KENNEDY – a modern HEALTH lift?

by John McKean

This is a drawing of David Butlers wooden machine used for the Health Lift.

Summoning all of his concentration and most of his strength, the sinewy young man tugged mightily at the bar across his thighs. 1100 pounds left the ground rather easily. Unfortunately, his much larger opponent soon placed a heavy leather harness around his hips for the next event in this contest and elevated a staggering 2100 pounds! Sound like another description of the mighty Steve Schmidt destroying his competition in winning yet another of his Zercher Classic titles? Surprisingly the contest mentioned occurred about 120 years before big Steve was amazing crowds with his awesome chain lifts!

To be fair, the loser of the above mentioned “challenge” meet weighed less than 150 pounds, and had  never even tried a hip lift before. His name was Dr. George Barker Windship, a famous Boston physician, lecturer, and self taught heavy lifting fanatic. Lifting around the 1860s (yep, the nineteenth century!) he eventually acquired a custom made hip belt and went on to perform a 2600 pound hip lift, plus other equally mind blowing harness events ; you can see the good doc was ahead of his time -heck, he was ahead of OUR time!!

To Dr. Windship’s credit, he promoted heavy lifting to large, appreciative audiences throughout the Northeast, even to the point of directing his patients to the gym attached to his doctor’s office. He did not enjoy, nor promote lightweight lifting schemes! Now, his speciality, suggested to all clients, was mostly a short range deadlift that was performed from a high platform,attached to massive weights below. It was almost a hand and thigh type of set up, except it had a bit of range to it, unlike some modern hand and thigh records whose only movement was mostly restricted to the imagination of a straining, isometric style lifter and a cooperative official.Windship achieved over 1200 pounds this apparatus deadlift, then limited from further gains as grip strength wouldn’t permit.

As impressive as Dr. Windship’s strength, fitness, and teaching were, it took an equally fascinating figure of this same time frame, David P.Butler, to really popularize heavy harness lifting to the general public. Building himself up from a complete physical wreck, so bad that doctors told him just to go away, lay down , and die (what, no Obamacare??!!), David totally redefined his body and strength with his amazing HEALTH LIFT. Then he showed genius in getting the word out to the public,eventually selling his wooden “machine” and establishing a chain of successful gyms throughout Boston and New York. Mr. Butler even wrote a rather amazing course on his one lift method, surprisingly similar in content to our “modern” training wisdom!

OK, you’re asking, where am I going with all this history,even though it is so rich in All-Round  lifting tradition? Simple -the lift that David Butler claimed was all anyone needed for unmatched internal and external fitness was essentially the KENNEDY lift that our own Al Myers is currently trying to establish onto the USAWA list! Butler believed the hand holding grip was vital to total body strength, as was an exact centering of the lift below one’s torso. He stood on his heavy duty wooden platform, straddled the long steel rod attached to weights below through a centered hole in the floor, hands fore& aft as in the Jefferson, and stood up several inches. By the way, I would have loved training in one of Butler’s gyms -he recommended only 4 progressively heavy singles on his HEALTH LIFT, done 3 times weekly, along with some light extra dumbbell & pulley work.

Much later in weightlifting history, all the way into the 1920s , the great Alan Calvert, in his classic “SUPER STRENGTH” text was also a huge believer in the Kennedy lift. Photos in his book display a “high Jefferson” performed with chains attached to a heavy barbell. Calvert indicated that this partial maneuver was superior to either the hand and thigh or the hip lift for developing sheer leg power, and safer for the lifter. In fact, some of the harness lift specialists of his day,he explained, relied heavily on the Kennedy lift to build power on the more limited movement chain events.

Well, we sure seem to have one heckuva case for setting wheels in motion to establish the Kennedy as an official lift. And history seems to support the fact that we could add significally to our own HEALTH by training it! As David  Butler put it  “A PERFECT lift develops a PERFECT  body!”

Kennedy Lift

by Al Myers

Here's an Old Time Strongman performing a variation of the Kennedy Lift by utilizing a Hand and Thigh Bar attached to a regular bar.

I’ve received  a few questions regarding the nature of the “Kennedy Lift” following my announcement of the Dino Gym Challenge, which includes a lift by this name.  It was one of the lifts that Warren Lincoln Travis included in his “Challenge to the World”, in which he challenges 20 repetitions at 700 pounds in 10 seconds.  In his Challenge WLT  calls it instead the Two Hand Grip Lift, but it is the same lift.  Other sources  originally called it  the Hands Alone Lift.  I’m sure the reason for this name was to different it from the Hand and Thigh Lift – meaning no parts of the implement should be touching the body besides the hands (thus Hands Alone), as illustrated in the picture with this story.

The Kennedy Lift is nothing more than a partial Jefferson Lift (or straddle deadlift).   I’ve  heard lifters in the past refer to the Jefferson Lift AS the Kennedy Lift , but this is only partially true (pun intended).  The Kennedy Lift is done by straddling the weight with the lift being close to lockout.  The range of movement is reported to be several inches to just clearing the floor, depending on sources.  The Kennedy is not an official lift of the USAWA, but is one worthy of it.  It will be performed in the Dino Gym Challenge as an exhibition lift that will count in the meet scoring (allowed under the rules of the USAWA). If it is well received by those in attendance, I may submit it for lift approval in the USAWA.  It has the “history” to be an official All Round   lift for sure. 

I had to do some “digging” in my files to find a good reference to the origins of the Kennedy Lift. Some of the information on the internet is not entirely true, so I had to make some decisions as to what I thought were the facts.   The following piece was written by Warren Lincoln Travis, titled “My 40 years with the World’s Strongest Men”, in which he talks about how the Kennedy Lift came to be.  I tend to believe what WLT says in his writings, and here it is:

About forty years ago, at the height of the new wave of strong man popularity, the late Richard K. Fox, then publisher of the Police Gazette, the leading sporting journal of America, had a 1000 pound dumb-bell cast, but it was not in the shape of the dumbbells today.  It was more like a massive block of iron.  He offered a very valuable gold medal and title to the first man to lift this 1000 pound weight.  At that time there was a man known as James Walter Kennedy who was athletically inclined and developed.  He was an oarsman and general athlete, leaning, however, more toward the strong man. He was about 6 feet tall and weighed around 190 pounds, had jet black curly hair and moustache and at a time was a special officer at the Globe Museum at 298-300 Bowery, New York City.  Kennedy took a notion that he could lift this 1000 pound dumbbell with his hands and he began to train with a big whiskey cask, not using whiskey in it, but water, sand and rock as he gained strength.  In other words, he used the Milo Bar Bell system of gradually increasing weight as he improved in his strength.  The first time he tried lifting the 1000 pound weight he failed but some time later he succeeded.  His style was to straddle the weight and have one hand in front of his body grasping the weight and the other hand grasping it in the rear of his body, this position being known as the Hands Alone Lift.  His body was erect with the exception that the knees were bent about 2 or 3 inches. – by Warren Lincoln Travis

I envision the technique to be very similar to how most lift the Dinnie Stones, using the straddle style.  I think it very fitting that the origins of this lift was described by Warren Lincoln Travis, and must have been one he appreciated, as he included it in his “Challenge to the World”.  James Walter Kennedy was 29 years old when he accomplished winning this challenge set forth by Richard K. Fox. He came from Quincy, Illinois. The date of this strongman debut of the Kennedy Lift was January 25th, 1890.  The “1000 pound dumbbell” was actually a 1030 pound solid iron block with handles affixed to the top 24 inches from the ground.

At the Dino Challenge we will be using a bar set up on blocks so weight can be added to that of  a lifters’ preference and the rules of the USAWA can be followed in adding weight over three attempts.  It will be done according to the rules of the Jefferson Lift, except the bar will be at a higher position than the floor. The bar height will be a set height (yet to be determined) so that it will NOT  just be a “lockout lift” like the Heavy Lifts are.