be broken. Things, as we all know, are rarely so simple.
II . Dave Waddington and the Squat that Wasn’t
By the early 1970s, powerlifting in the United States had become a serious sport in its own right. Yes it may have existed on the fringes of American popular sport, but it was nevertheless a sport with rules, regulations and rituals. Like all serious sports, powerlifting was by then predicated on the importance of verification, a characteristic Alan Guttman argued was at the heart of all modern sport.(6) Verification, or ‘truthfulness’ as it was in essence, has always been an issue in the strength community.
As early as the 1920s, American strength athletes complained about the use of fake plates in public feats of strength or downright lies when it came to how much an individual could lift.(7) It was for this reason that the first official American weightlifting organizations were founded in the 1920s.(8) Organizations helped, in part, to stem suspicions about new records but they did not eradicate the problem.
Heck even today many powerlifters take issue with Westside Barbell and many of their in house “world record” lifts, which many raise suspicion over.(9) Why anyone would ever dare criticise Westwide is beyond me, but that’s another day’s story. Now in any case, it is the ongoing suspicion in the industry that led Randy Roach to describe the fitness industry as ‘muscle, smoke and mirrors’.(10)
Why, you might be wondering, am I laboring this point? Simply because the first 1,000lb squat was the lift that wasn’t. You see, the first man to claim a 1,000lb squat suffered from the fact that although he did it in front of an audience, there were no official judges present. This left the powerlifting community in a tricky situation. The 1,000 lbs lift had been achieved but few could categorically believe it. This was despite the stellar reputation of the man involved, a Mr. Dave Waddington.
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Fans of the World Strongest Man (WSM) competition might recognise the name Dave Waddington and it was indeed in the WSM that I first became aware of him. In 1981 Waddington finished third behind the legendary Bill Kazmaier, and the equally impressive British strongman Geoff Capes. It was a stellar performance but Waddington had the misfortune of competing during Kazmaier’s heyday. Subsequent WSM outings in 1982 and 1984 failed to eclipse his third place finish but Waddington continued to impress throughout, especially in those lifts requiring raw power.(11)
The reason why Waddington was able to do so well in WSM events like the squat and deadlift was simple: he was a pretty amazing powerlifter in his time. Prior to his 1981 WSM appearance, Waddington won both the AAU and Pan American powerlifting championships in 1977. Three years later in 1980, he bettered this feat with a series of North American contest wins and new records.(12)
It wasn’t his powerlifting victories which garnered Waddington so much respect but rather his now mythical lift on June 13, 1981. It was on that day that Waddington seemed to have done the impossible: he squatted 1,013lb in front of a local crowd at a gym in Zanesville, Ohio.(13) Was it pretty? Absolutely not. Was it impressive? What do you think?
For a brief period Waddington was even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first man in history to move such a monumental weight.(14) That was, of course, before people began to dispute the lift. As mentioned, no official powerlifting judges or referees were present to verify the lift. So although people talked about it, and few could dispute Waddington’s character or indeed strength, doubt crept in about whether or not Waddington had done it.
The lift was eventually disregarded, much to Waddington’s dismay. This meant that the race to the 1,000lb squat remained open for someone, anyone to claim the prize. In the end, powerlifting fans were treated to a ‘squat off’ between Dave Waddington, the man who would be king, and an upstart Hell’s Angel powerlifter named Lee Moran.
III. Lee Moran And Dave Waddington
Sport is built on rivalry. In boxing or MMA fans love a personal story, a narrative between two athletes battling it out for the ultimate prize. The same is true for team sports like football, basketball or baseball. For a brief period in the 1980s, powerlifting had Lee Moran and Dave Waddington, both of whom were aiming for that 1,000lb squat.
It’s at this point that we need to talk about Lee Moran, whose entrance into powerlifting was nothing short of explosive. Part of the Hells Angels biker gang, Moran was, in every sense of the word, a tough individual. Weighing anywhere from 280 to 300lb, Moran first announced himself on the powerlifting stage in the early 1980s, specifically in 1982 when he set a world record in the 275lb division by squatting 909lb.(15) As he increased in weight, he increased in strength.
Speaking after Moran’s death in 1999, Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the lifetime president and founder of the Hells Angels described Moran’s impressiveness in no uncertain terms:
Lee Moran was a strength natural and shot to the top of the powerlifting heap like a 1000 horsepower dragster: he had the bone structure and the body (thick, squat and dense), and an ability to pack on bodyweight.
His density per inch of height was incredible – he was able to weigh 300+ pounds, mostly muscle, and his squat and bench press leverages were second to none. He was a fierce competitor with an unbelievable pain tolerance and an ability to effortlessly push his body past its capacity. His powerlifting career was short, memorable, and meteoric … (16)
Funnily, Moran often presented himself as a casual, happy go lucky character. Speaking to Reid Hall in 1985 he joked about his magnetic personality, his love of dogs and his lovely wife. When talking about powerlifting, Moran argued that it wasn’t a “matter of life and death, as some people seem to think. You’ll see guys who come in second or third and sit around the bar and pout…” (17) Despite what he said, Moran was a fierce competitor who approached the platform like nothing else mattered. This was shown in his Herculean effort to successfully out-squat Waddington for the ultimate prize in powerlifting.
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In 1981 Dave Waddington supposedly squatted over 1,000lb. As we now know, the lack of a credible referee raised doubts about his claims. Luckily Fred ‘Dr. Squat’ Hatfield was on hand to verify Waddington and Morans’ lifts at the 1984 Senior National Powerlifting Championships, when both sought to break the squat record.
In front of a packed crowd in Dayton, Ohio, Waddington and Moran pushed each other to bigger and better heights. Much of the talk before the meet was about which man would break the record. The mind games were in full effect as both men sought to psyche themselves up and psyche their opponent out.
As part of his opening gambit, Waddington walked out on the platform with 942lb on the bar. He slowly lowered and, with a great deal of effort, managed to get back up. There was only one problem, however: he failed on depth.(18) A second attempt proved equally unsuccessful. Knowing that he was in trouble, Waddington shot for the stars with a 953lb squat. It didn’t work. The path was now open for Moran to make history.
Showing no fear, Moran walked out with 953lb on the bar, the same weight which had proved too much for Waddington. Confident in the extreme, Moran lowered down cooly and in control. The crowd cheered but disaster struck. As he slowly ascended, Moran blacked out. A once cheering crowd now looked on as Moran collapsed forward and hit his head on the ground. It later transpired that such was the force with which he fell that Moran nearly severed his tongue after he blacked out.(19)
A crowd of friends, family and weightlifters surrounded the unconscious Moran whose mouth filled with blood. Smelling salts were brought out and, alongside the encouragement of his fellow lifters, Moran was eventually brought back to reality. Asked if he wanted to quit, Moran responded ,
No f**king way.
He clearly had a record to break.(20)
Moran returned to the platform once again. He walked out with 953lb on his back and this time, completed the lift to the roars of the crowd. Where Waddington had failed, Moran had succeeded in the most dramatic of ways. A murmur began to reverberate throughout the crowd. Would Moran go for the thousand pound squat? Yes!
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Fifty pounds slid onto the bar, bringing the total weight to 1,003lb. Moran, now seemingly in a trance, approached the bar. Like the 953lb, this wasn’t going to be easy. The contest’s official report relayed the dramatics on show. Like his first effort with 953lb, Moran’s 1,003lb lift seemed destined for failure.
One collar popped off the bar, almost as if it were shot from a gun. Hundred pound plates flew off that end, stressing the other collar which popped loose as well, releasing plates in that direction and causing spotters and officials to run for cover. The bar, now overloaded to one side, rocketed up off Moran’s back and flew through the air, a deadly missile which splintered the stage as it landed…(21)
A lesser man would have taken it as a bad omen. Given that Moran had collapsed unconscious several minutes beforehand, few would have blamed him for quitting the meet. After all, he had already defeated Waddington to win the contest. Unperturbed and, in an act of incredible mental strength, Moran waited as the bar was loaded once again. His next squat was about to go down in the history books. He was going to squat 1,003lb
This is undoubtedly one of my favorite pieces of powerlifting history. In one short clip we see the determination, strength and perseverance of a true competitor. When Moran returned to the rack, all congratulated him, including his would be opponent, Dave Waddington. Moran’s strength was beyond reproach.
Moran had done it and, like that, the pathway was opened for future powerlifters to achieve bigger and better things. Now we have individuals like the aforementioned teenage sensation Jackson Powell squatting over 800lb We also have powerlifters like Chris Duffin squatting 1,001lb for reps. Moran, who unfortunately passed away in 1999, would undoubtedly be proud. Much like Roger Bannister, he had broken both a physical and mental barrier. That Moran did it in the most dramatic of ways furthered his legend.
Featured image via @neckbergcom on Instagram
- Bale, John.Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile. Psychology Press, 2004.
- Schuler, Lou, and Alwyn Cosgrove. The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged: Ten All-new Muscle-building Programs for Men and Women. Penguin, 2012.
- Todd, Jan, et al. “Shifting gear: a historical analysis of the use of supportive apparel in powerlifting.” Iron Game History 13.2-3 (2015): 37.
- Ron Fernando, ‘Jon Col, A Forgotten Legend?’. The Tight Slacks of Dezso Ban.
- Guttman, Allen. From Record to Ritual: The Nature of Modern Sport. 1978.
- Fair, John. “George Jowett, Ottley Coulter, David Willoughby and the Organization of American Weightlifting, 1911-1924.” Iron Game History 2 (2012): 3-15.
- Simmons, Louie. Westside barbell book of methods. Westside Barbell, 2000.
- Roach, Randy. Muscle, smoke, and mirrors. Vol. 1. AuthorHouse, 2008.
- ‘Waddington, Dave’, All Powerlifting.
- Heffernan, Conor. ‘Dave Waddington and the Thousand Pound Squat.’ Physical Culture Study. .
- ‘Strongest Hells Angel Member: Lee Moran’, Neck Berg.
- Gallagher, Marty. ‘Lee Moran’, Starting Strength.
- Hall, Redd. ‘Lee Moran.’ The Tight Slacks of Dezso Ban.
- Leistner, Ken. ‘History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training, No. 29.’ Titan Support.
- Heffernan, Conor. ‘Lee Moran and the Thousand Pound Squat.’ Physical Culture Study.
- ‘Lee Moran Spills a Big Squat’, Strength Tech.