Ask anyone who’s ever seriously picked up a barbell my titular question, and they will without a doubt tell you that Ed Coan is the greatest powerlifter who’s ever lived. However, I think he receives a serious nostalgia bias, because over the past few years, another maverick lifter has come out of the United States to reset the bar in powerlifting. John Haack has quickly become one of the faces of modern powerlifting after his excursions in the 198 and 220lb weight classes. So in the Lawrentian’s winter return to action, I’d like to open by examining Coan and Haack’s carriers to determine who really is the best to ever lift a power bar.
Method of Analysis
There are a few factors to take into account when comparing powerlifters, especially Ed Coan and John Haack. Powerlifting is not a uniform sport; there are several different weight and equipment classes. An 800lb squat will not be as impressive it is performed with an assistive squat suit on as if it is performed raw, for example. Similarly, a 198lb weight class lifter benching 500lbs is much more impressive than a 220lb weight class athlete doing the same.
Furthermore, we can look into the genetic gifts one athlete possesses as compared to another. Shorter arms will assist with the bench press, as the bar will not have to travel as far to get to lockout, and thus less energy will be required. Taller athletes tend to suffer in the squat as they have to move the weight over a greater total distance. I will look into these factors as well, though they will be given less weight in determining who is the superior athlete than factors like equipment and weight class. I will take each of these factors and examine them in regards to each of the three power lifts: the squat, bench press and deadlift.
Ed Coan: 962 lbs @ 220 John Haack: 750 lbs @ 198
Now, at first glance, it looks as though Coan walks away with this first comparison. However, the numbers alone don’t tell the entire tale. Ed Coan completed his squat in a single ply squat suit and knee wraps, both of which add significant weight to one’s max squat capabilities. Knee wraps alone have been shown to add around 15% to a squat one rep max (1RM). So, the fair comparison would be to deduct around 15-20% from Coan’s squat and then redo our comparison. 80% this number comes to 770 lbs, while 85% comes to 818 lbs which makes our comparison much more interesting.
Let’s be generous to Ed Coan and take the higher estimate, 818, as the 15% estimated gain from wraps is the high end of the spectrum. Then, we can see Coan squats 3.7lbs per pound of bodyweight, while Haack manages 3.8. A close comparison indeed, that we can essentially say comes out as a tie.
Moving to the next factor that could break the draw, we see that Haack squats high bar, the much more challenging technique that requires the bar to move farther as a result of the narrower foot stance that comes as a result of the higher bar position. This seems to swing the debate in his favor, as Coan’s low bar technique is mechanically much easier to complete.
That being said, Ed Coan may have had assistive equipment, but there is a case to be made for the fact he still had to maintain 962lbs on his back throughout the lift. Coan had to have the balance, core strength and nervous system control to stabilize nearly 1000lbs on his back for what was probably 10+ seconds from unracking the bar to reracking after the squat. For this reason, I give him the squat. It simply takes an ungodly level of strength to hold that much weight, let alone squat it, even with equipment. And, as I must admit, I hold a minor prejudice toward the bigger numbers because they are more eye-catching. So, Coan wins round one.
Ed Coan: 584 lbs @ 220 John Haack: 580 @ 198
This comparison is perhaps the most straightforward of the three lifts. Both completed their lifts raw with no assistive bench shirts or elbow wraps, and managed essentially the same lift. Therefore, Haack takes the win here on account of weighing 22lbs less at the time. This means he benched 2.9lbs per pound of bodyweight, compared to Coan’s 2.7. Why is this?
Well, Ed Coan has incredibly long arms, which has the opposite effect of his short legs in the squat. Haack doesn’t have short arms by any means, but they are shorter than Coan’s by some stretch. This is the main reason for the discrepancy, aside from the fact Haack is simply an elite bencher to rival the greatest ever, Julius Maddox.
Ed Coan: 901lb @ 220
John Haack: 887lbs @ 198
Here again, Haack takes a clear victory. Ed Coan pulled 14lbs more, but given that Haack again weighed 22lbs less at the time of his best deadlift, he takes the win on the basis of the strength metric of weight lifted per pound of bodyweight. Coan manages 4.1, which is staggering in and of itself, but Haack is otherworldly at 4.5. This is especially impressive given Coan pulls sumo, lowering the range of motion necessary, and Haack pulls conventional. There is no height discrepancy to speak of; Haack is simply stronger.
Ed Coan takes the squat, while Haack takes the bench and deadlift. Looking at overall totals, Coan manages 2303lbs at 220 (taking his squat to be the 85% estimate to account for equipment used), while Haack totals 2217lbs at 198. Coan may have lifted more weight, but as the old saying goes, “mass moves mass.” Haack is clearly stronger, taking wins in two of three lifts by lifting more weight per pound of bodyweight. The story is the same looking at their totals, with Coan’s total working out to 10.5lbs per pound of bodyweight, and Haack managing 11.2lbs per pound of bodyweight. Like it or not, nostalgia bias is real. All the old heads saying Ed Coan will never be beaten need to do their research, because he already has been by one John Haack, who still has years of untapped potential to reach for at only 28 years old. Considering strength athletes typically peak in their early to mid-30s, it is scary to think of what he might accomplish.