Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Lifter Profile: Bob Peoples

Aris DeMarco

Note: I haven't seen any really comprehensive articles describing Bob Peoples and his training online, so this is my somewhat lengthy attempt to remedy that. I've been looking forwards to writing this one for a while now.... Happy holidays!

Previous historical posts--
Marvin Eder
Continental weightlifting
Eugene Sandow
Lillian Leitzel

In March 1949, Bob Peoples, a middle-aged, middleweight farmer from Tennessee, smashed the world heavyweight deadlift record by pulling 725 pounds. The record would stand in the 181-pound class until 1972, and was never officially surpassed in the pre-drug era. Peoples did not use any equipment other than a belt and chalk, and made the lift with a mismatched, odd collection of plates on a standard bar. He trained alone, in his basement, while doing demanding physical labor work full time, and received no money for his efforts. Small wonder, given his circumstances, that Peoples became a legend even in his own lifetime.

Tough to tell, this may be the historical 725, right before lockout. Looks like at least 695 or so.

Bob Peoples began training at the age of 15, in 1925. He started by following a Farmer Burns course for three years, using a 60 and 75-pound dumbbell, before acquiring a barbell set at the age of 18, and commencing training with it. He was immediately able to deadlift 350 and 'awkwardly' clean and jerk 160, weighing about the same himself. 350 @ 160 is obviously nothing to write home about but is excellent for a first-time effort. Peoples' leverages were doubtless partly to thank for that (he had long legs but proportionately even longer arms, and a shorter torso in comparison. When standing upright and relaxed, his hands hung to about mid-thigh). Within a year of barbell work, he had pulled 450, weighing 165 at a height of 5'9''. 

In addition to the barbell work, Peoples used implements around the farm for his training. He set up a pair of barrels with a pipe through them, weighing 500 pounds. He used them for yoke walks and partial deadlifts, gradually standing on higher blocks in order to pull 500 for the first time. Using the dumbbells, he apparently did many swings, presses, and snatches. The olympic 'classical' lifts, which at the time were the snatch, clean & press, and clean & jerk, were the accepted method for strength testing and competition at the time so Peoples began work on those as well. He recalled "For some time I trained rather irregular on the five lifts, the deadlift and squat, as well as some strength stunts and played a year of football in college. Eventually, I began keeping notes and records of my lifting and training. The first of these is dated November 1, 1935..."

His first weights listed were a 500 deadlift, 150 press, 150 snatch, 215 jerk, 300 full squat, 125 bent press, and right arm jerk 150. He began really focusing on the deadlift, squat, and 3 lifts, starting a regular program at this point: 

Full squat
Clean & Jerk
Each for one set of 3-5 repetitions, using double progression (i.e. taking a working weight for 3 reps and progressing to 5 reps with it, before adding weight and starting over at 3). 

Peoples did this daily for six weeks. His deadlift jumped to 540 and his C&J to 225. 

Peoples' basement gym, which he excavated himself. Note the 'ringweight', an elementary trap (hex/shrug) bar, in the background of the top photo. Also note Peoples' lanky build--short torso, long arms and legs.

In 1937, Bob entered a weightlifting contest. He pressed 150, snatched 160, and C&Jed 205, weighing 163. He began deadlifting more at this point, using multiple sets of 3-5 reps and employing a reverse grip. (A mixed grip, that is--one hand supinated, the other pronated.) Peoples wrote that "this was my first experience in such a contest and I didn't do too good. I trained in the back yard... set up two posts in the ground and bored holes in them in such a way that I could load up a bar at finish deadlift height... dead hang deadlifts [were] of great value in developing the deadlift." Point of interest: heavy deadlifts starting from the top but not touching the floor at the bottom of each rep are an excellent assistance exercise--for some. I read someplace that most lifters are either the 'good morning' type or the 'stiffleg deadlift' type when it comes to deadlift assistance... it seems that lankier lifters such as myself benefit more from the lift closer to the deadlift itself, while wider, squatter lifters with shorter legs benefit more from the exercise more closely resembling the squat. Makes sense, right? 

In addition to the aforementioned ring bar, Peoples constructed a power rack with pins, straps, and holes every four inches. He wrote that "this apparatus is an absolute necessity for anyone training alone as I do." He used this to deadlift 600 for the first time, in 1940. The program consisted of stiffleg deadlifts from a dead hang, conventional deadlifts from a dead hang, and conventional deadlifts from the floor, all for single reps increasing in poundage, and also ring weight deadlifts. Bob said that he believed he had too much variety for best results... but this was also the point in time he began thinking of making a world record in the deadlift. 

Here are some more of Bob's programs along with his notes (and mine): 
"Sample program from the summer of 1940. 
Deadlift 450x1, 484x1, 519x1, 560x1, 584x1. Press 143x4, 153x2, 163, 173, 178, 183. This was one day's workout. On the second day--
Half deep knee bend 300x4, 490x12, 530x6, 555x4. On another workout day--
press behind neck 123x5, 133x2, press 143x5, 153x2, bench press 153x6, 163x1, alternate press 70x5."
It is curious that this is the only mention Peoples ever made of bench pressing in his training. He does not mention doing any regular work on this lift or even owning a bench; too, the poundage is rather low in comparison to his overhead presses. Perhaps he meant some other exercise--maybe standing incline presses, popular at the time, wherein a lifter would lean back against a board placed against the wall at an angle. Either way, this is likely where the rumor that 'Peoples could barely bench his own bodyweight' originated... but he could doubtless have done much more. 

1941: Worked on the three lifts and also the leg press (done with a barbell on the soles of his feet, lying on his back in the power rack), full squat and deadlift, "mostly dead hang lifts in both stiff legged and regular style. After this training period I did a 630 deadlift, 400 deep knee bend, 170 press, 190 snatch, 260 clean and jerk, and 290 clean."

1942-3: missed 5 months training due to work. Deadlift dropped to 400. "My back strength did not seem to come back very fast and I seemed to have lost the technique. My leg strength came back very rapidly, however..."
July 1943: partial squat (~1 foot ROM) 635x1 and 600x7, did 600x10 in August. Deadlifted 500 again in September, press back up to 185 and snatch to 195. 
September 21: dead hang deadlift 600, partial squat 675. 
October 21: full squat 410, snatch 190 "without any foot action" (presumably a power snatch)
According to Peoples, "my program was still the same--usually 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps with each lift."

1944: Partial squat 725, dead hang deadlift 600x2, 625x1. Then, in 1945:
February 1: squat 350x10, alternate dumbbell press
February 2: squat 400x2, alternate press 80s x7/arm
February 3: squat 400x3
February 6: alternate press 90s x5/arm
February 7: partial squat 600x7, alternate press 90x5
February 8: deadlift 450x5, dead hang deadlift 600, press 170x4, 180x3, jerk 230x2
February 10: deadlift 500x3, dead hang deadlift 600, snatch 180x4, press 180x3
February 11: partial squat 650x1, alternate press 90s x6/arm, jerk 230x4
February 12: deadlift 500x4, dead hang deadlift 600, press 180x4, snatch 180x4
"You will note that I did not use any set schedule but varied the program between the lifts according to the way I felt, some days doing just one lift and on others doing several. Most of the time I worked every day but never did more than 3 to 5 reps on any lift. I followed this program throughout 1945 with slight variations and finally worked up to a 475 squat, 217 1/2 press, total 670." (The total being press, snatch, and jerk.)

1946: missed 6 months training. Began again in July, training to set a world deadlift record. "I used the three olympic lifts and then worked on the deadlift starting with about 350lb for 3 reps and adding weight in 50lb jumps until my limit was reached. I trained daily in this manner."

September 1946: Tennessee State weightlifting meet--185 press, 220 snatch ("state record," he remarks), 230 jerk. Deadlift 651 1/4 weighing 175. 

What looks to be about 650 going up....

The last specific routine Peoples mentions is similar to the one preceding it: Daily training with the deadlift and either the press or the snatch, sometimes doing partial squats, working up to a top set of 1-3 reps. August 1947, deadlift 700x1, 600x7 (a week later). September 1947--680 deadlift, 500 full squat. October 4th--at the Bob Hise Show, deadlifted 700x1 for an official world record. End of 1947 in Nashville--deadlifted 710x1. 1948, 'near miss' with 719 in Detroit. 1949--deadlift 725 3/4 weighing 181. 

Bob listed his records, in 1952, as the following: 
225 press, 230 snatch, 271 C&J. 530 full squat. 725 deadlift. 

Rye Bell also wrote (in 1948) that Peoples could do:
Full squat 450x7
Leg press (as described above, with a barbell) 750
Alternate dumbbell press 100s x5 each hand
Deadlift repetition PRs: 450x28, 500x17, 600x8, 650x4. Stiffleg dead hang deadlift with 625. 

I have seen quoted from other sources:
'Highside' deadlift (partial lockout, presumably from knee level or just above it) 900 lb. 
Dumbbell cleans, pair of 110s x10--first rep from the floor, and then 9 reps from the hang

On the classical lifts:
Rye Bell wrote that "[Peoples] has cleaned over 300 pounds, but is a comparatively poor jerker. His form in the three lifts is very rough and he is capable of far more than this. In the snatch he simply pulls the bar up and walks under it...." Peoples himself remarked that the jerk was "always hard for me due to my extremely long arms though the clean was very easy due to my powerful back."

On the squat:
According to Pete Vuono "Bob was one of the first to do serious work with and utilize the 'power' squat... upon ascending out of a deep squat, Peoples would intentionally bend forward to utilize the combination of legs, hips and back. To further enhance this movement, he created a harness with a bar inserted through it. The harness encircled the shoulder and allowed the attached bar to 'ride' almost halfway down his back. This provided a better center of gravity and thus allowed for a very helpful overload method. 

Bob Hise said the same: "his back being very strong, he noticed that coming up out of squats he would do a type of exercise which was between a knee bend and a good morning movement. A shoulder apparatus was built to support weight and facilitate the exercise. This and quarter squats plus taking heavy weights from the racks and doing rapid deadlifts by bouncing the weight off the floor (i.e. touch 'n' go reps) increased his strength a great deal more."

Peoples wrote that he tried 3/4 squats but they did little for him, so he preferred to do heavy lockouts, half squats, or full squats (apparently with a focus on hinging on the way up). He also did some of his ring bar deadlifts from a maximum deficit, that is, starting from the position of a full squat; and of course leg presses in the power rack, to increase leg strength. 

On the deadlift:
Bob went back and forth between using a hook grip and a mixed grip. For a while, he even tried a double underhand hook grip, but must have abandoned it along the way since there are no photographs of him using it. He always lifted with a somewhat wide conventional stance, and a rounded back. In a famous quote: "I would breathe out to normal then do my deadlift. I feel this is much safer than following the customary advice of the experts to take a deep breath and then lift. By breathing out you lessen the internal pressure and by lifting with a round back you lessen the leverage--all of which helps add many lbs. to your lift. I realize this style may not work well with everyone but it my case it seems ideal."

Terry Todd imitating Peoples' form under the watchful eye of the man himself

Terry Todd noted that "[Bob] correctly reasoned that a rounded back helped the leverage in the deadlift by shortening the lever arm (the back) and therefore increasing the amount of weight that can be lifted."

Bob Hise recalled that Peoples would "study his body leverages and gravity centers. He would take a bar in a starting deadlift position and view himself in a mirror and notice by the raising or lowering of the bar as he changed grips, using different height shoes, inhaling slightly, inhaling heavily, exhaling slightly, exhaling heavily and observing the positions and conditions that suited him best. He decided that the best position for him was rounded back, palms forward, hook grip and to lift barefooted and with a completely exhaled thoracic cavity...."

Bob Hise II wrote that Peoples wore no shoes, only socks, to deadlift. He deadlifted 728 @ 178 [presumably the 725 @ 181 performance, according to a different scale... no digital scales in 1949!] with a double overhand hook grip. However, he experimented with an underhand grip "because it is the natural way to lift." Hise Jr. also remarked that Bob deadlifted with "a steady, no-pause lift from the floor to a strong stand up finish." That is--constant tension, not an explosive grip 'n' rip. Bob Hise Sr. also wrote that with Peoples' 725 lift, "it seemed like an eternity before the barbell left the floor" and the lockout was "a final mighty heave." Thus, Peoples' form was perhaps not the most explosive or coordinated movement, but relying on brute strength, tension, and an ideal leverage point to elevate the weight. 

Peoples noted that "I would breathe out to normal, round my back, raise my hips, look down and begin the lift." All of these cues had a purpose. In addition to lessening the internal pressure, breathing out decreases the length of the pull stroke (range of motion) by a little and, in my experience, results in slightly greater activation of the obliques in comparison to bracing out with the stomach. This, combined with rounding the back and raising the hips, also moves the bar closer under the lifter's center of gravity (shortening the lever arm, as Todd explained), especially if the lifter has rather long legs. Raising the hips, rather than dipping them down for the start, also activates the hamstrings more than the quads. This is useful because the quads will not be able to come into play very strongly with such a back-dominant form as this one. An important detail--I have found no clear pictures of Peoples deadlifting from the very revealing side angle. I am not sure if he was incorporating lumbar flexion, like Orlando Green or Jouko Ahola--or merely thoracic flexion, like Vince Anello or Konstantin Konstantinovs. I am guessing that Peoples used a decent amount of lumbar flexion, as that naturally occurs with the 'bracing in' of an exhale before the lift, and that is what Terry Todd demonstrates in the photo above; but it's really impossible to tell exactly what Peoples did without a photo of him doing it. 

As can be seen above, Peoples' training was for the most part, very simple. 3 to 5 lifts (and perhaps a few variants), 3 to 5 reps, one top set. Basically, low volume high frequency ramped stuff, similar to what a lot of knowledgeable strength coaches advocate today. 
  • Peoples commented that "I usually used one set of low repetitions for strength building. I used the most weight possible and went for as many repetitions as I possibly could.... Many have used the set system... in my case, I found this to be more tiring and as I always used maximum weight and repetition, I felt I could not make as much progress." 
  • He believed that double progression was "the most foolproof method known" and liked using 3 to 5, 5 to 7, and 7 to 15 as the rep ranges. 
  • He also liked training every day though he found it "more difficult to gauge my progress. For example, if I could use 450 pounds for the dead lift each day for about two weeks, I was good for 600 pounds in a single dead lift." 
  • He experimented with pre-exhaustion, doing very high repetitions with a heavy weight by way of a 'warmup', and also descending sets. But both sapped his energy and strength and he returned to the basic one top set format. 
  • He liked training 4 to 5 days each week, and in the afternoon, but had to train whenever he could--sometimes every other day, sometimes as little as 1 or 2 days weekly; and sometimes late at night after work. 
  • As is apparent from his logs above, lots of fairly instinctive daily heavy training was done. He also liked working to a daily top set of deadlifts for a while, and then when he went stale doing the same with squats, and working back and forth. 
  • He experimented with different types of machines, including a 'hopper' that could raise the supramaximal deadlift bar to lockout. From there, Peoples would do a controlled negative and then bounce the bar off the floor, attempting to use the stretch reflex and rebound to lock the weight back out. He also tried to build "a handstand machine. This however, didn't work out and my press remained the same. I also tried a rowing machine adjusted to about 500 lbs. in an effort to localize the blood circulation in the hip area but this too failed." Peoples was not immune to defeat, Bob Hise II recalled that "his wife Juanita told me of times he would get so angry with himself because he wasn't progressing that he would actually carry his weights from the dungeon and throw them down the hill--swearing never to lift again. A few days later he would lug all the weights up and back to the dungeon and train harder than ever."
  • As can be seen from his logs, Peoples was very fond of heavy partial movements. Heavy 'high deadlifts' and partial squats were done often, and he experimented with combining partials through various parts of the ROM with full lifts. "For example, in the press, you can start and do five repetitions with 300 pounds. Using this in a separate movement, five starts do not use much energy. Then do the finish movement, starting slightly above the sticking point. If you can use 300 pounds for five repetitions, this can be performed with much less energy. Then do the regular press. For example, in using maximum resistance, 200 pounds is the maximum weight at the point of longest leverage (sticking point). By using 200 pounds in a regular movement, more repetitions can be accomplished." 
Overhead lockouts. 

I do think that while Peoples' love of machines and contraptions and lifting gadgets cannot be exaggerated, he did not use them as much as one might be led to believe just by reading other articles. The great majority of his training was either full or partial barbell lifts, done for low sets of low repetitions, almost every day. The most important things we can take away from Peoples' legend?

1. Consistency and hard work. Though he did have excellent leverages for his most famous lift, Peoples had to work for it--he deadlifted 450 within a year of starting lifting at age 18 but did not pull 500 until he was 25, did not pull 600 until five years later, did not pull 650+ until SIX years after that, 700 the next year and 725 two years after that. Twenty-one years of constant hard work towards one singular goal--a maximal deadlift--from his start to his eventual peak. Keep in mind, of course, that Peoples was not a professional athlete but 'just another guy' lifting in his basement every day after work....

2. Simplicity. 3-5x3-5, basic lifts, a few variants. No need for anything fancy. No drugs. No complex periodization schemes. Complexity isn't a bad thing, of course, but everything has its place--and keep the 80/20 rule in mind. If you can make as much of your training as possible that '20%' that gives the results... your progress will be better. And that goes for anything, not just lifting. 

3. Experimentation. Peoples constantly explored his form, exercise variations, built new machines and lifting apparatus, etc. We're all individuals, and have to find things out for ourselves at some point. That goes for life beyond lifting too, of course. 

Bell, Rye. "Tennessee Hercules." 1948. 
Hise, Bob. "Bob Peoples: World's Greatest Deadlifter." 1964. 
Hise, Bob (II). "The Bob Peoples I knew."
Peoples, Bob. "My Training Methods." May 1952.
Peoples, Bob. "Systems and Methods I Have Used."
Todd, Terry. "Bob Peoples and the Roundback."
Vuono, Pete. "Bob Peoples". 1984. 
*Note--I think that all these articles except for Rye Bell's and 'My Training Methods' be found at the Dezso Ban blog, hands down one of the best sources for historical strength and physical culture information on the internet. 

As always--hope you enjoyed the blog. There'll be more great stuff coming in 2014, including at least one post on roundback lifting. Comment below or email at affectinggravity@gmail.com with any questions! Happy holidays! 


  1. I appreciate these articles very much Aris!

  2. Mate, great work. Thanks for taking the time to write up the historical articles.

  3. Good stuff. I had read about Peoples' deadlifting achievements, but never knew he made such extensive use of the quarter squat.

  4. This is a great article. Peoples is an inspiration, he did everything with hard work and experimentation. We can all learn from this man, thanks for the writeup!