Old School Lifting
James Fuller has practiced old school lifts for over thirty years. He is truly a strength athlete with no limitations on his mind or body. James competes regularly in All Around Weightlifting a sport that seeks to honor the pre-World War Two era exploits of strongmen like Hermann Goerner and Eugene Sandow.
To prepare for competition and life, James trains any way the laws of physics and his body will let him. Others may call it dangerous, James calls it “Barbell Do” or the Way of the Barbell. It’s a way he plans to master though it takes him a lifetime.
Hey James, how long have you been training? Where did you get your start?
Been training about 32 years and I got my start in eighth grade, I was thirteen years old. And I had two parents that had back problems they’re both real tall. One’s 6’1 and my mom’s six foot. My little sister’s 6’3; I’m the shortest at 5’11”. I just figured I’m going to grow up and have back problems like that and my hip had been bothering me and I said, “Well, I’m going to try to get stronger that way I’ll still be able to work; not knowing that as you get stronger, you probably will fix whatever’s hurting your back. And also being thirteen, you know, you’re starting to look at girls and going, “Well hey! What’s going on over there?” But the main thing was I was really limping badly in the morning and I said, “Let’s start working out; see if we can do something about that.” And that was the beginning of that.
Your about me section of your YouTube channel says something awesome that I’ll quote now: I love to lift. I think of my training as ‘barbell do’. I don’t want to get tied down to expressing my body in just Powerlifting or just Strongman or just Olympic lifting. Even as a member of the All-Round Lifting Association in the U.S.(USAWA), which contest approximately 200 lifts, I feel the need to do more. Do I try to squat more, snatch more and do ‘regular’ lifts? Yep, I’m freed by them not tied down by them.
It was good that I didn’t have any influence as far as I didn’t have an uncle that was a powerlifter, I didn’t have a grandfather that was a weightlifter so I had been looking at bodybuilding magazines and I thought Tom Platz was hip. I mean he had legs like no one else, he really looked different than everyone else. And he really looked like he worked hard, it didn’t matter if it was curls, deadlifts, squats he just looked like he was working hard. And being from Maine, I’ve been working since I was seven, you know working with my hands, splitting wood, mowing lawns, shoveling snow. We were just poor so if you wanted money you had to go get it. So I appreciated a work ethic and he looked like he had a work ethic. So it was good that I wasn’t influenced by anyone so when I got the booklet that came from Diversified Products, plastic weights and it had Bruce Randall, which is a pretty cool guy to have as the spokesmodel. And in this booklet, he showed a deadlift with the barbell in front of you, and then he showed a deadlift with the bar behind you called a Hack Lift and then he showed a deadlift one foot on each side called a Jefferson Lift or a straddle lift. Now because I didn’t have any influence from any uncles or friends, I have been pulling all those ways all along. But it clicked with me and I thought okay, I can use this bar any way I want. I never fell into, you only deadlift with the bar in front of you. So the All Around thing didn’t happen recently. I could take the book literally and without any bias. To this day I actually pull high fives, low 600s on any of those lifts.
And how much do you weigh?
Right now, about 240. It’s interesting because people freak out when I pull those kinds of weights and to me I’ve done it for so long that I don’t even think about it. I read an article by Fred Hatfield who was squatting a little over 1,000lbs at 255 in his forties. And he said, “Well, I don’t really use my belt until I hit about 80-85%”. Well, 80-85% of 1,000 is 800-850! So I stopped using a belt, in high school by my senior year, I was pulling 405 without a belt, squatting 405 without a belt. Sometimes in All Around Lifting we do what’s called a Continental To The Belt so you have to wear a belt for the bar to land on. But that’s the only time that I have to remember where the belt is. What I’m doing in the gym, or the basement or cellar, or it used to be in the attic at one time; if I’m out changing my tire, I’m not going to say, “Oh let me go grab my belt.
I think that we’re so afraid of getting hurt that we lose out on potential benefits because we’re so risk averse. Guys say, they’ve been powerlifting for twenty years and this is the way that everything is. You can watch Perry Ellis, Jr. squat and deadlift without a belt, huge amounts of weight as a drug free, drug-tested lifter but people still say, you have to have a belt. I recognize that a belt does help you. It’s a tool, like it’s easier to play American football with a helmet than without it, but it’s possible to play it without a helmet. There’s an entire sport called rugby that’s done without a helmet. I get that; just don’t tell me that it’s not possible at all.
And if it helps them get that twenty pound pr, great! I don’t care! I just don’t train with it on a regular basis. If all you ever use it for is a max lift, you’re not dependent on it. It’s like being on a diet. You eat the sweets once in a while. You don’t eat the sweets every day. You’re right a lot of people who powerlift and do Olympic weightlifting think that what they do is the answer. What’s nice about doing the all- around stuff is you do all kinds of crazy things. I don’t mind when someone doesn’t want to do something but don’t tell me it doesn’t work if you haven’t done it. Don’t badmouth a lift that you’ve never tried. Give it a shot first.
Bruce Lee was a big influence because he didn’t like being tied down by anything was wasn’t useful. He didn’t want to be limited by anything. For example, I broke a thumb a couple of years back and it healed up to about 90% and I figured that was the best it was going to get. I was fooling around one day with some five pound plates; had them stacked on the floor face up and I was just picking them up like that, pinching them between my index finger and my thumb. The next day, from the thumb to the elbow on my forearm burned and the day after that, my thumb finally healed all the way. Like it had been waiting for me to do something like whatever I did by picking up those plates. Now what if I’d been like no, I’m not going to try that? Why not? You’re not going to get hurt. It’s five pound plates!
I made the “mistake” of posting a one hand snatch video and people were like what in the world are you doing? You’re going to kill yourself.
Now there’s a way to explain that’s actually beneficial for you. If you train a one arm snatch, using 115, you are always going to be overloading that arm from the fingertips to the shoulder and upper back, more than you would be with a two arm lift. I don’t care if it’s in a two arm deadlift. My best deadlift is in the low 600s, but my best one arm deadlift in the gym is 407lbs. In a meet it’s 369lbs. So we’ll say 370lbs just for the sake of math, so what’s 370×2? 740. I don’t have a 740lb deadlift. So if I fail a 600 deadlift, I’m never going to worry about it being due to a weakness or getting an injury to my hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders—because that’s all taken care of by the one arm version of that lift. I just made a post on a strongman site because they were talking about elbow injuries and tearing biceps on Continentals with an axle. I said, “Well, I think the thing that nobody does that’s really simple is do one arm deadlifts with an axle.” If you do a one arm deadlift with an axle, you’re going to use way more than you would use in a clean or a Continental, I should say, so that arm should be overloaded so you should never worry about that bicep or arm being strained or ruptured or anything.
Where does James Fuller train? I’ve seen you lifting in multiple places from what looks like a CrossFit box to a parking lot next to your car.
In my cellar, my basement, my driveway. At one time it was in my attic.
Tell me about your Facebook group Strongman Archaeology. A lot of people aren’t aware that training at home used to be the norm because after the gymnasiums from the 1800s sort of went away, there weren’t gyms all over the place and lifters used to order off for equipment from companies like York. Is Strongman Archaeology your way of reconnecting to that earlier time?
A big reason why I started doing what I do is when I joined there really was no current video reference for these lifts. So I figured I would just start videoing what I do. And put it out there so the old timers could see it and tell me if it was right. I mean a rulebook is great, don’t get me wrong, but I could read a rulebook on basketball and have no idea how to play. There’s all kinds of video on how to do a one arm deadlift or one arm snatch now, but I compete. I’m trying to set world records; there’s a big difference between someone who’s an active competitive athlete and someone who’s just putting up a video. And they’re using 45lbs and I’m doing about 150lbs with a bar. I think it gives someone a credible source.
A lot of garage gym; basement gym lifters enjoy making equipment. But the members of Strongman Archaeology seem to revel in odd object lifting; Tony Farrugia in Malta comes to mind. The first time I saw a picture of him, he was lifting a trash dumpster! Enzo Donadio in Italy, is another guy who enjoys lifting weird stuff; I think he likes stones the best. What is it about lifting this stuff that appeals to you guys?
I think definitely we like challenge. And if something looks like a challenge, you either run away from it or you run towards it. Strength training is a hard sell. You ask anyone on the street, you think being strong would be good? Oh yeah. But they look at what people who train just for strength do and they think we’re crazy. Even athletes, I don’t care if you’re talking NBA, NHL whatever. They all know they need to be stronger to be better at their sport. But to train strength, specifically to get stronger, it even freaks them out. They’re like, “So you guys just try to increase how much you can lift and that’s it?” Like we’re not running around trying to touch a base or put a ball through a basket. If I make a chair stronger, is that better? If I make a bridge stronger is that better? So if I make you stronger wouldn’t that be better? Yes. Do you want to do some strength training? No. Even in the sports world But they don’t want to do it because there’s a lot of pain involved.
Well, so is getting punched in the face. That’s painful! But there is more than one sport dedicated to trying to hit people in the head. You get hit a lot more times over the course of your training career than you do in the ring because you’ve got to train for it. I think that applies to football too. We see the crazy hits in the game but we don’t see the little things over time. The lack of neck training, and I think that’s contributed to concussions. I’m not a pro football player but I think that if you don’t train your neck and then you throw yourself into another human being going full speed the other way, there’s going to be a cause effect situation.
I would add to that, my uncle is a high school football coach and he says that there are more injuries now than when we were in school. People think that the kids are just stronger now but no. He says that none of the kids play like we did when we were growing up. We were skinned, scabbed, bruised, bleeding or recently bleeding all of the time. Because we were jumping out of trees, daring each other to do this or that. Because of that, we were much tougher and we knew what it was like to get hurt. How to shrug it off.
I also think that you’ve given them better equipment and degraded the training at the high school and middle school level, so they’ve got a false sense of security. I brought up rugby; you would never see a rugby player just launch himself like a spear at another guy. Instead when they tackle, it’s done more like a shot in wrestling. In football, they think they’ve got a suit of armor.
We could go there in powerlifting and the suits. If you haven’t laid down a good base, I’ve seen some broken arms in the bench press in competitions.
You have competed in a number of strength sports. I know you have a long list of accomplishments. I won’t ask you to list them all here, instead can you give me some of your favorite accomplishments and then what’s a link for people to go find out more about your records? Doesn’t the IAWA keep a records list?
There’s a records list on the IAWA website and there’s a national records list on the USAWA website. As far as things done in a meet, I did a 150lb Van Dam lift, a lot of people think it’s named after Jean Claude Van Damme because he used to do that split in his movies between the benches? Well, Rob Van Dam, the professional wrestler, used to do the same thing and it’s an actual lift.Had I known that I was going to feel that good, I probably would have gone for Rob Van Dam’s actual record of I think 168. A lot of people assume that because I’m bigger that I don’t have a lot of flexibility. That’s a very bad assumption. Not a lot of people I know could sit between two benches, never mind holding 150lbs.
That’s like that guy Jujimufu, he does stuff like that too.
Yes. I’ve always chased flexibility along with my strength. I like to be able to move, I like body movement and if you’re tight, you can’t get into the position that you want to be in necessarily. I don’t want to fight myself to get into the bottom of a squat. I don’t want to fight myself to get into position to deadlift. Recently, I’ve been able to Hub Lift an old York 45. And that was a pretty big achievement for me. Because that’s an old standard of the old timers: can you pick up the old York 45 by the hub? And the old York 45 are actually one of the hardest hubs ever created to pick up because of the design. It’s sloped, so it’s very hard to pick up.
Yeah, I remember when you posted that in Strongman Archaeology and I remember thinking that the grip strength it takes to do that is amazing. And there’s such a huge carryover. If anyone doubts it, just go grab a 10lb plate and try to pick it up with just your fingers from the center. They’ll see immediately how that could carryover to so many other things. Rock climbing, of course other barbell lifts.
I did a strongman meet a couple of months ago. I get to the meet and I’m doing the stone event and that stone never felt so easy in my life. Because my hands were so strong and my wrists were so strong it just felt a lot more manageable. And I knew that about grip strength but I didn’t really understand it. And now I’m working with some folks at Black Bridge Crossfit in Brunswick, Maine and I’m leaning on them to work their grip strength more. Because you can never have enough grip strength. If you pick up that 300lbs and it feels lighter than it used to; or heavier than it used to, that’s going to affect your mental approach. If you’re grappling and an opponent grabs you and you’re like, “Wow! That feels like a vice!” or if you’re able to muscle onto someone and you see them deflate and they realize that they’re not going anywhere but where you put them. And if you get injured, what are you going to do for a workout if your grip or wrists hurt?
The first person I heard say that was Adam T. Glass, I heard him on a podcast and I was sold from then on. Trying to improve my grip strength.
Oh my Lord! He is something else! What an animal! Sometimes he makes me want to quit and other times he makes me want to train harder.
You were also the person who introduced me to the United States All Around Weightlifting Association(USAWA). It’s funny that despite the sport of powerlifting not being really popular, the powerlifts are so popular that most Americans at least assume that powerlifting, Olympic lifting and now strongman are the only ways to compete in pure strength sports. I guess you could add Highland Games now but I always assumed that the other odd lifts had just disappeared. Can you delve a little bit into the USAWA, the lifts that are contested and how a garage athlete who’s interested could get into it?
It’s the United States All Around Weightlifting Association. It was started by Bill Clark, who is a very interesting person, cause he’s the reason we have Masters in any sport at all. Because he introduced Masters powerlifting back in the Seventies. And it’s now the biggest growing part of sport period.
Because we’re living longer?
People are living longer and even if they weren’t, when you get to the point that you are a Masters lifter, you’re settled in your career, the kids are grown up, or in high school and you and the wife have more time to train and go to meets, travel to meets and I think that’s a factor as well. And it’s a great thing that Bill gave us. And he had been running meets for years in the Midwest in Missouri and he’d been keeping records, I think from the Fifties. And then it became organized in the Eighties into the United States All Around Weightlifting Association. And basically it’s all about keeping the old time strongman lifts alive. And every once in a while, they’ll introduce something that they think the old time strongmen would have done if they were still doing their thing today. But pretty much if you see it in a magazine or training book from the pre-World War II; pretty much it’s going to be in that organization. It’s pretty simple to join, it’s only I think $25 per year, you can find USAWA website, it’s got a list of meets, where they’re held; there’s an international organization as well, called the International All Around Weightlifting Association and when the world championships are held it’s under the auspices of the IAWA. There’s a rule book on there, it lists all of the lifts and the rules for doing them.
The lifts that are in USAWA seem to also be great at building strength for more well-known lifts. For example, my bridge press and neck bridging in general seems to be helping out my bench arch and tightness in the powerlifting style bench press. What are your best recommendations for lifts to build the powerlifts and Olympic lifts?
Snatch One arm snatch. You can overload that arm and it’s going to teach you how to get that shoulder into the hip.
Clean and Jerk One arm clean and jerk. It’s a hard lift but it’s a pretty easy way to strengthen the arms. The nice thing is when you do the two arm version you can only move up and down. With the one arm version, you can move up, down and left to right. It’s very athletic. I find that doing a split clean and a split snatch is great for teaching them to move their feet quickly.
Squat Hip Lifts If your best squat is 500 then you’re probably going to be hip lifting close to 2,000lbs when you get in shape for it. If you’re only using the squat to overload tendons and ligaments but you come over to my house and after six weeks of training, you’re now doing hip lifts for 2,000lbs, well wait a minute, that’s four times your squat. How much more tension are we putting on your tendons and ligaments? A lot more. We always talk about how the muscles get too strong for the tendons and ligaments. That’s because we only do full range movements. Full range movement is muscle. A lot of the old timers did heavy supports like the hip lift and the hand and thigh lift and the teeth lift. Now that allows you to overload those tendons and ligaments.
Bench Pullover and Push Benching came from wrestlers. The grandfather of the bench press is the pullover and push. There’s lat activation by pulling it over. It is an explosive bridge off the floor using leg drive and that will allow you to overload the top of your bench press. It’s almost like the old belly toss that the old Westside Barbell used to do except there’s no lowering. It’s a great way to overload those triceps for lockout. Again if you can hit a 100lb dumbbell bench press then a 250lb dumbbell bench press shouldn’t be a problem.
Deadlift one arm deadlift and the Hack Lift, what I like about the hack lift is you really have to shove your hips forward so the bar doesn’t get caught on your hamstrings. That’s going to teach you lockout. More important than that is when you hack lift, you have to do the opposite of what you do on a deadlift as far as the foot pressure. So you’re trying to really push into the midfoot and heels when you deadlift because you want it to be about as much glutes and hamstrings. To hack lift you’ve got to push onto the balls of your feet. Midfoot and then the balls of your feet. When I’m finishing a heavy hack lift, you’ll see that often times my heels aren’t touching the ground at the top. It makes you really examine that you need to be on midfoot heel when you deadlift. It’s just making you aware of what you’re doing when you do the opposite. It’s like folding laundry with your left hand, you have to think about the steps more. Now you’re reexamining something you do every day. Then you realize how much you’re ignoring.
I heard you say to Eric Fiorillo on a podcast something about the benefits of heavy dumbbell deadlifts. Could you talk about that a little bit?
I’ve done heavy dumbbell deadlifts with over 500lbs, so 250 plus in each hand. What’s really nice about that is it allows you to push and drive but not worry too much about where the bar is. It allows you to do a pretty straight push. It’s not that much different than a trap bar deadlift to be honest. I just use regular Olympic plates and Olympic dumbbell handles. It allows a more natural position for the hands and upper back.
Are you a fan of getting stuff fabricated? Since some of these older styles of equipment aren’t around, how would someone who’s not handy or doesn’t have a construction background get it constructed? Like I wanted one of those old style grippers like Bruce Lee used and it took me some doing to get pictures to show my boy Dean at Black Widow.
I do make some of my own things. I make what’s called a softbell. I drill a hole through a softball and put a dumbbell handle through it. Really easy to make. Grip strength and puts the thumb on the opposite side of the fingers. It’s called an opposable thumb, it’s supposed to oppose your fingers. When I ordered strongman equipment from Pitbull Strongman in Clay Center, KS, he was making it anyway so I asked how much extra to modify it. I think if you’re going to buy equipment that’s going to have to be made anyway, ask them how much extra would it cost to do this or that? He’s a welder and he does strongman so that was enough for me. He was good for me, shipping was good. I’m still using his stuff years later. I didn’t like how yokes were made, I didn’t like how stuff would catch when guys were walking, so I asked him to make the feet more like skis. I had my farmer’s walk handles longer than usual. The other thing that’s around now that wasn’t around when I started is Craigslist. You wouldn’t believe it. People that thought they were going to do strongman but it turned out to be tougher than they realized. The bars I use, most of them are older than I am or close to it. I’ve got a York power bar, handles everything I squat or deadlift. And these bars sell for about $100, 1$50 or so. I’m not opposed to buying new but if it’s been beaten on for thirty or forty years and it’s still going strong, that’s a good sales pitch to me.
You prefer dumbbell swings to kettlebell swings I believe. Can you expand on why that is?
I think it’s a great grip exercise that a lot of people don’t do. If you were going to do one exercise for grip, I think swings with a dumbbell are the way to go. It’s in an arc and it’s pulling against those fingers, trying to tear out of your hands the whole time. How can you not develop incredible grip? It’s no accident that the guy who was the greatest swinger for weight, Hermann Goerner was also a great grip guys back in the day. One arm deadlift of 727, he could do a two arm deadlift of 793 back in the Twenties.
It seems like it’s become too narrow the way kettlebells are done just to the shoulder. All of the great records were done all the way to the full lift all the way overhead just like a one arm snatch. Herman Goerner was doing 220lbs which was his bodyweight, he could take a 220lb dumbbell and swing it overhead. Which is pretty impressive. To me it’s almost like bunting in baseball. Bunting’s okay, but if I get the chance to crack one out of the park I’m going to take it. So why just stop the kettlebell at the shoulder? Why not get the satisfaction of driving that thing overhead, exploding or splitting under it? And the focus of seeing how many times you can swing it to the shoulder for 15 minutes, why not do it overhead for 15 minutes? To me it’s almost like doing a half squat. I’m not saying there’s no place for it, I just very much prefer how the old timers did it
Let’s talk about the twisting movements. I’m looking at a picture on my desk that Roger LaPointe from Atomic Athletic sent me and it’s of York Lifters doing different lifts and one of them is the bent press. People think it’s dangerous to twist like that, could you address that?
Well, you have muscles that actually twist your spine. We can choose to work them or not. If you don’t work them, they will become weaker, you will become weaker and easier to injure. The bent press is really good because it’s an amazing alignment exercise. I just put up a post about how it just shoves everything back in. It shoved three ribs back in that I knew were out, it got my elbow that I didn’t know was out. It opens up your IT band, and it really develops those oblique muscles. And going back to what I what I said about one arm deadlifts. Well my best bent press is 165lbs. What’s two times 165lbs? 330. I am nowhere near pressing 330 or even jerking 330 so I’m never going to worry about a hand, wrist, forearm or shoulder injury from jerks, push presses or presses. Take your time learning it, build your flexibility. If you’re older, it will take time but it will really open up all of the twisting muscles of the torso. Nothing beats being able to move freely.
My favorite old school story is John Davis training for the Olympics in an unheated shed where he had to heat the bar up first before he could grab it. I know that you’re an Iron Game historian, what stories can you tell about some of the old school lifters who trained at home?
Tennessee Bob Peoples was a farmer and a livestock judge I believe. If you see old pictures of his training area in the basement underneath his house, you’ll notice that the walls are scalloped. Because his house sits on solid rock and so he had to carve out by hand that entire gym. That’s how dedicated he was to have a training area.
A person who’s not necessarily a strength athlete but whose story has always inspired me is Ted Corbitt. Ted Corbitt is called the father of ultra marathoning. He died in his eighties a few years ago. He was black and back in the Forties and Fifties, blacks were not allowed to run in endurance events because they thought that their hearts couldn’t take it. Which is an absolutely ridiculous thing. And he said, “I’m going to prove that wrong!” He went to school and became a massage therapist and kept up with the running. And he couldn’t get past 35 miles and didn’t know what it was. He lived in New York and it was snowing so he stuck out his tongue to get snowflakes on it and he blew his record out of the water. And he realized that he wasn’t hydrated so he started setting up water bottles on his route. So this is an inspirational person. You can squat a lot but running those many miles… and he never became famous, he never got a lot of money. He just did it for him. That to me is a very strong thing to do.
That’s so motivating I have to go look him up now!
In a way, he reminds me of the old time strongmen. A lot of them trained in their garage or their basement. Even if there was a gym, which there probably wasn’t they couldn’t afford the membership. They weren’t doing it for a medal; they weren’t doing it for YouTube so they could take selfies. I train people for competition but I also train people just wanting to be better. I try not to give them the James Fuller program, I just want to give them the best thing that will help them be the best that they can be. I think it’s a very humbling position when you train people and I get frustrated with people who are very cocky about it. You need to be humble. I want people to question me; I have big enough shoulders so I can say, “I don’t know”.
What are some resources that you’d recommend for garage lifters who want to start getting more into the types of lifts that you do? (Books, DVDs, websites etc.)
There’s a guy, David Whitley, he’s a pro strongman, he recently wrote a book on Taming the Bent Press. If you’re looking into bent pressing it’s an excellent book to get. It could be the first modern book on bent pressing in decades.
They can just message me on Facebook or on Strongman Archaeology. It’s an open group, I’m the one that approves anyone so if anyone asks to join, it’ll be me looking to make sure it’s legit. I purposefully keep it open so people can learn. I keep a pretty tight rein, not a lot of sales, I think there are plenty of places for people to go buy things. We’re pretty good about giving advice. We don’t run you down like a dog. I want people to put up videos; I don’t care how much it is. If you get a PR, it fires me up to train!