Strength feats come in all shapes and sizes from the very orthodox lifts you see in gyms every day to the totally bizarre feats that are in some way related to a specialist or someone with some extreme fascination or body type. Things that maybe one or two guys int he world might do like the Guinness guy who might hold the weight attached to his ears.
I like all types of strength except for stuff that is actually slide of hand that is passed off as strength and truthfully I have no use for the ear lifting thing. But one set of feats tends to leave an impression with the average person like almost nothing else – Steel bending. The challenge of the old time performing strongman and the modern strongman was to make people understand strength. The average person, even the average person who works out, understands barbells, but they don’t really get it.
Case in point – today on the internet you see a ton of people doing lifts with bumper plates on a bar. The bar is stacked all the way out to the end and it looks huge to the uninitiated. They see a guy lift that barbell and then they see a guy lift a barbell that looks almost identical stacked to the end with steel or iron plates that literally weighs twice as much and they can’t tell the difference. You may have a guy deadlifting 300 or 400lbs which is no special feat with a bar stacked to look like it weighs 700 or 800 or more pounds who comes off looking like Hercules, but really he’s as strong as a moderately average high school football player.
More over – most humans simply don’t have enough experience with real-weightlifting to be able to understand it, but they have experience with every day objects. Things they’ve touched and held in their hand that they know are strong that carry the reputation for being strong. Things like nails, spikes, bolts, wrenches and hammers, horseshoes and steel bars.
The old time strongmen used bending and breaking these things as feats, because it simply made a better impression and they had a better show with it. I can demonstrate that from my own life. I have family members who’ve literally watched me lift a 1,000lb barbell and seen me do things like that my whole life, but they were more impressed when I bent a nail, spike or big steel bar for them. That’s what they tell everyone about, not the other things, even though it was bigger.
More than the show effect, the old time strongmen stumbled on something when they started practicing and doing these feats. They found it was an amazing workout. That it built muscle, strength and burned fat, made their muscles hard as stone, hardened their body to pressure, gave them strength at angles they couldn’t train in any other way and made them stronger at their other more mainstream style lifts. My son probably said this best, “You know anybody can hand somebody a business card, but eventually they’ll forget your name or face. But nobody forgets the guy who bends a giant spike or takes a piece of steel other people can’t even wobble and turns it into a giant iron balloon animal.”
So how do you get good at this?
- Practice. There is no substitute for bending steel. There are things that will help you get better at it, but there is no way to be great at bending steel except to bend a lot of steel. There are things that you learn as you practice about how you need to apply force and the type of strength that you build simply can’t be built any other way other than by simply doing the thing and doing it progressively. Starting with smaller pieces, working to bigger ones. Don’t read that as you have to spend $10,000 on steel this month, but you are going to have to bend more than one nail to get it down. Especially if you want the physical development and the walking around strength that it gives you, not just the technical skill. There are things you can do make it more economical when you’re trying to bend a lot of steel such as rebending pieces until they snap, steel scrolling, which will get you alot of bending out of one bar and buying steel at an industrial supply place where you’ll get it the cheapest.
- Learning the techniques used. Whenever you do bend a piece of steel in front of someone you will invariably get some knuckle head who will come up to you and rattle on pestering you about “what is the trick?” Here’s the thing, when you’re doing legitimate steel, there is no trick. It’s impossible to fake the strength to do the real thing if you’re not using a tampered-with piece of steel. There is no magic way of doing it. There is however smart body mechanics and positioning which adds up to a technique. That’s the same however as a guy pulling a world record deadlift. there’s no trick, no magic way some ordinary human will simply walk up and do it, but what there is, is practiced efficient technical use of the body. Steel bending follows the same rules as any other feat of strength. Little variations in your hand or body position and finding the styles the work best for you makes a huge difference. So learn the real techniques, find the ones that work for you and practice them.
- Get all-around strong but maintain your flexibility. Steel bending is about the transfer of power. The stronger you are all around, the stronger you will be as long as you have the requisite flexibility to get into a decent position to apply that flexibility. That doesn’t mean you have to be a yoga master to be good at bending, but if you can’t scratch the top of you own head or touch your own toes, you’re going to have trouble getting into certain positions. Different types of steel bending test different parts of the body, but they essentially work the whole body.
- Do steel-specific strength exercises. Just like you would do a particular assistance exercise to bring up your squat or deadlift the same can be done for steel bending. These are the exercises that give you the right kind of development and strength that can be transferred over to steel. Specifically levering exercises with the wrist done with lever bars or hammers, heavy and for multiple directions will really help. Heavy short range lockout presses or bent presses will massively strengthen the triceps and really help with brace-style bending. Heavy one and two arm rowing will help a ton with long bar bending. Off balance lifts like one arm deadlifts will help with abdominal and back strength and getting used to applying pressure across the body like you will need to in horseshoe bending or scrolling.
- Do some training with bands or cables. A rubber cable reacts similarly to a piece of steel in that it will not absorb momentum and the further you push it the harder it gets. Curling, tricep and shoulder motions with chest expander sets are great for steel bending. They’re also optimum for doing cross body pulling movements to simulate the types of twisting movements you get from many bending positions. Also attaching heavy bands from various angles in a power rack is limited only by your activity and closely match any position you need to train. One of my favorites and hardest ab exercises I’ve ever done is a combination of this. Take a band and loop it around the top of your power rack. Set a barbell resting on a set of pins just above your knees like you would do for a high rack pull. Put a second set of pins 4″-6″ above that. Stretch the band down and put it around the outside of the empty barbell. It will pull the bar up to the second pin on one side. Now stand in the rack in front of the bar and grab it as if you were going to deadlift it with both hands facing forward and push the barbell with the band around it down into the bottom pin. Hold it down. Now with your hand that’s on the other side of the barbell, like the other end of the bar and try to pull it up into the top pin. if you’re strong and you have this set up right, you might put one 45lb plate on the outside of the bar on the side with no band. You will feel this is every muscle of your torso. I like to do isometrics here and try to hold for a count. It is brutal.
- Do isometrics. Hard isometrics will make you brutally strong and allow you to build strength in very specific pathways that you cannot duplicate in any other way. it also teaches you to keep extended effort up. Hard steel isn’t like a barbell. With a barbell lift you either push an it moves or it doesn’t. Steel sometimes that doesn’t feel like it will bend will often give if you keep sustained pressure and actually start bending several seconds after you’ve begun to apply pressure. One of the training techniques most of the great steel benders use is that when they have a piece they can only partially bend they do isometrics with that piece, essentially trying to bend something that is at that moment unbendable. They often come back later after a bit of training this way and bend that piece. Isometrics versions of the weighted exercises I’ve already recommended work tremendously for this type of strength.
- Learn to scroll. Bending comes in multiple varieties; Unbraced bending where the object or steel being bent does not touch or brace against any part of the body except the hands. This is usually short pieces of steel – nails, spikes, etc. Short braced bending where you use the hands and brace the steel against the body pushing or pulling to create a bend. This is for longer spikes, medium length steel, wrenches, etc. Long bars are also bent in a braced manner although often with slightly different techniques. Horseshoe bending which is a style unto itself and steel scrolling. Scrolling is my favorite type of bending because if you ask me it gives probably the best type of workout. it is the art of taking a piece of steel and not just bending a pieces os tell into a “u”, but bending the steel into a pre-determined or abstract shape. This is where things get really interesting, because you work your will into a piece of steel that gets progressively tougher and doesn’t want to give. It’s also my favorite because it essentially encompasses all of the other styles of bending. Because when you scroll you will use the same positions and holds you use from short bending, braced bending, long bar and horse shoe bending. It’s essentially working all the types of bending in one long workout plus you actually get to make something. A shape, or a statue or whatever you can imagine and get whole body strong and enduring. We don’t normally associate this with endurance work but if you work a one long piece of steel for a long time you will be shocked at how enduring it can become. One of the best steel scrollers in the world – Dan Cenidoza recently did a session while wearing a heart rate monitor and found that it kept his heart rate that the level of a hard aerobic session the entire time and your arms will scream with pump and power.
- Steel bending is like the manliest art ever. I’m not harrassing anybody about that, but our culture especially in fitness could use a shot in the arm to move away from hipster-ism. Steel bending is just hard and it takes a hard man to do it at a high level. It will carry over to your other abilities. When you grab someone they’ll know you mean it. In fact you may have to be careful you don’t randomly break things or people around the house. It makes killer training for grapplers and martial artists, because of it. it is virtually assured that steel bending will never fall under the same domains as lumbersexuals and Shake weights – this requires heart. You can learn things about yourself as a human being.