How Much Weight Can a Human Move? Remembering the Back Lift

Fans of old-school strongmen may already be familiar with it, but if you’ve never heard of the back lift, prepare for a doozy: It’s the lift that (arguably) allows the human body to support more weight than any other.

Powerlifter/strongman/purveyor of all things strength movement Bud Jeffries recently reminded us of the lift with the Instagram post embedded below, which he loaded up via a barbell, plates, power rack, and some very heavy rocks.

A video posted by Bud Jeffries (@budjeffries) on

From Jeffries’ post:

Backlifting about 2500lbs for 10-12 reps and READ THE DESCRIPTION BEFORE YOU ASK WHY I DO THIS LIFT…I’m an oldtime strongman and this was a popular show/training lift of the oldtime strongmen…and almost nothing overloads every tendon, ligament, bone and muscle in the body like it. It literally stresses everything and hardens the whole body. This lift is hundreds of years old and way way out of the box and fits my goals of huge strength in any possible position…but of course the real point to all lifting is bigger guns and 6 pack abs right? All else is blasphemy….

Off the cuff, the back lift doesn’t always look the most impressive — weights are moved a few inches at most and supported by the lifters, well, back, with their arms and legs braced against the ground or and/or a raised implement. But while the range of motion is rarely jaw-dropping, the weights moved often are.

Remember, even if it’s only a few inches, Jeffries is supporting 2,500 pounds with his body. Overload to the max.

We’ve heard of some crazy historic back lifts before: Canadian strongman Louis Cyr reportedly back lifted 4,300 pounds (loaded with 18 men on a raised platform). Paul Anderson set out to break Cyr’s record in 1957, as weightlifting historian Joe Roark wrote in a June 2001 rundown of Anderson’s famous lift:

On 12 June 1957, according to Paul’s later claims, he performed a feat that has received more publicity, particularly among the nonlifting public, than any other lift in history—his backlift of 6,270 pounds.

For a time, Anderson’s lift was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records — though as Roark points out later in his article, the weight claimed varied considerably over the years, and it’s actually pretty unlikely Anderson ended up close to the claimed mark (though he may have approached 5,000 pounds).

In recent decades, the back lift has been relegated to an old school strongman oddity, rarely tested or trained due to a variety of factors: difficulty in standardizing implements, variation in lifting standards, and the supreme difficulty of even setting up such immense loads.

Occasionally, though, we’ll see it tested in front of a crowd. Below is a video of strongman Derek Poundstone doing a back lift variation at 2,000 pounds — worth noting that this variation hits a range of motion very different than the “traditional” back lift, and Poundstone was given no implement to brace his arms against (besides his own, substantial thighs). In this lift, the weight is leveraged on a hinge point, whereas in the traditional backlift, all the weight is supported by the lifter.

The current verified back lift record is held by Canadian strongman Gregg Ernst, who lifted 5,340 pounds in 1993. The video below is of another of Ernst’s massive lifts.

The USAWA (United States All-Round Weightlifting Association) does still keep records for the lift in their federation. Their current heaviest mark is 3050, lifted by Jim Schmidt in 2009. At the time, Schmidt was 53 years old and weight 230 pounds.

Below is a video of Schmidt hitting around 3,000 pounds on his unique back lift machine. And you thought heavily loaded leg presses looked cool…

Know of a heavier back lift? Have you ever trained it? Let us know in the comments below!

Featured image: Bud Jeffries on Instagram