Back to The “Best of the Bench Press”
The last few monthly installments of the TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEM columns have wandered through commentary about the bench press and the ultra-specific training and attire that has developed around the “sport” of bench pressing as a separate activity from that of three-lift powerlifting, and the injuries often encountered because of this. I did however want to return to one of the initial points I had intended to stress, and what was to me back in 1984 and ’85, the unintended “stirring of the pot” within the powerlifting community. I have known too many strong men, truly strong men and I am referring to scary-strong men who never lifted competitively nor sought any public acclaim. In the January 1985 edition of POWERLIFTING USA MAGAZINE I made a comment that was similar to one that had graced more than one of my “MORE FROM KEN LEISTNER” columns that Mike Lambert was gracious enough to publish for over twenty-two years. I had sincerely remarked that, “I have always been of the opinion that the Strongest Man in the World will never be found at the World’s Strongest Man Contest, nor at the Senior National Powerlifting Championships. Somewhere out there, in a garage in Des Moines, or a shed in Amite, Louisiana, or in the yard behind the house in Rising Sun, Indiana, there lives a man who comes home after a day of cutting pulpwood, or laying concrete, or plowing the back forty, and benches 630 for five, and deadlifts 700 for ten…’jes’ trying to stay fit.’ They’re out there, but most of the stories we hear are just that, stories, so our greatest will have to have made his lifts legally.”
At our Iron Island Gym, we discovered a few very strong men who we later convinced to dabble in competitive lifting, fellows that up to that point were content to lift huge amounts of weight within the confines of their basement for example. When I initially wrote my words displayed above, I was thinking specifically about some of the immigrants that worked in the iron shop with my father and the types of men I described in some issues of our The Steel Tip Newsletter. I personally witnessed too many huge sections of beam moved by a single individual that “theoretically” could not be moved by two or without the aid of a mechanical hoist. I had been in garages or warehouses where bikers pulled and then walked engine blocks from one end of the shop to the other because they didn’t want to wait for the availability of a cart. I had seen lumberjacks in Maine lift and toss the ends of huge trees that usually took groups of men to shuffle or shove, because they were in a hurry or on that specific day, angry at the world. Predictably, some competitive lifters scoffed at the notion that anyone capable of winning a major contest would not enter and “prove to everyone” that they were in fact, among the strongest in the world. Had there been anything resembling strongman competition, I am certain that the comments would have been similar from strongman contest participants. Two specific comments I made did little to change their mind but they remain true today. The first was that “life” at times, does not allow us to do all, or at times, any of the things we truly want to do. A litany of reasons might allow one to train consistently and train productively but never compete and of course, there are many who could not care less about competition nor public notice. More inflammatory was my remark that being strong in three specific planes of motion, obviously referring to the squat, bench press, and deadlift, might not necessarily make one “very strong” nor allow them to express “strength” or the ability to lift and move heavy objects in anything other than those three planes of motion or those three specific competitive lifts. Oh boy, that last comment raised the hackles of a number of powerlifting champions, one who coincidentally failed miserably at their “audition” for what was then the budding strongman competition circuit. This does not and did not then, imply that there aren’t strong powerlifters who are in fact “strong” in any meaningful display of strength but it is a fact that some exceptional powerlifting competitors are not particularly “on the job” strong.
Historical Supplement – “Scary Good”
One of the mistakes that many powerlifters make, and a statement that could be applied to those in other areas of endeavor, is judging others based upon a very limited grouping of parameters or standards. For many lifters, if you don’t squat, bench press, or deadlift “a lot” of weight, then “you’re not strong.” For Olympic weightlifters, deficiencies in one’s clean and jerk would probably bring the judgment that one was not particularly strong, despite lifting significant weight in other lifts unrelated to the sport of weightlifting. Strength is of course defined as it relates to the manner in which that “strength” is to be utilized. If one does not powerlift well in a powerlifting competition, yes, they were not “strong” in the three lifts but that does not necessarily mean that the individual in question is not strong utilizing almost any other meaningful criteria.
Former professional football player Frank Ferrara is a very obvious example of a man who was absolutely strong by any form of measure other than perhaps, competitive powerlifting, and absolutely “scary strong.” Frank trained as one of my son’s training partners and very much as part of our family for many years. He played collegiate football as a Division 1AA All American at the University of Rhode Island and with the New York Giants, San Diego Chargers, and the Canadian Football League British Columbia Lions. At 6’3″ and 275 pounds, he was a physical beast and in the training facility, had to be considered strong, even by the standards of some competitive lifters. He routinely, despite leverage disadvantages, squatted 450 – 500 for sets of twenty reps, performed sets of overhead presses with 300 or more pounds, and could pull anything off of the floor that we put in front of him. Doing manual labor type of work, Frank could lift and move very large, very awkward loads, often moving pieces of training equipment that usually took two to three strong men to maneuver. On the field, he utilized his strength to make up for a very obvious lack of talent relative to the men he played with and against.
Acknowledged publicly in the print media and in interviews with the Giants’ coaches and his teammates as “having to overcome many shortcomings” due to his frank lack of ability, he did so for an NFL career that lasted five seasons with additional full seasons played in Canada and with NFL Europe where he won a number of honors. In part, the way in which he moved barbells, dumbbells, barrels, stones, and other lifting paraphernalia impressed the most hardened lifting critic and experienced competitor. Like most high end athletes, he “exploded” each rep to completion and while his gross movements on the field could not compare to the graceful flow of so many of his teammates like Michael Strahan for example, his initial burst made all of them wary of going up against him or confronting him. Being able to lift and throw 300 pound men with one hand would I think, qualify as a “feat of strength” by most lifters and non-lifters and this is something Frank could and would do regularly. Despite a “heart of gold” and what was often a quiet and reserved demeanor, he was a legendary street fighter and known throughout the metropolitan area for routinely taking on three and four men his size or larger, many of them hardened criminals, One true tale that made the rounds in the NFL came after Frank dispatched one of his 310 pound teammates for inappropriate social behavior. The task was done with lightening speed and frightening power, resulting in broken furniture and a season-ending concussion suffered by the recipient of the very brief encounter that Frank explained by noting, “It wasn’t a big deal, I only hit him once.” It was his ability to apply whatever strength and power he possessed, that correctly earned him his reputation. More than the ability to move a balanced barbell in one of three very distinct planes of motion, strength can be defined and applied in various manners. I am reminded of Cleveland’s Hoss the Boss, a large, tough man who had never before attempted anything resembling the powerlifts, that the members of John Black’s legendary powerlifting team literally met in a bar the night before a meet. They bought him drinks, gave descriptions and instruction on each of the three lifts, and then dragged him to a meet the very next morning where he placed high. The future Powerlifting USA Magazine cover man continued to lift as a part of their team for a number of years afterwards but literally walked into that first meet completely untrained yet defeated a number of ranked and very strong powerlifters. Thus they are out there, men who in every way are “strong” without necessarily being proficient powerlifters.
Thus is it was against this backdrop that my January 1985 PLUSA column stated that, “If it’s important enough to you to feel that you know who the best bencher is, then its important enough to lay down criteria for judging. My criteria will be no better nor worse than anyone else’s but it will be better than howling about records set, wrist measurements, and color of socks. The amount of weight lifted is obviously important. Just as obvious is the need for some sort of formula which will make up for bodyweight differences.” As noted in a previous installment in this series, I reiterated that it was more than just “weight lifted” that determined “the best.” Impact on the sport, influence upon other lifters, the weight lifted and the circumstances that prevailed at the meet that a record was set all counted. In summary, my personal choice was Pat Casey and clearly, even into the mid-1980’s, it was a difficult choice to argue with. If I had been subjected to negative comments making the statement that a national champion powerlifter might not have been the strongest man or one of the strongest men in the nation, then some of the responses I received regarding my “best of the bench press” column were two steps beyond what civil individuals term “negative.” Of course without the internet, computers, and e mail communication, it took until April of ’85 to hear from a contingent of lifters, clearly in disagreement with my opinion, and it wasn’t until the May issue that I began my monthly column with,
“Although I saw my January 1985 column as a lighthearted discussion of the bench press and those who are ‘great’ in its performance, many people reacted as if I had slandered the Pope. As I discovered, I may not feel that knowing the identity of the ‘greatest bench presser’ holds much real importance in our world of illness, poverty, world strife, etc., but plenty of readers out there do.
One of my most vociferous critics was Ted Arcidi, who presented a case for himself. In response I still don’t feel that Arcidi has had the impact of a Pat Casey, Doug Young, or Jim Williams. I doubt that Ted has even had the impact that Pacifico has. …Is Ted Arcidi a terrific bencher? Yes. Is he a great bencher? I won’t be the one to tell you he isn’t. Is he the greatest? Not yet. Ted has worked very hard and done much to be proud of.” I went on to note that one had to have longevity in the activity and that they had to be around long enough to be “memorable” to those that would follow in the sport. I concluded with the statement that “If Ted can sustain his top level power for a number of years, or put the record into the stratosphere, he may be able to write letters like the one I received and have a leg to stand on.”
Coincidentally and ironically, I could refer to my same PLUSA column of March 1985, yes, perhaps only a few weeks before receiving Ted’s rather harsh assessment of my judgment and writing abilities where I complimented his approach to what was a fledging supplement business venture. I wrote, “…I was informed that a reader in South Carolina purchased some supplement packs from Ted Arcidi. In addition to getting excellent service, Ted responded to a very minor complaint in unusual style. It seems that a few of the packs had one pill that had crumbled a bit. The pill was still in a condition that would allow its ingestion, but Ted insisted on replacing the entire order, even packs that were in perfect condition. This reader wanted everyone to know that he was immensely impressed with Mr. Arcidi’s response and concern.” Of course my insistence on allowing the powerlifting public to know this very positive piece of information did not prevent me from being the target of Ted’s wrath upon not getting the brass ring in my personal choice of “best bench presser!” The obvious question should be, “Did Ted Arcidi sustain his top level power for a number of years, or put the record into the stratosphere?”
We’ll answer that next month.