Before we start this article, I would like to state that, despite the title, perhaps some or all of these movements should be left in history unless you are completely confident that you know what you’re doing. There is wisdom in the ancients, and much to be learned from those giants of strength on whose shoulders we stand.
That said, some of the feats below were performed by men far less sedentary than you, who lived far harsher lives than you yet ate better quality food and had better quality sleep. Undoubtedly, some of the lifts in this article would make modern sports-scientists twinge and break out in sweats. So a note of caution.
However, there is something uniquely enjoyable about doing something that no-one else in the gym has ever seen before, let alone has any idea how to execute. All of them would have been fairly familiar to someone experienced in ‘physical culture’ one hundred years ago. Even if you don’t plan on incorporating any into your training, hopefully you will enjoy this small insight into how much lifting weights has evolved over the previous century.
Barbell Turkish Get Up
The Turkish get up is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, and I have seen it featured in classes at boutique gyms as well as a renewed focus on Instagram. The reason for its rebirth is simple. As a shoulder exercise it is supreme, as an exercise in coordination it is challenging, and as a movement it is fun to learn.
So, what is it? Well, you start on the floor with your arm straight and a weight held in your hand. You keep this arm straight at all times, and attempt to get from flat on your back, to fully upright on two legs, and then back down again. With your arm extended at all times.
Mostly nowadays it is performed with a kettlebell or a dumbbell. The old-time strongmen, being masters at finding new and unique ways of pushing themselves, used a full-length barbell. The difference is significant. With a kettebell, being small and bottom-heavy, the weight is focused downwards and while challenging is at least consistent.
Attempting this movement with a loaded barbell introduces such variables as torque and spin, as well as gravity and momentum playing havoc with your barbell. The effect of this on the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder is profound and turns a difficult movement into an extremely difficult one.
If you want to try it; start with a dumbbell first. Lie flat on the floor with one arm fully extended towards the ceiling, holding the dumbbell. Then push the other arm out to your side and use your elbow to prop yourself up. Squeezing the abs and glutes, go into something resembling a glute bridge so your hips are elevated. If the dumbbell is in your right hand, swing your left leg back and through the arch created by your hips to the point where you’re kneeling. Then stand up. Then reverse the movement stage by stage and go back to flat on your back.
It sounds complicated because it is! Now imagine this with a 200lbs barbell in your hands. Truly amazing.
Barbell Leg Press
This exercise is both controversial and weird. But it’s great fun.
Lie on the floor and roll the bar to your hips, hip thrust up to your arms and then do a floor press with an arch to lockout. Now to the fun part! Bring your feet up to the underside of the bar (with your hands still on the bar) and find a position of balance. Slowly remove your hands so the bar is just balancing on your feet. Then, leg press in the normal manner.
Why on earth would you want to do this exercise? Well, you might not. But there are valid reasons for its inclusion in the arsenal of the old-time strongman. Unlike the leg press machine, the muscles stay loaded throughout the full range of motion, meaning that your quads are going to get a very thorough workout. The machine variation only operates in one plane of motion, whereas the barbell leg press is a wobbly, wavy beast. You are going to be working stabilizer muscles that you didn’t even know you had in the implementation of this lift. Also, it looks insane and means that others in the gym are likely to fear you and tremble before your feet.
A word on safety. This lift undoubtedly looks unsafe, but there are a couple of reasons why it is not as bad as it appears. Firstly, if you wear a soft shoe like a converse, or a shoe with a heel like the strongmen used to, the bar will sink into your sole and find a niche, meaning it is reasonably safe in its rut and unlikely to fall out.
In the event that the bar does fall off the feet, there is an inbuilt safety feature that you may not be aware of. Did you ever wonder why the hole in a standard 45lbs plate is where it is? Well, load up a bar, lie on the floor and try and roll it over your head. Unless your neck or nose is jumbo XL, the barbell should pass over your face without ruining those good looks of yours. This is not an accident. If you drop the barbell in the leg press, simply turning your head to the side should be enough to ensure that your face isn’t mangled by 135lbs of iron.
If you thought the last two lifts were strange, wait until you see the Kelly Snatch. More of a shoulder mobility movement than an out-and-out strength movement, the Kelly Snatch is a dynamic extension-based lift where you start with the bar on the floor behind you. The lifter then hinges forward into something resembling a pike stretch from yoga and using a combination of acceleration generated in the hamstrings, and shoulder flexibility, deadlifts the bar from behind the back and then swings the bar up above their head (which is facing the floor)
Part kettlebell swing, part shoulder stretch, part science experiment, the Kelly Snatch is one of the oddest lifts I have ever encountered and amazingly, anecdotal reports on the internet suggest that some have used weights up to 500lbs.
Ultimately this is a very strange lift and seems like a ticket to injury, but research and reading reveals that it was very popular amongst the strongest men who roamed the earth at the turn of the 20th century and they used it to help develop speed, power and shoulder flexibility. Undoubtedly impressive, but also undoubtedly most likely to leave you on a ward, in traction.
In conclusion, experimentation in the gym is natural and good, and the knowledge of our lifting forefathers should be respected. There are many other strange lifts that lurk in the recesses of time which are almost, but not quite, forgotten. However, some of these lifts should probably remain on the page rather than in the gym.
Enjoy them for what they are, a testament to an age where men were stronger, more flexible and more hardcore than they are now.
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