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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 33 0

More Dumbbells for Everyone

I was contacted by a fellow I knew in high school whose son was a patient and trainee of mine and he mentioned that he had been reading the ongoing Titan/Eleiko series of articles and remembered how so many of my classmates and others around school thought that walking through town with a loaded barbell in order to accumulate free plates was “just the strangest thing anyone could do.” Of course, lifting weights in any manner in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s was also considered to be “the strangest thing anyone could do” so one must maintain the perspective common from that time period. This individual did however follow up with a “left-handed compliment” when noting that “everyone also thought you had to be pretty strong to do that stuff.” Call it dedication, motivation, or simply an obsession to gather as much weight as I could if it was offered at no cost. As a youngster intent on becoming muscularly larger and stronger so that I could improve my football and street survival skills, I was convinced that the possibility of having “too much weight” or “too many dumbbells and extra plates” did not exist. I have frankly stated in this series and in articles dating back to the late 1960’s, that the necessity of somehow getting oneself to the garage, basement, storefront gym, or one of the few health club type of facilities that might have offered information or individuals who lifted weights and could convey something, anything that would allow an interested party to improve, was the only real way to get that information and then improve. Training with weights, no matter the discipline, was very much a cult-like activity, freely and enthusiastically shared by its participants, shunned and made fun of by those “outside of the family” of trainees, and the only way to get into it was to literally step in personally. Reading the magazines helped to a small extent and of course, provided contest or other training information, months following the actual event. The limitations due to a lack of veracity presented by those articles made one leery, and again drove one back to the “step one” necessity of having to personally gather the desired information.

With minimal information and directions, I recall going to a warehouse on Long Island where I was told a group of competitive and non-competitive powerlifters were training for what was then a nascent sport. On a Friday evening I drove alone into a rather isolated and desolate industrial area and more or less looked around for any building that had a light shining through a visible window. I was fortunate that it took no more than three or four tries until I located the correct door and was able to enter a stark room consisting of what was some sort of machine shop on one side and a very basic but complete gym on the other.

The late Ray Rigby squats 826 in one of Dr. Ken’s home gyms: a squat rack, bench, plywood for a platform, homemade dumbbells, and lots of plates

The late Ray Rigby squats 826 in one of Dr. Ken’s home gyms: a squat rack, bench, plywood for a platform, homemade dumbbells, and lots of plates

My presence was immediately noticed but not acknowledged and not one word was said to me. I sat in a corner and spent perhaps two hours watching a dozen very strong and serious men throw an awful lot of weight around and it was impressive. African American and Caucasian, the mixed group was familiar and easy going with each other but I had no doubt they could clear any bar in short order had they been offended or otherwise angered. Only when they were done, was I approached and asked if I could be helped in any way. Obviously, having sat still in a corner for approximately two hours doing nothing else but observing and mentally taking notes on everything I saw, marked me as someone seeking information on what they were doing.

Home gym garage in Valley Stream, NY, a 25 year endeavor complete with Sutherland electric squat rack, power rack, dumbbells, and lots of plates and little more.

Home gym garage in Valley Stream, NY, a 25 year endeavor complete with Sutherland electric squat rack, power rack, dumbbells, and lots of plates and little more.

This was typical, at least for me and it brought me to the known New York City area training sites like Mid City Gym when it was on Times Square, the rear of Leroy Colbert’s health food store on 84th Street and Broadway, the loft above Jack Meniero’s Mr. V Sport Shop in Brooklyn where I saw Larry Powers, Freddy Ortiz, and other monster bodybuilders lifting rather impressive amounts of weight, the Olympic Health Club in Hicksville that featured the training exploits of discus throwing champion Al Oerter, and any countless number of unmarked storefronts and industrial spaces used for lifting weights. The most impressive memory I have of the warehouse visit noted above was the fact that there were loaded barbells on numerous racks and lined up in a semblance of order all over the concrete floor. As the introduction of rubber bumper plates was still years away, there were some heavy duty welcome-type mats scattered around to offer minimal cushion to the impact of the forty-five pound Olympic barbell plates when the bars were brought to the floor but I did not believe they did much to protect the bar, plates, or concrete. That they had what must have been a dozen bars all loaded to a different “base weight” so that for example, deadlifts being done between 225 and 315 were completed on one bar, those between 315 and 405 on another bar, and any amount between 405 and 495 and up on yet another bar was, to me, just the coolest thing I had seen to that point in time in a gym setting. Two or three benches and an incline bench as well as three squat racks all had their own Olympic or standard bars and all had “base weight” that never went below a specified amount. This made group lifting as quick, efficient, and exciting as it could be and it became a goal of mine to have a private or public training facility that boasted a set-up where there was an abundance of bars and plates. Additionally, this particular warehouse gym also had many home made dumbbells lined up on the floor against one wall.

1996 Olympic gold medal winner Derrick Adkins squats in barest of home gym set-ups, just the squat/pull/press rack circa 1975  Dr. Ken welded for the Malverne High School weight room, rescued and resurrected at time of school renovation.

1996 Olympic gold medal winner Derrick Adkins squats in barest of home gym set-ups, just the squat/pull/press rack circa 1975 Dr. Ken welded for the Malverne High School weight room, rescued and resurrected at time of school renovation.

Before hex-head, urethane covered, or any other type of commercial dumbbell, there were either the so-called “gym dumbbells” made from a specific company’s plates that were welded onto short “dumbbell bars” or there were the large, round, globe-head dumbbells made by York and only a few other companies. Certainly there were other brands such as Jackson Barbell that made dumbbells but the two usual types encountered in the few commercial gyms or health spas of the day were constructed of standard plates or the casted, large globes. As was the standard of the day, all of the dumbbells I noted in the warehouse gym that impressed me so much, were constructed of small, one-inch holed plates that were attached to appropriately cut and measured short bars. This was the purpose in my own quest to gather and save as many of the unused 110 pound barbell sets that friends and schoolmates stashed beneath their beds or in the back of their closets after minimal use. Most of the fellows who made their own dumbbells obviously first used the dumbbell bars provided with any barbell-dumbbell set they had purchased. When it came time to get serious and make an entire set of dumbbells or at least enough so that any workout could flow without the interruption made necessary from stopping to change the weight on any dumbbell, one had to first get the bars to place the weights upon. Having access to my father’s iron shop made this easy for me. Typically, any inventory in the typical “mom and pop” iron shop will be hot rolled rather than cold rolled. For the sake of simplicity, at least for this specific point, hot rolled steel or iron is reshaped at a temperature above what is termed the re-crystallization temperature, which will cause the molecular structure to alter and align differently than the starting product. Cold rolled is done below this temperature and is much stronger when finished relative to hot rolled bars. Hot rolled is fine for dumbbell bars but anyone who has lifted more than 150 pounds on a length that is in excess of five or six foot, as per a standard Olympic barbell, has discovered the hard way that it doesn’t take much force or loaded weight to bend these bars. All of the barbell stock used is cold rolled and further treated to make for example, any of the top name Olympic or power bars extremely strong and resistant to damage. Obviously, having gathered an inventory of short bars, one can then consider the actual construction of their dumbbells but if they are to be strong and not break apart when dropped more than a few times, some special care needs to be taken when welding them and then there is the matter of the dreaded “rotating sleeve.”

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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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