The name Paul Edward Anderson comes up in every conversation about great feats of strength. In his time he had proved himself in Olympic competition and was the strongest man of his era. But nearly six decades later, many of his lifts would challenge even today’s strongest men – some may never be exceeded. This is Anderson’s story.
Anderson was born in 1932 in the US in Toccoa, Georgia. Paul’s brother-in-law, Julius Johnson, claimed that the first time Anderson tried squatting, he did 3 reps with 315 pounds. At the age of 19, after one year of training, Anderson weighed 275 pounds and had a 21 ½-inch neck, 20-inch arms, 33-inch thighs, 42-inch waist, 50-inch chest and 19-inch calves – all at a height of 5-feet-9 ½ inches. At age 20, under the scrutiny of Amateur Athletic Union officials, Anderson squatted 660 pounds when the world record in the squat was 629 ½ pounds.
It was reported that during this time Anderson often visited the York Barbell Club in York, Pennsylvania. Former Mr. America Jules Bacon, who managed a local foundry, designed a special cambered bar for Anderson, as straight bars would often slide off his shoulders. During his training sessions at York, Anderson was known to have squatted several sets of doubles with 720 pounds. As proof, on July 25, 1953, at an exhibition in Norfolk, Virginia, Anderson squatted 762 ½ pounds, nearly 100 pounds over the world record of that time. Anderson took the expression “raw lifting” to another level – he performed the lift barefoot!
As there were no powerlifting competitions at the time, Anderson took up Olympic lifting. On December 27, 1952, he won the Tennessee State Championship with a 275-pound press, a 225 snatch and a 300 clean and jerk. By March 21, 1953, he had improved to 300/250/325; and in a meet in Cleveland on May 17, 1953, Anderson jumped to 300/270/370. Impressive lifts, for sure, but at that competition Anderson unfortunately was up against Canadian strongman Doug Hepburn, who did 360/290/360. Later that year Hepburn earned the title of Strongest Man in the World by ending John Davis’s undefeated career at the world championships, totaling 1,030 in the three lifts to Davis’s 1,009.
At this time Anderson’s focus was on Olympic lifting. In an article written about Anderson by Osmo Kiiha, a typical weekend workout for Anderson would consist of three training sessions (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and would look like this:
Press: 320 pounds, many sets of 2 reps
Dumbbell Press: 135, up to 7 sets of 3 reps
Press Behind Neck: To pump up the shoulder area
Snatch: Singles, working up from 225 to 300
Squat Clean: Singles, up to 400 pounds.
Deadlift: 690 x 2 sets of 3 reps
High Pulls to Waist: 500 x 4 sets of 3 reps
As for diet, I need to mention that Anderson was born with a chronic inflammation of the tissues of the kidneys called chronic nephritis (or Bright’s disease, as it was called at that time). The disease eventually led to Anderson’s death in 1994. When he was very young, his doctors prescribed a diet that he described as being focused on fruit juices and starchy food and having little protein. His condition did not improve, and so his mother started feeding him protein-rich foods such as poultry, eggs and fish. “Almost immediately I could feel these foods taking hold of my weakened body, and filling it with much-needed strength,” says Anderson. “Unlike the predictions of the doctors concerning such a diet, my body started getting stronger and stronger and my vital organs also began to pick up the endurance and strength that they needed to carry on my body function.”
From that point, Anderson became a believer in the power of protein, but his obsession for finding new ways to provide his body with protein resulted in some rather odd nutritional practices. “I tried one time to drink pure beef blood,” says Anderson. “This food that many of the old-time strongmen used is quite hard to secure, but I found one meatpacking house that would furnish it for me. Especially in this procedure, one has to have a person that he can trust to secure the blood, and of course to secure it in a sanitary manner, and then be quite discreet in what type animal the blood is taken from. To keep the blood from coagulating I found that a little citric acid mixed with water, previously placed in the container would do the trick.” Yecch!
In 1955 at an exhibition in Russia, Anderson captured the attention of the world when he became the first man to Olympic press 400 pounds.
By the spring of 1954 Anderson’s growing strength was often documented in Strength and Health, the iron game’s premier magazine. One reason for his popularity in S&H was that the magazine staff had seen Anderson work out at the York Barbell Club Gym (which was located in the same building as the magazine's headquarters). By this time Anderson could squat 820, deadlift 700 without straps, bench press 3 sets of 2 reps with 410, and do quarter squats with 1,800. He did have a setback, however, which was a broken wrist that occurred when he jammed his elbow against his knee in the clean. He was also in an automobile accident that reportedly injured his hip and several ribs, thus preventing him from competing in the world championships that year. His injuries did heal completely, and in December 1954Anderson pressed an American record of 364.
The 1955 Senior Nationals were held on June 4-5 in Cleveland, Ohio. Anderson pressed 390, snatched 320, and clean and jerked 436 ½ pounds. But the big event that got the attention of the weightlifting world and mainstream media was a trip to Russia for an exhibition in which Anderson attempted to break the world record in the press. A newsreel was produced of the event, in which narrator Bud Palmer described what took place during Anderson’s press: “The Russians snickered as Anderson gripped the bar, which was set at 402.5 pounds, an unheard-of lift. But their snickers quickly changed to awe and all-out cheers as up went the bar and Anderson lifted the heaviest weight overhead of any human in history.” It was also reported that the Russians had nicknamed Anderson, “Mr. America,” but the title that stuck in the US was “The Dixie Derrick.”
Later that year, at the world championships in Munich, Anderson broke the world record in the press with 408 ½ pounds and 1,129 ½ pounds in the total. Anderson’s closest competitor was James Bradford, an American who totaled a distant 82 ½ pounds less.
On June 2 at the 1956 Senior Nationals, held in Philadelphia, Anderson weighed 340 pounds and did 400/335 /440. But prior to the Olympic game he acquired an infection in his throat and inner ear that affected his balance and which, along with a fever, left him well off his best – in fact, he weighed in at “only” 303 pounds. At the Olympics, after Argentina’s Humberto Selvetti finished his clean and jerks with 396 pounds, Anderson opened with 413 pounds to try to win on bodyweight. He missed the first two attempts, failing to hold the weight overhead motionless for two seconds. With the gold medal or a bomb-out on the line, Anderson successfully lifted the weight on his final attempt. Since then, no other American super heavyweight has won Olympic gold.
Anderson turned professional after this competition to help raise money for the Paul Anderson Youth Home, a home for boys that he opened in 1961 in Vidalia, Georgia. He raised money by doing a strongman act and participating in professional wrestling. As for the question of what Anderson could have lifted in the classical lifts had he continued to compete, in 1969 he told a former Strength and Health writer that in training he eventually did a 485 press, 375 snatch, 485 clean and jerk, and a 560 push press. As for his measurements, at his peak he supported a 25-inch neck, 36-inch thighs, 22-½ inch arms, 58-inch chest and 20-inch calves.
Regarding his workouts after his Olympic lifting career, Anderson reportedly trained for several hours in sessions that were characterized by low reps, heavy weights and lots of rest time – perhaps as much as 30 minutes between sets with maximal weights. Here is a sample squat workout:
Full squat: 600 x 2 sets x 10 reps
825 x 2
845 x 2
900 x 2
Half squat: 1200 x 2
Quarter squats: 1800 x 2
Deadlift: 650 x 4 sets x 6-8 reps
In the presence of witnesses, Anderson squatted 1,200 pounds and completed 10 reps with 900, and his proficiency in this lift should be credited for helping to popularize the lift. He also did a one-arm press with 380 pounds, and he made the Guinness Book of World Records by hoisting 6,270 pounds on June 12, 1957, in Toccoa, Georgia. He weighed 364 pounds at the time. I should note that Anderson had relatively small hands, and to reinforce his grip he used a pair of metal hooks attached to his wrists. With weightlifting great Tommy Kono as a witness, using these hooks Anderson was able to pull a 1,000-pound deadlift.
Regarding his personal life, in 1959 Anderson married Glenda Garland and in 1966 they had a daughter, Paula.
In an article reflecting on his success, Anderson said, “I think, basically, the main thing that an athlete needs to become great is the will. Naturally, everyone has different potentials, but the person who will endure almost any discomfort to achieve his ultimate potential is the one who is going to achieve championship caliber.” Well said!
Rare video footage of Paul Anderson squatting with ponderous weights using homemade exercise apparatus.