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Brains and Brawn… Bob Simpson: Hiding in Plain Sight

BY ALEX CAMPBELL

After dabbling in strength for a few years, Bob Simpson was ready to advance his training to unprecedented levels. He noticed that several amazing lifters from this area (who just happened to also be the strongest in the world), Bob Peoples and Paul Anderson, used many partial lifts in their training.

They would just take as much weight as possible and move it for half a lift or even a quarter of a lift. Many people cautioned him against this type of training saying it would not work.

When Simpson brought up the lifting legends from decades before that swore by that training, people would just dismiss it and tell him it was still a bad idea.

Simpson, never being one to follow the beaten path, decided to begin pushing his partial lifts in training. His body responded rapidly. His best overhead press in the competition was 250 pounds.

After training the partials, his lifts skyrocketed. Simpson said that he fell in love with partial training, and after what he told me next, why wouldn’t he?

“Did you ever compete?” I asked. “I didn’t compete long,” he said.

In the last competition he did, he pressed 250. “I hadn’t really started to do partials and get strong yet” he added. After his overhead press began to skyrocket, he put all of his efforts into his new style of training.

Soon he claimed he did a quarter overhead press with 1,094 pounds, a half-press with 617 pounds, and a full range press of 551 pounds. With progress like that, he said he never went back to training full-range lifts again.

You need to understand the calm and confidence with which he tosses around numbers like this. He never raises his voice above a whisper, and if you saw his facial expression, you would think he was describing something as mundane as cutting the grass or going shopping.

Maybe we need to put these feats in perspective.

Currently, the heaviest documented overhead press is a tie between Dimitar Savatinov (a Bulgarian Strongman weighing 330 pounds) and Chingiz Mogushkov (a Russian Olympic lifter weighing a massive 429 pounds).

Both men are well-known and well-respected athletes in their respective sports with championships and records to prove it. Bob Simpson was a 240-pound ghost that most in the lifting world even knew existed.

When I asked him if he ever wanted to compete and set some records, he simply said, “no”. Then he added, “World records are insignificant, someone else is going to take that away someday and do it. What is going to happen even if you lifted the whole world? You wouldn’t have a podium to stand on.”

Maybe he saw the little sliver of doubt in my eyes. How could this feeble old man on a cane sipping coffee and wearing a jacket on a 90-degree day ever be strong enough to complete lifts that 50 years later are still unable to be matched by men almost twice his size?

He added with a smile, “I think some people may look back and think I was like one of the old high school football players who say, ‘The older I get, the better I was.’”

Just as casually as he threw out those gaudy numbers, he continued by saying that he wanted to do more, but his equipment could not handle the extra stress.

The bar had already run out of room for weight, and he had taken to tying 100-pound dumbbells to the bar. “If one of those came off or the bar broke or bent, I would have been in a lot of trouble,” he quipped. Indeed, he would with that much weight over his head.

Granted Simpson had huge arms and a short a stocky build that could allow for a lot of power, but what he was saying was almost unfathomable.

Yes, he was best friends with the world-record-holding phenom Bob Peoples, but how could any man best the best lifts of today 50 years ago and so few people ever know of him?

I knew Simpson too well for me to think he was lying to me, but how could this be the truth?

As whispers of doubt crept into the back of my mind, Simpson slid a 3-ring binder across the table, and in the back was a manilla envelope. Inside was the proof to silence any naysayer.

It is for the benefit of history that one person cared enough to hunt down Simpson in his prime. Simpson had just moved from Memphis to Knoxville, and someone tipped off the Knoxville News Sentinel that a very strong man had just moved into the city.

Simpson arranged to meet the reporter at the YMCA so they could do a story and get some photographs of his exploits.

As I opened the envelope, there it was. A younger version of the man in front of me politely sipping his coffee with 617 pounds pressed over his head.

The reporter who witnessed the feat called Simpson, “one of the strongest men alive”.

But it was more than that. If he actually pressed that weight over his head, then more than likely his other lifts were legitimate too. And he wasn’t just telling me about one of his lifts either.

Simson went on to tell me about his dumbbell curls with 164-pound dumbbells without cheating after doing partial curls with 245-pound dumbbells for three repetitions.

Also recorded was an amazing partial bent row with 631, a jaw-dropping partial upright row of 485 pounds, an unfathomable nearly complete range of motion 420-pound skull crusher, an incredible quarter front squat at close to 1,100 pounds, and shrugs with over 1,000 pounds.

In front of me in black and white was proof that not only were these amazing exploits possible but proof of something more.

Maybe the greatest people in their field are not famous professionals. Maybe the best cook in the world is not a professional chef that has their own overpriced restaurant and TV show, but a quiet little granny with her hair in a bun baking pies for the church social.

Maybe the smartest man in the world is not an MIT professor but an elderly man with a voracious appetite for reading and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge with a dusty old study at home.

And maybe the strongest lifter ever was not in the record books or on an Olympic podium, but the quiet man who worked for Parks Belk raised his family and was sitting in front of me finishing off his last cup of coffee, unable to drive because of his heart attack and multiple strokes.

It seemed that the quiet man I happened upon at the local high school meet with the giant arms and a gentle personality who now sat tucked away in the booth at IHOP was indeed one of the strongest men to ever live.

However, no matter how strong he was, there was one adversary that had finally caught up with him.

To be continued…