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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 17 0

Rack Time

As usual, there was plenty of feedback from the previous installment of this series of articles. Superb and highly respected Brooklyn-based lifter Pat Susco noted some of his early recollections in our e mail exchange:

Pat Suscoo writes:

“another masterpiece!… I remember using a “Corbin-Gentry” chest supported seated row in the first gym I ever trained at (after Vito`s basement of course) …Community Health Club in Queens”

A lot of the good guys from Community Health which was originally opened and owned by Frank Bartels in 1964 or so, used to come over to the storefront gym in Valley Stream to train. They had a lot of good physique competitors and lifting types because they had great equipment, most of it home made. In fact, Community had the first Smith Machine in the entire area. The best guy there was Chris Dickerson who of course went on to win first, the Jr. Mr. America title and then the AAU Mr. A, the first African-American to do so. As usual, reality was not quite what the Weider magazine presentations provided. Chris was trying to get a lot bigger and relative to his diet, while the latest issue of Muscle Power magazine might note his intake of Weider based protein products, lean meat, chicken, and steamed vegetables, Chris would show up with hero sandwiches and rice pudding from the deli! Tony Pandolfo’s cousin Richie Pandolf (the family had dropped the “o” off of the name) was the training partner of Steve Michalik, another future Mr. America winner and they also would come and train with us, sometimes on a Saturday for example, when Dennis Tinerino was in from Brooklyn. We didn’t realize how many really great physiques were in our place, very much taking each other and those that came in to train from elsewhere for granted. All of the storefront gyms had some home-made equipment and we had our share, but Community had a reputation similar to ours for providing a very functional training atmosphere. More from Pat:

“and actually watched Lou Ferrigno train there from behind the curtain that separated the “health food store” from the “gym” located behind the store. It was wood paneled (knotty pine was big back then)… “

The “wood look” gave the place what I think was supposed to be an “up-scale appearance” but it was always dark in there! Almost as a typical layout for the New York City area, all of the supplements were on the shelves in front as one entered the premises, and one would then walk through the curtain into the gym area. I can’t think of the name of the two gentlemen who eventually bought the gym but by 1980, it was still functioning and one of the owners was a patient of mine in my first professional office. In the late 1960′s, some of the big physique contests for the area like Mr. New York City were held at the VFW Hall a block or two from Community Health Center. Before Pete Grymkowski owned Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, he was living in his home town of Rochester, NY and I believe, working for his family’s construction company. We first saw him in one of those Mr. New York contests at that VFW Hall, a huge guy with the widest and biggest shoulders anyone had seen. From Pat:

“anyway, the seated row took up 1/2 the right side of the gym! I can confirm the “Kaz” story , as he told me at York that he could no longer squat comfortably using the standard olympic bar…”

There were huge guys in the sport and there remain huge guys but Kaz literally could not wedge his shoulders between the inside collars of the bar and then grip it to secure it on his back when squatting. Dave Passanella who at the time was the Head Strength And Conditioning Coach at Georgia Tech University, had the idea for a longer and stronger bar and Jim Sutherland produced it with some of his own innovations that have become industry standards. Regarding the Corbin Gentry Row, those into motorcycles will recall that for many years, Corbin Gentry made high quality and highly sought motorcycle seats. Located in Connecticut, I imagine that one of the young members of the ownership family or one of the key executives had it in mind to cash in on what was then the burgeoning interest in fitness and the blossoming of the nation-wide Nautilus training outlets. With a manufacturing facility in hand, someone made the decision to produce a series of leveraged, plate-loaded weight training machines. The first of the leveraged type of machines that held up to use were those designed by Louis Rieke. Alvin Roy is thought by most to be the first of pro football’s strength coaches though it would be more accurate to describe him as the first consultant as he did not have a full time, all year round position with the teams he worked with. After revolutionizing strength training at the collegiate level with the introduction of programs to LSU, Ole Miss, and other southern based universities, he did the same for pro football’s San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Dallas Cowboys. The line coach who actually administrated the program for the AFL Champion Chargers was Chuck Noll who became the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers and approached Alvin about working with his new squad. Not having the time to do so, he recommended Lou Rieke, a former national level lifter who was immediately embraced by the players. Rieke designed what became the Rieke Racks which were installed at the Steelers facility. One must imagine four heavy wood posts, each with a series of holes to accept a piece of pipe that served as handles, and forming a type of power rack, with the wooden square units sliding on a frame constructed of pipe. The handles could be set at different heights, allowing for a deadlift grip, high pull, or press grip if placed higher on the wooden posts, or bench press grip if placed between the extremes. To do different exercises, the players would insert the handles to the proper height, push or pull to complete the exercise while the wooden posts would then move upon the supporting pipe. It was the first of the plate loaded machine type of designs.

Pittsburgh Steelers in summer camp, training with Rieke Racks, early 1970’s

Pittsburgh Steelers in summer camp, training with Rieke Racks, early 1970’s

Jim Sutherland’s innovative squat racks complemented his bars. Again, the younger lifters used to the many different kinds of adjustable racks and Monolifts, will be sorely tested to imagine having 500 pounds across the weight saddles of a pair of squat racks with lifters of varying heights training together. Two men would lift one end of the bar as one pulled a pin from the height-setting hole and another pulled the rack up a notch or two, or lowered it in accordance with the next lifter’s needs. The pin was hurriedly returned to the hole, the pipe with the weight saddle welded to the top of it lowered, and the weight returned to the rack. The procedure was then repeated on the other side of the rack. This might be done an exhausting number of times each session and what usually happened was that some of the lifters would strain to reach the bar, standing on their toes to do so before removing the weight from the racks, others bending so low to begin their squat that they endangered their low backs. Forcing the very tall and very short lifters to “challenge” themselves to remove the squat bar was often deemed to be safer and more efficient than constantly changing the rack heights. Progress came in the form of adjustable racks that worked with car or truck jacks that unfortunately often slipped with heavy resistance on them, hydraulics that often leaked or had a damaged seal preventing any movement of the racks, and finally, Jim’s electrically powered racks which operated with actuators that ran a worm-type gear. These were efficient, safe, and almost fail-proof.

A bloodied Pat Susco squats big weight on a single post Sutherland Electric Rack at an early Iron Island Gym meet

A bloodied Pat Susco squats big weight on a single post Sutherland Electric Rack at an early Iron Island Gym meet

Jim initially had two models of the forward thinking rack, single post and double post. A literal push of the button allowed them to immediately go up or down with as much as an 1800 pound load. I know because I loaded a bar to 1800 pounds and rode it up and down the racks prior to the opening of our Iron Island Gym. The racks also accommodated larger lifters who needed a closer placement of the racks, with rollers that allowed the rack width to be adjusted without having to lift or move the bar in order to allow the saddles to move inward. These were extremely popular when introduced at early-1980’s contests and Jim received widespread recognition when Larry Pacifico, who at the time ran the best and most popular powerlifting meets in the country, utilized them for the Senior National Powerlifting Championships. This was not Jim’s only contribution to the sport and I would like to give this deserving gentleman even more praise and highlight some of his innovations in the next Eleiko installment.

Former NFL All Pro Linebacker Stephen Boyd of the Detroit Lions squats in Doc’s garage on a Sutherland Electric Rack

Former NFL All Pro Linebacker Stephen Boyd of the Detroit Lions squats in Doc’s garage on a Sutherland Electric Rack

Be sure to come back December 1st 2009 to read installment #18 of Dr. Ken’s “History of Powerlifting Series”

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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 >

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