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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 19 1

More Sutherland and the Introduction of the Passanella Bar

As expected, Part Eighteen of our TITAN/ELEIKO series and the discussion of Jim Sutherland and some of the equipment he produced again stimulated comment from our readers. As per my statement within the body of that article, it was a correct assumption that the active, younger, competitive lifters of today had neither heard of nor seen an electric squat rack. Remember this please; the squat rack under any circumstances and in the application of its use as a “holder of a barbell at a specific height” for squats, pressing movements, or good mornings for example, must meet minimal safety standards. The additional features of convenience, efficiency, and appearance are just that, additional features that should add to the enjoyment and ease of use for the lifter. Manually adjusting a rack with 400 to 600 pounds resting on it was no picnic as any of the old timers will attest to.

John Kantor, a terrific lifter in both Pennsylvania and Arizona, pictured in the 1968 Venice Beach Invitational on manually adjusted racks. Note concrete filled tire rims as the base for the racks

John Kantor, a terrific lifter in both Pennsylvania and Arizona, pictured in the 1968 Venice Beach Invitational on manually adjusted racks. Note concrete filled tire rims as the base for the racks

The worst situation was training not with a large group, but with a single training partner whose height and strength levels were significantly different than yours. Every set that was completed as the two partners alternated necessitated a rack height adjustment. My long time training partner Jack, and I often faced this problem and sometimes attempted to resolve it with compromise. In retrospect, placing the squat racks so that he had to bend his knees to approximate a one-third squat position and I had to step up onto a 100 pound plate to remove the bar out of the rack while on tip-toes, was rather unsafe for both of us. Yet that often seemed like a more acceptable alternative than humping one side of the loaded bar skyward and holding it while one of us took a turn at pulling the pin, lifting the squat rack weight saddle, replacing the pin, and then insuring that the end of the barbell was again safely in place. That task made for a long and arduous workout. Even with the more frequent height changes needed by a larger group, it was easier and often faster as everyone took turns making the necessary adjustments.

In discussing this type of procedure with our younger lifters, the eye-rolling and chuckles indicate that they view this “Dinosaur Era Training” something to be buried and forgotten but I believe it gives us older lifters and former lifters a greater appreciation for today’s equipment. The ER Rack and similar leverage type of squat/bench racks, hydraulic cylinder racks, and the Monolift have made rack height adjustment rapid and easy, but lost to history has been the electric rack in part because Jim Sutherland was the only one to successfully make these.

ER Racks

ER Racks

Mike Adolphson of Reflex Fitness who today, produces some of the best equipment available on the market, made a prototype model of an electric rack for John Shaffer when John was directing meets in the Pennsylvania area, but his “one-off” rack was a bit slow in operation and rather heavy to move easily. Thus Sutherland’s models, both single and double post, remain the true innovations for this specific piece.

Jim was highlighted in last month’s article and deservedly so. His athletic background, combined with his curiosity and intelligence, pushed strength training equipment design and powerlifting equipment specifically, forward. I mentioned that Jim was the captain of his football, basketball, and baseball teams and only a severe knee injury made him turn down an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy to play basketball and instead attend and graduate from Western Michigan University. The knee injury and resultant six surgeries did not prevent Jim from achieving solid powerlifting success, winning local titles and racking up PR’s of a 405 bench press and 625 deadlift. Predictably, his squat was limited but he faced the same rack height adjustment problems the rest of us did, especially as a large, tall lifter. While guys like me bitched and moaned, Jim gave careful thought to the problem and built his electric rack, and those who own the few that are still floating around can attest to their efficiency and durability.

Sutherland Electric Rack

Sutherland Electric Rack

I had met John Terpak in the mid-1960’s. Directing the day-to-day operations for York Barbell Company, John was an important figure in powerlifting. York offered what I believe was the first bar specifically developed for the sport of powerlifting. For the younger readers, when powerlifting grew from its roots in “odd lifting” almost all of the rules regarding weight classes, lifting attire, procedures for setting records, and the competition equipment were adopted directly from the sport of Olympic weightlifting. Many, if not most of the rules and protocols were in fact, adaptable but over time, some proved to be unacceptable. The first official contests used “Olympic barbells” and of course, the rotating sleeve Olympic bars that “took the big-holed plates” were not found in every gym as they are today. This made the bars very special to most lifters and York had a stranglehold on the market, at least in the United States. There was world-wide respect for York Barbell products and specifically the Olympic barbell and plates. There were regional manufacturers like Paramount in California and Iron Man in Nebraska, but if one reads through issues of Strength And Health, Iron Man, Muscular Development, and the various Weider magazines, it is obvious that almost every contest and certainly any big-time contest of note, utilized the York set. Viewing photos in some of the Weider publications from the 1950’s and ‘60’s, one will be stimulated to laugh at the crude photography techniques that were used to remove or otherwise cover up the York name on the visible plates. The feud between the Weiders and Bob Hoffman at York would not allow the brothers to give York any positive publicity if it could be avoided. Hoffman of course, reciprocated. The Weider publications often reported Canadian contests where their own Weider Barbell equipment was prominently displayed, though I doubt that very many American readers knew or cared about the results from North of the border.

In the early and mid-1970’s, York experimented with a number of different barbells. The chrome-vanadium steel Olympic bar, sold in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s was touted as being super strong and virtually unbendable. They came out with what the company termed a “Swedish Steel bar.” Most of the lifters I knew who were familiar with this rather infrequently seen bar called it a “stainless steel” Olympic barbell because that’s what it looked like. Reuben Weaver, an expert on all things related to York Barbell as is Jan Dellinger, was kind enough to check old York price lists for me to help trace the sales of the different York bars. Interestingly, York did in fact offer a “Stainless Steel Olympic Barbell” from January 1, 1979, with its final appearance on the York price list coming in May of 1984. The Swedish Steel bar was marketed for a short period of time, through 1973 and 1974 with Jan and Reuben being able to trace its sales through the June 1975 York price list. By January of 1976, it was relegated to history. It was certainly beautiful but manufacturing costs prevented its wide-spread sales and it was rather quickly dropped from the list of offerings. What Jan termed “the wildly escalating cost of steel” made the bar “prohibitively expensive to produce” and retail sales of the bar did not justify continued supply to the lifting public. I know that I bought into their advertising. Besides the fact that the loft above my father’s iron shop was more or less open and subject to the climatic elements which made a stainless type of steel bar a definite attraction, the bar was absolutely beautiful and the hype surrounding it won me over. I will admit first that I may have taken the advertising campaign in, hook, line, and sinker as the old expression goes, but I was also anxious to buy into the entire idea of having such an exotic and different bar, one I believed could withstand any insult.

As powerlifting gained momentum with the lifting fraternity, Hoffman chafed at the number of potentially good Olympic lifters that were being lost to this new sport. After the drug-related debacle of the 1972 Olympics, Hoffman more or less gave up on Olympic lifters and threw most of his financial support towards softball, a standing interest he had invested in previously. Softball, unfortunately, became his passion and with the same zeal and effort he had put into Olympic lifting decades before, he became an important catalyst in the growth of this sport. York however, did not give up on making money from the lifting sports, even as Hoffman’s personal interest waned. The York Powerlifting Bar was introduced as a specialty item made for the burgeoning sport. Thicker at 29 mm than the standard 28 mm Olympic bar, it also had a heavier knurling pattern to insure a more secure grip, was noticeably stiffer, and provided center knurling. When Olympic barbells were first introduced by York, and others, there was a center knurling to allow for one-handed lifting. Though I usually date myself with my decades-old references in this series of articles, I was not around for the original grouping of Olympic lifts but remember please that the lifts done included not only the two-hands version of the press, snatch, and clean and jerk, but also the one-handed version. Thus, a center knurl was needed on the bar. According to Jan Dellinger, around 1988 to 1990 York removed the center knurl from the bar as Olympic lifters complained that the knurling cut or scraped their necks when racking the bar for the clean and jerk. The new powerlifting bar always had a center knurling that was as heavily and sharply grooved as that provided for the handgrips. This center knurl allowed the powerlifting bar to “dig into” the tee shirt or skin of the upper back when the bar was held for the squat and was readily accepted by the powerlifting community. Others copied the new power bar, with Image/Champion, and the original Texas Power Bar by Buddy Capps Welding being the most commonly seen in contests. Sutherland of course, improved on these. Making reference to the Lee Moran “bar explosion” at the 1984 Senior National Powerlifting Championships at Dayton, Ohio Jim developed the Passanella Bar.

Dave Passanella squatting on the bar named for him

Dave Passanella squatting on the bar named for him

Thicker at 32 mm and made from a stronger grade of steel than any bar on the market, an additional feature was a pair of hand crafted collars. Secured into specially prepared holes in the actual rotating sleeve of the bar, the pop-pin locking collars insured that the plates would remain locked onto the bar under any circumstance. With greater space between the inside collars, the largest lifters were comfortable placing and carrying the bar on their upper backs and this was the beginning of the “specialty bar” industry.

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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 19

  1. Just recieved a York bar from Pennsylvania bought on E-Bay.
    Knurling is lighter than i remember on the 1970’s york bar bought new in Los Angeles.
    It is chocolate brown now , staight as a arrow and bushings rotate like new. Knurling is worn on far ends and by center space from racks.
    It has a better grip than the Iron Grip zinck coated bar also with shallow knurling and center knurl. It is exactly like the York bar though iron grip in California said it has nytron bushings. why do they seem to spin like the bronze bushings on the older york bar.
    thanks for your time,
    Lee murray
    Salem,Oregun

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