Lessons From a Modern Strongman: Dave “Iron Tamer” Whitley

Dave’s upcoming book is on the bent press, an old technique which allows more weight overhead than most every other movement.

Some people break world records in strength (e.g., Andy Bolton), while others show amazing virtuosity in their movements (e.g., Dusty Hyland). Dave “Iron Tamer” Whitley falls someplace in between as he shows amazing strength and grace in his old time strongman feats of strength.

Learning From the Incredible Hulk and Pavel Tsatsouline

Dave Whitley grew up like many kids thinking about comic book heroes and their super strength. His favorite was the Incredible Hulk. As a child, he saw Lou Ferrigno play the Hulk on television and he put it together that people could become strong like in the comic books.

It was then that I made that connection between the comic book stuff, that’s not real. … I was still a kid. I knew that was a fantasy thing. I understood that no one was going to get exposed to radiation and develop superpowers or get bitten by a spider or anything like that…I knew that, but seeing Ferrigno on television, painted green, playing the Hulk, I had never seen anyone that looked like that. …Somewhere in that TV series, the connection between the fantasy of the comic book and the reality of the human being that could become this huge, massive specimen, and also be very, very strong, that became real to me. It became a possibility.

This led Dave on a journey to become strong himself. He meandered through many different training protocols that he read about in bodybuilding magazines. It wasn’t until he attended one of the first kettlebell certifications run by Pavel Tsatsouline that he solidified the principles of strength.

It was complex subject matter that was being presented very simply that even a country boy from Tennessee could understand. His writing style … appealed to me, and then after I met him, real surprised that the guy who wrote the book and the guy who I was talking to were the same guy. He wasn’t assuming some sort of a posturing and pretending to be somebody that he wasn’t. … That paradigm shift was pretty important to me. Understanding that a lot of the methodology and principles that were contained within the system that Pavel put together that some of it he had interpreted in his own way with his own spin on it, but most of it was stuff that he had collected from various different sources and put together in a way that was cohesive and made sense.

The Surprising Benefits of the Bent Press

For the last eleven years, Dave has been refining his technique and getting stronger. He became a Master Instructor with Pavel’s organizations (first the RKC and now the new organization, StrongFirst). During that time, he also undertook a journey in learning the secrets of the old-time strongmen. He studied all of their writings and examined thousands of pictures to learn their techniques and training methods.

One outcome of his studies is an upcoming book on the bent press, a famous old-time strongman technique. The bent press allows a person to put up more weight overhead than most every other movement.

 The mechanics of bent press are such that you can put more weight over head with one hand in that fashion, any other way that I know of or than anyone else that I know knows of. More than you can with a strict press, more than you can jerk, more than you can push press. More weight, if you know what you’re doing, can go up with bent press with one hand than any other way. A lot of the old timers, guys like Arthur Saxon and his brothers Kurt and Herman, Sandow, and Sig Klein, a bunch of these old time strongmen, back when it was a very popular lift, could do as much or more weight with one hand in the bent press than they could with two hands in the strict barbell military press, which I find fascinating.

I started following the beta version of Dave’s new bent press book. I never thought I could do a bent press due to limitations in thoracic spine mobility. However, following the protocol gave me the thoracic mobility that is needed. As with everything, it is probably good to do things that are difficult.

It’s this advanced thing that is tough to do. A lot of people will try it once or twice and not pick it up immediately say, Oh, no. This is really hard to do. I’m not even going to bother with it because I don’t have the mobility to do it right. I can’t access the positions that I need. …I got to thinking about it maybe that’s just completely backwards. Maybe the bent press, if you learn how to do it and work on it for a few weeks or a few months, will improve the qualities that you’re lacking in being able to execute the bent press in the first place. … It’s a lot like people say, “Oh, I can’t deadlift. I’ve got a weak back.” Well, you have a weak back because you don’t deadlift. Learn how to deadlift right and your back will get stronger.

Dave often quotes Jon Engum, who says something like, “The secret to happiness in life is to put heavy stuff over your head.” Learning the bent press has given me great happiness.

The Iron Tamer has definitely learned how to utilize his strength by using old-time strongman techniques and the methods espoused by StrongFirst. In the second part of this interview, we’ll learn some of the most important techniques involved in strength and we will also get to see the Iron Tamer’s excellent coaching techniques.

Photo 2 by CBS Television (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.