Any student of expressions commonly used by Southern rural blacks would be familiar with the term "natural man." Here "natural" connotes many things—courageous, tough, potent, able-bodied and so on—but the central meaning is the possession of exceptional physical strength. Work songs, reels, ballads and spirituals tell about natural men such as Railroad Bill, Old Bangum, Samson, Stagger Lee and, of course, John Henry. In this context, "natural" suggests that a man is what he is in the same way that a full-grown lion or golden eagle or 300-year-old live oak tree is what it is. There's no falseness in any of them, no pretense, nothing but the full flowering of their own true nature.
In a different context, "natural" can refer to the training regimen of one who pursues his sport without the use of illegal ergogenic aids such as anabolic steroids. "What are you on now?" is a question one athlete often asks another these days. The answer may be, "I got off the juice last year. I'm training natural now."
But whether "natural" is used to modify "man" in the one sense or "athlete" in the other, it can unequivocally be applied to a 27-year-old powerlifter from Fort Collins, Colo. named Lamar Gant, who's very likely the world's best at his sport. Gant is a powerlifter—that species of lifting in which one does the squat, bench press and deadlift—so lavishly gifted that over the past nine years he has won nine world championships in the 123- and 132-pound classes without apparent recourse to the pharmaceutical support so ubiquitous in the strength sports.
He's one of only three powerlifters who have won nine or more world titles; the other two are 43-year-old Hideaki Inaba, a 114-pounder from Japan who has won 10, and Larry Pacifico, 39, of Dayton, Ohio, who has won nine at 198, 220 and 242 pounds. Inaba is still active, but his age should bring his era of dominance to an end within the next few years, and Pacifico has been beset by circulatory ailments that probably will require that he abandon the sport.
October 21, 1984
On the other hand, powerlifing cognoscenti believe that if Gant can maintain his interest in the iron, he could win at least 20 world championships before he hangs up his belt and wrist straps. His first came at age 18, when he won the 123-pound class at the 1975 world championships in Birmingham, England to become the youngest men's world champion in powerlifting history. His international debut, however, occurred two years earlier when he came out of nowhere—well, actually, Flint, Mich.—to place second at the worlds and give evidence of what was to come. Those of us who saw Gant lift that day were awed by his power and potential. Covering the event for a magazine called Muscular Development, I wrote:
"Another of the lighter lifters who deserves special attention was 16-year-old Lamar Gant. Little Lamar, at a bodyweight of 121 pounds, hoisted 500 pounds...easily in the deadlift.... On his 500, his long, slim arms appeared to stretch, making him look exactly like a tiny black Plasticman."
In the 11 years since then, Gant has traveled to dozens of countries, appeared on national TV, broken 26 world records and been the bane of sportswriters who routinely run out of superlatives in their efforts to describe his achievements on the lifting platform.
Gant's remarkable career began in Flint when his junior high gym teacher, powerlifter Randy Laur, tested him one day in the bench press and found that the 115-pound 14-year-old could bench more than the city record in the 123-pound class, even though he'd never tried the lift before. The astonished Laur then asked Gant to deadlift, and another city record was broken. At the time, Gant's favorite sport was wrestling, but when he discovered barbells, wrestling never had a chance.
"I did love those weights. Man, I loved them," Gant recalls, his basso booming improbably out of his 5'1" frame. His voice is remarkable not only in its depth and resonance but also in its volume and in a startling ability to reproduce a variety of sounds—animal, mechanical and, apparently, intergalactical—much as young Gerald McBoing Boing's did in the cartoons.
Gant continues: "I found a home when I found those weights. Man, I would never miss a training session. Never! I'd be shaking those weights around like some kind of bulldog. Boom! Boom! Those were some good days. I started training with Big Bill Stiff after a couple of months because he was the biggest, strongest man around. Coach Laur told him about me, and Bill asked me to work out with his weightlifting team. Big Bill! The man weighed 400 pounds!"
Stiff's memories of that meeting are equally vivid, though he expresses them in a voice somewhat less likely to register notably on the Richter scale. "Lamar was already so strong I knew he had the capability to break a world record," he says. "All he needed was the desire, and he had that from the beginning. Lamar never missed a workout. Not ever. Even if he had to hitch a ride, he'd be at my home in the evenings for our sessions. He trained so hard I've seen his hands bleed, literally, after one of his marathon deadlifting sessions.
"He used a deadlift routine based on one I'd gotten from an old professional strongman from Grand Rapids, Harold Ansorge, and it was amazing to watch. Especially the way Lamar did it. I remember one day when he was about 18 seeing him do 25 sets of five repetitions in the deadlift. Twenty-five sets! With the heaviest at 585 pounds—well over the world record in his class for one rep! And this was after he'd done squats and bench presses. He called it his Monster Man routine, and I suppose it was hardly what you'd call your basic health spa workout."
The result of Gant's combination of natural aptitude and godawful training schedule was that his small frame quickly became overstrapped with thick layers of fat-free flesh. Stiff recalls that tests conducted 10 years ago at the University of Michigan revealed that only 2% of Gant's bodyweight was fat. By comparison, an average college athlete has a body fat percentage of 16%. And Gant was eating a balanced diet of the sort recommended by most mainstream nutritionists, not the extreme, near-zero-carbohydrate regimens often followed by the few bodybuilders who have come near to having only 2% body fat.
Even today, when he rarely trains as hard as he did during his teens, Gant retains the paper-thin skin and muscularity usually seen only in bodybuilders when they've severely dehydrated themselves for competition. The only way such hypermuscularity can be explained is metabolism. Apparently Gant's metabolic engine is so well tuned that it converts almost everything he eats into muscle, blood, bone, tendons, ligaments, organs, teeth and hair. Anything but embonpoint.
So he has a muscular body. But what can he do with it? How strong is he when compared with the best lifters in the other 10 powerlifting classes? Let's look at the deadlift, because it's the basic test of body strength in athletics. It involves simply bending down, grasping a bar with both hands and then straightening the body to a normal standing position, arms down at the sides and the bar resting across the front of the thighs. It isn't a pretty athletic event in the way even a snatch can be in weightlifting, but a heavy deadlift is impressive.
Gant is the only man ever to deadlift more than five times his own weight. His lift was 638 in the 123-pound class, an attainment that, according to the Schwartz formula, which allows competitors of various sizes to compare lifting ability, gives him primacy over all powerlifters, past or present. Leaving aside the Schwartz formula and using the simpler pound-for-pound method of comparison, powerlifting's other world-record holders would have to lift the following amounts more than their marks to reach five times their own weight (assume a 325-pound lifter in superheavyweight):
114-pound class 59.5 pounds
148-pound class 55.1 pounds
165-pound class 110 pounds
181-pound class 121.25 pounds
198-pound class 170.75 pounds
220-pound class 270 pounds
242-pound class 341 pounds
275-pound class 529 pounds
Superheavyweight 718 pounds
In the 132-pound class, in which he has won three of his nine world titles, Gant's world record is 654 pounds, seven pounds shy of five times his weight, but several times in practice he has lifted 661 pounds when his weight was 132 pounds or less. He has also done such stupendous training feats as 615 pounds for five repetitions and 500 for 20 reps.
Not surprisingly, Gant is ideally built for the deadlift. His trunk is extremely short for his height, which means that the lever arm made up of the distance from his shoulders to his hips is short. For reasons having to do with the basic law of mechanics, a man with a shorter lever arm can lift more than a man with a longer one, all other things being equal. Gant's arms also are relatively long (32" inseam), an advantage best understood by imagining how much easier the deadlift would be if you could put the bar up on blocks several inches high. In short—or, rather, in long—Gant's arms allow him the luxury of lifting the weight a shorter distance. Those long arms are partly responsible for the fact that, at the conclusion of a heavy deadlift, Gant's hands are only an inch or two above the tops of his kneecaps.
This causes anyone with experience in powerlifting who sees Gant deadlift for the first time to do a double take, because it somehow looks as if he were free of the obstacle any lifter encounters on any lift—the sticking point (or point of least leverage). Anyone who has bench-pressed knows the feeling: A weight that was easily lifted off the chest seems to run into a wall of resistance about halfway up to full arm extension. If the lifter is able to push through that wall, the resistance gradually disappears, making the last few inches of the bench press the easiest.
Part of what makes Gant's deadlifts so weird is that in this lift the sticking point for most people occurs at the area of the kneecaps, which also happens to be the area where Gant finishes—or, as strongmen say, locks out—his lift. Thus his deadlift seems devoid of a sticking point, an appearance that's deceiving, because Gant's sticking point simply comes somewhat earlier in the stroke, when the bar is at mid-shin.
Gant's apparent plasticity is deceiving, too. Though it seems during a lift that his arms somehow lengthen, that's obviously not the case. Instead, his back gets shorter—to an astonishing degree.
Common sense tells us that if a person has 500 or 600 pounds dangling at the ends of his arms, he'll be a bit shorter than would otherwise be the case. But the slight settling of a normal, straight spine would hardly account for a lockout position as low as Gant's. What accounts for it is a severe case of a spinal abnormality known as scoliosis, the lateral curvature of the spine.
Scoliosis afflicts approximately 5% of the U.S. population and is about five times more common in women than in men. It usually manifests itself early in adolescence, and some experts think the condition may be triggered by hormonal changes at puberty. Researchers in Japan, however, believe scoliosis stems from inner ear or balance problems, and studies done in Israel suggest platelet and enzyme abnormalities may be the culprits. Other experts suspect that an asymmetry of the growth areas of the vertebrae could be the cause of the condition.
Whatever its origin, scoliosis is serious, possibly even life-threatening, and it's progressive. In an average case, after an early period of rapidly increasing curvature, the condition worsens each year by about one degree. It's standard medical practice to keep scoliotics under careful observation if the curvature is 20 degrees or less, to apply a brace if the scoliosis is in the 20-to 40-degree range and to operate if the curvature exceeds 40 degrees. Gant's curvature is between 74 and 80 degrees.
His condition was discovered during a preseason football physical at the age of 14, but since his condition, as is almost always the case in the early stages, was painless, he continued to wrestle and play other sports until he was bitten by the iron bug later that year. His parents, middle-class people with roots in the South, weren't overly concerned, because both his mother and maternal grandmother also had slight lateral curvature and neither was particularly bothered by it. So Lamar continued to lift.
During the intervening 13 years, Gant has trained heavily and only twice been examined by a doctor. The first examination was done four years ago in Denver, and after a look at the X rays, the physician suggested corrective surgery. But as Gant was still free of pain and as he knew that rehabilitation would require him to refrain from lifting for two years, he chose to postpone the operation until after retiring from competition.
The second time Gant was examined was last July. This time the doctor was Robert E. Kappler, chairman of the department of osteopathic medicine at the Chicago Osteopathic Medical Center. Kappler has a special interest in sports medicine, and Gant was X-rayed not only in the regular way but also holding a barbell in the lockout position of a dead-lift. The idea was to determine how much lateral bending his spine undergoes during the lifting of a moderately heavy weight.
The process involved taking a thoracic X ray without weights and then taking others as Gant lifted, seriatim, 135, 225, 325 and 425 pounds. When the plates were developed, a progressive bending and settling of the spine could easily be seen, with the 425 pounds producing a curvature of more than 90 degrees. How much farther his spine bends when lifting a world-record weight can't be pinpointed because he strains too much with effort for a readable X ray to be taken. Still, it would be reasonable to conclude that the curvature would be more than 100 degrees. Indeed, as observers can attest, as the weight gets heavier, Gant gets shorter. As his spine flexes to the left under the compressive force of a heavy weight, his collarbones drop to within a few inches of the top of his lifting belt. It's as if his chest disappears.
Says Kappler, "Lamar's is a classic case of idiopathic scoliosis, meaning we don't know the origin of the condition. But I must say I've seen nothing in the literature at all like this, in which a person with such an advanced degree of curvature—so advanced that he'd be four to six inches taller without it—is nevertheless a world-class athlete. Most scoliotics are weaker than an average person of the same age. My guess—and it's only a guess—is that Lamar's heavy lifting and extraordinary musculature have helped him to be more stable then he otherwise would be. By that I don't mean to say," Kappler is careful to add, "that I would recommend heavy deadlifts as a treatment for teenagers with scoliosis, just that my hunch is that Lamar's instinct to keep training was a sound one."
One of the things about Gant's condition that remains unknown is whether it helps or hinders his performance in the deadlift. The improved leverage he gets from his foreshortened spine is important, and most lifters hold that the scoliosis helps him. But as Gant is wont to boom, "Hey, I'm doing most of the pulling with only one side of my spine. Think what I'd lift if I had two lumbars to lift with." Gant points out that the muscles along the inside of the curve of his spine never get as sore as those along the outside. This would seem to buttress his argument that he would lift even more with a straight spine than he does now.
His view is further bolstered by the fact that he's the only powerlifter to have held all four records—the three lifts and total pounds—in a single class (123). This would appear to indicate that Gant excels less on account of leverage than because of his extraordinary natural strength.
It's an accepted powerlifting rule of thumb that the long arms that make a deadlift easier are also going to make a bench press harder. Indeed, most of the top deadlifters are relatively poor bench pressers. Yet on three occasions, the long-armed Gant has held the 123-pound record in the bench press.
One reason he's able to excel in this lift is the exceptional flexibility of his hips and back, which permits him to form an upward arch between his hips and his shoulders, both of which must touch the bench at all times in competition. That arch is so high—a volleyball could pass through it—it eliminates most of the extra distance he would otherwise have to press the bar.
Gant worked to achieve such flexibility by forward and backward stretching exercises. And he works hard to maintain it, believing it important not only to his success in lifting but also to his success in what he knows will be a lifelong battle with the scoliosis. He knows, too, that flexibility is one of the cornerstones of good health, and he seems to be at least as interested in that as he is in being a successful athlete.
He also had good health—in the form of enhanced circulation and respiration—in mind last summer when he bicycled to work and back most days to a custodial job he then had in Loveland, Colo., a round trip of about 30 miles. And he runs or takes pleasure rides in the country on his bike or on horseback almost every clement weekend.
Cycling and running are extremely uncommon activities among athletes in the power sports. Such aerobic, sudoriferous forms of exercise rob the affected thews of explosiveness. That Gant can indulge in these activities and still maintain his lifting supremacy is a testament to both his natural superiority and his growing belief that good health outweighs gold medals.
"That cycling is good for me," he says, "and I'm going to keep right on with it. But I could tell I did too much this year right before the nationals, because old L.G. lost some of his spunk with the heavy weights."
Gant's singularity doesn't end with his cardiovascular exercising. Even his diet is unusual, consisting as it does these days almost entirely of fresh fruits, vegetables and eggs. Gant seems to enjoy breaking stereotypes, and he takes a particular delight in disproving the still prevalent myth of the muscle-binding effects of heavy lifting.
"I don't like all that insinuendo about lifters being tight," he says. "You got to be loose. Limber. Light on your feet. How else you gonna get dowwwnnnn?"
As his use of "insinuendo" indicates, Gant also tends to be intergalactical when it comes to words. He once defined scoliosis to a television commentator as "swervature of the spine." And who could forget Gant's saying that some particularly delicious chicken had been "serenaded all night" in a special sauce? Or his observation that the fields outside Fort Collins, Colo. were wet because they were "corrugated"? Through it all, he keeps hitting you with an absolute searchlight of a smile. And he winks from time to time as he rambles on about such matters as whether he'll develop "vertical veins" as his mother has.
But underneath Gant's lightness there's a deeper, more contemplative side. It recently manifested itself when he discussed which of the many foreign countries he has visited had affected him the most.
"It was India, no question," he said. "Calcutta, India was a trip. I saw some things there. Things that made you think. We had homeless people sleeping on every floor of our hotel. Every floor! And in the lobby and on the roof! I never saw such things. And I saw some things that made me ashamed. I saw two of the lifters on our team standing at their window laughing and tossing coins out to a big crowd of poor people, throwing coins this way and that way so the people would have to dive and scramble."
Unlike many U.S. athletes who spend their time overseas sprawled on their hotel beds grumbling about the unavailability of good hamburgers, Gant is likely to be out among the locals, doing his best—using a combination of smiles and that megaphonic voice—to communicate. In India, for instance, he not only wandered freely in the teeming streets of Calcutta, but he also got a date or two and was even invited by strangers to dine in their homes.
As for the dates, it must be admitted that one motivation for Gant's rambles in foreign lands is his desire for female companionship. Occasionally he's the team savior in this regard. For example, there was the time in Australia when he came bopping into the hotel disco with three or four young women in tow and announced with a stentorian cackle to several of his lovelorn teammates, "Never fear, L.G.'s here."
Where L.G.'s at concerning drugs is adamantly against them. "I remember Big Bill talking about steroids way back in Flint," he says. "He was always against them. And I just never paid them much mind. But on my first trip overseas—to England in 1975—a couple of the older guys came to me and told me all about how good the steroids were. They told me I'd deadlift 600 pounds if I took them. Well, I wound up deadlifting the 600 anyway, and both those guys have had drug troubles. I ain't going to be a slave to any drug. None of them are going to catch L.G."
Gant usually says little about steroids; he prefers to let his lifting talk for him. But when asked, he's forthright. One thing that has bothered him is that for years most of the powerlifting elite was skeptical, if not openly contemptuous, of his claims of being natural. Some lifters even called him a liar to his face. And others spread rumors that he took drugs secretly. Of course, such gossip hurt Gant's feelings, but since there was no testing done in powerlifting until 1982, Gant had no way of proving he was clean.
Finally, in 1981, Gant asked to take a lie detector test. "I wanted to have some kind of a comeback," he says, "and this was the best thing anybody could come up with."
He was tested in Auburn, Ala. by Mike Capps, a licensed polygraph examiner, who stated afterward that Gant had apparently never used any form of anabolic steroids or testosterone.
Further evidence came in 1982 at the World Powerlifting Championships in Munich, and although this evidence is primarily inferential, it's compelling. Three and a half months before the Munich meet, Gant won the 123-pound senior national championships, at which there was no drug testing, and qualified for a place on the U.S. team for the worlds. In West Germany, however, there was testing for the first time in men's powerlifting. The worlds saw drastic drop-offs in the performances of many of the top lifters. The 10 American entrants lifted a total of 1,267 fewer pounds in West Germany than they had 14 weeks before in the U.S. Gant set the only world mark of the competition, an anomaly in a sport in which records generally fall like leaves in a norther.
Obviously, Gant would like to see testing done at the U.S. senior national championships, because he fears that someday he'll be beaten by a drug user in the untested U.S. meet and therefore fail to qualify for the tested world championships. However, for reasons too varied and scrofulous to examine in detail here, the U.S. Powerlifting Federation has refused to conform to standards of international powerlifting.
One thing Gant has done to call attention to the USPF's resistance to drug reform was lift in the recent national championships of the new American Drug Free Powerlifting Association. A polygraph examiner hired by the ADFPA was instructed to determine if the lifters had used anabolic steroids, testosterone or growth hormone during the previous 12 months. When Gant took the test, however, he requested that the examiner ask not just about the previous 12 months but about his entire lifting career. And again, Gant convinced the examiner of his truthfulness. This isn't to say that such a test is absolute proof that he leads a steroid-free life, but only that his willingness to place his reputation at risk weighs heavily in support of his claim.
Gant intends to hammer home his no-drugs credo in a series of weight training courses he's writing. "I want kids to know how and why I did it," he says, "and I want them to believe they can get strong, too—without drugs."
Such a stance, taken by so eminent a lifter, has widespread implications for powerlifting. "For a great champion like Lamar to come to our meet—a man who has beaten everyone for years—is a real blessing," says Brother Bennet, a Sacred Heart lay brother who serves as ADFPA president. "We established the ADFPA to restore honor, fairness and integrity to our sport, and when we attract champions like Lamar who've never used drugs, and champions like John Kuc and Walter Thomas who used them for a time but wanted to find a better way, we know we must be doing something right."
And if Brother Bennet ever doubted that Gant is natural—in manner as well as in training methods—those doubts were dispelled by exchanges like this one, in which Gant asked Brother Bennet what his first name was.
"Well, Bennet's not my real name, you know," Brother Bennet responded. "My order gave me the name as a way to symbolize my disavowal of all worldly things."
"Wow! Disavowal! So what is your name, anyway?"
"Well, I'd rather not use my real name in public. My friends just call me Brother, or even Bennie. But usually it's just Brother."
"Brother. I got it. How 'bout it, Bro'? All riiighttt!"
What a shame it would be for this remarkable young man—a genuine amateur who works nights as a custodian in a National Cash Register office and pursues his sport because he's called to pursue it—to lose his streak of world titles to a bottle of pills or an injection. But artifices have so far been insufficient to unseat Gant. In fact, he has won for so long now that, were he to lose, it just wouldn't seem natural.