Isaac Berger – The Natural
© 2005 by Arthur Drechsler
USA Weightlifting has had a glorious history, with many great champions and performances. Anyone who became great at the sport of weightlifting worked very hard to achieve greatness, but some athletes started with greater natural gifts than others. It would be hard to find an athlete with a greater aptitude for the weightlifting than the great Isaac Berger.
Born in Jerusalem on November 16th, 1936. Isaac grew up in an Israel that was even more war torn than it is today. As a young boy, Berger had to walk 3 miles each day to secure food for his family and neighbors and along the way was he was periodically subject to sniper fire and flying shrapnel (which actually did injure him on one occasion).
His family emigrated to the US in 1950, settling in Brooklyn, NY. Thriving in his new environment, he began to exercise at one of the local parks. His bodyweight increased from the 100 lb. that he weighed when he arrived in the US, to 110 lb., but he was still a rather skinny youth and he was very interested in increasing his strength and size.
He was soon to find a tool for doing exactly that. When he was 15, Isaac received his introduction to the sport of weightlifting. Berger happened to walk by Hy Shaffer’s Adonis Gym, fixture in Brooklyn at the time. It occurred to the boy that a gym might be a good place to put some muscle on his body, so he ventured in. He tried his hand at a few pieces of the non-weight exercise equipment. While he was doing this, he was approached by Hy. Shaffer asked Isaac if he had ever lifted weights before and the boy said no. Hy then invited his young (14 year old) visitor to try his hand with the barbell. To gym owner’s surprise, this ordinary looking boy worked up to a clean and press with 120 lb. Isaac also snatched 100 lb. and managed to C&J 130 lb. in crude style. Hy knew he was seeing a prodigy.
Isaac liked the challenge weightlifting offered and was soon hard at work in the gym. He entered his first competition in April of 1952, and did lifts of 120 lb. in the press and snatch, then he made a C&J with 140 lb. His 380 lb. total was enough to qualify him for the Nationals that were to be held in NYC that year. Many didn’t really notice that the youngster 117 lb. boy, who placed 7th in the 56 kg.category. He managed lifts of 65 kg. in the press and snatch and 85 kg. in the C&J, but few of the onlookers knew the boy was only 15, or that he had only been training for a very short time. But if the audience wasn’t impressed, the young Isaac was inspired by the experience of his first national level competition. In addition to competing with the best, he got to see the top lifters in the country perform for the first time and that really set him on fire.
He improved steadily over the next 2 years but really started to take off when he moved up to the 60 kg. bodyweight category in mid-1954. By early 1955, he was totaling 665 lb. with lifts of 220-195-250. Then he had two life changing experiences.
First, he saw a film of fellow New Yorker Dave Sheppard and observed Dave’s pioneering squat style. The boy was amazed and impressed by the beauty and efficiency of Dave’s technique. He resolved to learn to squat lift and equipped only with the mental picture of Dave’s lifts burned into his memory, Isaac set about mastering the squat style. Almost immediately, he was breaking his personal records in the snatch and clean.
Then, he hit a roadblock. He could snatch 220 lb. and clean 270 lb. almost every week, with his new style, but he just couldn’t seem to move beyond those lifts. After months of frustration, he just stopped training. Then came his second life-changing experience.
Isaac’s break from training didn’t last very long. After about a month’s hiatus, Berger stopped by Shaffer’s gym and Hy asked Isaac where he’d been. Isaac described his frustration with lifting. Hy explained that the prodigy, who had been making wonderful progress up until that point, might have become stale or overtrained. Shaffer invited the boy to tray doing some cleans. Perhaps, Hy suggested, the rest had done the lad some good.
Isaac accepted Hy’s advice easily worked up to his previous best of 270 lb. in the clean. Shaffer suggested that Berger try 280 lb. and when the boy was successful, Hy suggested that Isaac try 290. The young Samson did the 290 smoothly and then, his confidence growing, asked for 300 lb. Amazingly, he cleaned the massive weight on his first try (his lift was less than 15 pounds off the world record at that time).
Only weeks later, Isaac entered a competition and once again cleaned the 300, only to miss the jerk. The officials were shocked to see a teenager clean only a little less than the world record. One of them called Olympic Coach Bob Hoffman to report the progress of the Brooklyn youth. Bob almost immediately invited Isaac to come to train with his team in York, PA. Isaac was soon training with his idols. He got many training and technique tips and began to perform many jerks from the rack, in order to improve his lagging jerk.
The hard work and instruction began to pay off. Isaac won the Nationals in June of 1955 with lifts of 225-205-275, for a total of 705 lb.. By March of 1956, his lifts had exploded to 235-230-295, all of which were new American records. In fact, his 760 total was only 10 lbs. off the world record!
Then came a setback. Isaac was lifting as an extra lifter at the Jr. Nationals in June. After making the first 300 C&J of his life, he elected to try attempt a 305 C&J. On that attempt, he stumbled and twisted his knee. Weeks later, he managed to win his second National title, making a 720 lb. total while very nearly lifting on one leg.
It took him several months to recover fully but by the Fall of 1956 he totaled 745 lb. as pain free. That total was enough to earn him a spot on the Olympic Team that would travel to Melbourne. Inspired by the opportunity to compete in the Olympics, Berger’s training lifts increased substantially. Before leaving Hawaii (a training stop for the team as it traveled to Australia), Berger made lifts of 240-235-310. As a result, the US team felt confident that Isaac would be a threat for a Gold Medal in Melbourne.
At the Olympics, Isaac did not disappoint. He pressed and snatched 107.5 kg.and made 137.5 kg. in the C&J. Those lifts were not only enough to earn the Gold Medal for Berger, but they gave him a new world record in the total as well. A virtually unknown teenager from the US had won the Olympic Games in his first appearance on the international stage!
After the Olympic Games, Isaac relocated to California. He trained with his friend Dave Sheppard and other greats on the famous “Muscle Beach” in Santa Monica, CA. All of his lifts improved but his press, in particular, soared. By the fall of 1957, he had actually moved his press up to 122.5 kg. in training, well above the world record. In September of that year, he competed in the 5th Maccabiah Games in his birthplace of Israel, and succeeded with a world record in the press of 117 kg. – the first world record ever made on Israel’s soil.
He was in excellent shape for the World Championship in Teheran, but then suffered two setbacks. First, he contracted the flu, and then he injured his right hand shortly before the competition. Lifting injured and ill, he managed a 350 kg. total. On his final attempt in the C&J, he jumped 12.5 kg. in a heroic effort to overtake the leader, Minaev. Isaac and actually cleaned this huge world record 145 kg., but missed the jerk and ended up in 3rd place.
In the Spring of 1958, Isaac was part of the US team that competed against a team from the USSR in a 3 part competition in Chicago, Detroit and NY. Isaac won the Chicago competition with a world record exceeding total of 365 kg. He also cleaned 145 kg. once again, only to miss the jerk. Three days later, in Detroit, he totaled 352.5 kg. to chalk up another victory. Two days later, he equaled his total in Chicago and made a new world record in the C&J with 145 kg., chalking up still another victory over his Russian adversary. Isaac’s world record exceeding totals in Chicago and NY did not count as world records because the international rules at the time required that 3 nations be competing in a weightlifting event in order for a world record to be established in the total.
Isaac exceeded the world record total several weeks later at the US National Championships in Los Angeles, where he made an 800 lb. total and cleaned enough to break his own world record in the C&J, missing the jerk.
In August of 1958, Isaac snatched 245 lb. on Muscle Beach and knew he was ready for the Worlds that would be held in Stockholm the following month. In Sweden, Isaac won the world title, defeating Minaev convincingly with a 10 kg. world record in the total of 372.5 kg., which included a 115 kg. press, a 110 kg. American snatch record and a world record C&J with 147.5 kg.
The next year, Berger won his category in the Pan American Games held in Chicago. He very nearly made a 4th attempt in the snatch with 253, which would have been a world record. He expected to perform well at the World Championships later in the year in Poland. And although he didn’t do as well in the press and snatch as he had planned, he only needed 145 kg. in the C&J for a victory. He cleaned weight smoothly but then tore his trapezius while attempting the jerk, so failed with that attempt. His total of 362.5 secured him a second place however.
It was a bitter pill to place second, even with an injury, so Issac was determined to avenge his 1959 defeat at the 1960 Olympics is Rome. Lifting slightly overweight in a competition in Texas in March of 1960, Isaac did lifts of 260 lb. in the Press, 250 lb. in the Snatch and 320 lb. in the C&J to surpass Tony Terlazzo’s long standing American total record in the 67.5 kg. category. He also pressed 271 lbs. on a 5th attempt. In training at around the same time, Isaac C&J’d 150 kg.
In June, he won the Nationals with an 810 lb. total and tried a 330 lb. world record C&J. In August, he made a 265 lb. world record in the press. By September, he was in the best shape of his life and expected a convincing victory in Rome.
However, shortly after Isaac arrived at the Olympic village an unexpected training event occurred. Isaac felt particularly strong one day and encouraged by some of his team mates at coaches, he decided to show off a little for his competition. Lifting 5 days before he would compete, Isaac made lifts of 120 kg. in the press, 115 kg. in the snatch and 152.5 kg. in the C&J for an aggregate total of 387.5 kg. in a single training session. Those lifts combined were 15 kg. above his own world record in the total. Isaac refers to this training session as the “biggest mistake of my life”.
His massive total took its toll on Berger. An athlete who normally took it easy in training immediately before a competition (that is one of the reasons he had been challenged to go heavy in training) Berger was still fatigued from his huge training session when the day of competition arrived. Walking into any Olympic Games in a fatigued state is not a good idea, but walking into the competition that Berger was to experience that day, it was a particular disadvantage. That is because Isaac’s competition was to last for an incredible 10 hours – with him taking his last C&J at 3:00 AM!
During this grueling competition, Berger managed to approach his training best in the press by making a second attempt with 117.5 kg., but felt very tired during the snatch. He actually missed his first two attempts with 105 kg. before making on his 3rd attempt. He then opened with a relatively safe 140 kg. C&J, which secured the silver medal for him. He then waited for his Russian competitor, Minaev to finish with a 372.5 kg. total that matched Isaac’s existing world record. Isaac then called for 152.5 kg., which was enough for the victory. He actually cleaned this weight and could not jerk it. A second gold medal eluded him largely because he had left his best lifts in the training hall.
Disappointed but determined, Isaac returned to his training. He was rewarded with a world record in the press with 266 ½ lb. in February of 1961. He then went on to win the Prize of Moscow tournament in March. Weeks later, he broke his own world record in the C&J. Lifting in his native Israel he made a 148.5 kg. C&J. Later on in the year, he won another Nationals and took first place in 4 matches against athletes from the USSR on their home ground. In September, he regained his world title by defeating Minaev with the 367.5 kg. total. He also cleaned a world record 150 kg., only to miss the jerk.
Tired after competing so much in the prior years, Isaac took nearly a year off from lifting in 1962. He came back for the Pan American Games of 1963, which he won with a 3672.5 total. At the World’s in Stockholm, he totaled 367.5 kg. but was defeated by Miyake of Japan, who broke Isaac’s world record total with 375 kg. total. Issac attempted 155 for a new world record C&J and total and was able to get the bar to his shoulders, but he could not rise.
His training went well in 1964 and after making the US Olympic Team rather easily, Isaac managed lifts of a 125 kg. Press, 110 kg. Snatch and 150 kg. C&J in training, prior to leaving for Tokyo. Since he could normally lift more in competition than in training, Isaac felt confident when he left for Japan.
However, he was disappointed to press only 122.5 and was even more disappointed to see Miyake (normally a relatively weak presser) press the same weight as he did, albeit with a looser style. Isaac only managed to snatch his opener with 107.5 kg. while Miyake soared ahead with 122.5 kg. Isaac did manage to wrest some glory from the day by making a world record C&J with 152.5 kg. That record was to stand for more than 5 years – to become one of the longest standing records of that era. It is a testament to Berger and Miyake that they had pushed the performance levels so far it took years for others to improve on their records.
After the Tokyo Games, Isaac decided it was time to retire once and for all from weightlifting competition. During his fabulous career he had amassed 8 National Championships, 2 Pan-American Games Gold Medals, 2 World Championship victories, 3 Olympic Medals (one gold and two silver) and racked up a total of 9 official world records. By any standard, that is an outstanding record that one could proudly retire on.
One of the most interesting things about Isaac’s career is the training methods that he used. In many ways, his approach to training was way ahead of its time, previewing in many respects the Bulgarian style of training that was to become so popular during the 1990’s and into the 21st century. Isaac’s training focused almost entirely on the competitive lifts and squats. He rarely did pulls or any other form of assistance exercise. Moreover, he trained almost exclusively on singles, rarely exceeding one rep on any exercise. He increased his weights gradually in training, generally taking 5 kg. jumps from set to set. In addition, he lifted as much as he could each day, almost always training at a high intensity year round. You have to wonder what Isaac might have lifted if he had been able to train like that every day, without having to support himself, as he did for most his career (except for the short times that he lived and trained in York – where he worked only part-time).
Following his retirement, Isaac focused on his second love, the world of business. Across the years he has had success in many businesses but perhaps his biggest success was in selling a device he invented called the “speed shaper”. All told he sold more than 800,000 of these devices to those seeking to improve their fitness.
Born strong and with a remarkable ability to learn merely by watching someone perform, Isaac Berger was undoubtedly one of the greatest “naturals” ever to touch a barbell. With talent and hard work, he made an enduring mark on US and World weightlifting history.