CHUCK AHRENS: A LESSON FROM THE PAST ABOUT STRENGTH AND THE MODERN ACCEPTANCE OF HISTRIONIC PERSONALITY DISORDER
Perhaps the most unfairly maligned man in the history of the strength world was a man who would have undoubtedly despised me- Chuck Ahrens. Known as the strength world’s “Mystery Man”, Chuck Ahrens shied from the spotlight. As well as competition to the point where he was only photographed once in a t-shirt. From what I’d assume was his Christian belief system, Ahrens eschewed all that crap, preferring instead to perform ridiculous feats of strength out of the public eye. Which of course has led to a bunch of trash-talking in the modern era, because what is the internet if not a forum for every crap-eating troglodyte to proffer his or her wholly uninformed opinion on anything and everything?
Despite the fact, I would basically represent the anti-Christ to this peculiar man. I feel it necessary to stand against the masses in stark opposition to their criticism of his lifts. Therefore, to take up yet another related issue- gym lifts are just as valid in the discussion of strength as competition lifts.
Before I get off on a wild-eyed tangent about how I had far more fun at a youth service in born-again Christian church than I have at a dreary-ass, pinch-faced, proselytizing “all-natural federation” meet. Let’s get back to the man-mountain, Chuck Ahrens. Standing 6’1″ and weighing somewhere between 300 and 330lbs. Chuck Ahrens wouldn’t make the largest strongman in the modern era. Furthermore, in the 1950s looked like he tore through a movie screen out of a monster film, ready to rampage through downtown Tokyo if provoked. Said to have a visibly larger upper body than fellow behemoth Paul Anderson. Ahrens was only photographed in a t-shirt once, finally satisfying Peary Rader’s curiosity about the actual size of his arms.
Chuck Ahrens’ Vital Statistics
- Height: 6′
- Weight: 330 pounds (at his strongest); ranged between 280lbs and 330lbs
- Chest: 58″ (unexpanded)
- Arms: 22-3/8″
- Shoulder Width: 28″
As I mentioned, internet “lifters” will talk crap, and they love to talk crap about Ahrens. For instance, on forums you’ll see some skinny asshole opening his worthless goddamned word hole about the 28 reps with 400 on the bench claim, citing the fact he never benched heavy. Ahrens is documented by multiple sources doing a triple with 355 on a goddamned skull crusher. I’ve known a few guys who could hit 12 reps with 405 on any given day. Although, they struggled to do a few reps with 225 on skull crushers. Another lift that would go a long way to corroborating that is his behind the neck press of 380lbs. In addition, to his steep incline benches for reps of 225lb dumbbells.
So, let’s dispense with the wuss stuff- just because you’ve never seen it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done. His lifting partners, who were far stronger than most, said Ahrens could do their best lifts cold. And finally, the people talking crap on Ahrens lift nothing and know less- “it was argued in MILO®: A Journal for Serious Strength Athletes that if one considered the consistency of the reports along with the sources involved, it would be hard to conclude anything other than that he really did do things like a standing overhead press of around 300 pounds with one arm” (Strossen). We’ll never really know, however, because according to Peary Rader “We… try to keep readers informed about Chuck and his progress but he is very much against publicity” (Piche).
If you go and read Piche’s piece (in the sources), which I used for a lot of the weights attributed to Ahrens, he fails to mention in stating that Ahrens’ lifts are semi-mythical that Ahrens would often quit lifting for extended period of time, which would account for the rise and fall of reported body weight, weights lifted, and associated measurements- no matter whether he was 280 or 330, if he had lifted yesterday or hadn’t lifted in months, the man made mountains look like tiny little wusses. Then he either curled or overhead pressed them just to show them what the hell was up, because screw mountains.
Going back to the man in question, he was rarely photographed and virtually all of the records of his lifts come from secondhand sources, weirdly in spite of the fact that he was a mainstay of Muscle Beach when it was the mecca of weightlifting and bodybuilding. This would be like Tara Reid only getting caught on film a couple of times in the entire Sharknado series (and how glorious it would be not to have to look at her hideous, Michael Jackson-impersonating visage for ninety minutes).
Given, however, that the man was about as disinterested in public relations as he was about training in temperature appropriate attire, it confuses me why people would discredit his lifts. It wasn’t Ahrens bragging about his strength because he wasn’t some attention whore with Histrionic Personality Disorder begging people to like him by posting every goddamned workout online, no matter how crappy- it was anyone from his own training partners, one of whom was a well-respected minister, to well respected journalists, and sundry other onlookers.
In regard to his training partner, Carlin Venus, he was a 5’10”, 255lb Doctor of Nutritional Science and Holistic Nutrition with an IQ between 180 and 190. Not only was the guy a champion bodybuilder with a 60″ chest, 18″ calves, and 20″ arms, but he was a pro wrestler, boxer, and martial artist who spoke five languages (Minichiello). This is a man who would not be given to hyperbole in describing the feats of others. To wit, the following are Carlin’s best lifts, all of whom were attested to by the guys at the gym where he trained, and all of them were notarized. These lifts, Carlin said, were lifts that Ahrens could do in long sleeves and pants, without any warmup at all, on any given day. By Carlin’s account, Ahrens was one step shy of Superman (Green) and several dozen steps ahead of everyone else.
- Good Mornings – 395lbs.
- Deadlift – 625lbs for 12 reps.
- One-Arm Dumbbell Press – 210lbs for 10 reps, either hand.
- Press From the Racks – 475lbs for 2 reps.
- Strict Barbell Curl (with back against the wall) – 245lbs.
- Reverse Curl – 205lbs.
Since the naysayers always manage to say “nay”, I thought it pertinent to mention that the one of the most prominent authors on the subject of strength history, David Willoughby, considers Ahrens’ feats to have been legit. Furthermore, renown strength luminary and President of the All-Round Weightlifting Association, “Thom Van Vleck [said] that he remembers his uncles discussing Chuck’s lifts in the early JWC Club – both skeptical and in awe of him.
Chuck Ahrens inspired many lifters to ‘take on the impossible’ and get stronger” (Meyers). If you prefer to think that his lifts are all lies, you probably post on Get big and Bodybuilding.com, and likely on some weird subreddit filled with weaklings rocking limp dongs, so you might as well just quit lifting anyway. For the rest of you, check this awesomeness out, and let it motivate you to John Wick the hell up and do the impossible (Piche, Willoughby):
Chuck Ahrens’ Best Lifts
- Standing Behind the Neck Press – 390lbs
- One Arm Strict Overhead Press – 270lb dumbbell
- One Arm Push Press – 350lbs dumbbell
- One Arm Continental Overhead Press – 375 x 1 (according to bodybuilder Oliver Sacks); 310 x 3; 280 for reps the year before that (continental press it kind of the lay back method used in the Olympics right before the press was dropped) [Note: Anderson could only do 300 in this style]
- Two Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press – 204lb dumbbells (408lbs total) with Paul Anderson watching
- One Arm Front Raise – 200-pound dumbbell
- Crucifix – 150lb dumbbells
- Two Arm Dumbbell Clean and Press – 205lb dumbbells
- One Arm Row – 350lbs for reps
- Skull crusher – 400lbs x 1; 375 x 2 (without a warmup); 355lbs x 3 (another account has 345 x 2)
- Standing Triceps Extension – 305 x 2 (without a warmup)
- Seated Dumbbell Cheat Curl – 180lbs x 1; 165-pound dumbbells x 3
- Alternate Dumbbell Cheat Curl – 200 lb. dumbbells (per the legendary Pat Casey)
- Curl – 375lbs x 3 on a bent 1″ diameter bar
- One Arm Concentration Curl – 115lbs on an Olympic bar, in strict form and without bracing his arm against his leg
- Bench Press – 560 or 570 x 1 (according to historian David P. Willoughby); 400 x 28 (per the same); 400 x 20 (according to Apr 1995 MILO)
Like you, I want to know how Chuck trained just like most dogs want to know why humans get to eat delicious T-bones every night while they’re stuck eating crap scraped up off the floor, dried, mashed into little balls, injected with artificial flavors and scents, and then fed to them as “food.” Well, just like I will never know why in the hell anyone would be so cruel as to feed their best friend like that, we will never know how Chuck Ahrens really trained, beyond hard and long as Ron Jeremy’s dong, and even more frequently than Ed Sheeran plays crappy music. Details on his workouts are hazy as your recollection of a bachelor party, but it was reported that his Ahrens’
“FAVORITE EXERCISES ARE CURLS, AND PRESSES WITH DUMBBELLS AND THE TRICEPS PRESS ON BENCH WITH BARBELL. HE SPECIALIZES ON THESE WITH HEAVY WEIGHTS AND RATHER LOW REPS. HE HAS DONE ALMOST NO LEG AND BACK WORK” (PICHE). HE LIKES TO EAT SIX LARGE STEAKS PER DAY TO MAINTAIN HIS BULK AND SIZE (THAT IS ONE WAY TO GET YOUR PROTEIN, FELLOWS, IF YOU CAN AFFORD IT) (PICHE). “
Of course, nothing Ahrens did was at a steady pace. Ahrens was a sprinter, not a marathon runner, and as such he would train in bursts followed by month long or more layoffs. As you can imagine, that meant that both his bodyweight and the weights he’d use in training had their ups and downs, although he generally didn’t see much of a concomitant drop-off with his training weights as his bodyweight. His secret? He treated the weights like their name was Deebo and he was Smokey in the movie Friday- he had mind control over that ish. That is how he forced the weights to constantly increase, despite whatever setbacks he might have had, and make everyone look like his punk bitch in doing so.
To forestall the inevitable “‘mind control’ is an obvious euphemism for ‘steroids'”, I’ll remind you people that I’ve never dissembled about steroid use- the man was not on gear. Ahrens’ opinion of steroids, in the words of his lifting partner:
“THE WAY CHARLIE (CHUCK AHRENS, CARLIN’S TRAINING PARTNER) AND I FELT, IF YOU WANTED MORE STEROIDS . . . JUST EAT MORE MEAT! AFTER ALL, THE BEEF WAS SO LOADED DOWN WITH THAT JUNK FOR BREEDING AND RAISING. HAHAHA, WE DETERMINED ONE TIME JUST HOW MUCH WAS BEING PUMPED INTO CHICKENS AND BEEF AT THE TIME AND IT BLEW OUR MINDS. I GUESS YOU COULD SAY THAT WE WERE ON STEROIDS. INDIRECTLY. I MEAN, WE GOT A BIG LAUGH OUT OF THAT, BUT THERE WAS SOMETHING TO IT” (GREEN).
“[ED NOTE: WE MUST REMEMBER THAT ALTHOUGH TESTOSTERONE WAS BEING MANUFACTURED BY 1935, IT WAS ALMOST NEVER USED BY PEOPLE IN THE IRON GAME. REMEMBER ALSO THAT 1957 WAS SEVERAL YEARS BEFORE BILL MARCH, TONY GARCY, AND LOU RIECKE— AIDED BY JOHN ZIEGLER— INTRODUCED ANABOLIC STEROIDS TO THE STRENGTH SPORTS IN THIS COUNTRY. DIANABOL WAS NOT MANUFACTURED UNTIL 1958]” (NEECE).
Instead of steroids, Chuck Ahrens believed in the power of sleep in a way no one else did- narcoleptics would marvel at the man’s ability to drop and sleep wherever he stood.
“HE’D EVEN SLEEP RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GYM IF IT WAS TIME! CAN YOU IMAGINE? HAHAHA . . . I’LL NEVER FORGET. GUYS LIKE SIDNEY SHELDON AND OTHER MOVIE PRODUCERS AND MOGULS WOULD COME INTO THE GYM AND HAVE TO STEP OVER CHARLIE WHO MIGHT HAVE DECIDED TO TAKE A NOON NAP NEAR THE DOOR. I MEAN, IF IT WAS TIME FOR A NAP, IT WAS TIME. EVERYBODY WAS COOL, THOUGH. THEY RESPECTED CHARLIE AND DIDN’T DISTURB HIM. AFTER AWHILE NO ONE THOUGHT ANYTHING OF IT” (GREEN).
One exercise we sort of know he did frequently, and with which Ahrens is credited, apparently helped build his herculean shoulder strength and is the eponymous Ahrens Press. I’ve done this exercise for years, having learned of it in some Men’s Health book years ago under the name “W Press,” without having any knowledge that it was Ahrens’ apparent bread and butter lift. In addition to unbelievably heavy lateral raises, overhead barbell presses, and high incline presses the Ahrens Press was apparently his jam, his jelly, his peanut butter, and his peanuts.
This is a modified dumbbell press, which shouldn’t shock you after looking at Ahren’s best lifts- the man loved dumbbell pressing like fat people love excuses and donuts. The modification, obvious if you see the above, is that the dumbbells are pressed up and out to make a V with them. The great irony here is that it was a matter of utility for Ahrens, who had to use long-handled dumbbells loaded with a crapton of plates, and we’re just some assholes waving light dumbbells around in the air. Nevertheless, doing your dumbbell presses (or Free Motion machine presses, which are a pretty awesome way to knock these out) like this will bring the goddamned pain, and undoubtedly place stress on your delts and traps that will lend itself to bigger gains and a bigger overhead press.
The foregoing was a celebration of yet another Paul Bunyan-meets Hercules-meets-John Henry man whose lifts and physique were beyond compared and date from the pre-steroid, the pre-powerlifting, pre-Internet, and the pre-everyone is a humorless, trash-talking, robotic asshole in the gym era. Like the halcyon days spoken about by Ronald Reagan when describing the 1950’s, the modern wistful view of the hilariously misogynistic era of chivalry, and even Plato’s description of the Golden Age, that era likely sucked as much as it was awesome… but even at 50% suck it beats the hell out of the modern era.
One of the ways in which it did was that people actually believed first-hand accounts of other lifters’ achievements without the bizarre amount of trash talking and naysaying by a bunch of limp wristed bitches who have trouble believing people could lift a sack of groceries without breaking a sweat. In other words, it was an era in which people enjoyed lifting, rather than enjoying simply posturing and taking up space in the gym like a bunch of assholes in matchy-matchy workout gear.
The above paragraph should preface where the rest of this article is headed. We’ve already covered the man himself. Many people still discount his lifts because they weren’t done in a competition setting. The reasons dumber than the Lt Governor of Texas are threefold: 1) at the time in which Ahrens lived. Odd lifting competitions were less well organized than an orgy in a mental hospital and not terribly common. 2) for some people, all competitions are seeming to be begging for validation from a stranger to confirm what you already know.
As such, I feel it necessary to explain why gym lifts (and I am referring to credible gym lifts, not Brad Castleberry fake plate nonsense or the highly entertaining Jimmy “The Iron Bull Pellechia” multiple partner assisted nonsense) should matter to you. It’s ridiculous that such a thing is necessary, but the 150lb wusses screeching “GYM LIFTS DON’T MATTER” all over social media need to have their mouths shut.
As it happens, I am a guy who can do just that, so what follows is by far and away the most vitriolic and heartfelt expression myriad problems with the lifting world at this point. If you take issue with it, feel free to say so in the comments, because they will doubtless be entertaining, and I assure you that whatever your contention, I am wholly correct and you’re so wrong you might as well be the embodiment of donkey shows featuring children.
While he was thoroughly entertaining back in the day in Muscular Development, Jimmy “The Iron Bull” Pellechia and his preposterous “1100lb bench” type stuff did nothing to help he modern credibility of gym lifts. Taken as cheat moves, though, the dude was impressive with his cheat laterals and curls, because the man’s form was nothing if not… innovative. As to Brad Castleberry, well, he’s clearly mentally retarded. I wonder how he originally could afford fake plates.
There are exactly two types of people who say gym lifts don’t matter:
- People who are desperate for the validation of themselves by others and who want to invalidate the lifters they’ve seen outlift them in the gym, and
- People don’t enjoy lifting but are desperate to be a part of something, so they want to invalidate the lifts of people they see outlift them daily.
That’s it. I have personally seen people casually perform lifts in the gym I’ve never seen duplicated anywhere else, and they didn’t compete because they saw no point in it. Either they knew they were crazy strong, or they didn’t give a damn about competing and didn’t really care how strong they were in comparison to people who pay for their validation. Who the hell knows why they didn’t compete? It doesn’t matter- they just loved to lift. It was all about the journey, and not about the participation trophy at the destination.
The skinny little guy on the left is a totally lit tr00 powerlifter. “Ugh. No glute ham raise? No foam roller? HAS EVERYONE IN THIS BUILDING HAD THEIR CAFFEINE LEVELS TESTED BY THE USIOC? TO ENSURE THEY COMPLY WITH MY FEDERATION’S PREPOSTEROUS RULES? Come on, let’s go get a couple of 100% natural organic, non-GMO, Fair Trade boba teas for our pre workout and go to a real gym. I had a tough workout three weeks ago. I really need to do an hour and a half of prehab before I screw around the gym for 25 minutes. Did you bring all the cameras?”
Nor was powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting nearly as popular in the pre-Internet era. They were fringe sports people competed in either in foreign countries or dank basements somewhere. I don’t recall meeting a powerlifter prior to 2001. He was generally considered to be a weirdo with his triple ply gear. Certainly, geared lifting was a thing. There was very little knowledge of it outside of the pages of Powerlifting USA and bodybuilding expos like the Show of Strength. Olympic weightlifting was just something foreigners seemed to busy themselves with.
Now that the Internet Age is upon us, we’re besieged by a bunch of loudmouth nutsacks who got on the internet and decided that if they lifted they’d be cool in the eyes of others. Participating in a competition, no matter how pathetic or noncompetitive their numbers, provides them with “numbers” they can use for validation when talking to other nutsacks (I’m looking at you goofballs posting your Wilks).
It’s not like the outside world cares if your numbers came on a platform or in your mom’s basement- they’re just making conversation when they ask you what you lift. Before I get called a gatekeeper by your touchy little wusses, I’m not saying not to train like a powerlifter. You’re not a six-year-old playing soccer for the orange slices at halftime- you’re an adult making an ass of yourself and wasting everyone’s time.
I’ve already discussed the sad beginnings of Olympic weightlifting, which involved a style of lifting made popular by the nations behind the resurrection of the Olympics and used that style to exclude the Germans and Central Europeans, who would stomp them in weightlifting competitions. The reality behind the creation of powerlifting is even more sad. Jim Witt, the father of powerlifting, sucked at Olympic weightlifting and was bothered by the wide array of strength tests in Odd Lift competitions (Starr, Rader).
To simplify the sport and make it easy for people who found having generalized strength too daunting, he codified the sport of powerlifting in the three simplest lifts and ditched the rest. To break that down- the Germans and Central Europeans stomped the Brits and French in lifting, so the French and English made the clean lifts their chosen sports in the Olympics, and because the Americans sucked at all the, we created what is basically the Special Olympics of strength sports.
That is fairly amusing to realize- I had a world record in what is essentially the strength world’s Special Olympics. I set that record without specifically training for the sport to prove how easy it was to do so, and that sport specific training was totally unnecessary. Apparently, I failed in the effort, despite being what I consider to be a massively entertaining, impressively strong asshole and breaking a record that had stood for 40 years. The reason behind my success is simple, I absolutely love to throw around heavy weights.
Like a lot of people who don’t violently identify with one of the modern strength sports, doing crazy lifts and heaving around heavy weights is the norm. We often share Bruce Randall’s (and many other old schoolers’) undying love for 1/4 front squats. Screw that ass to grass nonsense- some people just like moving heavy weights to test the limits of their body’s structural capacity.
We vastly prefer rack pulling a thousand pounds and shrugging it than putting 700 off the floor. Cheat curls are in the program often and heavy because they’re fun. Let's not restrict ourselves to training for a couple of basically boring lifts. We can spend 12 hours on a Saturday waiting to collect one of 100 trophies. Unlike most of the holier-than-though, my crappy fed is better than your crappy fed, my lame sport is better than your lame sport online lifting community, love lifting weights.
Obviously, we are a dying breed. Everyone today seems to just love paying $100 to pay for a participation medal in a sport about which no one outside of it gives a good goddamn. That makes no sense whatsoever. At least Spartan Racers acknowledge that OCRs are just for fun. They don’t bore you with the details of their training. Oh, and they have enough dignity and self-respect to do their own goddamned programming.
Getting kids involved was the goal. Keeps them off the streets, or in the modern case, out of their parents’ basements. Mostly. I suppose it just keeps them from shooting up their high school now.
Speaking of which, did I mention that one of the reasons Jim Witt promoted the modern sport of powerlifting is:
“THE EXERCISES COULD BE DONE IN A LIMITED SPACE WITH BASIC EQUIPMENT AND THERE WAS NOT ANY NEED FOR A COACH? ALL YOU NEEDED TO TRAIN WERE AN OLYMPIC BAR, FLAT BENCH, AND SOME SORT OF SQUAT RACK, AND LOTS OF HARD WORK. MOST OF THE POWERLIFTERS IN THE COUNTRY TRAINED AT SMALL GYMS IN GARAGES AND BASEMENTS, AND OF COURSE, YMCAS” (STARR).
In other words, all of the fancy equipment you assholes demand for the special Olympics in lieu of a goddamned dip belt is putting lipstick on a pig and then calling that pig Fancy Einstein. Your coach? Likely worthless.
Congratulations. You’re proud to be a part of a sport that you snooze your way through following cookie cutter programs and coaches’ advice. You pay a ridiculous amount of money to do something designed to be simple and wildly inexpensive. Then you still suck at it. Which amounts to taking a steaming crap on the spirit of the entire thing. There is a reason why the special Olympics of the strength world is actually in the Special Olympics. So, get the hell over yourselves, already.
In short, many of you likely have Histrionic Personality Disorder and should seek treatment. Whether it be in the form of a doctor or eating a goddamned Frisbee. Outside of the gym, and outside of strength sports. Not only are you annoying as hell to the people who truly love lifting, but you’re likely just exacerbating a legitimate mental illness. You can just take a page out of the book of a man who was stronger than anyone. We’re likely to meet short of the top three strongmen on the planet. Enjoy the process rather than the result, because in the end, no one really gives a damn.
Huge and strong and awesome is the way to live. Trudging through workouts you didn’t design. In addition, filming yourself like you’re your own paparazzi is retarded. Whatever you do, stop taking yourselves so goddamned seriously. No one on Earth outside of a select few of us really gives a dam about any of this. And remember:
“Think it.” – Chuck Ahrens
The most powerful tool is THE MIND.
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