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!!!