I was proud to know Lamar Gant. He was one of my very few idols. His strength feats are storybook stuff. Nobody will ever match this mini-monster’s records. Lamar won his first world championships at age 16 in 1975. Lamar won his last world championship in 1990. In the interim years he accumulated sixteen world championships. That is no typo Jack. No powerlifter has ever won more world championships.
Lamar competed in two powerlifting weight classes, the 123-pound class and the 132-pound class. He set 71 world records and was the first powerlifter in history to hold the world record in all three lifts simultaneously. Lamar set more deadlift records than anyone and no other lifter has come close to exceeding his all time best deadlifts in either the 123 or the 132-pound class, this is still the case, 28 years after his retirement.
His deadlift feats are mind-blowing. He pulled 623-pounds in the 123-pound weight class and an unfathomable 688-pounds weighing 132-pounds. He was the first and only human to deadlift five times bodyweight; this feat was accomplished when he deadlifted 661 weighing 130-pounds. Gant was no one-lift specialist. Lamar barbell squatted a mind-blowing 615-pounds in the 132-pound class. He also raw bench pressed a 352-pound world record weighing 132. In his bench press, Lamar had an incredible arch. He could bend his spine to such a degree that his flat bench became a short-stroked decline bench press. His squats were super deep with a lot of forward bend.
Lamar had idiopathic scoliosis, curvature of the spine. Under stress, like say a 660-pound deadlift, Lamar’s spine would collapse in a compressed S-shape. Combined with his long arm and short torso, he had the perfect structural leverage for the deadlift. Yet he set world records in the bench press where his ungodly long arms worked against him and he set world records in the squat, a lift he was built all wrong for.
I got to know Lamar and coached him at three national championships when he lifted for Black’s Gym. He was already a ten-time world champion when I started working with him. He was the easiest world-level lifter I’ve ever worked with. At the national and world championships he was unflappable. Quiet, alert, sharp as a tack, he truly was unconcerned with competitors (he really had none) and exhibited workman-like composure at all major competitions.
Before the competition he and I would talk and establish his warmup attempts for all three lifts. We would work out the timing of his warm-up attempts and I would purposefully talk to him as little as possible. What needed to be said? This was the ten-time world champion and he did not need juvenile exhortations. My job was to do everything necessary to allow him to get centered and focused.
He would put on the headphones, listen to his music and get in the zone. We would load his barbell and every five minutes he would take a successively heavier warmup attempt. When it was time for us to make our way from the backstage warm-up room to the weightlifting platform, I would signal him with a raised finger and he’d nod. We’d make our way to the lifting platform and stand at the chalk box as he psyched.
Prior to the lift, I’d say the usual pre-lift coach/athlete prattle - that I doubt he even heard. I’d help him affix his weightlifting belt, which he uniquely wore backwards and instead of having the belt cinched round his waist he wore it higher, around his lower ribs. This was his fulcrum point, not his waist. I assumed the unique belt position was related to his unique condition. Once belted and while chalking up, Lamar would flip a switch. At the last moment possible moment, he would put himself into a transcendental trance state that had to be seen to be appreciated.
His eyes would get wide and you could see him morph from man into Superman, all inside ten seconds. It was freaky and done with a degree of internal self-control that I’ve never seen before or since. How do you artificially manipulate psyche so severely and so instantaneously? The first time I witnessed his pre-lift psyche, up close, I involuntarily took a step back – it was like turning a corner and encountering a wolverine, teeth bared, three feet in front of you. He’d wheel around and stalk to the barbell like a jungle cat. He never missed.
For the first fifteen years of powerlifting’s existence there was only one national federation, the United States Powerlifting Federation, and one international governing body, the IPF, the International Powerlifting Federation. There was one national champion and one world champion per weight class per year. Nowadays there are a dozen powerlifting federations holding national and world championships. Now, as Bubba Gump might say about shrimp, “…you have yer world championship of Ohio and world championships of Pennsylvania…don’t forget the world championships of Florida or the world championships of Texas.” Back when Lamar lifted there was only one world championship and one world champion.
For the first ten years of Lamar’s career the national committee would pay the hotel and airfare for the defending national champions. For the first ten years of powerlifting’s existence the national committee would pay for airfare, hotel and provide a food per diem for American national champions being sent to the world championships. That all went out the window when powerlifting lost its lucrative contract with ABCs Wide World of Sports and the national committee was bankrupted with the advent of drug testing.
Testing athletes is expensive. The money formerly set aside for the athletic travel fund was now diverted to testing and to lawyers defending the federation from drug-testing related suits bought by athletes. Lawyers defended the federation from lawsuits bought by rival powerlifting federations. It was criminal that the world’s greatest lifter now had to struggle to pay his own way to national and world championships.
One story told of the time Lamar approached Powerlifting USA owner and editor Mike Lambert the day after winning the world title (in Europe) and explained to Mike that he did not have a plane ticket home, and could Mike lend him enough money to make it back to Denver. Mike, being a fan and knowing Lamar’s greatness, lent him the money. Lamar lugged home the outstanding lifter award from the world championships. He had to sit it on his lap the entire 12-hour trip because it wouldn’t fit in the overhead and was to fragile to ship. Pathetic. Lawyers thrived at athlete’s expense. No wonder Shakespeare had Dick the Butcher in Henry VI say, '''The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'' Worst of all, Lamar was a lifetime 100% drug free athlete for whom all the drug controversies and fistfights were meaningless and inconsequential.
After the world championships there was always a banquet and Lamar showed he was not only the world’s best powerlifter, he was also powerlifting’s best dancer. He was a fabulous dancer who obviously took his cues from Soul Train. The European women could not get enough of the diminutive muscleman. Like Prince, Lamar was a proud sexy little man.
One afternoon during a break in the lifting at the national championships, a bunch of Black’s Gym team members went to lunch. Lamar was with us. He had lifted and crushed the competition the day before. He was done and relaxed and open. I made the most of it, sitting across from the normally reserved man, I peppered him with questions.
What was his rationale for his unique, “slowed lowering” prior to a deadlift. When Lamar strode to the lifting platform and stood over the barbell he would begin a slow-motion robotic descent to the Olympic bar. He told me he was ‘building tension.’ He observed that “On the squat and bench press, we begin the lift with the eccentric, the negative, the lowering. This allows us to use gravity to build tension. I brake as the eccentric ends and the concentric commences. This creates tremendous tension and makes the pull easier. I create artificial tension by flexing and tensing as I lower myself down to start a deadlift. I am creating an invisible negative.”
He stood up from the table and invited me to do the same. He began to do his patented slow-lowering and invited me to., “Feel my traps and erectors as I lower.” He didn’t have to ask me twice. Even through his shirt, his erectors and traps were the hardest, most fat-free muscles I had ever felt, like polished marble. He coiled as he dropped down and at the bottom his body vibrated with tension. Incredible.
His brand of forged passion was an uncanny ability to overcome a never-ending series of adversities yet year after year he won, not just winning but vaporizing the best powerlifters in the world. His 688-pound deadlift at 132-pounds was done after squatting 588. Never forget that. Someday some single-lift deadlift specialist will come along and break Lamar’s 688. He will be hailed as the greatest of all time – please do me a favor and ask the one-lift specialist to go back and squat 580 first.
Do yourself a favor and spend some time looking at Lamar Gant’s lifts on YouTube. We will never, ever see his like again. Ever. Period.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.