At the strongman portion of this year's Arnold Classic, which took place on March 3rd and 4th in Columbus, Ohio a major strength record fell, a top competitor tore his biceps, and reigning World's Strongest Man Brian Shaw emerged victorious in the overall standings, once again edging out Game of Thrones' Hafpor Bjornsson for first place.
Jerry Pritchett, who finished third in the event, wowed the crowd with a longbar deadlift of 1,031 pounds, surpassing by six pounds a world record set by Eddie Hall in 2015. Such numbers seem absurd when the headlines accompanying videos of the lifts are shared on social media, but they are very real.
The more pressing question, however, is how much further human beings can push such records, given the limitations imposed by bone structure as well as concerns for the health and safety of the lifters.
"In terms of athletes who are using performance-enhancing drugs, there is the potential for continued improvement," fitness journalist Anthony Roberts told Motherboard. "We have another 50 to 100 pounds on the raw bench press record, for sure. Remember, powerlifting is still a fringe sport, and the best athletes in the world aren't powerlifting."
Evidence for Roberts' point can be seen from the fact that many strength sport champions, ranging from current competitors like Brian Shaw and reigning Mr. Olympia Phil Heath to retired legends such as Bill Kazmaier and Ronnie Coleman, were all college athletes who transitioned to powerlifting and bodybuilding after their earlier athletic careers had ended. Other once-promising lifters, such as Mark Henry and 1970s star Ken Patera, transitioned from Olympic weightlifting and strongman events to more lucrative fields like professional wrestling.
Mark Bell, who has set several powerlifting records, believes that a few of the best active powerlifting and strongman athletes will rewrite the record books before they retire. "Brian Shaw has a long way to go, as far as reaching his limits in strongman," he said. "And there are still ceilings left to reach on the powerlifts. We can get the bench to 800 pounds if someone like Kirill Sarychev, who I think has the body frame for it, by which I mean the height and the bone density, is willing to gain the weight he needs to gain, by whatever means necessary."
Weight gain, of course, remains a sticking point for many lifters. Lots of people, Bell included, don't want to walk around at 400-plus pounds, even if that would mean a better chance at achieving personal-best and world-record lifts "We're talking huge amounts of weight, and that means huge amount of fat, and both the lifters and their significant others might not be too fond of that in the long term," he said.
More than just numerical records, Bell awaits the evolution of the next generation of biofeedback science, which might take the lifting community beyond the current limitations established by nutrition, training, and performance enhancers. "You're seeing the arrival of rate of perceived exertion training protocols in powerlifting, as in other sports, where you're getting athletes to respond on a one-to-ten scale in terms of what they're doing, with the aim of placing their repetitions for a day between seven and eight on that scale," he said.
I want to see men become as big and powerful as gorillas. I want Harambe to come back to life, only this time he's human—he's one of us.
One of the most significant limitations on the improvements of these athletes is that almost no formal scientific work on heavy-duty performance enhancing drug usage has been undertaken by American scientists. Unlike in the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic, where state-supervised athletic doping and meticulous record-keeping resulted in tremendous Olympic performances as well as notorious scandals, the formal adherence of this country's national sports teams to the World Anti-Doping Code has meant that athletes have had to experiment with these drugs in secret. "Replicating real life AAS abuse patterns which involve vastly supraphysiologic multidrug regimens and other high risk behaviours in scientific studies is neither possible nor ethical," observed Ada Cheung and Mathis Grossman in a recent paper on anabolic steroids that appeared in the journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology.
Further complicating matters is the fact that many fitness and nutrition companies often hire researchers to carry out flawed studies that return favorable results for their legal but frequently ineffective products. In one recent example of this phenomenon, a group of scientists criticized a paper written by Jacob Wilson and Ryan Lowery claiming that the dietary supplement beta-hydroxy-beta-methylburate free acid (colloquially labelled "HMB") had muscle-building results that exceeded even those of anabolic steroids. Critics had already been demanding that these two authors share their suspect data, but Wilson and Lowery have yet to respond to requests for that data or for the disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest with nutrition companies that might have sponsored their work.
Aaron Cook, an amateur powerlifter who told Motherboard he attended the Arnold Classic in part because he wanted to see various strength records being broken, explained that his interest in both bodybuilding and powerlifting stems from the impressive progress the athletes continue to make. "I want to see men become as big and powerful as gorillas," he said. "I want Harambe to come back to life, only this time he's human—he's one of us."