John Y. Smith, showing his perfect form in the bent press. He's one of the greatest bent pressers of history. This picture was taken sometime between 1900-1901 and the dumbell weighs 185 pounds. Smith could clean and bent press this weight three repetitions. Notice how the right half of the latissimus dorsi muscle and the right half of the trapezius muscle are flexed into a compact mass and that the right arm is resting on that mass.
How I Bent-Pressed 250 lbs.
by Bob Hoffman (1938)
Realizing a lifetime ambition:
lifting one-eighth ton overhead with one hand . . .
It is not my intention in this article to tell exactly how to perform the popular lift known as the Bent Press. There have been many articles and several books describing exactly how the lift should be performed. There is considerable in Sig Klein’s writing about it and if one desires more information about the rudiments of this lift, his book on bent pressing will be exactly what you need.
It’s my intention rather to tell of several small training hints and several important points which made it possible for me to greatly increase my bent press record. From the very beginning the bent press appealed to me. Back in 1916, seven years before I learned of weight lifting, I had managed to get a hundred pound solid dumbell overhead in some style or other. Immediately after obtaining a bar bell in 1923 I devoured all information I could obtain about bent pressing. Such a lift was appealing. I had discovered almost immediately that for some reason I was not a good two hand presser. I could not correctly press 80 pounds when I started. So it was encouraging to reach 150 pounds in the bent press one year later. At that time and for some years to come I could only press 135 in correct military style with two hands so there was some compensation in being able to press a fair poundage with one hand.
In the years that followed, my weight lifting training was irregular; I was interested in many sports and games, and I had a business to take care of. A business which required about fifty thousand miles of traveling each year. My training sessions weren’t as frequent as I would have liked. But I had a standing offer during those years to “put up” more with one hand than any of the other men in the factory could with two. One day a husky young man who had never lifted weights appeared on the scene. His name was Lou Schell. He lifted 170 pounds on his first day’s training and I had to clean and bent press 175 to keep my part of the bargain. Shortly after that the old York Oil Burner Athletic Club was coming into prominence so it wasn’t long before I couldn’t put up with one hand what others could with two. I gave up the battle with a clean and bent press of 185.
The next year I was involved in the auto accident that so nearly cost me my life. My shoulder was nearly useless for bent pressing for quite a number of years. I couldn’t practice the lift, it hurt too much afterward, and one could not hope to lift much without practice. But I did get to 200 pounds for the first time nearly four years ago. As I look back on my bent pressing of those days it is evident that I was not doing it just right – as near right as I could from trying to follow what I had read and what I had been told. But I was not using the best method as I know it now.
My usual style was to turn around as far as I could, bring the weight around as far as I could, and then lean, turning as I leaned away from the weight. The bar would swing so fast that I could not stop it at times and only succeeded when I was able to make a three quarter turn at the completion of the lift. I knew that something was wrong, but it was difficult to find just what it was. My side on the non-lifting side always hurt considerably too, which made me reluctant to practice this lift except at long intervals.
And then we received the Cyr bell here in York – a present that Chief Moquin, the strong man of Quebec gave to me after his visit to our town and gymnasium two years ago. It, any believe, is the world’s most famous piece of iron. Weighing about 190 pounds empty, I pressed it officially in December 1936 weighing 202. What an effort it was. So much effort that I did not even attempt it for fourteen long months. Roger Eells visited us one day this Spring and I succeeded in pressing the Cyr bell the first attempt perfectly and without great effort. Without any subsequent soreness to my sides or shoulder.
For I had been learning things, simple things, but very important ones. It has been said that the margin between splendid success and miserable failure is often the difference that some very tiny and apparently unimportant things make. I had retained my interest in the bent press and twenty consecutive weeks last year I succeeded in pressing my big stage bell, usually weighing about 220 pounds. I say usually, because it can be loaded to almost any weight – four hundred pounds at least if there were someone who could lift it with that amount. It is designed to be loaded with the standard York Olympic type weights.
I found that I could balance that big bell easier than any other weight. I have failed with 15 or 200 with a regular bar and succeeded with the 220 pounder.
My bent press record went up after Roger Eells was here. Not that I learned anything that day, but shortly before his visit I had inaugurated a slightly different means of training for the bent press. One that did not hurt my shoulder or arm, and one that not only made it possible for me to be in a position to bent press a substantial weight, but to constantly improve. The day Rog was here the Cyr bell weighed 211. I pressed that and the 220 pound stage bell on first attempts. The next time I tried the Cyr bell it weighed 221 and I put that up on the first attempt. Two weeks later it had been loaded to 231 and I succeeded with that weight. Just before the national championships in May, Harry Paschall, creator of Bosco, and one or the really great old timers who improves with the years, was here and I was successful with 235 pounds, bent pressing with a revolving bar bell. The Cyr bell had been loaded to 248½ pounds, and I bent pressed that to straight arm but did not get up with it. I found that I was not good for a heavy attempt without a week or two intervening between attempts. I tried the 248½ Cyr bell a number of times but never stood up with it.
And then June 19th at the world’s weight lifting team championships at Baltimore, I realized a cherished ambition in bent pressing my big stage bell – a bell that has been weighed so many times that we know its exact weight with any loading – when it was loaded to 250 pounds. This lifting was described last month.
I doubt if my strength had increased. I believe the improvement came about through improved form and a better training method. I wanted so badly to press 250 pounds in my fortieth year – one hundred pounds more than I succeeded with fifteen years ago when I was twenty-five, that I put it up whether or not. After two failures my knees were wobbly, but I had reasons that made me feel that I must do it, and was successful.
What had I learned? During the years in every lengthy conversation about lifting or strength feats I had asked a lot of questions. Especially when I had the opportunity to talk to men like John Y. Smith or Oscar Mathes of Boston and Lawrence, Mass. respectively. John Y. told me how he bent pressed, but I am sorry to say that he did not tell me correctly. many men can perform a lift but can’t describe their style. I asked him to show me, and immediately he fell into the correct style, the method I have seen pictured in the magazines in the old days. At a bodyweight of 160 pounds John had often pressed more than a hundred pounds over his bodyweight. I asked other old timers how Saxon did it.
Here are the two most important things I learned in these conversations and by practice. Everyone said that the bar should be turned around as near parallel with the shoulders as possible – that isn’t enough. It must be parallel to the shoulders. That is of vital importance. I learned that from pressing the Cyr bell. I found that I had to turn it, after I had bent away from it so that it hung toward my right eye and was exactly parallel with my shoulder. I later found that it was much easier to press a bell when I turned it a bit after bending away from it, exactly parallel to my shoulders, and then did not permit it to turn another inch. With this style the weight was supported on the side entirely – on the broad and powerful latissimus muscles. Prior to learning this apparently simple little detail I held the weight far back on the side muscles, as I happen to be one of those individuals who have a short upper arm and a comparatively long body. Thus I am not able to place the elbow on the hip. Bent pressing became so much easier when the bell was in the proper position.
I found that the reason for the sore side was the turning of the bar and the back while the lift was in progress; a terrific strain was experienced on the under side while the effort of pressing the bar as it turned took place. I learned to turn as far as I could, as far as I needed to go to bent press, then go straight down to the side and front. The bar doesn’t turn an inch. It’s so easy to come up with the weight. Where I formerly practiced endless side exercises to strengthen my sides and could not overcome this soreness. I don’t fell it the slightest bit after heavy bent pressing.
The weight should be pressed as fast as possible. The more skilled you become the faster you ca press the weight. It has been said by many that the incomparable Arthur Saxon, by far the world’s greatest bent presser, used this fast method. It’s the style to strive toward. I sometimes can complete a moderately heavy bent press pretty rapidly. I admit that my 250 done at Baltimore was not done rapidly. It was a terrific struggle; it hung in the air for what seemed many minutes before it went up into a perfect press. But I am trying to bent press fast and with the years I believe I will improve.
The placing of the feet was another phase of the bent press in which I was wrong. So many men knew that Saxon stepped forward with the left foot, when he bent pressed with the right arm. I tried this style for years and it threw me badly off balance. Enough so that about four years ago when I first succeeded with 200 I at times found it hard to start with 145; it held me off balance and I had to start with a jerking motion. I then learned that Saxon may have stepped forward, but when the bell was at his hip he turned on the balls of his feet so that his feet were in a very comfortable position, about thirty inches apart with the toes turned out slightly. This helped a lot.
And then the important part of training was repetition presses with a moderate weight. In my case usually fifty or seventy-five pounds with a solid dumbell. I would normally press in series of ten and might make as many as a hundred presses. Thus my body learned the correct position, just as constant trying teaches one to hand balance, ice skate, dive, or ride a bicycle. The muscles were unconsciously improving their technique. When the weight seemed to go up itself as it did some of the Saturdays during pressing competitions, I would follow with repetitions with a moderate weight, and I made eighteen presses with a hundred pounds.
In training I pressed in a variety of styles. The first of which would be with a fifty pound dumbell, first holding the dumbell perpendicular to the body, pressing from a very low position with the elbow approximately on the front of the hip. Ten repetitions in this style. Then hold the bar back farther in the bent press position and press it ten times from there without body movement. Then ten in the regular side press position and then the 75 pound dumbell. The same three movements, afterwards bent pressing the bell. Ten bent presses. After a time one would learn to put the weight up so easily that there wasn’t the slightest effort of pressing. The bell held in the right place goes up without effort when the body is twisted far to the right and one leans direct to the left which in the twisted position is also the front.
I would make a few series of presses with a 100 pound dumbell successively. And perhaps once a week a few presses with heavier weights. I pressed 145 twelve times on Saturday, then would make single attempts with 165, 185, and 205. At times I would lift the big bell.
I didn’t like pressing the Cyr bell. It formerly was hard to balance, but this new method of training with moderate dumbell pressing has made it easy for me to balance it. The long bell is easier, for it works the same as the long balancing rod frequently used by tightrope walkers.
Bent Press Thoughts
1.) The bent press is the making of a lifter. It promotes efficiency in all lifts, and its practice will promote a great deal of strength and development.
2.) Don’t push the bell immediately after it is brought to the shoulder. Lean as far down as you can before you start to press.
3.) You will be more successful with a long thick handled bar. It gives you more to push against, turns more slowly and assists in maintaining balance.
4.) Practice pulling in more weight to the hip than you can press; hold it there for a few seconds. As your strength increases, your bent press will improve.
5.) Turn the bar until the sphere touches the head before starting to press. When your head is lowered permit the bar to turn a bit more until it is exactly parallel with the shoulders.
6.) Bend or twist around so far that you don’t need to twist or “screw” around farther when you press. In pressing while twisting three things must be done at once. By bending straight down you save your side muscles, complete the lift easier and quicker and should succeed with a greater lift. Turn the bar completely and bend almost straight to the left.
7.) Practice of pressing in the supine position or the shoulder bridge will improve your bent pressing.
8.) Every lifter who has been renowned for beauty of form and symmetry of physique is also a star at the bent press.
9.) The bent press is the easiest of all ways to put a big weight aloft. It is spectacular and is the best means of developing a reputation as a strong man.
10.) Your body will gain support by sliding the left arm down the left leg until the arm pit touches the thigh. Some men reach over to touch the right leg with their left hand. The arm should assist in regaining the erect position.
11.) Don’t bend your right leg until absolutely necessary. Bend it only slightly until the weight is nearly up, lock the arm and then lower the hips in preparation to coming erect. There is so much that has been written about locking the arm as the hips are lowered. I have found that locking the arm first is the only way, then lower the hips and come erect.
12.) Always watch the bell. Don’t take your eyes off it for a fraction of a second.
13.) The bent press is the most interesting and fascinating of all lifts.
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