[Note: I originally published this post on the recently-hacked and now-defunct Five Tribe blog. That site's kaput, but I managed to salvage a few of my favorite posts, including this one.]
In 1850, George Barker Windship was a sixteen-year-old freshman at Harvard University. He was five feet tall and 100 pounds. But by the time he graduated, having logged endless hours in the college gymnasium, Windship was known as the strongest man at Harvard.
Soon thereafter, he came across a weightlifting machine on a Rochester, New York street, surrounded by curious passersby. Newly strong, Windship tested the machine, and ended up lifting 420 pounds using a technique now known as a partial deadlift or hand-and-thigh lift. Inspired, he returned to Boston and created his own lifting device by “sinking a hogshead in the ground and placing inside it a barrel, filled with rocks and sand, to which he attached a rope and handle. Then, standing on a platform he constructed above the barrel, he mimicked the partial movements of the lifting machine he had tried in Rochester.” Practicing with this machine and other devices and harnesses he created, Windship reportedly maxed out with a lift of 2,600(!) pounds.
￼By 1861, Windship had graduated from Harvard Medical School and had made a name for himself as the “American Samson,” a health reformer known across the country for bucking the then-prevailing wisdom about proper nutrition and fitness. While most experts pushed vegetarian diets and exercises with — at most — light weights and moderate resistance, Windship had a very different take on things.
The body should be made as strong as possible, he contended, with no weak points. It should be balanced and symmetrical with the muscles full and round and strong… [H]eavy weights and short workouts were the secret to health and longevity. Training should be systematic, he argued with the intensity of the exercise gradually increasing over time. He maintained that workout sessions should never last more than an hour and that proper rest must be obtained before the next day’s training.
Windship’s health lectures, feats of strength, and impressive physique garnered plenty of attention, disciples, and copycats who developed their own lifting machines to mimic Windship’s machine-based partial deadlift exercise, which came to be known as the “Health Lift.” For example, one New York-based company sold a contraption called “Mann’s Reactionary Lifter” similar to Windship’s device — a “cast iron lifting machine” that could be “adjusted from twenty to twelve hundred pounds”:
Two handles attached to the weighted lever arm so that by standing on the machine’s base, with a handle in each hand and the knees slightly bent, the lifter would simply straighten the legs to move the weighted arm a few inches. Prominently displayed in the advertising for this machine was a fashionably dressed young woman complete with bustle and corset. “Side-lifting” machines, such as Mann’s, were partly designed with women in mind. The idea was that the two side handles made it unnecessary for women to change their clothes for a workout.
The “Health Lift” was deemed the only physical exercise a man or woman needed — or wanted. After all, it was simple, straightforward, and offered fast results: “Pile heavy objects onto a machine, and then lift it. Workout completed, fitness and health improved — instantly.” In cities across the United States, gyms and fitness studios outfitted with similar “Health Lift” machines opened their doors, attracting white collar workers hoping to squeeze a quick workout into their lunch hour.
But while others took the exercise and ran with it, Windship himself didn’t appear very interested in capitalizing on the business opportunities presented by the “Health Lift” craze. He focused his attention elsewhere, patenting and selling the first-ever plate-loading free weight in America. (In other words, it was the great-great-grandfather of not only Olympic barbells, but also those fancy adjustable-weight dumbbells hawked on late night infomercials.
Windship also invented the first all-in-one full-body weight machine — something he called the “Apparatus for Physical Culture,” which “contained a lifting platform, cables for chest work, a rowing machine and a chinning bar.” (Eat your heart out, Soloflex.)
￼Sadly, Windship didn’t live long enough to see much success from these ventures. He died of a massive stroke at the age of 42.
The Health Lift faded from public view in the years after Windship’s death. With the sudden passing of the most prominent voice of modern weightlifting (and at such a young age), it’s not surprising that people began questioning the health benefits of resistance training. Nonetheless, competitive athletes and influential health reformers continued to employ Windship’s lifting protocols. Robert J. Roberts, the YMCA’s first physical education director, was a Windship disciple, and incorporated heavy lifting into the Y’s physical training program. Even the controversial (and bowel movement-obsessed) physician John Harvey Kellogg (of corn flakes and “Road to Wellville” fame) was a big proponent of the Health Lift.
Eventually, the Health Lift evolved into what we know as a deadlift — arguably the best all-around lift for full-body strength and muscle development. Over the past century and a half, barbell deadlifts gradually surpassed the machine-based Health Lifts in popularity and efficacy. Today, the Health Lift still has its place: With a higher starting position, partial deadlifts (which are now typically done with racks and bars rather than wooden machines) don’t put as much strain on the lower back and therefore enable the lifting of much heavier weights. But as Mark Rippetoe writes in “Starting Strength,” deadlifts incorporate lower back strength — something that’s vital to sports conditioning:
The ability to maintain a rigid lumbar spine under a load is critical for both power transfer and safety. The deadlift builds back strength better than any other exercise, bar none. And back strength built with the deadlift is useful: while the bar is the most ergonomically friendly tool for lifting heavy weights, a 400 lb. barbell makes an awkward 85 lb. box more manageable.The takeaway: By incorporating lower back strength, deadlifts are an improvement on Windship’s “Health Lift” — the original lift for optimal functional fitness. Plus, deadlifts are fun and more badass-sounding than “Health Lifts.”
So do ‘em.
[Sources: The H.J. Lutcher Stark Center, Iron Game History]