The Cheat Curl: Part 1

by Thom Van Vleck

The first part of this article will deal with the Rules of the Cheat Curl and some technique advice. Later, I will do a “part 2″ on how to use this exercise effectively for training. I am profiling this lift as it is part of the JWC Straight Weight Challenge.

The USAWA Rule book says:

D6. Curl – Cheat

The bar begins on the platform, and at the lifter’s discretion, is picked up with a grip that has the palms of the hands facing up or away from the lifter. Feet placement and hand spacing is optional, but must remain the same throughout the lift. Heels and toes must not rise during the lift. Once the lifter is upright in a standing position with the arms and legs straight, the bar on the thighs hanging at arms’ length, an official will give a command to curl. The knees must remain locked and the legs straight during the lift. The lifter is permitted to bend at the waist, sway the body, or drop the shoulders to gain momentum of the bar. The bar may be lowered prior to the beginning of the curl. The bar must be curled from arms’ length to touching the upper chest or neck in one motion. Any downward movement of the bar during the curl is a disqualification. Once the bar is motionless, and the lifter is upright, an official will give a command to lower the bar. The lift ends when the bar returns to the platform under control by the lifter.

Thom hitting a 195# Cheat Curl in a meet at Clark's Championship Gym.

I have seen this lift done in a couple of different ways. The first way, which is the way I prefer, is to lift the bar to the start of the curl position. I then bend forward at the waist KEEPING the bar at the SAME spot on my thighs and then drive my hips forward while lifting the shoulders and pulling back. An example can be seen on the video list on this website. I have always been a “hip” puller and this technique favors me. However, Al Myers does a different style that may better suit others. Al will bend at the waist and drop the bar BELOW THE KNEES and then attempt to pull straight up. He keeps the bar tight to the body, much like he was doing a reverse grip clean from the floor. Al told me that one of the reasons he favors this style is the fact that he’s torn both biceps and wants to minimize the stress on them as much as possible.

Experiment around with both styles and try to find which one suits you best. I have never been satisfied doing something the same way, I’m always trying to tinker with my technique for greater gains and lifts. Next time I’ll talk about using the Cheat Curl to help your overhand pulling.

First All-Round Meet Memories

by Thom Van Vleck

My first All-Round meet was when I traveled with my Uncle Wayne Jackson to the old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. It was called “The Wall” because a very imposing stone wall surrounded the facility almost looking like that was all that was there. It was, I thought 1979, but my Uncle said he thought it was ‘80.

I was 15 or 16 at the time and we arrived in time to meet up with Bill Clark. After some greetings we headed inside. I considered myself a pretty tough kid, but I’ll be honest, being inside that place was like being “scared straight”. We went through a double cell door system and we had the backs for our hands marked with ultraviolent ink. The mark had to be there or you didn’t get back out later! A funny note, after the meet, some of the guys that were showering held their hand out of the shower for fear they would wash it off even though it was “permenant ink”. I was afraid to shower at all!

As we filtered into the yard we were escorted by a guard. I noted that he didn’t have a gun or weapon of any kind and when I asked why he said, “The prisoners would just jump me and take it away”. It was then I realized this was the real deal! This was the days before signing waivers….you were just warned and there you go!

A group of the lifting prisoners greeted us. I recall Lou Greenlaw being one of them. He noticed me being a little nervous and he said to stick close to him, anyone that went after me would have to go through him first. Lou was a big guy and I recall him doing a very strict 315lb Good Morning that meet for a record. He was pretty nice to me all day and encouraged me. I wondered later what he was in there for!

After awhile, I came to realize that all the prisoners were pretty nice. Most of them were men that had made bad choices, but weren’t necessarily evil men. At one point I recall the prison cross dressers coming in to watch the lifting. They got kinda rowdy at one point making cat calls at the guys lifting….and they were kicked out as I recall. I thought it was pretty funny, and being a farm kid….I’d never seen anything like those guys before!

We ate lunch in the cafeteria. It was a loud and busy place. The food was like school food, not bad, but not that great. There were a lot of the general population in there and they were pretty rough looking. I sat with Lou!

My Uncle Wayne had a great day. I recall him breaking about a dozen records. The one that stuck out in my mind the most was a 300lb Reverse Grip Clean and press. He did 250 with ease and went to 300. He got it but Bill turned it down. I can’t recall why, but it looked good to me! Wayne had been recovering from a devastating back injury so his lifts were all the more impressive to me. He did an easy 280lbs seated press. Wayne had done 300lbs for 8 sets of 2 at one point in training, but he braced his feet behind him while the rules of the lift required him to have his feet flat which really threw him off. I also recall him power cleaning and pressing 300lbs with power to spare. Wayne was always an explosive presser and it always made him look like he had plenty more in the tank.

I recall doing a 120lb seated press weighing about 165lbs and then deadlifting something like 365lbs. I don’t think they counted it with the other lifts, but at least I got on the platform for the first time in my life.

That prison was legendary, some pretty bad people (like Lee Harvey Oswald) were sentenced there and many of them died there, either by natural causes or otherwise! But all in all, the men I met that day were pretty good guys. Bill used to do a lot for the prisoners with his lifting events and I’m sure it helped put more than one of the straight and narrow. Prison lifting is a thing of the past as many of states have limited this for lots of reasons which are debateable. But that day stands out to me. A kid learned more than just how to lift in a meet that day. He learned a lot about life.

Harness Lift:Part 2

by Thom Van Vleck

Thom Van Vleck getting "Down and Dirty" to judge the Harness Lift with a helper!

My own story on the Harness lift goes like this.  After that 2006 USAWA Nationals mentioned in part 1: Harness Lift, I got one of the harnesses and heavy bars Al made special for that meet.  I brought it home but did not have enough weight to load it!  So I contacted my good friend, Bob McConaughey with the BNSF railroad and he set me up with a pair of railroad car wheels.  I thought the RR car wheels would be cool to lift and we could also use them in our strongman evangelism shows.  I’ll never forget our conversation when he asked me what size I wanted:

Thom:  “So, what size do you have?”

Bob:  “Well, they can range from 1000lbs and up to 4000lb”

Thom: “Apeice!!!!……uhhh…what’s the smallest you can get me?”

Bob (laughing):  “I think we could find you some coal car wheels that are in the 800lb range!”

So, it was off to Galesburg, Illinois to pick up some surplus steel!  I took my half ton truck to pick up a ton and a half of steel.  John O’Brien went along for the ride and upon arriving, the trainmaster took us down to the yard to get them loaded.  They were on a palate and I’ll never forget when the trainmaster asked the loading dock guy for help loading them and the loader looked at the wheels and at us and said, “Don’t you think a fork lift would be easier”!?  As he walked off to get the fork lift, the trainmaster mutter under his breath a more crude version of “NO CRAP”!!!  My poor pick up has hauled a lot of crazy stuff over the years, but you should have seen the it sink under that weight!

I got them home, and realized as I got them into my gym that these things were so heavy they were actually extremely dangerous, if they tipped over they could sever whatever was under them.  But, I got them modified and loaded on to my heavy bar.  My Dad had come over and helped me slip the harness on and I made my adjustments.  Finally, I had them adjusted and with an estimated 1700lbs, I began to pull….an pull….and pull.  It was then I realized that when you do Heavy Lifts, you have to have a whole new mindset!  Upon proper mental approach which involves pain tolerance and the feeling that something is going to rip in any given joint in your body, I lifted it.  I then loaded it to an estimated 2000lbs and after a couple of attempts, got that, too.  I was elated!!!  Later, I took my shirt off to shower and looked in the mirror and realize I had blood blisters all over my shoulders and hips.  I looked like I had been bull whipped!  The next day I felt some serious joint and muscle soreness, but a lasting satisfaction that I had “lifted a ton”!

If you want to get started in Harness Lifting, my recommendation is you need to work into it slower than I did and get some coaching by someone that knows what they are doing….it will save you some time and maybe injuries!  Since you aren’t going to buy a harness or Heavy Bar at the local sporting goods store, I would take a good look at a Harness before making one and ask guys who have them how they made them.  They have made all the mistakes for you and can tell you the best way to go about it.

Finally, you are always welcome to stop by the JWC Training Hall and give the Harness lift a shot!

Harness Lift:Part 1

by Thom Van Vleck

Big Al Myers lifted 2800# in the Harness Lift at the 2006 USAWA Nationals

The Harness Lift is one of the more intriguing lifts in the USAWA.  How often can a person lift a ton….literally!  Let’s review the Harness Lift rules from the USAWA rule book: A Heavy Lift Bar is used in this lift. A harness is also used, which fits over the shoulders and around the waist. An adjustable chain and hook is attached to the harness so it may be attached to the Heavy Lift Bar. The width of the harness must not exceed 4 inches around the waist and 3 inches over the shoulders. The lifter is also allowed to use hand rails to support the arms during the lift. The hand rails may be of any design. A hand rail does not need to be used, and the lifter may support the arms on the legs during the lift. The lifter assumes a position in which the lifter is straddling the Heavy Lift Bar. Width of feet placement is optional, but the feet must be parallel and in line with the torso. The feet must not move during the lift, but the heels and toes may rise. The lifter may adjust the chain length to his/her preference prior to the lift. The lift begins at the lifter’s discretion. The lifter is allowed one test lift to check the balance of the weight and to make adjustments to the chain length. The lifter will stand and lift the weights from the platform. The shoulders and torso do not have to be upright upon the finish of the lift. The legs must straighten, but the knees do not need to be locked. Once the weight is motionless, and the plates on both ends of the bar are off the platform at the same time, an official will give a command to end the lift.

Steve Schmidt is responsible for some of the most amazing Harness lifts of all time.  At the 1988 Backbreaker he did 3500lbs in the 105kg class and in 1992 Backbreaker he did 3315lbs weighing in some 10kg less in the 95kg class.  But the best of all time, was at the 1991 back breaker where Steve did 3515lbs in the 100kg class! Another amazing Harness lifter is Joe Garcia.

But to me, my favorite memory of the Harness lift took place when I was a head judge at the 2006 USAWA Nationals.  There was a lot of big Harness lifts that day but a real battle emerged between Al Myers and Ian Reel.  Al was the wiley veteran and Ian was the young rookie.  It was a battle for the ages!  I was extremely impressed with Ian (I’ve come to expect big lifts out of Al!).  I recall getting down at floor level trying to check for clearance and seeing that heavy bar bend like a bow!  That was some serious weight!  When the dust settled, Ian (who was officially lifting in the 110kg class) equaled Al’s 2800lbs (Al was in the 115kg class) so by virtue of bodyweight, I have to give youth the victory on this one.  I hope when Ian is done with his collegiate throwing career he makes a return to the USAWA….I hear he’s “filled out” now!

Youth is served! Ian Reel matches Al Myers lift for lift in the Harness Lift while recording the top Harness Lift of All-Time by a teenager.

…And a Good Time Was Had By All

by Thom Van Vleck

Chad Ullom, Tedd & Thom Van Vleck, & Al Myers have a good time after a meet

I grew up in Schuyler County, Population about 3500. We had a weekly newspaper (long since gone) that often was filled with social items. There was this one lady that wrote about the gatherings and she would talk about who came, what they ate, and what they talked about…..big news where I came from. To be honest, I kinda miss that kind of news over the stuff we deal with now! At any rate, she would end her column with “…..and a good time was had by all”. That kind of became a “catch phrase” in my family for social gatherings.

Recently, Chad and Al came up for a contest I put on. Al’s Dad came along, too. As is usual, we all ended up at a “get together” at my place after meet. And, as usual, we ended up telling stories until the wee hours of the morning…and maybe a liquid refreshment or two. My wife went to bed at a reasonable hour (we did not!) and commented the next day, “Al sure laughs loud!!!”. The point is, we all laughed and we laughed a lot!

The next day, when we went to the Deanna meet, Al and I talked about this part of almost every meet and contest we have been to over the years. Al commented later that his dad told him, “I finally understand why you like to do these meets”. While I enjoy the challenge of competing and I have many memorable moments of contests, I have just as many stories about the trips to, and from, and the get together’s that happen afterwards. It’s all part of the fun.

I hopefully have many more contests to come in my life time, and win or lose, I will do my best to make sure they all end with “….and a Good Time was had by All!

Thom Van Vleck’s Top Ten Lessons Learned

by Thom Van Vleck

  • 1. Wash your hands thoroughly after using liniment before going to the bathroom (especially before putting on a squat suit).
  • 2. Make sure your spotter is paying attention (and not “spotting” the hot girl stretching across the gym) as you can’t talk much when you are pinned in a full squat position with 500lbs on your back.
  • 3. Not only do you want to make sure you unload the bar evenly, you want to make sure anyone else around you is unloading evenly….especially your brother.
  • 4. Tall guys with long legs can’t sumo deadlift….your feet will be directly under the weight when you drop it.
  • 5. If you are tall and you are going to do overhead presses or jerks, make sure there is enough room for you, the bar, and the plates.  Also, if you push press a bar into a rafter, it will come directly back down and hit you in the head.
  • 6. If you are deadlifting on the second floor, make sure there is not a suspended ceiling underneath….it will fall and the person sitting under it will be upset.
  • 7. Make sure you have plenty of room to run up under a jerk…..or it will go out the window…..seriously….and you will have a lot of explaining to do to the owner of the garage.
  • 8. Don’t try and use old, tight jeans in lieu of a squat suit…..you will be left with the worst blood blisters of your life.
  • 9. If you don’t work a body part often or for awhile, work into it slowly.  Don’t do 20 sets the first workout or you may be really, really sore….and your mother may want to take you to the ER.  Especially Calves and Abs.
  • 10. Finally, If you training partner asks you to “hit me” to pump him up for a workout and you hit him too hard, he will hit back.

Bonus:  Don’t take supplements on an empty stomach….especially a lot of supplements, you will waste your money.

Deanna Springs Meet

Garcia Wins Deanna Springs Memorial  Meet

by Al Myers

Deanna Meet Participants (left to right) in front of the Heavy Bar Al Myers, Joe Garcia and Thom Van Vleck

A slimmed down Joe Garcia still shows he has the mastery of the Heavy Lifts, and won this year’s Deanna Springs Memorial Meet. Joe has won this meet hosted annually by Bill Clark numerous times in the past. He had two challengers – Thom Van Vleck of the JWC and myself of the Dino Gym. The meet was about canceled this year due to lack of entries, but when Bill found out there were interested participants he graciously opened his gym up to another year of the challenging lifts contested in the “Deanna Meet”. Missing this year was Al Springs, who often attends in memory of Deanna.

Joe has been busy with starting his new business, but it was obvious he hasn’t let his training slack and looked in great shape. This was Thom’s first exposure to the Chain Lifts and did quite well his first time out – and with time no doubt will become very proficient in them. The meet started out with the Crucifix and I had the top lift, matching my personal best of 90 pounds. The next event was the Cheat Curl and Thom ended up with the top Cheat Curl at 195 pounds. I usually consider these first two events as warmups because at this point the Heavy Lifts start – and it’s time to get serious. The next event is the Deanna Lift – which was invented and named after Deanna Springs. It is the meet’s signature event – and has never been contested outside of this meet. It combines two of Deanna’s favorite lifts – the Zercher Lift and the Hand and Thigh Lift. This lift is very painful as it involves the Hand and Thigh bar positioned on the arms like a Zercher Lift, but with MUCH more weight involved. I had the top lift at 775 pounds.

The fourth event was the Hand and Thigh Lift. It is always a great privilege to compete in this event against the ALL-TIME record holder Joe Garcia. Everything I know about the Hand and Thigh Lift I have learned from Joe. Well, the years of tutelage finally paid off for me as I put it all together in this lift and broke 1500 pounds for the first time. My final lift was 1505 pounds, which broke Joe’s overall record in the 115K class. Joe was a class act about me breaking one of his Hand and Thigh records (not that he doesn’t have many others!!!) and sincerely congratulated me on my efforts. This meant a lot to me, and even more when Joe said, “this is the first time in 20 years that I have been beaten in a meet in the Hand and Thigh and I am glad that it is by you”. He then reminded me that he was at his Hand and Thigh peak when he was 43 years old (the same age I am now)! I’m still trying to figure out what he meant by that – but regardless, thanks Joe for all the help you have been to me in this lift!!

The meet ended with the Hip Lift. Thom got an easy 1205# lift (and had MUCH more in him) and Joe and I both ended at 1685 pounds. We were both capable of much more, but I made a huge jump on my last attempt as a strategic move to put the pressure on Joe for the overall. He made the jump with me but this big jump was just too much for both of us on this day. When it comes to a meet like this, that includes an assortment of Heavy Lifts, Joe is about impossible to beat. I was just glad to be able to push him a little on this day – something I haven’t done in previous Deanna Meets.

We concluded the day by filling up on the buffet at the Golden Corral – a Clark’s Gym post meet tradition. I also want to mention the All-Round celebrity guest we had in attendance – Wayne Jackson. Wayne is Thom’s Uncle, and one of the founders of the Jackson Weightlifting Club. Wayne told me that he first met Bill in 1962 while attending a meet hosted by Bill. They both enjoyed “reminiscing about the old days”. I want thank Bill for putting this meet on – EVERYONE had a great time!!

Below is the full meet results:

Deanna Springs Memorial Meet
Clark’s Gym, Columbia, Missouri
March 28th, 2010

Meet Director:  Bill Clark

Official (one used):  Bill Clark

Lifts:  Crucifix, Cheat Curl, Deanna Lift, Hand and Thigh Lift, and Hip Lift

Results:

Lifter Age BWT Crucifix Curl Deanna H&T Hip Total Adj. Points
Joe Garcia
56 215 70 155 575 1285 1685 3770 3611.64
Al Myers
43 251 90 175 775 1505 1685 4230 3487.68
Thom Van Vleck
45 299 80 195 485 885 1205 2850 2196.57


BWT is bodyweight in pounds.  Total is total pounds lifted.  Adj. Points is adjusted Lynch Points for age and bodyweight.

John Godina and the Worlds Throw Center

By Thom Van Vleck

John Godina and Thom Van Vleck at the Godina World Throws Center

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Athletes Performance in Phoenix, Arizona.  It is a world class training facility that is home to the John Godina World Throws Center.  I was there to do an interview with Mr. Godina for a publication I write for.

I really like throwing as a sport (shot, discus, Scottish Highland Games) and I especially like John Godina because he just may be the greatest drug free thrower of all time.  He has adamantly spoke out against performance drugs and made no secret where he stands on them and those who use them.

As for the Center, well, it was quite a place.  I have been to Clark’s gym, Big Al’s Dino Gym, and of course, the Jackson Weightlifting Club.  I have heard about other USAWA clubs and there seems to be a theme.  That theme is perhaps best described as “Old School” or maybe “Dungeon” might be a better word.

If you are like me, that’s how you like it.  Godina’s digs were of a different nature.  They had a kitchen that specially prepared food for each athlete, there was training room with massage available, there was a snack bar that only had healthy foods and drinks, a film room to study films on your sport, and of course, a pretty amazing gym.

I’m not talking a “Gold’s Gym” or one of the fancy pants gyms that most of us would probably agree….well…they SUCK!  But the Throws Center had lifting platforms to do pulls from the floor, heavy Dumbbells and kettlebells, and a row of power racks that stretched the length of the gym.  There were all kinds of equipment, but none of them focused on biceps!  This was a place to lift and get strong, explosive, and powerful. Not a place to admire yourself in the mirror!

I still prefer old school, and to be honest, I don’t think I could ever afford Godina’s place, but still, it was quite an experience.  John Godina was a genuinely nice guy and I’m excited to be doing a story on him, and his training facility blew away the Olympic training center in quality all the way around.  Quite a place and one that I think any USAWA’er could enjoy.

Bed of Nails: A Classic Strongman Feat

By Thom Van Vleck

Thom Van Vleck laying on the Bed of Nails

The first time I ever remember the “Bed of Nails” feat was hearing my Uncle’s talk about it after a JWC trip to a lifting meet where Ed Zercher performed the feat. I remember being amazed at it and how only someone “special” could withstand the nails without being punctured. Now I realize it is a trick of physics and virtually anyone could do it, but not everyone WOULD do it! And if they did it once, they might not want to do it again! It is currently a regular feature in the JWC Christian Strongman Shows and I am always the guy on the bottom. Why? Because one time I wasn’t able to make it and Brian Kerby did it and swore he’d never do it again. No blood was drawn, he just found it so painful and mentally challenging that he refuses to do it again!

I was introduced to the “Bed of Nails” when I first performed with Randy Richey’s Omegaforce Christian Strongman team. We were setting up the script for the show and Randy said, “Who wants to lay on the bed of nails?” Interestingly, there were no takers! That should have been my first clue. I then volunteered and that night found myself on a bed of 500 sixty penny nails with another guy on top bench pressing a 440lb engine block for 10 reps! After that, I built my own “bed” and it became a regular feature in the JWC strongman shows as it is a real crowd pleaser….although I honestly don’t think of it as a real feat of strength.

At an “after contest” get together at my place, I got the Bed of Nails out and only Chad Ullom wanted to give it a try. Chad was able to handle everything we put on him. I think this is partly because Chad is a top notch strength athlete and his pain tolerance is amazingly high. But it also may be a comment on his (and my own) mental state!

If you have ever wondered, here is what it “feels” like. When you first lay on the nails, they hurt surprisingly bad. I have lots of people lay on the bed after shows, but none go beyond that because of the pain. The funny thing is, they never hurt worse than that! The compression is what gets you worse. Usually, I try to get my self as flat as possible. Then we usually will put my 150lb anvil on my stomach and pound it with hammers. Believe it or not, that hurts worse than what is to come. I think it’s because the hammer pounding drives straight thru the anvil and drives me into the nails. But as the weight gets put on, you “flatten” out on the nails and the weight gets distributed. Then, we usually break blocks, which the worst thing is pieces hitting you in the face so we usually use a shield to block my face. Finally, we will have someone lay on me, then someone will climb on top of them. Usually, Brian will lay on me and Brett Kerby or John O’Brien will stand on Brian’s stomach and bend a nail or rip a license plate in half. Sometimes we’ll put a large board on me and invite people to come and stand on me and I’ve had well over 1000lbs of people on top.

I do a couple of “tricks” to help. One, is I try to keep the weight more on my hips than my chest. Second, I then grab the board on top of me and “bench press” it to try and get some room for my chest to breath. Because with all that weight, you really CAN’T BREATH and that’s the thing that got Brian that time he tried it. You feel like you are drowning and you really have to keep your cool! The compression coupled with the pain make for a miserable, helpless combination. You are literally trapped on there until everyone gets off! If you start to panic and try to move, you will get yourself cut up fast! Another final “trick” is that you need to flatten yourself out, not like you are going for a bench press, but you are trying to “roll” your back onto the bench and make every inch of contact you possibly can. One final comment is that I usually feel better after the feat, I think it’s because of the endorphins released by my body caused by the pain and the immense relief at it being over!

That’s the “Bed of Nails” and if you come to the JWC sometime, ask me and I’ll pull it out for you to try! Just sign the waiver first……just kidding!!!!

Coney Island’s Iceberg Club Lives On!

by Thom Van Vleck

Yes, it was cold!!!!!

On February 13, 2010 I plunged into the icy waters of Thousand Hills Lake as part of the Polar Bear Plunge Charity Fundraiser. The Lake was iced over with 12” to 14” of ice and they had to clear it out with a backhoe just so we could swim. The temperature was in the 20’s and with all the ice and snow….I felt like a polar bear, only I didn’t have a nice, warm, fur coat!

The fundraiser was part of a school effort. A.T. Still University fielded a team and we raised over $4000, part of $25,000 raised overall for Special Olympics. A.T. Still is an Osteopathic Medicine school with a history of “whole person” health. The Polar Bear Plunge was fitting as it has a history not as some masochistic ritual, but for health benefits.

The event reminded me of Vic Boff and the Iceberg Athletic Club in New York City. I first heard of Vic from my grandfather and about their “Polar Bear Club”. I also read about Vic when I was a kid in the 60’s and 70’s when I perused my Uncle Wayne’s Ironman Magazine collection. I recall an article or two that mentioned Vic and the Iceberg Athletic club taking their winter dip in the ice cold Atlantic Ocean on the beaches of Coney Island. They would then lie around in the snow touting the health benefits of ice cold bathing.

You might think that there would only be one group that would take a winter plunge in icy waters. But you would be wrong. There were several in the New York area and their history is as murky as the cold Atlantic and often bitter feuds have come over beach turf and who’s been around the longest. There were major groups fighting over turf in the 90’s: the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, the Arctic Ice Bears, the Arctic Icebreakers, and the Iceberg Athletic Club.

The slowpoke at the left is me.....I took my time!

Bernarr Macfadden was a physical culturist who started the ritual of “winter bathing” on Coney Island. Around 1903 Macfadden started the “Coney Island Polar Bear Club”. He believed that a swim in the ocean in winter had great health benefits. However, the club I remember most is the fabled Coney Island Iceberg Athletic Club. By most accounts it was organized in 1918. This was the one I remembered my grandfather talk of and perhaps its most famous member was Vic Boff. They are the only club that actually has a physical address. It is 3046 W. 22nd St. Brooklyn, New York, but a phone number I found is now disconnected. I have since found out they are no longer….or are they. I’m researching as you read this as they might still be hanging in there! I have contacted several people who are telling these wonderful, rich stories of a “sport”.

I am in the process of researching this interesting topic. There were numerous clubs I have found, some have been around nearly 100 years, such as the L Street Brownies in Boston. I hope to put a comprehensive story together on this topic. The fact is, it is a part of weightlifting and strongman lore. Now, I have taken the plunge and I feel a part of the legacy. I can say this; whether it is good for you or not, it will definitely wake you up!

Phil Pfister

by Thom Van Vleck

Phil Pfister and Thom Van Vleck

I first met Phil Pfister in 2002 in St. Louis. Phil is, of course, the 2006 winner of the World’s Strongest man. I was there helping Randy Richey and his Omega Force Strongman Evangelism Team. The team was serving as a sort of “half time” entertainment between events along with John Brookfield. Evidently, Phil had done some strongman evangelism work with Randy and he came over and hung out with us a couple of times. When we first met, he shook my hand and I actually felt his thumb and fingers meet on the back of my hand! His hands are enormous! I got to write a small piece in MILO on that meet and complimented Phil on not only winning two events, but how he donated the individual event bonus of $100 to the children’s charity the event was benefitting.

The next year, Omega Force was an even bigger part of the show and so was I. The final day ended up in the Family Arena with some 3,000 spectators and Fox Sports Midwest recording the show. It was as big a production as I can recall ever being a part of and I was allowed full access as I was part of it. Phil hung around with us as he knew Randy and we got to visit between events and we cheered him on when he took his turn. At one point, before we did our show, Phil came and joined our prayer circle and as he stepped in he laid his arm around me and it was then I first noticed how big he really is, his size is deceptive on television. He seems much bigger in real life and I think he’s taller than his listed 6’6”. Later, he walked up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder and it literally felt like a baseball glove enveloping my shoulder.

It was not until this year that I got to see Phil again. It was at the Arnold Expo in Columbus, Ohio and again I was with Randy Richey and Omega Force. Again, when Phil was free he came over and hung out with us. At one point he brought Mark Henry with him. They stayed and watched one of our performances. Randy has an 800lb log he lifts in his shows. At one point Randy asked Phil to autograph his log. Phil took a pen, traced his baseball mitt sized hand on the log and signed it.

Phil is obviously a little bit of an introvert that tries very hard to be outgoing. The result is that he can seem a little stand-offish as he gazes away and avoids direct eye contact. This, combined with his intimidating size (I’m 6’3 and 300lbs and he makes me feel little) can sometimes make people feel a little put off. But the reality is Phil has a huge heart and after you are around him a little you realize he just wants to fit in….but it’s hard to fit in when you are so BIG! Phil is a great guy and I’m proud to call him my friend!

The Unsupported Leg Press

by Thom Van Vleck

Ed Zercher performing an Unsupported Leg Press. In 1952, Ed Zercher did 200 reps with 250 pounds in 7 minutes, 30 seconds. In 1962, Ed Zercher did 10 reps with 605 pounds.

Recently I did a story on the “Zercher Lift” and “Zercher Squat” for Milo Magazine. I had been looking for a good picture of Ed Zercher doing a Zercher lift when I came across this photo (supplied to me by Al Myers). It is really quite a picture and you will find it in the rule book illustrating how to do the “Leg Press-Unsupported”. If you go into the average gym today and ask about the leg press, you will likely be pointed towards the “leg sled” or some variation of it which involves using the legs to press a sled loaded with weights at what is typically a 45 degree angle. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a leg press that is vertical where you lay under it and press the weight straight up in the air. But by USAWA standards, these lifts are not a true LEG PRESS!!!!

The rule book lists the rules as such:

D19. Leg Press – Unsupported

The lifter will lay on the platform, with the back, shoulders, and buttocks flat on the lifting surface. Padding, such as a towel or mat, may be placed under the lifter’s body, but must not exceed one-half inch in thickness. The bar will then be placed on the lifter’s feet by spotters, with the legs straight and the legs positioned at a 90 degree angle to the platform. Boots with heels are allowed to be worn. The spotters must not touch the lifter’s legs, the bar, or plates during the lift. Once the bar is motionless and under control, an official will give a command to start the lift. The lifter will bend the knees to lower the bar until the top of the thighs touch the torso, and will then recover and straighten the legs. The hands must not be braced or touching the legs during the lift. The lift ends on command. The bar may be removed from the lifter’s feet by spotters.

I recall doing these as part of my early training program in the late 70’s when I was a teen. I did these in a power rack, lying in the rack and taking the weight out like you would for a standing press out of the rack…..just with my feet! I did them with the pins in so I wouldn’t drop the weight on my self and close enough to the rack itself that if I lost my balance I’d drive the bar into the rack and press it up against the uprights for leverage (not really good on the bar and it’s always a must the power rack is secured to the floor if you are going to attempt this!). I didn’t do them because I was “old school”, I did them because I had no leg press to use in the first place. I learned them from my Uncle Wayne who learned them from Wilbur Miller.

I fell the unsupported Leg Press can have a lot of added benefits. First, you have the “feel” of a free weight. I’ve always felt the balance involved in a free weight lift makes one more athletic than any machine type lift. Second, you won’t likely use more weight than you can handle. Third, it will hit your legs more than your hips….at least it did mine. And finally, fourth, you will be familiar with the lift should you go to a USAWA meet that contests it some time.

There is also a variation on the Leg Press in the USAWA rule book called the Leg Press – Self Loaded. The rules of the Leg Press – Unsupported apply except the bar must be loaded onto the feet from the platform by the lifter only. The lifter may do so in any manner, but must not be assisted. I’ve never tried this one, but it sounds interesting and difficult….which could explain why I can’t find a single record on it! Like everything in the USAWA….it’s not the easy way!

A USAWA Christmas Carol

by Thom Van Vleck

My father in law, Bob Baybo, came up for a visit from St. Louis today. He is 70 this year and still in great shape. He lifts, bike rides, scuba dives, he has lots of interests that keep him active. Back in the 60’s and 70’s he was a bodybuilder. He entered a couple of small contests, but 4 kids to take care of meant it was more of a sideline than his goal in life.

Before that, he played a lot of baseball, even ending up with a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals. He retold that story today for my kids, his eyes still twinkled at what he called his best day ever on the field. He said his glove was like a vacuum, he hit everything that was thrown at him, and didn’t miss a throw, but alas, it was not to be and he went about the business of the rest of his life after a few more tries at the big time.

He ended his story with “no regrets”. Maybe some dashed dreams, but he felt like he did his best, he played his hardest, he did the best that he could but time and circumstance weren’t in his favor. Then he talked about a trip he has planned for 2010. It will involve a grueling hike and physical challenges that a man half his age would probably cringe at.

I try to live that way. I lift as hard as I can, when I can. I don’t shy away from a chance to display my skills, and I try to go after my dreams while I can because life will soon enough take the opprotunities away. We all seem to reflect on our past at the end of the year. I think that is good. We should count our blessings, share stories, love and laugh.

We should share in the present. Tell stories, share a few laughs, maybe a tear or two. Be there for one another, show support, let others know you are there for them.

And soon, the New Year comes. The future. New goals to chase, new dreams are born, and new stories to be made.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all the members of the USAWA! Now is the time to reflect on your past, share your present, and plan for the future!

The JWC’s Apollon Wheels Replica

by Thom Van Vleck

Thom Van Vleck, of the JWC, takes the Apollon Wheels Replica overhead at the JWC Training Hall

Al had told me for years he was wanting to make some Apollon’s Wheels and he finally made them! The best part was he made two sets and gave one to me as a contribution to our Strongman Evangelism shows.

Lifting Al’s version of the Apollon’s Wheels were like lifting history. But that did not change the fact they were formidable pieces of equipment!

My strategy was to do an over and under grip on bar and continental it to the belt. Then, I switched to a double overhand grip and popped it in the air. I had to let go of the bar, as it will not rotate (and you don’t want it to rotate on you as it could build so much momentum it could throw you over backwards or break your wrists). Then drop under the bar and regrip it in a “rack” position. Once here, it was just a matter of completing the push press. I was so excited that once I got it overhead I did a 360 degree turn with it at arms length.

If you travel to my gym or Al’s, the Apollon’s axle is a must see!

Meeting Tommy Kono

by Thom Van Vleck

Tommy Kono and Thom Van Vleck

It is not often you get to meet a living legend, but earlier this year I did just that! I was at the Arnold Fitness Expo for the first time in my life. I got to meet a slew of legends, current stars, and I’m sure some future legends. This included Frank Zane, Lou Ferrigno, Phil Pfister, Derek Poundstone, even Arnold himself as well as many others. But I have to say, the one that I saw that literally gave me the biggest thrill was Tamio “Tommy” Kono. Growing up in a weightlifting family, Tommy was like a mythical legend to me. I expected to see Arnold there, as well as many others, but I didn’t know Kono was going to be there so when I literally ran into him in the hallway while talking to my wife on my cell phone…..well, my heart jumped in my throat and I literally hung up on her as I ran to him like some star crossed teen seeing a teen idol. At least I didn’t scream!

Some might wonder who Tommy Kono was. Well, let me tell you about the man that was voted the “Greatest Weightlifter of the 20th Century”. He represented the U.S.A. in the 50s and 60s. Tommy Kono is the only lifter to have world records in four different weightlifting classes from 149lbs to 198lbs. He won a Gold Medal at both the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games, and a Silver Medal at the 1960 Olympics. He was world champion from 1953 – 1959 and set 21 world records. He was the Pan-Am Games champion in 1955, 1959, and 1963. In 1976, he coached the United States’ Olympic weightlifting team in the Montreal Games. He was also a successful Bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Universe title in 1955 and 1957. Of Japanese descent, Kono was born in Sacramento, California, on June 27th, 1930. Kono’s family was relocated to Tule Lake internment camp during World War II. Tule lake camp was in a very isolated area in the desert in northern California. Sickly as a child, the desert air helped Kono’s asthma. It was during the relocation that Kono was introduced by neighbors to weight training . After 3 1/2 years they were released and he finished high school at Sacramento High. In the 1970s he moved to Hawaii, where he has lived ever since and in 1993 he was elected to the International Weightlifting Hall of Fame.

Tommy was extremely cordial and allowed me to have my picture taken with him and a copy hangs with pride in the JWC gym. He made a glowing comment that I must be a champion myself and commented on how big and strong I looked as he sized me up. I was very impressed by him and he lived up to my lofty expectations. Tommy is a legend in the truest sense.

Performance Strongman – Part 1

by Thom Van Vleck

Thom Van Vleck breaking bricks using the "Double Forearm Break Style"

Many USAWA members are aware of our own Steve Schmidt’s career as a performance strongman, AKA “Strongman Steve”. He travels around doing strongman shows that often mirror his lifting efforts in the USAWA meets he competes in. As a matter of fact, I’d say that had it not been for Steve’s efforts to become a top USAWA lifter, his strongman career might not have ever happened! USAWA member Eric Todd, who has also joined the JWC for our shows at times, also does performance Strongman shows.

There are two other USAWA members that also have a strongman career as a part of the “Jackson Weightlifting Club”. This includes John O’Brien and Thom Van Vleck. After the “JWC All-Round Challenge” on Nov. 21 the other two more members of the JWC team should also be USAWA members, Brett and Brian Kerby as they are slated to compete in that contest.

The USAWA has a rich history and connection to being what I call a Performance Strongman. Many of the old timers like Appollon, Saxon, and Sandow travelled around earning their living performing, not competing. Today, guys like Steve, Eric and the JWC members do it for other reasons.

John O'Brien using grip pressure only to blow up unopened cans of soda

While just a few of the JWC members do performance strongman shows, they do it to spread the word of Jesus Christ. We are Christian men who believe that God has given us a talent and that we are to use that talent for Him. We are a non-denominational group that often also delivers secular messages such as being anti drug, staying in school, and being good citizens. But we never sacrifice our core message.

Brian Kerby and myself, Thom Van Vleck, are the core members of the JWC evangelism effort. We have been brothers in the Word and Iron since our teenage years and always shared a love of the iron sports. We finally had a chance to go and help Randy Richey and his strongman evangelism team, Omega Force, at the US Strongman Nationals in St. Louis. We ended up being a part of the show and were soon offered to travel with them overseas. Brian and I realized this would not be possible with our family, church, and job obligations and soon realized that God wanted us to share our talents locally.

To the Top of Scotland

by Thom Van Vleck

Thom Van Vleck at the Top of Scotland

On a recent trip to the Scottish Masters World Championships I decided to take a day and do some mountain climbing. My grandfather had a copy of the famous painting “Monarch of the Glen” when I was a kid and the Cairngorm Mountains are the back drop that inspired the painting. I decided, to honor my grandfather, I’d climb that mountain! And, to honor my friend, Al Myers, I wore my Dino Gym cap when I did it.

It was a 9 hour grueling hike for a 300lb, 45year old weightlifter with a bum hip. The weather turned typically bad….really bad and it turned into a real adventure. But an adventure I’ll never forget and one I’m writing a much longer story about that I’ll share when it is done. I made it to the top of the 2nd and 5th tallest Mountains in Scotland. Ben Mcduibh was thought to be the tallest mountain in Scotland for centuries and traditionally is still thought of as the tallest (it falls short by a mere 30ft). Many legends surround it, it’s said to be haunted, and you will find primitive stone “forts” that the highlanders used centuries ago when they used the Mountain tops to signal each other in times of invasion.

The picture is at the top of Mcduibh because when I made it to the top of Cairngorm, I was dealing with freezing rain, winds gusting 70plus mph, and fog so thick you could barely see! I made it, just barely!

Bed of Nails

by Al Myers

Thom first got "comfortable" on the bed of nails, and then I asked him, "Do you really want to go through with this?"

This past weekend at the McPherson Scottish Highland Games in McPherson, Kansas my friend Thom Van Vleck and I did a noontime performance that was reminiscent of a classic old-time strongman show act – laying on a Bed of Nails!! Thom laid on the bed of nails while I broke a block of cement with a sledgehammer that was placed on his body! Thom is blessed with a thick hide, which is the only explanation how someone could actually endure something like this. When he approached me with this idea – I quickly volunteered to be the hammer man. I know now that Thom must really trust me as a friend – after all he didn’t even know if I could swing the 8# sledgehammer straight!! We warmed up “for the big event” with me striking the sledgehammer on an anvil, which was on his chest, a few times just to make sure I wouldn’t miss! (Truth be known – we didn’t even practice this beforehand which further questions our sanity). I knew I would have to make a pretty hard swing if the block was going to break – and I sure didn’t want it not to break and then having to make more than one swing!

The show turned out to be a big success! Afterwards, several spectators came up to “check out” the bed of nails to see if it was real. It was – Thom didn’t even take the points of the nails!!

I took a steady aim, brought the sledgehammer up, and then WAM!! - the block busted into many pieces!!!

Blowing Up a Hot Water Bottle

by Al Myers

Thom getting ready to blow up water bottle.

I got to see firsthand someone blowing up a hot water bottle this past weekend. At the conclusion of the Team Nationals, Thom Van Vleck (President of the JWC) amazed us by blowing up a hot water bottle in 31.62 seconds!! This takes tremendous abdominal strength and chest/lung capacity to accomplish this feat. This was the first time I had ever seen this performed – although I have heard about others having done it for quite some time.

What does this have to do with All-Round Weightlifting?

Well, for one thing all-round strength comes in many forms and sometimes not always involves lifting some sort of implement, like a barbell or dumbbell. Second, the Old Time Strongmen often performed similar feats to this (that required some sort of “special” strength) that were done purely for show performances to impress the crowds. And there is nothing as showy as watching a water bottle constantly expanding with each breath to the point that it explodes!!! Bob Hoffman, of York Barbell, wrote many articles about doing exercises that developed lung capacity and chest expansion. He would even do deep breathing exercises in between his workout sets to help in developing a larger chest.

The water bottle is about ready to BURST!

Take this as a challenge – all you need to do is buy a hot water bottle and start blowing!! A few cautions though – don’t inhale on the bottle when it is expanded or the water bottle pressure may damage your lungs and be sure to wear eye protection!!

Training with Thom “THE ANVIL” Van Vleck

by Al Myers

Anvil Collection - 110# unknown, 152# Peter Wright, 190# Peter Wright

Last week I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon training at my gym with Thom “THE ANVIL” Van Vleck. We spent the entire workout training with anvils only!! I have a collection of three anvils, weighing 110, 152, and 190 pounds. You would be surprised how difficult you can make an anvil workout. Thom knows many ways how to use anvils for training. Training with anvils was very popular with old time strongmen. George Jowett, famous strongman and writer, lifted a 168 pound anvil by the horn with only one hand!!

Thom pressing my 110# anvil with one hand only!!!!

Thom is a very popular writer for MILO, and has written many articles over the past several years. One of his earliest articles was about how it was a right of passage into the JWC (Jackson Weightlifting Club) to be able to lift Grandpa Jackson’s anvil overhead!! This anvil has been passed down through the generations of the JWC, and Thom has it as a center piece in his gym today. It weighs somewhere between 150 and 200 pounds. When you enter the JWC (Thom’s gym) – be prepared to be challenged by Grandpa Jackson’s anvil!!!

The workout started out with doing some snatches, swings and French Presses with my 110# anvil. Lifting anvils is not the same as lifting barbells – an anvil is just a huge chunk of iron that is hard to grab and hold on to!!! But then, it is an exhilarating feeling to be able to master lifting such an awkward object. We are fortunate today that we have bars with roller sleeves that contain fine ball bearings, and plates that are milled perfectly, to provide upmost balance and control when lifting weights. The old time strongmen did not have this type of equipment, but made the most of what they had and still made amazing strength gains.

I managed lifting the 110# anvil, but then Thom showed me up by lifting the 110# anvil and the 152# anvil at the same time!! Now you see why he is known as Thom the Anvil??

We then progressed to doing clean and presses with the 152 pound anvil. We started out doing strict presses and finished by doing push presses with it. It is difficult to keep an anvil from “getting out in front of you” when pressing it overhead and to maintain the lockout. But the more reps we did with it the better both of us got. I then took on the 190# anvil and cleaned and pressed it several times. After this we did some one handed lifting with the anvils by gripping them by the horn – “Jowett style”. You really feel this in the forearm muscles. I have done alot of Vertical Bar lifting with a 2″ bar – but the horn of an anvil has a taper to it that makes it way more difficult!!

The next exercise we did was loading and deloading the three anvils onto platforms. This is a full body exercise. We did several “runs” of these until our backs starting cramping!! At this point I thought we would call it a workout but Thom had more in mind! We finished this 3 hour workout by carrying the 190# anvil down and back my 100 foot course (200 feet total) several times with the anvil cradled in our arms. This tested my cardiovascular endurance and left me in a heap of sweat and breathing like a race horse. Now – THAT is what you can call an ALL-ROUND workout and we didn’t even touch a barbell or dumbbell!!!