Most athletes will roughly know their maximum squat, bench and deadlift. They’re the three ‘big lifts’ that have long formed the backbone of many strength and conditioning routines. It’s for this exact reason the sport of powerlifting is among the most respected in the realms of strength, speed and power. Even if you don’t compete at it, you have a deep-rooted and profound respect for these Herculean men who bend bars, defy gravity and lift ridiculous amounts of iron off the floor. But among the long list of decorated champions and world records there’s one name that repeatedly pops up in the record books. That name is Andy Bolton.
Born on 22nd January 1970 in Dewsbury, Bolton himself is built like most things in Yorkshire. Large, robust and insanely strong. Yes, this is partly down to genetics. You can’t solely train and eat your way to a 1.8m, 160kg musclebound frame. But what’s amazing about Bolton is he’s an absolute scholar of strength. Ever modest he says, ‘I’ve been training since I was 18, over 20 years, and during my career I have always spent a lot of time learning. I’ve read hundreds of books and articles on strength training. I’ve been to dozens of seminars and worked with some of the world’s best strength coaches.’
In short, Bolton was gifted with raw strength but is equally the sum of over 20 years of research and methodology that formed this endless pursuit to be the strongest man ever to lift a barbell. So has he succeeded? Seven WPC World Champion titles, two WPO Champion titles and a place cemented in history as the first human to ever deadlift 1,000lb (453.6kg) strongly suggests so. It’s for all these reasons I head to Leeds with a notepad in one hand and a whey protein shake in the other for what would become an absolute strength masterclass.
Strength physics and physiology
Strength on its most basic level can be defined as a muscle’s (or group of muscles’) ability to produce force. Since Bolton’s one of only five men to squat over 1,200lb (545kg) and one of only 13 to deadlift over 900lb (410kg) in a powerlifting competition, it’s reasonable to say that he can generate a near-superhuman amount of force.
Over the years Bolton has practically become a professor in the physiology and physics of strength and I quickly learn his success isn’t about what he lifts, but how he lifts. He begins by reciting Newton’s Laws of Motion then says, ‘Force is equal to mass (weight) and velocity (speed). Yes, I can deadlift over 1,000lb. Yes, that’s a lot of force because it’s a lot of weight. But one aim of training for strength should be to generate the same force with less weight. To do this you must lift with more speed.’
Soviet speed secrets
Between sets I observe Bolton’s technique and notice that before every lift, he has a routine. His form is flawless and follows a distinct pattern each time. Approaching the bar, he plants his feet, grips the bar and then – just before lifting – performs three hamstring stretches and then on the third stretch he begins to lift. Why? To answer this you first need to understand a brief back story from the days of Soviet Union sporting supremacy and the teachings of the pioneering strength coach Dr Yuri Verkhoshansky.
Verkhoshansky would have athletes drop off a box, land on the floor absorbing the shock, then instantly jump as high as they possibly could. Later labelled Shock Training in reference to the body’s ability to absorb the impact, it was believed one short-term adaptation to the ‘depth jump’ was a higher vertical jump compared to a static jump. Research would later reveal this was because Verkhoshansky was able to ‘play’ with the elasticity of the muscles and tendons by positively manipulating the body’s stretch-shortening cycle.
The stretch-shortening cycle is essentially where the muscles contract eccentrically (the muscles lengthen), which is followed by an immediate concentric contraction (the muscles shorten). Based on research from the School of Kinesiology at the University of Zagreb, Croatia, this has been shown to improve the concentric phase resulting in increased force production and output. This explains why during a depth jump athletes were able to jump higher. They effectively used the elastic energy built-up during the eccentric phase (when landing) to then use during the concentric phase (the jump itself).
Fast-forward to the present day in a small gym in Leeds, and Bolton continues to use Verkhoshansky’s principles. Using those three hamstring stretches before lifting to help manipulate the stretch-shortening cycle to generate more force. As I said before, what Bolton demonstrates is thatit’s not what you lift, but how you lift it.
Get the Coach Newsletter
Sign up for workout ideas, training advice, reviews of the latest gear and more.
Ross Edgley wrote for Men’s Fitness UK (which predated and then shared a website with Coach) when he was a sports scientist, working for brands such as Myprotein. Edgley went on to perform a series of physical feats, including swimming all the way around Great Britain in 157 days. He has written the books Blueprint: Build a Bulletproof Body for Extreme Adventure in 365 Days, The World's Fittest Book and The Art of Resilience, as well as contributing to publications such as GQ.