Thomas Inch is a well known oldtime strongman. He was most famous for his unliftable Inch dumbbell. This dumbbell has a handle that is 2 3/8” thick and weighs about 172 lbs. At that time no one could supposedly lift the bell off the ground with one hand except for Inch. Today many strongmen have done this and more. That’s not to say its an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination. Here is a video of Thomas Inch in action.
Thomas Inch On Strength is probably Inch’s most well known book (back in his time as well as now). But he was a prolific writer with many other books like Strength Secrets, Instructions on Advanced Exercises, Will and Nerve Force in Relation to Physical Culture, A Manual of Physical Training and many more.
Here is a list of the chapters in this book with a short description of each.
1 – STRONG MEN – ANCIENT AND MODERN
One of my favorite aspects about reading about the oldtime strongmen is them relating stories about others exploits. In this chapters Inch covers mythic figures as well as his contemporaries. If you’re a strongman you can get many ideas on feats of strength you can do in this chapter alone.
2 – METHODS OF MUSIC HALL STRONG MEN
This chapter briefly describes ten feats including card tearing, expander pulling, supporting weights, lifting human weights, cabinet posing, juggling, chain breaking, trestle act, bending and snapping pokers, and resisting the efforts of twelve men. You may find some useful information in here, like I did in bringing the shoulders together before pressing out a heavy expander.
3 – PHYSICAL CULTURE PITFALLS
This is one of my favorite chapters. If all people starting out in any strength training endeavor heeded the advice here they’d be starting well off. This includes all the big mistakes so many people make. I’ll be discussing some of these in more depth below in the lessons learned.
4 – MENTAL EFFICIENCY
Here is basically a call to action not to be “all muscles and no brains.” There is talk about emotional control, will power, thinking ability, personality and success. Its really to become a complete man (or woman) and not just a weightlifter. Of course with these skills you’ll be better in the gym too.
5 – GENERAL HYGIENE, INCLUDING BREATHING
Here is a call to do more then just exercise. This includes the basics of breathing, diet, sleep, drinking water, dental hygiene and more. Most people know this stuff but not everyone does it.
6 – DIET
Inch recommends a fairly standard diet. Of course, with the passage of 100 years the standard back then and now is quite different, nor was their the chemicals added and processing of today. Along with these he is a big proponent of Bovril and Hovis bread, which I’m not sure exist anymore.
7 – SPEEDWORK AND CHEST DEVELOPMENT
This chapter contains information on gaining speed for sports such as boxing and tennis. This includes the idea that all people even weightlifters would be wise to include some sort of speed work into their training regimen, even if just skipping rope. It also includes some info on chest expanders at the end.
8 – FOREARM DEVELOPMENT – THE GRIP
A very short chapter containing a few ideas and exercises on grip and forearm development. I got one useful idea from this I’ll explain below.
9 – ART OF FULL CONTRACTION
Inch says he found lots of muscle building success by getting into exercise positions of full contraction. And that neglecting these positions seemed to bring little results. Here expanders are shown in a number of exercises in order to get into these full contraction positions.
10 – THE BOXER’S TRAINING SYSTEM
Here Inch outlines a plan of training for a boxer using calisthenic exercises, skipping rope, shadow boxing and more. Of course much of this could apply to other sports or to general fitness.
11 – SELF-RESISTANCE EXERCISES
Here are 16 exercises with variations of self resistance exercises. These are basically the same as the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension exercises. As Inch promotes various “systems” he tells you what these exercises are good for and what they are not, instead of proclaiming them the one and only true way.
12 – STRENGTH – HOW DEVELOPED
More ideas on varying the work you do, the mental aspects of training, tips on going for new records, brute strength versus skilled work and more. This chapter gives you the frame of how Inch looked at lifting in general.
13 – MINIATURE WEIGHT-LIFTING
This is a short introduction to Inch’s method of what he called Miniature Weightlifting. This system of strength and muscle building relies on using relatively light weights in lifting and using scientific positions. This chapter does not include much on how to do it though.
14 – TRAINING FOR WEIGHT-LIFTING
Here are training tips on weightlifting for people wanting to compete. Inch has a strong call to learn the scientific positions and to not always go all out, but instead work with easier weights you know you can handle most of the time.
15 – HOW TO PERFORM THE RECOGNISED B.A.W.L.A. LIFTS AND OTHER STRONG MEN’S FEATS
Here are pictures and descriptions for 13 exercises: two hands clean and jerk, two hands snatch, single-handed clean lift to shoulder, single handed jerk, military press, single handed deadlift, single handed arm push, rectangular fix, changing a barbell overhead, barbell and kettlebell, double dumbbell swing, bent press, and two dumbbells anyhow.
Lessons Learned from Thomas Inch On Strength
Slow and Fast Lifting
There are many similarities between this book, at least as far as the weightlifting is concerned, and the work of Arthur Saxon. That’s no surprise as the two men were good friends. The call to do fast lifts along with slow ones was a lesson I learned with Saxon’s work. Here is a quote from this book about it.
“Do not practice a lot of slow, heavy work without the antidote of speed exercises and massage.”
Along with the speed work to keep you fast massage is encouraged, as it was by most oldtime strongmen. This is something I could do more of myself, if not paying for a masseuse, then just by applying self-massage.
The speed work can take many different forms like the quick barbell lifts, explosive kettlebell movements, or a variety of martial arts (though the combination of speed along with strength is important).
THE System vs. Many Systems
“Test your development out at sports and games, let one help the other”
“If each reader of this book will try out all the various methods he will be able to congratulate himself at the end of, say, a three months’ or six months’ course that he is possessed of a good all-round knowledge of physical culture systems.”
Inch seemed one of the few people, then and now, not to be locked into one system. For marketing purposes this certainly isn’t the best, as you can say your system is the best and all others are evil, but this is the truth. I’m of the same mindset and that’s why I’ve been called a Physical Culture Renaissance Man.
While some specialization is necessary if you want to go far, a little work in many different arenas has huge benefits. That’s why I lift barbells, do lots with kettlebells, tons of bodyweight work including hand balancing and gymnastics, crazy feats of strength and grip work and much more. Those are just the main things. I “play around” with clubs of various sorts, expanders and am always ready to jump into any physical activity or sport and have some fun. To be all-round fit you must practice it.
The Importance of Mental Training
“Far too many physical culturists, in their enthusiasm for physical development, never give a thought to mental training.”
“The brain rules all, there is no more fascinating study than that of the qualities of the mind, by which I mean practical psychology. If there are any readers who desire to take up a hobby, one which will help and advance them in the world, let them go in for the study of psychology. This will, naturally, include concentrative power, will power, suggestion and auto-suggestion, the sub-conscious mind, imagination and memory training.”
Again here I whole-heartedly agree with Inch. Too many people do neglect the mental side of training. That’s why I put together this Mental Training for Athletes package. It goes into the imagination, subconscious and auto-suggestion. In fact, many of the greatest books on this stuff come from time of Inch and I wouldn’t be surprised if he studied their works or knew them himself.
“If a heavy charge was made for the three foregoing, the “big three” of nature cure – fresh air, pure water and walking exercise – what a rush there would be for them!”
I liked this quote. It speaks to the fact that people don’t value what they don’t pay for. If you do these small, free and easy things then your health will be so much better then if you never pay attention to them. Get the best quality water you can (I recommend fresh spring water), do your deep breathing exercises (I’ve not been doing these specifically for awhile), and go for pleasant walks (where you can also hopefully get another free health-giver, sunlight).
“No matter whether exercising with light dumb-bells, chest expander, bar-bells or wall exerciser, I ALWAYS work the hand and wrist as far backwards and forwards as possible, contracting the forearm muscles strongly at the end of the movement, with each repetition of any given exercise.”
I had never heard this before but plan on practicing it. I’ll report later on my results.
Sure you can just read this article and gain from it. But I hope you will read the full book of Thomas Inch On Strength. Then it’s your turn to comment. For us to get the most of this book club it must be interactive.
Use the form below to write your comments. What questions do you have? What did you learn from this book? What do you plan on applying that you’ve learned? What do you like? What do you disagree with?
need to get working with my lifeline expanders again 🙂
just a little thing, Bovril and Hovis bread are still found everywhere in the UK today.
@Bryan: Yeah I haven’t done much with the expanders lately. Would be good to use them regularly for awhile.
Good to know they’re still available. I’ve just never seen them.
nothing special about the bovril and hovis bread anyway. bovril is just a beef extract drink and hovis bread is just like any other bread. cant imagine there was anything great about it back in Thomas Inch’s day either.
quick comment on the Bovril – agree with Bryan that by today’s standards its nothing special, but think this needs to be viewed in the context of the time when food wasn’t as plentiful as today. Probably it did make a difference to people’s overall nutrition at the time, though think there a better options today.
@Gaspode: According to the book Hovis has extra wheat germ added back into the flour so it has more nutrition. For me anyway, doesn’t matter how natural the bread is, none seem to work too well for my body. In any case I think there’s better supplements for health purposes today.
I’m not a big fan of bread either.
For guys in Thomas Inch’s era in Britain a lot of this was probably about getting enough calories in to gain weight. Food wasn’t available like it is today, and people were a lot smaller (eg 100 years in Britain a heavyweight boxer could be 12 st 7 lbs, and these were the “big” guys of their day).
For me take away point is that this shows what can be achieved through good training (like the points in Logan’s first post), despite the diet rather than because of it.
Though it makes me wonder too what people will think about todays diet and supplements in 100 years time…….
Information I have received on Thomas Inch points to him being somewhat of a fraud. For instance, his heavy challenge bell of 172-lbs which has since been replicated had a hole in the handle. Historians speculate that the hole was a method to keep the dumbbell from spinning. Inch would wear a wrist brace with a pin or nail attached to it which he could put into the hole and then when he tried to lift it, the bell would not spin. The bystanders of course would not be able to lift the dumbbell because it rotates so quickly out of your grip. Also, it is fairly obvious in the video posted above that the people who tried to lift the dumbbell were plants who faked the effort. I also question the weight of that dumbbell. It looks literally hollow. While I am sure Inch was stronger than most people of the time, there is absolutely no way at all that the dumbbell is anywhere near 100-lbs for the way he throws it around with ease.
@Jedd Johnson: I’ve heard that but never seen the information anywhere. Do you have a source that says as much? I would agree that the video does look faked to some degree.
I like this book and also enjoy so much a brief Inch book named “Advanced Excercise”, he talk about what now we call active rest days, progresion, diet. Also sugest not taking personal records so often. And have a nice set of routines with barbell and dumbell lifting (like swings, TGU etc.) seems that he was thinking in kb more than db.
@Guiye: Yes that’s a good one too. The reason I suggested this book for the club was purely based on it being bigger.
Logan I was once told by a long since retired circus guy that Jedd is correct. While He was vary strong it was trickery. He always set it on a board or floor that had dimples to keep it from rolling. The Inch had weight off set so when the weight cleared the floor it rolled hard left or right. Now he never said how Inch lifted it. Just that only Inch had an the info needed to lift it. I would be willing to bet no one ever got a second chance!!!
I’m sure Thomas Inch was a fraud, but I suspect he was also very strong and no more of a fraud than most in his era. Consider the similar role of professional wrestlers during the same period: Most of their matches were works (fake) but they still tended to have a good grasp of how to wrestle and were talented at putting on “punishing holds”.
As I understand it, Inch was some sort of a weight llifting champion prior to his professional career, so it might have been nive for him to talk a bit more about the lift of the era and their uses. Bovril is no longer considered a health product, and (assuming he wasn’t being paid by Bovril) it’s recommendation puts into perspective the amount of supplements a “serious” trainee today finds themselves taking.
What I liked about Inch was that he made a point of small hands not being an excuse for a weak grip. People still make to much of an issue of this today, for example “Thick bar stuff isn’t proper grip training, it’s too dependent on bar size.” Now let’s use Jedd Johnson for an example: Jedd has on of the strongest pairs of hands in the world, and they are very large, and so the same people who like to use excuses say “Yeah it’s easy for him, his hands are bigger than mine”. What’s Jedd’s weakest area? His thick bar stuff.
Logan / Dave,
I am pretty sure I learned of the hole in the handle in an issue of MILO. I wish I could tell you which one.
Dave is right, my thickbar sucks. many with smaller hands are much better than me. A strange paradox.
Good to know all this. If I remember correctly Inch refutes the hole in the handle thing in this book, but then if he was faking it it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to lie too.
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