Brains and Brawn… Bob Peoples and his night in Music City

Published 10:30 pm Thursday, December 16, 2021

BY ALEX CAMPBELL
Bob Peoples went back to the mountains of East Tennessee after breaking the world record with 699 pounds on his deadlift but falling short, because of a technicality, of the 700 pounds he had hoped.

Despite the letdown of not being able to be the first man to officially deadlift the 700, he was feeling great about his strength. He certainly had been on a roll the last year after hitting the official world record of 651 at the 1946 Tennessee State Weightlifting Championships and now the 1947 Bob Hise YMCA show where he lifted the 699. However, Peoples knew he was also facing a problem.

Peoples had turned his back into a human forklift. The intrepid mountain farmer had no doubt the strongest low back in the world at the time, but to push over the 700 barrier he realized he had a weakness.

Pictures of “Mr. Deadlift” show that he was quite lanky for his height of 5’10” and less than 180 pounds. He also carried most of his mass in his back and torso. His legs and arms, although muscular were sleek and svelte. He knew that he had the back for heavier lifts, but he needed more leg drive.

Bob had always been an athlete that worked his body in many ways – he wrestled, boxed, and played football in his younger days. As he aged, he also rode a horse up and down the mountains and did backbreaking farm labor.

Recently he was the multi-time state champion in weightlifting, and now reigning strongest deadlifter on the planet. He had trained his body with many different types of lifts including the squat, but it was time to take that lift to another level.

Other lifters would have just done a few more squats, added an extra leg exercise per week, or moved leg training to the front of his workout, but Peoples was no ordinary man. His legs didn’t just need to be a little stronger but powerful enough to lift weights no one had ever lifted before, and for that, he would have to train like no one had trained before.

Of all the powerful muscles that Peoples possessed, his brain might have been the strongest. His set his mind to work on how to make his legs stronger without much equipment or money to sink into the endeavor.

He rethought leg training as no one ever had. He needed to squat massive poundage, weights that on many days he was not sure he could complete. Getting stuck in the bottom of a squat with a weight you can’t lift is a dangerous place.

So, Peoples just invented a new piece of equipment which has become a staple of every serious gym in the world, the power rack. With huge timbers mounted vertically into the sub-floor of his house, he could put sawhorses behind him and metal pipes or bars running horizontally to catch the weight if it overwhelmed him.

People then needed to figure out how to allow himself to lift unprecedented poundage on the top part of his squat without having to buy rare and expensive weights. He opted for taking a car axle-sized metal pipe and hanging 45-gallon steel barrels off each end with chains. Then he loaded the barrels up with cinder blocks for weight. With this set up he could add unheard of weights with little expense.

Finally, Peoples created a hands-free squat harness to hold the bar on his back when he was lifting without using his hands. Heavy squats with massive loads on a bar placed across the upper back can be a tremendous stress on the shoulders.

Peoples realized that to lift the weights he needed to make his legs stronger, he might also be damaging his shoulders. Therefore, he took flat-stock steel and shaped it to fit over his shoulders. Then he attacked long screws through the contraption so the bar could rest against them and not roll off his shoulders.

With each passing workout training with his new implements of torture, Peoples’ leg strength grew. He felt stronger than ever and ready to show the world that the 700-pound deadlift was no match.

He had only to select the right place to display his strength. In that day, there were not many weightlifting events to compete in, so Peoples had to find the right meet. He heard that a special event was being held again in his home state of Tennessee, but this time in Nashville.

The YMCA was hosting a variety show in December and People wanted to close out the year with a mighty present for the world of strength. But unlike last time, when he and the massive Bill Boones headlined the show by going face to face to determine the strongest back on the planet, he would have to compete with the most famous female strength athlete in history…Pudgy Stockton.

Pudgy Stockton was the first female strength superstar and cashing in on her new-found notoriety, she had booked a series of shows across America. On the Southern part of her tour, Pudgy was not traveling alone.

The female phenom was also bringing along two other famous strength athletes in her husband, Les Stockton, and John Farbotnik. Pudgy had just organized the first women’s weightlifting competition in 1947, where she not only oversaw the event, but also competed and won.

Les was her husband and participated in weightlifting, wrestling, and gymnastics but also became famous as the other half of a strength acrobatic act with his wife. Farbotnik was coming off back-to-back top 5 finishes at the Mr. Universe and Mr. America bodybuilding competitions.

These three famous strength performers, hailing from Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California planned to storm across the South and wow the crowds. The organizers of the YMCA variety show in Nashville thought it might be nice to add a little local flavor by inviting the home state strongman, Peoples.

If Pudgy and her friends thought they were going to storm into town and show the backwoods hillbillies of Tennessee what strength was all about while Bob Peoples played second fiddle, they had another thing coming.