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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 1 1

There are many fundamental differences among the participants of the various aspects of the iron related sports. The emotional response and make up of the athletes involved in strongman competition differs from those who compete in bodybuilding shows and powerlifters think and often behave very differently than those who do Olympic weightlifting as their primary sport. It wasn’t always like this. Powerlifting wasn’t organized as a sport until 1964 and yes, I was there for that. It wasn’t seen as a momentous occasion and few of its participants believed that the “odd lift” contests that had been held on a more or less regular basis for perhaps a four or five year period, would significantly change just because the activity now had a name and an official organization. We were obviously wrong in that belief for both positive and negative reasons.

Through the 1950’s and early 1960’s Olympic weightlifting was the dominant sport for those who lifted weights. Some, myself included, realized early and accepted the fact that they were not athletic enough, explosive enough, quick enough, or patient enough to excel as proponents of the two-hand press, snatch, and clean and jerk. Those were the three official lifts and if anyone on a New York City subway thought you lifted weights or noted that your physical development was above average, and of course had the gumption to approach you about it, the leading question would always be “How much can you press?” Even the lay person or “unathletic” knew that the press was the measuring stick for those who believed themselves strong. Weight training of any type was considered to be a cult activity until the late 1960’s. Even in the New York City Metropolitan area with its millions of inhabitants, it was a cult and most of us were acquainted with each other or recognized each other on sight. In discussion about the Weider sponsored national level “Mr.” contests that were usually held at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music, in part to lend the occasions an air of legitimacy and elegance, there was a casual closeness to the audience. My comment to a young enthusiast who has a strong interest in the history of the iron game, was that “if 5000 people attended the 1968 grouping of contests that included the Mr. American, Mr. Universe, and Mr. Olympia contests on the same evening, 3000 of us would either know each other or recognize one another from the various hole-in-the-wall gyms, garages, basements, or storefront facilities throughout the City and Long Island. The other 2000 would be gay guys who stood in the bathroom and watched the big bodybuilders taking a leak.” Don’t shoot the messenger, it was a different time and that’s how it was.

Astounding to the past two or three generations of trainees is the fact that most of the big time bodybuilders were very strong and most of the Olympic and powerlifters had very good, well developed physiques. This was the result of having limited equipment to train with and the use of the same basic exercises by almost everyone who trained in a serious manner. For example, Olympic weightlifters would do squats or front squats as their primary lower extremity movements and supplement that with deadlifts, cleans, snatches, and pulls. Doing full squat cleans or snatches and arising from the bottom, the equivalent of placing oneself at a severe disadvantage before doing a front squat, gave obvious work to the hips and thighs. As the Odd Lifts of the bench press, squat, deadlift, and barbell curl in varying order and with varying rules grew into the official sport of powerlifting, competitors performed squats, front squats, and deadlifts as their primary lower extremity work, and supplemented this with cleans or power cleans ala the typical regimen of Olympic lifters. Serious bodybuilders, those big and hard enough to consider competing, did squats and front squats, deadlifts and cleans, and prior to competition “cut up” with additional leg extensions and leg curls. Upper body work for all centered around the standing barbell press and heavy rows and shrugs. The Olympic lifters would include snatch work, the bodybuilders would include arms and some pulldowns or chins, and the powerlifters would incorporate almost any of the basic movements done by the other two groups. With the emphasis on basic multi-joint movements, almost everyone who lifted weights in a consistently serious manner, over time, became quite strong and looked darned good if their diet wasn’t totally out of order.

In an age of specialization where most lifters and bodybuilders don’t even train in the same facilities, I’m sure this seems quite strange and pointless. However, everyone believed they were “in it together” because the general public viewed anyone with developed muscles and anyone who devoted more than a passing moment to lifting weights as “odd,” “off,” “a narcissist,” or misguided. Until the post-World War II era, few could devote any time to weight training because economic conditions demanded that everyone, meaning every male, be gainfully employed and often with two jobs. The leisure time that sprung from the prosperity of post-War America allowed for time and energy to be placed upon developing one’s strength and physique if one wished and only then did any of the weight sports begin to grow beyond the bounds of cult-status and become part of the consciousness of the general public.

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Ken Leistner

About Ken Leistner

American strength training writer, personal trainer, strength consultant for the National Football League, and chiropractor. He is often known as "Dr. Ken". Read More >

One Response to History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 1

  1. Erik Bonini Erik Bonini

    Dr Ken, I have enjoyed your monthly articles since the beginning. As a fan of hardcore gyms,( I currently train at Bob Bonham’s wonderful Strong and Shapely Gym) I would love to see you write an extensive article about Iron Island, with pics if possible. As you know, Ralph sold the gym in 2008 and it bacame southshore fitness, I believe it is now closed due to hurricane sandy. I have spoken with a couple of lifters from Iron Island, and they still wax poetic about what a pecial time and place that it was.

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