The past few years have been a wonderful time for strength fans. Between strongmen and powerlifters, figures in the squat, deadlift, and bench press have jumped to previously unimagined levels. Right now, the deadlift has never been so popular — strength fans in the 90s would never have imagined that hundreds of thousands of people would watch Hafþór ‘Thor’ Björnsson’s 501kg deadlift world record broadcast live on ESPN.
That such weights are even conceivable is testament to the long list of strength athletes who have continued to push the boundaries of what is possible when it comes to the deadlift.
The road to the 1,000lb deadlift proved a slow and hard fought path. Given the long history of the movement, it seems strange that we had to wait so long to see this landmark broken, especially compared to other feats of strength.
In 1984, Lee Moran became the first man to squat 1,000lb. Twenty two years later, in 2004, Gene Rychlak bench pressed that same weight. It was only in 2006 that Andy Bolton was able to lift such a weight in the deadlift.
Given that the deadlift is part of powerlifting’s ‘Holy Trinity’ alongside the bench press and squat, I’ve always wondered why it took so long to reach this record, especially after Moran’s heroics in 1984.
How and why it took so long and what the ramifications of Bolton’s monumental lift were, are the focus of today’s article. As in the case of Lee Moran and the squat, the 1,000lb deadlift was a story of sweat, strain, and struggle.
Early Deadlifts and Early Records
We know that rudimentary forms of deadlifting dated back to at least the eighteenth century. We previously learned in the history of weight training in the Ancient World that deadlifting likely dates back thousands of years. How, then, do we establish a history of deadlift records?
Jan Todd’s recent blog post on legitimacy in strongman and weightlifting has highlighted the problems which arise when we try to fix records in strength sports.(1) Different divisions have different rules, different interpretations exist, and different equipment is used. Can we compare Thomas Topham’s harness lifts of the eighteenth century to the partial deadlifts completed by George Barker Windship in the nineteenth century? Put simply, no as it would cause quite a lot of needless arguments in the process.
[Related: The untold history of the barbell.]
A study of deadlift records needs to begin then, with a study of records and record keeping. The first major international weightlifting competition, held in London in 1891, is one of our first ports of call in this regard. As part of the two day event, a ‘dead-weight lifting’ contest was held. Rather underwhelming was the fact that the weight used was limited to 180lb for reps. While we don’t know exactly what this entailed — and the fact that many competitors struggled with the weight suggests that it was not a strict deadlift — but it was a start.
The next two decades saw a series of informal and short lived efforts made to formalize power competitions. The problem was that this was the age of physical culture — of strongman shows in theaters. At this time many of these strongmen used feats of strength or lifts completely different from their competition. This was a rather easy way of claiming to be the strongest performer in a town or country.
Say for example, that I am the only lifter alive capable of doing a thumb deadlift with 200lb. It’s rather easy for me to claim my ‘champion’ status as the strongest man since no one else can compete in my specialized lift. This was largely the mindset at this time. Formerly competing against other strongmen or women was bad for business because if you lost, people would stop paying to see you.
That Eugen Sandow sued Arthur Saxon over this very issue demonstrates its seriousness.(2) Nevertheless there were some athletes who did want to compete fairly and, in 1911, the British Amateur Weightlifting Association (BAWLA), was born. BAWLA was one of the first nationwide weightlifting associations of its kind and although it didn’t truly take off until the 1930s — the Great War significantly impacted its growth — it did help to formalize, in part, the recording of new strength records.(3)
From BAWLA to Blah Blah
BAWLA’s importance became clear with the great German strongman, Hermann Görner. Known to many as the ‘Father of the Deadlift’, Görner’s career during the 1920s and 1930s saw him deadlift hundreds of pounds in the most incredible and creative of ways. It was Görner who performed deadlift feats using just two fingers. It was Görner who pulled 603lb in one hand and it was Görner who helped, in part, to stimulate a much greater interest in deadlifting records.
When Görner came to England in 1927, BAWLA was ready and, thankfully, he did not disappoint. Using the ‘English Style’ of deadlifting, whereby the heels were kept together throughout the entirety of the lift and the bar was pulled to knee height, Görner managed 653lb.(4) While later reports claimed Görner managed deadlifts totaling over 700 or even 800lb in the deadlift, it was with BAWLA where Görner’s efforts were refereed, recorded and, importantly, verified.(5)
In Health and Strength magazine, Görner’s feats were praised for a British readership now interested in participating in BAWLA events. Such was BAWLA’s growing popularity at this time that in 1933, the federation published a defined set of 42 lifts permissible under BAWLA rules. Lift 42? The ‘dead lift’, defined as:
The barbell shall be lifted from the ground until the lifter stands erect. Throughout the lift the heels must remain together, and upon conclusion the legs must be straight and the shoulders taken back. Should the bar be brought to rest against the legs during the lift it shall not be counted cause for disqualification.(6)
This was not the traditional deadlift seen in competitions today but rather the ‘English Style’ previously discussed. Now the formalization of BAWLA went a great way towards legitimizing strength competitions but it did not completely do away with informal lifts in Britain. Illustrative of this was Bert Assirati, the British wrestler and strongman, who supposedly deadlifted 800lb in 1938.(7) The problem was that he did so outside of BAWLA’s remit.
Equally problematic was the fact that the United States, one of the other lifting hotbeds of the time, had only recently begun to take record keeping seriously. John Fair has previously explained the complex and confused nature of American weight lifting during the 1920s. Nominally run by the Amateur Athletic Union, American lifters in the 1920s were faced with three separate strength organizations, all of whom recorded different lifts. Some included the strength lifts — squat, bench press, military press, and deadlift — while others focused exclusively on the Olympic lifts.(8)
The AAU eventually won out and, at the beginning of the 1930s, the AAU was the sole organizer of weight lifting meets in America. Problematically the AAU was interested in improving American Olympic performances which meant that pure strength meets were few and far between. It wasn’t until the 1940s that record deadlifting feats began to be held in a semi-regular fashion.
By this time, weight training, of all kinds, had increased in popularity among American athletes, hence the emergence of some pretty impressive numbers. In 1941, Elmer Witmer set an American record with a 558lb deadlift. Two years later it was beaten by Bill Fisher. By 1949 the Tennessee farm boy Bob Peoples was deadlifting 725lb.(9)
Remarkably, Peoples’ record — a world record, incidentally — was something of an anomaly. His record lasted for 12 years. That it lasted for such a long time, relatively speaking in strength sports, illustrated Peoples’ strength and the difficulty involved in training to such extremes. It wasn’t until October 1961, that the Canadian lifer Ben Coats became the first man in history to deadlift 750lb at a bodyweight of 270lb. Importantly, Coats’ lift came at the cusp of powerlifting’s birth.
The Presence of Powerlifting
What is important to rehash from the birth of powerlifting being recognized as a distinct sport is that the first official powerlifting competition came in 1965. With the formalization of powerlifting, came even greater deadlifting records. The reasons for this are relatively straightforward — individuals now had a regular competition to train for. With this innovation came a much greater specialization in power lifts and technology. It was during this time that deadlift suits, similar to suit, or bench suits came to the fore.
Although used in powerlifting, it is notable that deadlift suits, especially sumo suits, are far less popular among powerlifters than bench press or squat suits. Jan Todd, Ben Pollack, and Dominic Morais’ research found that deadlift suits tend to vary in their effectiveness depending on the stance and biomechanics of the user.(10) The strongmen, soon to be detailed, alternated between using, and not using suits. So for the sake of my sanity and yours, we will leave conversations about equipped versus unequipped powerlifting to a different day.
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One of the early, official, powerlifters was Terry Todd, who pulled over 700lb in competition during the early years of the sport. By 1969, Don Cundy broke the 800lb barrier at a bodyweight of 275lb. Six years later, Vince Anello proved that ‘lighter men’ could hang with the big boys when he pulled 805lb weighing 198lb.
Anello was in good company as the 1970s saw Mike Cross manage 549lb at a bodyweight of 123lb, and the 148lb lifter Don Blue pull 625lb with ease.(11) These lighter lifters were equally important in paving the road to the 1,000lb deadlift as they helped to both raise expectations and also advance the specialization of deadlift training.
Let’s get back, however, to the heavy hitters like the 242lb John Kuc who deadlifted 849lb in 1974 before Don Reinhoudt managed 881lb just one year later. We had to wait until the mid-1980s for our first competition deadlift totaling over 900lb. Dan Wohleber had the honors in 1982 only to see his 904lb deadlift beaten by Doyle ‘Dr. Deadlift’ Kenady in 1986.(12)
It was at this point that several truly remarkable men, one of whom was to finally break the 1,000lb record, entered the sport.
The Game Changers
In 1984, Ed Coan entered, and won, his first IPF World Championship. With the win, the sport of powerlifting witnessed arguably its first truly dominant lifter. During his career in the 1980s and 1990s, Coan set 71 individual world records, won the IPF World Championship six times, and the USPF Senior National Championships seven times. The majority of these lifts were done at a bodyweight varying between 198 and 220lb!
Coan was one of the first lifters who made the 1,000lb deadlift seem possible when he pulled 901lb at a bodyweight of 220lb in 1991. Coan brought with him a renewed emphasis to the lift itself. Eschewing deadlift suits, straps, or gimmicks, Coan’s strength and intensity on the platform ensured that people took notice.(13)
Coan was not alone in pushing the boundaries of what was capable in the deadlift and in one’s weight class. In 1992, Gary Heisey pulled 925lb in competition.(14) Heisey is, in my opinion, one of the ‘sung heroes’ of this story. Standing at 6 feet 6 inches and weighing 360lb at his peak, Heisey is, in every sense of the word, a living giant.
Heisey was a deadlift specialist, someone so skilled in the movement that his reputation was based upon the deadlift alone. His long frame provided Heisey with unusually long levers which many believed helped him achieve such a monstrous weight. Heisey’s record lasted for several years, although a drug free Mark Henry pulled 903.5lb in competition in 1995, showing that Heisey’s record was not beyond being challenged.(15) A challenge was, however, a long time waiting.
At the dawn of the new millenium, two men, and their rivalry, promised to not only beat Heisey’s record, but actually break the 1,000lb deadlift. They were Gary Frank, an American powerlifter who, at the height of his career totaled over 2,800lb in competition and Andy Bolton, the man who ultimately passed the 1,000lb mark.
First let’s turn to Gary Frank whose strength seemed otherworldly. As a High School athlete, Frank supposedly boasted a 705lb deadlift, 700+lb squat and a mid-300lb bench. He was, in other words, a strong man.(16) More importantly, his mentality was even stronger. Later interviewed about his approach to powerlifting, Frank divided powerlifters into two camps:
90%ers and 10%ers
90%ers are very conservative people looking for the sure thing. These kinds of lifters put too much emphasis on competing and not enough on winning. I guess it gets reinforced with the way most federations are structured.
With 10%ers, nobody knows much about them except that they are very consistent. They are on top of the world 10% of the time and willing to take chances to break new ground. I know a lot of good lifters that fall into that category. Elite lifters have to take more risks; you have to be a 10%er to make history. You have to step out on a limb occasionally and take chances.(17)
Gary Frank classed himself as a 25%er — someone who took risks, but always calculated ones. His technique, which combined a brief snap from the ground and raw strength, pushed him to newer heights. His grip strength, in particular, was truly staggering as the below video illustrates.
Frank was one of the dominating figures of powerlifting at this time. His rival, at least in competition, was Andy Bolton, the British powerlifter. Bolton began powerlifting in the early 1990s in England but only truly exploded onto the scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he appeared in a series of contests from the Arnold Strongman Classic to the World Powerlifting Congress.
Bolton had actually flirted with bodybuilding, rugby league, and even athletics as a teenager before turning his hand to powerlifting. The turning point was his victory in a regional powerlifting championship in Yorkshire in 1991. It proved to be the start of something wonderful. The very next year he was making a name for himself in England, by the end of the decade he was known as both a strongman and powerlifter.(18)
An injury to his bicep at the second UK Strongman Docklands Challenge in 1999 largely curtailed his strongman career, although Bolton was persuaded to compete at the Arnold Strongman Classic in 2002. This meant that from the early 2000s, Bolton set his focus almost exclusively on powerlifting.
Competing at the same time, Bolton and Frank were, at one point, neck and neck in the race to the 1,000lb deadlift. Writing in 2004, Louie Simmons, of Westside Barbell fame, cited Frank and Bolton as two of the most impressive deadlifters in the game.(19) From 2002 to 2006, the two men would trade records back and forth in the deadlift but, soon, it became clear that Bolton was beginning to pull away. By 2006, the Yorkshire man would make history.
Andy Bolton Makes History
In May 2006, Sgt. Rock Brent Howard asked Andy Bolton a simple question — “When is the 1,000lb deadlift going to happen?” It was a question powerlifters around the globe had begun asking. Since Simmons’ article in 2004, Bolton had pulled 971lb in competition. Faced with this new question, Bolton simply replied, “soon.” (20)
By November of that year Bolton’s promise came to fruition. Competing at the World Powerlifting Congress World Championships at Lake George, New York, Bolton made history with the 1,003lb deadlift shown below. The 1,003lb was two years in the making and marked a feat of incredible fortitude. The footage of Bolton in action shows the struggle and strain involved in this feat
How did he do it?
In later interviews Bolton detailed both his training and technique:
“My routine is pretty basic and works around explosive power. I try to pull as fast as possible all the time, and deadlift only once a week and lots of work from shin height to work those weak points.”
As well as the thoughts running through his head during his World Record attempt:
“The one thing I think about is not failing. That scares me the most, failing a big lift, and the 1000lb was special to me … it was the final lift in a two-year plan and I got it. The feeling was amazing. I remember calling my wife saying, “I done it!” I was so choked, I could barley speak, but when we got back to England, I think a few friends and I had a few beers that month ha ha. And no deadlifting for 2 months (afterward), my body was wrecked.”(21)
Much like the 1,000lb, squat, Bolton’s heroics opened the path for later lifters to thrive. Bolton finished his career with a 1,009lb deadlift record. Those following in his wake pushed this number even further. Many of us will have watched Thor’s 1,104lb deadlift earlier this month. Thor was one in a long line of lifters ranging from Benedikt Magnusson’s 1,015lb raw deadlift in 2011 to Eddie Hall’s 1,102lb deadlift in 2016. Their feats, and the path to Thor’s lift, has been further detailed. For us, it is sufficient to end with my favorite strongman, Jón Páll Sigmarsson’s assertion — tattooed on one of Thor’s legs, incidentally — that:
“There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlifts.”
- Jan Todd, ‘Records, Vitriol and Hafthor Bjornsson’s Quest for the 501 Kilo Deadlift,’ Stark Center, April 30, 2020.
- This was covered in the recent Rogue Fitness documentary on Arthur Saxon. ‘The Rogue Legends Series – Chapter 5: Saxon,’ Rogue Fitness, April 8, 2020.
- Fair, John. “George Jowett, Ottley Coulter, David Willoughby and the Organization of American Weightlifting, 1911-1924.” Iron Game History 2 (2012): 3-15.
- Willoughby, D.P., 1970. The Super-Athletes. AS Barnes, Incorporated, 93-96.
- ‘BAWLA’, Health & Strength, April 6, 1950, 242.
- Willoughby, The Super-Athletes, 135.
- Fair, “George Jowett, Ottley Coulter, David Willoughby and the Organization of American Weightlifting, 1911-1924
- ‘The Training Methods of Bob Peoples,’ Ironman Magazine, April/May, 1952.
- Todd, Jan, Dominic G. Morais, Ben Pollack, and Terry Todd. “Shifting gear: a historical analysis of the use of supportive apparel in powerlifting.” Iron Game History 13, no. 2-3 (2015): 37.
- Peary Rader, ‘Don Blue, World Champion,’ Ironman Magazine.
- Frederick C. Hatfield, ‘Dr. Deadlift,’ Powerlifting USA, 10. 4 (1986).
- ‘Atlas Speaks: An Interview with Ed Coan,’ T-Nation.
- Dr. Ken Leistner, ‘History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training Number 122,’ February, 2019, Titan Support.
- ‘Mark Henry Weightlifting Career,’ Neckberg.
- Anthony Ricciuto, ‘The Road to 2800+: The Garry Frank Chronicles,’ Bodybuilding.com, Janaury 22, 2019.
- Monster Muscle, ‘Gary Frank’, Critical Bench.
- Sgt. Rock – Brent Howard, ‘Interview with Andy Bolton,’ Critical Bench.
- Louie Simmons, ‘Deadlifting on the Rise’, Dragondoor, August 16, 2004.
- Sgt. Rock – Brent Howard, ‘Interview with Andy Bolton.’
Feature image from neckbergcom’s Instagram page: @neckbergcom