The Legend Of Chuck Ahrens: Fact Of Fiction?

Discover the history of quite possibly the strongest man in the world. Journey through a chronological history of the legend, Chuck Ahrens.
Probably no one in the modern world of strength is more mysterious and perplexing to place properly in terms of relative achievement than is Chuck Ahrens. He on no occasion competed in any official contest of strength, nor in any official display of physique. Indeed he most always wore long sleeved shirts even when on the beach in California's sunshine. Most photos show him from behind, and I have seen- and know of- only a single photo that displays his bare arm in anything resembling a flexed pose.

Further, I am unaware of any photos of him performing the one arm lifts for which he is famous. There is, in short, little documentation to present except in the form of witnesses, who unfortunately do not voice a uniform report. Even some who describe the extant photos misreport what the photo clearly presents; to wit, the photo where a 75 pound young girl is being supported on Chuck's outstretched arm, has been described as the girl standing on his WRIST, when clearly she is standing astride his elbow joint, and for those who do not understand the importance of those few inches is where such descriptions particularly stumble.

In addition, Chuck worked none at all on leg development, but that little detail did not prevent one writer assuming Chuck could squat with 800 plus pounds. He also neglected his back during workouts, so that really all he worked was arms and shoulders, and depending on the reliability of reports, perhaps some chest. Perhaps. This lack of leg and back strength may explain why, during his heavy overhead one hand lifts he sometimes held on to a pole or upright bracing.

The very lack of leg and back exercise makes one wonder how those body parts could even stabilize some of the lifts credited overhead.

Below, not exhaustively, but representatively, I have presented some quotes in chronological order over the course of his gym lifting career. I have refrained from intertwining commentary with the quotes except where confusion would have resulted. A summary of lifts may be presented later, and I leave to the reader the decision on merit of those claims.

Some of the claims ascribed to Ahrens border on the fantastic - beyond what would be or could be expected from others in his era. I give more weight to Wilhelm and Merjanian and others who actually witnessed some feats and who are themselves very strong and can therefore interpret what was involved - indeed they used some of the same bars and plates as did Ahrens, so substitution seems unlikely.

But please keep in mind these guidelines as you read what follows:

  1. Who is reporting and is the reporting firsthand, or rumor.
  2. How do the claims compare to other known strength feats from ANY time period? (For example some doubt Arthur Saxon's 370 pound bent press, but accept Ahren's three reps one arm push press with 375 pounds?)
  3. Later, were any retractions necessary because of incorrect reporting?
  4. Notice the discrepancies of height, arm size, etc. some of which could be evolving progress- except for height, or could have been simple guesswork!


The History Of Chuck Ahrens

MUSCLE POWER (May 1955, p 64) - Age 20, 6', 230 lbs chest 51", arm 19".

MUSCLE POWER (Oct 1956, p 63) - Now at 245 lbs bodyweight, age 22, claims he has never been defeated at arm wrestling, and now that Mac Batchelor has retired, he is claiming to be world champ.

Peary Rader in LIFTING NEWS (May 1957, p 8) - "Another real sensation we met out at Muscle Beach the other day was Chuck Ahrens, a 6', 280 lb. giant who has specialized on upper body work until he must have about the strongest arms in the world. With a 57 inch chest and 21 inch arms he has performed a dumbell press with two 170 lb. dumbbells simultaneously and hopes soon to do this with two 200 lb. dumbbells. He does reps in the triceps extension on bench with 355 and swing curls with two 165 lb. dumbbells. He promises to go into Olympic lifting when he can press the two 200 lb. dumbbells. He has done very little leg work and will need a lot of this to be a great Olympic lifter. When and if he does start leg work his bodyweight will probably go up to well over 300 lbs. but what a big fellow he will be then. He has the broadest and heaviest shoulders we have ever seen on any man."

Peary Rader in IRON MAN (Jul 1957, p 22) - Photo of Chuck facing camera, caption: "Here is Chuck Ahrens. Iron Man is proud of the fact that they have introduced to the public for the first time such men as Doug Hepburn, then Paul Anderson, and now Chuck Ahrens, among many other great firsts. Chuck has the broadest shoulders of any man we have ever seen. He is simply unbelievable. When he was standing next to Anderson someone remarked that he was the only man to ever make Anderson look small. Chuck weighs 280 at 6 ft. tall, and has a 57" chest and 21" arms. He does a two dumbbells press together with 162 in each hand for 4 reps!

He has pressed two 170 pound dumbbells simultaneously for one rep. He does the dumbell curl 3 reps with a pair of 165 pound dumbbells with a little swing to start them. He has made 3 reps in the triceps press on bench with 355 pounds!! No other man in history has ever performed so much in these lifts. We saw him almost succeed with a one arm press with 210 approximately, which would have been close to military, though he did hold to a post with his free hand. His favorite exercises are curls, and presses with dumbbells and the triceps press on bench with barbell. He specializes on these with heavy weights and rather low reps. He has done almost no leg and back work. He says he will work on the three Olympic Lifts when he can do a press simultaneously with two 200 pound dumbbells, and we believe he will succeed with this soon. We will keep you posted on further progress of activity of this new, fabulous strong man." [So, in 1957 Rader witnessed him almost succeed (that is he witnessed a failure) with 210 lbs]

IRON MAN (Sep 1957, p 28) - Photo of Ahrens performing a triceps press: Chuck Ahrens of growing fame is shown as he drives in 345 in this method. He started this from the bench behind his head and as I recall he did this two reps rather easily and has done considerably more in training. This photo was taken at Muscle Beach by Tom Humphrey, himself a man of considerable lifting ability. We have received a lot of requests for more information on Ahrens and will provide it as often as we get it."- Rader

Peary Rader in LIFTING NEWS (Sep 1957, p 5) - About Ralph Bass: "Ralph recently made a set of calipers to measure certain bodily proportions with and found that the shoulders of Chuck Ahrens had an unbelievable span of 26-5/8". Most of the other musclemen at the beach range from 20 to 21 inches. He [Ahrens] is doing some unbelievable training such as one arm curls with 165, forward raises with 150 while holding an upright with the other hand. He is doing one arm dumbell presses for reps with 280 (hard to believe isn't it?).

He will soon be ready for his simultaneous press with two 200 lb. dumbbells and then will take on dead lifts and squats to build up for Olympic lifts." [Yes, it is hard to believe that though he failed to get 210 earlier in the year, he now is getting 280 for reps]

IRON MAN (Nov 1957, p 38) - Photo: "Here is big Chuck Ahrens doing some warm up dumbell presses at Muscle Beach recently with some very light 115 lb. dumbbells. He pressed these like they weighed nothing, for he uses 165 for reps after a good warm up and soon expects to be doing it with two 200 lb dumbbells. Photo by [Tom] Humphrey."

Then page 39: Rader: "A lot of interest has been created by the advent of Chuck Ahrens, and one of his friends sends us some amusing information about the fabulous fellow. He tells us that his arm is the hugest he has ever seen, as well as the hardest, and it is as dense as most fellows forearms. Chuck is fond of jokes likes to drive his car with his arm resting on the sill of the right front window, making it appear no one is driving the car. One day while doing this he misjudged and ran into a little old lady. Of course the little old lady was in a car so there was little damage, but

Chuck got a good going over from the little old lady, which was probably well deserved. He likes to eat six large steaks per day to maintain his bulk and size (that is one way to get your protein, fellows, if you can afford it). He plans to reach 330 lbs. bodyweight and wanted to remain out of the limelight until he reached that poundage but you can't hide those huge shoulders. He does an overhead triceps press with a 305 barbell and throws it up like nothing.

Our friend guesses that Chuck could do a snatch with 330 right now and without splitting. He does very little leg work but should he ever decide to get serious on leg work he should make records in the superheavy class. We will try to keep readers informed about Chuck and his progress but he is very much against publicity."

MUSCLE POWER (Nov 1957, p 45) - Liederman finally 'secured a photo of him' 6' tall, 270 lbs, age 22, arm 21.5". "He can do standing presses for four reps with a pair of 160 lb. bells, do seated cheating curls with the same 160 pounders, and also one arm rowing exercise with 350 pounds! He owns 21 inch arms too." [note: apparently during that paragraph, Ahrens lost a half inch in arm size.]

Peary Rader in LIFTING NEWS (Dec 1957, p 2) - "Chuck Ahrens is still in heavy training and heavy as ever. He is no longer with Les Stockton (Les now has his gym operating on a key basis- members having keys). Chuck is training at the 'Cave', Tanny's 4th and Broadway gym in Santa Monica. So the roof may come in any day when he drops those monster dumbbells."

Peary Rader in LIFTING NEWS (Jan 1958, p 3) - Includes a photo of Ahrens: "Chuck Ahrens is still training hard and getting stronger and is now doing alternate curls with 160 lb. dumbbells if fairly strict style. He says he will start squatting soon in preparation for the Olympic Lifting. However,

Chuck is not too interested in the Olympic lifts so it is not certain how well he will do, for it takes a lot of hard work and a driving interest to make an Olympic champion. With his immense power he ought to find it fairly easy to approach the world records with a short training period on lifting technique. He is now weighing around 300 pounds."

Then three paragraphs later: "Ernest Anderson just writes that Chuck Ahrens did NOT lift the two 200 pound dumbbells in the dumbell press but that Chuck says he could do it in two weeks training. Wish our reporters would get these things straight. Anyhow we will await the moment when he does this outstanding feat. Wonder if Paul Anderson couldn't do this stunt rather easily?"

LIFTING NEWS (Feb 1958, p 5) - Photo of Ahrens at 290 lbs and Paul Anderson at 355, with Chuck looking much more impressive than Paul.

STRENGTH & HEALTH (Feb 1958, p 54) - Ray Van Cleef: "Ralph [Bass] measured the immense shoulder width of Chuck Ahrens with a special pair of calipers. Found the bi-deltoid measurement to be 26-5/8" (?). This means that this Titan will be needing oversized doors to walk through. Chuck's unequaled dumbell exercise lifts are well known in iron game circles. His present aim is to work up to where he can press a pair of 200 lb. dumbbells overhead standing."

IRON MAN (Mar 1958, p 34) - Rader: "We have just recently received news that big Chuck Ahrens is now doing his two dumbbells simultaneous press with two 200 lb. dumbbells. In other words, he is doing a dumbbells press with 400 lbs. He also does a 300 lb. press with one arm for three reps. This press is mostly a one arm cont. press as he is not an accomplished bent presser. He is now weighing around 300 pounds."

MUSCLE BUILDER (Mar 1958, p 68) - A 270 pound "one arm overhead erect press."

MUSCLE BUILDER (Dec 1958, p 46) - Is down to 270 pounds bodyweight, hopes to gain to 350 pounds to make some world records

IRON MAN (Jan 1959, p 35) - Photo of Ahrens and Paul Anderson - Rader: "HE DID IT! Remember when we reported that Chuck Ahrens, the California giant, was pressing two dumbbells simultaneously and that he expected to do the same with 200 lb. dumbbells? Well, many thought this was humanly impossible, and probably gave it no more thought.

The other day we received the following letter from a friend of Chuck's. 'I am a close friends (sic) of Chuck Ahrens. In the gym last week, during a workout, I saw him press a PAIR of 204 POUND DUMBELLS TOGETHER'. He said this was the first time in the past 3 months that he had done any pressing together but that he has been doing one arm presses with 310 for 3 reps. His body - photo at right we show three of the strongest men in the world, Paul Anderson and Chuck Ahrens with backs to us and Dave Ashman facing us. Note the very broad back of Ahrens in plaid shirt). [note: the text is typed as presented, though confusing] We have been unable to get a physique shot of Chuck, and as far as I know, he has never had such a photo taken and refuses to take off his shirt.

We will keep you posted on future lifts of this great giant. I think he has the broadest shoulders in the world. It occurs to us that if Ashman had the upper body power of Ahrens and Ahrens had the lower body power of Anderson, what a pair of world beaters they would be."

IRON MAN (March 1959, p 45) - Liederman: "Chuck Ahrens the massive powerhouse of California is now down to a mere 280 lbs. and tells me that he is to very soon get right back into hard training again. He wants to surpass his marks of 315 lbs. in a one arm press for three reps, and curl 180 lbs. twice with right arm and once with left. Not bad, eh?"

MUSCLE BUILDER (Jun 1959, p 36) - 225 pounds triceps curls; 135 pound extended arm, then curled it, witnessed by Charles Coster.

MUSCLE BUILDER (Jul 1959, p 58) - At age 25 now and 290 pounds, three reps dumbell press with 315 pounds. Delt width is claimed as 28", chest 60", and he cleaned and pressed a pair of 205 pound dumbbells.

IRON MAN (Jul 1959, p 51) - Bob Hise: "P.S. I bet the cops had a hard time riding (sic) Chuck Ahrens up. Seems as though he had loaned his car to a friend who received a ticket for traffic violation but failed to let Chuck in on the secret. Bruce Conners came to Chuck's rescue and Chuck is once again lifting everything in sight at the Physical Services Gym."

MUSCLE BUILDER (Oct 1959, p 17) - Photo of his back p 47: Seated dumbell curl with 180 pounds, slight cheat, bodyweight 300 pounds.

IRON MAN (Jun 1960, p 31) - Bob Hise "Have heard that Chuck Ahrens can do an almost military one arm press with 300."

STRENGTH & HEALTH (Aug 1960, p 26) - Photo with Bert Elliott, caption: "Massive Chuck Ahrens, the California giant who never shows his muscles, and Bert Elliott, the former national weightlifting champion who is pound for pound one of the greatest bent pressers in the world. The 201-pound solid dumbell at their feet is Bert's pet training bell. They say Ahrens can handle it as easily as an ordinary strongman tosses around a 100 pounder. Wouldn't Dave Ashman's legs under this guy's upper body make some man?"

IRON MAN (Mar 1961, p 56) - George Redpath: "A note on the fabulous Chuck Ahrens tells us that the writer has recently seen Chuck curl 200 lbs. WITH ONE ARM. He does a one arm push press with 350. We hope someone on the west coast will keep us posted on what Chuck is doing."

IRON MAN (May 1961, p 35) - Rader: "Much has been written about Chuck Ahrens and I am sure that many of you Iron Man readers find what you see printed hard to believe. I have seen Ahrens and assure you that he is a very strong man. I think the greatest biceps feats ever performed by man are: right hand curl 185, left hand curl 175, and get this- a forward leaning semi concentration curl with a barbell loaded to 150 pounds. Needless to say, all these feats have been executed by MR. CHARLEY AHRENS and before bona fide witnesses."

STRENGTH & HEALTH (Jun 1961, p 62) - Staff: "Comes now a fresh news item from a California reader who has enigmatic CHUCK AHRENS up to 300 pounds bodyweight and pressing a pair of 270-pound dumbbells ten reps! Same source says AHRENS can press 340 pounds with one hand, Why oh why doesn't this guy get an A.A.U. card and win another world record for Uncle Sam by exerting some of his power in public?"

STRENGTH & HEALTH (Aug 1961, p 9) - A letter to the editor from Steve B. Safran of Englewood, New Jersey: "Dear Sirs: Just finished reading your always interesting and informative 'Iron Grapevine' column in the June edition of Strength & Health. I can literally say that I was stunned by the 'facts' you revealed about a California bodybuilder called Chuck Ahrens. If the prodigious feats of pressing 340 pounds with one hand and handling a pair of 270-pound dumbbells for two reps in the press are true, it would qualify him as by far the strongest man in the world.

I'm sure S&H readers would like to know more about Chuck Ahrens and why he doesn't compete in A.A.U. weightlifting contests. It seems to me that he's a sure bet to qualify for the U.O. Olympic team. I hope we can see some photos of this superman in action!" editor's reply: "The muscle world at large probably never will know exactly how strong Chuck Ahrens is inasmuch as he apparently has no desire to perform in public. What's more, he's reluctant to have his photograph taken, absolutely refusing to pose at all unless full (sic) clothed, including a long sleeved shirt. Ed."

IRON MAN (Jan 1962, p 10) - Bob Hise: Hise mentions in an article about Bruce Conner's Physical Services Gym, 10830 Santa Monica Blvd in west Los Angeles, California, that Ahrens trains there.

Peary Rader wrote in LIFTING NEWS (Oct 1964, p 25) - "We continually receive requests for information about Chuck Ahrens, but unfortunately this is hard to come by for it seems he will not perform lifts on request but only as the whim strikes him and not at any authorized contest or event. An unbelievable report comes second hand from Dave Sheppard that he saw Ahrens clean and press two dumbbells of 550 lbs.(sic) He cleans these from a dead hang, we understand, and probably boosts them up with hip swing. This lift is too fabulous to believe. We wish several fellows could vouch for some of his lifts, weighing them and giving an accurate and factual account of what he does.

It is also said that he never practices sissy lifts like the bench press, but recently bench pressed 400 lbs for 28 reps (he calls them sissy, not me!). We also hear he presses two 185 lb. dumbbells while seated. Now will someone please get together and give us the story on this myth of California. I personally have seen him do some unbelievable lifts some years ago but nothing like this. 550 lbs. is too far above what any other man can press with barbells to make it believable. In fact it is too far above anyone else's jerk. There is your bedtime story for this month."

Now the correction from LIFTING NEWS (Mar 1965, p 8) - Rader: "For those power lifters who have been following our reports of various men around the country, we now hear that the report attributed to Dave Sheppard about Chuck Ahrens' fabulous feats may have been in error. Latest report is that Ahrens hasn't done any bench presses since his high school days and certainly never cleaned and pressed two 250 lb dumbbells.

He is doing dumbell bench presses with 225 on an incline bench that is very steep-almost 90 degrees. He is now weighing 330 and his arm measures 22-3/8. Unfortunately, accurate information on Chuck seems very difficult to come by. He has been seen to do a triceps press with 400 in 1956. We don't know what he has done since then."

MUSCULAR DEVELOPMENT (Dec 1966, p 32) - Photo: "The fabulous 350-pound Chuck Ahrens who is reputed to have 24-inch biceps." Then on page 55 "CHUCK AHRENS was mentioned in our November issue as weighing 350 pounds and having a 66-inch chest and 24-inch biceps. We also said there had never been a physique photo of him published but at least we got one with his sleeve rolled up. Our old friend Terry Robinson sent it and it was taken by Chuck Connors at whose gym Ahrens trains." [note- Bruce Conners?] [same photo appears in Feb 1989 p 27 of MD]

IRON MAN (May 1969, p 47) - Rader: Just a mention that 'big Chuck Ahrens is down to 275' in bodyweight.

In PLUSA (Mar 1983, p 74), to begin his series The Pioneers of Power, Pete Vuono selected Chuck Ahrens, and the following info is culled from the one page article: 6', 330 pounds, chest 58", arms 22-3/8", bi-delt width 28". Strict one arm press for three reps with 310 pounds. Standing, with 235 lbs. in each hand, he pressed five reps. Incline board at 90 degrees, 5 reps with 225 in each hand. Lying triceps extension, down to behind the head then back up, in 1956 got a rep with 400 lbs. Standing behind neck press 390. Bench press 28 reps with 400 lbs.

MILO (Apr 1994, p 30) - By Bruce Wilhelm, claims: Herb Glossbrenner, described by Wilhelm as 'a somewhat enthusiastic author', 'has listed him [Ahrens] in the 800-plus squat category, and 600-plus bench category'. Imagine that, no one else, that I have been able to find writing about Ahrens, ascribes any degree or amount of weight to Ahrens in the squat- everyone else who mentions his legs bemoans the fact that he did not work his legs very hard, if AT ALL. So not training legs is the key to an 800 plus pound squat. Mark me down for it too, then.

Then Wilhelm spoke to Paul Magistretti who offered the following info:
Ahrens was 6'1-1/2" tall, optimum weight was 320 lbs, weight in 1994 was 200-210 lbs. Paul claims to have witnessed Ahrens, in good style, 'do a forward one armed lateral with a 200-pound dumbbell'. Other feats: 375 lying triceps extension for two reps from the forehead. Standing triceps press 305 for two reps- all these without warm-ups. Paul says sometimes Chuck would stop training for a while and his weight would drop considerably.

Pat Casey, at age 19, trained with Ahrens and saw Chuck sit on the end of a bench, and do alternate curls with a 200 lb. dumbbell in each hand. One arm press 320.

Randy Strossen offers that Paul Anderson told of seeing Ahrens do a one arm press with 300.

MILO (Apr 1995, p 20) - Steve Merjanian measured Ahrens arms at 23-1/2". Loaded a bent 1" diameter bar with plates, best effort for three reps was 375 lbs. "Charlie could take 150-pound dumbbells and hold them in a crucifix." Steve was born Jul 29, 1935 and says Ahrens was a year older than he, so born 1934? Once benched 405 for 20. Did no leg work. Says Chuck hurt his shoulder in 1960, and Steve doubts that Ahrens reached his potential.

IRON GAME HISTORY (May 1998, p 20) - By Steve Neece.
Steve tells of witnessing Ahrens curling an Olympic bar with a 35 lb plate on each side, no collars. (115 lbs): "He bent down and lifted it clear of the floor with one hand so it was hanging from his hand with his arm fully extended downward. He was bent over with his free hand braced on his knee. No part of the arm holding the weight touched any part of his body. He then curled the weight up to his chin without any body movement.He may have been the strongest curler in the history of the sport."

There you have a summary, without a conclusion. More on him later.

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Bill Piche,