When I was a child, I was fascinated by feats of strength. Weaned on episodes of World’s Strongest Man and superhero cartoons from an early age, I was, and continue to be, curious about the limits of human strength and endurance. The past two decades of strongman, powerlifting, weightlifting, bodybuilding and CrossFit have reiterated this fascination, as well my belief that we’re still searching for the peak of human strength and endurance.
We have not hit the limits of human strength but, we have, I believe, reached the limits of human athleticism. Gone are the days when John Grimek could simultaneously compete in bodybuilding and Olympic weightlifting. Ours is an age of specialisation. Thor recently set a new world record in the deadlift with a massive 501kg pull but he did this after months of training. To beat the world record, he needed to focus exclusively on that goal.
The athletes in today’s post were masters of specialization. All strong in their own right, they found an affinity with, and success in, the bench press. With a passion bordering on obsessive, a select number of men pushed, or perhaps more fittingly pressed, towards newer and greater feats of strength, a point which they hope to culminate in a 1,000lb bench press.
This feat, much like the 1,000lb squat completed by Lee Moran or the 1,000lb deadlift completed by Andy Bolton was the stuff of legend. Even today, the idea of a 1,000lb bench press sounds farcical in its outlandishness.
Outlandish? Certainly. But possible? Absolutely! In 2004, Gene Rychlak Jr. showed others the way. Following in the footsteps of a century of strength athletes, Rychlak’s 1,000lb bench press simultaneously highlighted the depths of human determination and the relilancy of the strength athlete. It was, as today’s article discusses, the culmination of decades of strength.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
A Brief History of the Bench Press
Barbend has previously covered the slow progression of the bench press from obscure movement to central lift. Without rehashing its history too much, it’s important to stress the movement’s origins, and how quickly it became a test of strength.
One of the oft-quoted ‘facts’ online these days is that physical culturists, the barbell men of the early 1900s, purposefully avoided the bench press because big chests were regarded as feminine.(1) This is a great sounding quip but one that is remarkably wide of the truth. The early 1900s, when our gym cultures effectively began, was a period obsessed with chest size.
Militaries and police forces across Europe and the United States had strict chest measurements that each new recruit had to meet.(2) Likewise men like Eugen Sandow, Louis Cyr and Arthur Saxon, some of the period’s most renowned strongmen, included some form of chest pressing in their training or their strongman shows. For much of this period then, big chests were both a point of pride and a cornerstone of one’s employability.
Big chests were not out of favor, in fact they were highly coveted. They were, however, difficult to build. When strong men, and strong women, began lifting weights en masse in the early 1900s, gyms as we would understand them today were non-existent. The few and far between weightlifting gyms were stocked with dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells and very little equipment.
This meant that the bench press, which required a physical bench, did not exist. Immediately this disqualified many lifters from undertaking the ‘king of all chest’ exercises. Where a chest pressing motion did exist, it was a hybrid pullover and press movement.
Lying on their backs, lifters would pull a barbell to their chest, get into a wrestler’s bridge, and push. It was an intricate movement but one which effectively initiated the practice of bench pressing. The ‘pullover and press’ was also the beginning of heavy bench pressing numbers.
In the early 1900s, famous strongmen, such as Arthur Saxon and George Hackenschmidt were listed as pressing over three hundred pounds in this lift. In 1900, George Lurich pressed 443 pounds from the floor! This, it’s worth saying, was done in a pre-steroid, pre-powerlifting age, a point which makes the lifts all the more impressive.
Bench Presses & Big Numbers
Lurich’s 443lb pullover and press set a benchmark for later strongmen to measure themselves, and the 1920s and 1930s saw a series of lifters explicitly target this number. During the 1930s, American strongman Bill Lily set 484lb in the pullover and press. Significantly, Lily’s lift was still done using the floor style pressing.
It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the practice of chest pressing from a bench or a box, rather than the floor, started to become popular among gym goers. Equally revolutionary was the use of spotters to hand the barbell to lifters so that they no longer had to pull it to their chests themselves.
The use of benches and spotters and stands meant that lifters could now handle much more weight in the bench press. Unsurprisingly, then, bench press records quickly began to increase, as did the interest in the lift. During the 1950s Bob Hoffman, the man who legitimately holds the title of ‘Father of American Weightlifting’ began openly despairing about the popularity of the bench press among his Olympic weightlifters.
Turning to the record breakers, the men who paved the path to the 1,000lb bench press, there was the great Canadian strongman and weightlifter Doug Hepburn. During the 1950s Hepburn became the undisputed bench presser of his peers. In November 1950 he became the first man to ever bench 400lb in competition. The next year he managed 450lb with relative ease. By December 1953 Doug managed a monstrous 500lb in competition.
What is perhaps the most impressive thing about Hepburn’s record breaking lifts was how straightforward his training was during these years. In the lead up to his 500lb attempt Hepburn trained just three days a week. For the bench press he used a no-nonsense approach, beginning with eight reps per set and moving down to two reps. The man who defeated Hepburn’s record, Bruno Sammartino — known more perhaps for his professional wrestling exploits — used a similar approach.(3)
Hepburn and Sammartino were very much the last of a dying breed of strongmen. During the 1950s strength athletes were still relatively simple in their methods. They chose a heavy weight, lifted it and repeated. By the 1960s, however, new advances in training philosophies and training equipment, meant that the bench press, once the simplest of all the major lifts, now commanded a great deal of complexity.
Powerlifting and Progress
In 1957 Doug Hepburn told Muscle Power magazine that a 600lb bench press was not only possible, but imminent.(4) Although his prediction didn’t come to fruition right away, he wasn’t far off. A key catalyst in this regard was the rise of powerlifting in the years following his statement.
As was the case with the deadlift and the squat, the rise of powerlifting in the 1960s corresponded with some real progression in bench press records. At the dawn of organized powerlifting in the mid-1960s, Pat Casey held the bench press record with a 530lb lift, although some claimed Hepburn managed 570lb in an unofficial meet.(5)
That Casey and Hepburn both held claims to world records in the bench press and few seemed able to distinguish which was more credible highlighted the need for organised competitions in strength sports.
With this shaky foundation in place, powerlifting as a sport grew, as did Pat Casey’s reputation within the Iron Game. In 1967, Casey became the first man to officially bench press 600lb in competition.(6) This was at a time when support for the bench press, in terms of powerlifting suits, was non-existent. Casey’s was a ‘raw’ lift, meaning that he effectively completed it in a t-shirt and shorts!
Casey’s unequipped lift without a bench shirt or some form of assistance gear was all the more impressive given the general direction of powerlifting. John Fair’s exhaustive work on American strength sports found that by the early 1970s, powerlifters were using a host of fantastical devices and suits to increase the amount of weight they could lift in competition.
Commenting on the 1970 National Powerlifting Championships in the United States, Fair noted that
Since flexibility and free movement were not required to perform the squat, bench press, and deadlift, powerlifters had adopted extensive knee and elbow bandages, oversized belts, stiff work boots, and body wraps. Some lifters even used bedsheets for added tensile strength … (7)
Bed sheets were just the beginning. Jan Todd, Dominic Morais and Ben Pollack found evidence that powerlifter Jerry Jones cut tennis balls in half, secured them behind his knees with Ace bandages, and used them when squatting to increase his strength.(8)
(As an aside, I was so incredulous when I first read this claim that I tried it out for myself. It works, although you will have to contend with the stares of other gym members …)
With squat suits, straps, and tennis balls part of the powerlifter’s arsenal, moves began to be made for supportive gear in the bench press. When Jim Williams benched 675lb in 1972 during a competition, he used elbow wraps to increase his tension in the lift.(9) Williams’ elbow wraps paled in comparison to a then new innovation, the bench shirt.
Big Business and the Bench Shirts
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, rudimentary bench shirts began appearing in powerlifting competitions. Anyone with a passing familiarity with powerlifting will be aware of the effectiveness of these shirts. Incredibly tight, these elasticated shirts can, in the right hands, increase a lifter’s top bench numbers significantly.
Returning to Todd, Morais and Pollack, their subsequent commentary on powerlifting apparatus claimed
The bench press shirt dictates the path – or “groove” – the bar must follow as it descends to the chest and then ascends during the effort to complete the lift.(10)
In doing so, the bench press shirt narrows the margin for error in the lift. In effect, these shirts ensure that many of the variables involved in bench pressing heavy weights, not least lowering and raising the bar efficiently, are taken care of. Additionally for experienced powerlifters suffering from wear and tear, the suits can help alleviate pain when pressing, especially in the shoulders.(11)
They are not, however, without their controversies, a point we’ll soon be discussing. Returning to these early shirts, they weren’t the super tight shirts of today, but rather loose fitting elasticated shirts. It wasn’t until the mid to late 1970s that bench shirts similar to those used today began to emerge.
The first wave of innovation came through the likes of powerlifters and monster bench pressers Ernie Frantz and Mike MacDonald who, among others, sold bench shirts during this time. With the advent of equipped bench presses, the road to the 1,000lb bench press began to clear up, although it was still a long way away.
In 1985, at the Budweiser World Record Breaker meet in Hawaii, Ted Arcidi managed a 705lb bench press using a loose bench shirt.(12) The era of the shirt was born! Incidentally, Arcidi’s lift came just two years after John Inzer released his iconic Inzer bench shirt, which became the sport’s most popular shirt for several years and later inspired quite a number of copy-cat versions, despite its controversial nature.
The Inzer shirt was, for many years, the number one piece of powerlifting equipment. It was equally reviled and revered within the sport. The first iteration of the shirt was released in 1983 and announced itself at the 1983 World Powerlifting Championship to great acclaim. Reflecting on the Inzer shirt many years later Boris Sheiko cited it as a seminal shift in the sport’s direction. Inzer’s patented design seemed too good to be true and for that reason the International Powerlifting Federation banned it!(13)
From 1984 to 1992 (when the ban was rescinded) bench shirts were banned in official powerlifting competitions, although this obviously didn’t stop their use outside of regulated contests. In fact, it added to their infamy, as it meant others now wanted to try them. For this reason few quibbled when Ted Arcidi pressed 718.1lb in a bench shirt in 1990. When the IPF lifted the ban in 1992, Sheiko claimed the ‘genie was out of the bottle.’(14)
The 1990s and early 2000s proved Sheiko to be correct as man pushed closer and closer to that 1,000lb milestone.
Reaching the Summit
With his bench shirt by his side, American powerlifter Anthony Clark was, for many years, the golden boy of bench pressing. Using his unusual reverse grip technique, Clark broke a series of bench press records during this time. By 1997 Clark could boast a previously unimaginable 785lb bench press. He was not, however, the man who took the 800.
That plaudit went to Tim Isaac who managed 802lb in 1999. Weighing 80 pounds less than Anthony Clark when he set a new world record, Isaac’s later interviews with Sports Illustrated revealed an incredibly humble, if somewhat eccentric, individual.
Telling reporters that he always ate junk food right before a meet to deliberately raise his blood pressure, Isaac claimed a great deal of luck had been involved in his record breaking feat. Isaac’s strangest claim was that people took the bench press too seriously.(15)
Injuries appear to have curtailed Isaac’s upward trajectory. His fame, and his records, were soon surpassed by two lifters of immense power: Gene Rychlak Jr. and Scott Mendelson. Pushing each other to new and better heights, the two seemed destined to break the 1,000lb mark whatever the cost.
Setting the scene for this rivalry, it is worth noting the respective differences in the two men’s approaches to powerlifting. Scott Mendelson was a man possessed of raw power which, in the powerlifting community, meant that he could lift heavy weights with little to no assistance. For many years Mendelson was the world record holder in the unequipped bench press when he managed 715lb without a bench shirt in 2005. His record lasted eight years.
Gene Rychlak, on the other hand, was perhaps one of the most astute and technical bench pressers the sport has ever seen. Equally strong — otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about him — Rychlak was famous for his ability to squeeze every last ounce of utility from his bench shirts.
As a teenager in a powerlifting gym, Rychlak’s bench pressing, and his use of the bench shirt was legendary among the lifters I looked up to. Many have opined that no powerlifter has ever used a bench shirt as efficiently as Rychlak. This was not to say that the man was not strong in his own right, but rather that he was capable of taking advantage of the tools available to him.
It was Rychlak, and his custom made bench shirt, which hit a 900lb bench press in 2003. Watching over his shoulder for lifters like Scott Mendelson, who seemed to be constantly gaining ground on him, Rychlak spent the next year frantically preparing for a new record, a record that would set him down in the history books as one of the greatest powerlifters of the age.(16)
It’s useful, at this point, to draw a parallel between strongman Eddie Hall and Gene Rychlak. Hall, the former World’s Strongest Man winner, spent a year training and increasing his size in preparation for his then world record attempt of a 500-kilogram deadlift. Having broken this milestone, Hall subsequently stated that it was physically and mentally exhausting, even that he went partially blind for about a week afterward. To put it mildly, the record damn near killed him.
Breaking a milestone, no matter the lift, takes a toll on the body. This was certainly something Rychlak experienced himself. In the lead up to his 1,000lb bench press, his weight rose to 375lb. Joints ached, muscles throbbed and mentally, Rychlak, suffered from doubt.
In the lead up to his world record attempt in November 2004, Rychlak suffered from headaches and bouts of dry heaving. His body, and his mind, was clearly expecting a fight. Aches and pains aside, Rychlak pushed through to achieve something magical.(17)
Competing at the IPA Nationals in Shamokin Dam in 2004, Rychlak opened his meet with a cool 950lb press which to spectators, looked easy. His second effort, a 1,005lb was anything but. Confident from the first effort, Rychlak faltered under the new weight. The ‘mythical barrier’ as Rychlak termed it, had survived his onslaught.(18)
This meant that Rychlak had just one more opportunity to break the world record in competition. He paced around the room, regained his composure and once more attacked the weight.
The rest was history.
Much like Eddie Hall’s deadlift, Rychlak’s record did not last long. Two years after his feat of strength, Rychlak watched as his rival Scott Mendelson managed 1,010.1 lb. Rychlak reclaimed the record later that year when he managed 1,012.1lb but it was clear that injuries had begun to take their toll on the powerlifter.
From then on, both Rychlak and Mendelson watched as a new generation began to push the boundaries of human strength. At the time of writing, Tiny Meeker holds the record with an 1,102lb lift, but it’s the subject of a great deal of controversy over whether or not he completed it.(19) What this tells us is that irrespective of those involved, the bench press was, is, and continues to be, serious business.
As we approach the one year anniversary of Gene Rychlak’s passing at the age of 52 (he died on July 26, 2019), it is fitting to remember the role he played in breaking barriers and pushing others to go even further. Gene’s world record took less than a minute to complete but it was, as we’ve seen, nearly a century in the making.
Featured image via @nasos_liouras on Instagram
- ‘New Images Uncovered of the First Bodybuilding Competition in 1887,’ r/bodybuilding, Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/bodybuilding/comments/ccvxxv/new_images_uncovered_of_the_first_bodybuilding/)
- Heffernan, Conor. “Physical culture, the Royal Irish Constabulary and police masculinities in Ireland, 1900–14.” Irish Historical Studies 43.164 (2019): 237-251.
- Mike Mooneyham, ‘An incredible life: Bruno Sammartino was the real people’s champion,’ The Post and Courier, April 28, 2018 (https://www.postandcourier.com/sports/wrestling/an-incredible-life-bruno-sammartino-was-the-real-people-s-champion/article_02a7c728-4a1e-11e8-bda0-9760b07e51bb.html)
- Josh Levin, ‘The 1,000 Pound Bench Press,’ Slate Magazine, August 9, 2004 (https://slate.com/culture/2004/08/the-1000-pound-bench-press.html)
- Charles A. Smith, ‘Hepburn’s Bench,’ Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban (http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2020/02/hepburns-bench-charles-smith.html?m=1)
- Levin, ‘The 1,000 Pound Bench Press.’
- John D. Fair, Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the manly culture of York Barbell (Penn State Press, 1999), 262.
- Jan Todd, Dominic G. Morais, Ben Pollack, and Terry Todd, ‘Shifting Gear: A Historical Analysis of the Use of Supportive Apparel in Powerlifting’, Iron Game History, 13, no. 2-3 (2015): 37-56.
- Morais, Dominic G., Ben Pollack, and Jan Todd. “Weighing the Options: Conversations on the Use of Performance Enhancing Gear in Powerlifting.” Iron Game History 13, no. 2-3 (2015): 57-64.
- Levin, ‘The 1,000 Pound Bench Press.’
- ‘Sheiko Interview,’ Juggernaut, May 3, 2015 (https://www.jtsstrength.com/sheiko-interview/)
- John Walters, ‘A historic benchmark: Tim Isaac is the first to bench press 800 pounds,’ Sports Illustrated September 20, 1999 (https://vault.si.com/vault/1999/09/20/a-historic-benchmark-tim-isaac-is-the-first-to-benchpress-800-pounds).
- Levin, ‘The 1,000 Pound Bench Press.’
- Jake Hallman, ‘Rychlak makes powerlifting historyRoyersford man becomes first to press 1,000lb at IPA event,’ Phoenix News, November 24, 2004 (https://www.phoenixvillenews.com/sports/rychlak-makes-powerlifting-historyroyersford-man-becomes-first-to-press-lbs/article_65a504b6-4dba-58e8-a0b0-52dbd7087dad.html).
- Charles Stanley, ‘Powerlifting: The Good, Bad and Ugly,’ T-Nation, May 19, 2014 (https://www.t-nation.com/powerful-words/powerlifting-the-good-bad-and-ugly)