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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 36 0

The Strongmen

When it was time to train for an odd lift contest or powerlifting meet in the early to mid-1960’s, the fellows I would occasionally train with would do their best to have an Olympic barbell available. Any quick reading of the thirty-five preceding articles in this Titan series would make it obvious that the rules of “early powerlifting” borrowed liberally from the sport of Olympic weightlifting. Not yet being official, not yet being completely organized, and not being wholeheartedly accepted by those who ran national and international weightlifting, perhaps it was easiest to do what made the most sense which would have been to adapt the weightlifting rules to this new sport. The official weight classes, the bar and plate specifications, the lifting uniform, the judging and jury procedures, and the meet set-ups were essentially the same for the sport’s earliest incarnation. In hindsight its easy to discern the obvious problems but remember too that as a sport, powerlifting was a threat to Olympic weightlifting, at least in the eyes of the powers that ruled the game and there was a general feeling that powerlifting was fortunate to get off the ground at all. This is perhaps humorous to iron game enthusiasts now, considering that powerlifting in the United States has “too many” federations and thousands of registered participants. In any gym in any part of the nation, there will be a number of trainees who consider themselves to be “powerlifters” whether they actually compete or not. Olympic lifting is so far down the list of viable, active sports in the country, with minimal numbers of competing participants, that cries for enhancing official enrollment, recruiting drives of one sort or another, and the active courting of corporate participation has been a constant for decades and all with minimal tangible results. Yet in the mid-1960’s when powerlifting was first organizing as an official sport and beginning to grow, Olympic lifting, seen as the only “legitimate” barbell related activity, was its primary obstacle.

[Photos courtesy of PLUSA] A famous group of strongmen representing both Olympic weightlifting and odd/powerlifting during Paul Anderson’s visit to the original Muscle Beach

[Photos courtesy of PLUSA] A famous group of strongmen representing both Olympic weightlifting and odd/powerlifting during Paul Anderson’s visit to the original Muscle Beach

I was there as the history and birth of powerlifting unfolded. As an enthusiastic football player, already with five or six years of training experience, ready to embark on what I hoped would be a college career filled with success in the classroom and on the gridiron, the basic lifts indigenous to powerlifting and its training were part of my every day consciousness and activity. Revisionist history, at least in my opinion, has presented differing views of what the actual story was. From the start, those who controlled Olympic lifting, which meant Bob Hoffman and anyone that was connected with his York Barbell Company group, were seen as enemies of powerlifting. That might sound like a rather strong statement but with what appeared to be already dwindling numbers of participants, there was a genuine concern that powerlifting would prove to be a magnet for numerous potential Olympic lifters. Olympic weightlifting had always prided itself upon the need for “athleticism” as well as strength, a need to be disciplined enough to put in an awful lot of practice time in order to master what appeared to be precisely timed contortionist’s maneuvers performed with a very heavy barbell. This proved to be the basis for the introduction of the Olympic lifts and general Olympic lifting principles into the strength coaching profession. It was also the reason that made any athlete or coach believe that if weight training was to be used to enhance athletic performance, Olympic lifting rather than bodybuilding should be the core of the program. Coaches would view the speed and athletic ability of top Olympic lifters and say, “Well these guys aren’t muscle bound and they obviously move really well. I guess these weights may not slow my guys down as much as I think they will” in contrast to the way in which they interpreted bodybuilding. The “swollen” and bloated appearance of a competitive bodybuilder’s muscular development stamped a permanent impression into the collective consciousness that any true athlete that trained in the same manner would then be walking onto the field with the patented flared-lat, stiff gaited and size-exaggerated swaying stroll of so many bodybuilders. Even at our Iron Island Gym which Kathy and I founded and opened on February 3, 1992 and sold in October of 1998 where athletes came from all over the country, and some from other countries, to train for all four major aspects of the iron sports (including “strongman”) and their mainstream athletic contests and where competitive bodybuilding was supported but kept in perspective, we would at times have to chuckle at the antics of some. As I was fond of pointing out, “How come Cincinnati linebacker Reggie Williams was 238 pounds of solid muscle and as ripped as most competitive bodybuilders, yet walked into a room with normal posture and gait, but (while nodding towards a 167 pound “bodybuilder” or “bodybuilding type” ) this guy looks as if he’s so constricted he can’t even move.” The arms-out-wide, egg-shaped torso pose with triceps popping under the strain of a one pound towel gave rise to the term “ILS” or “Imaginary Lat Syndrome,” a quick and immediately understood explanation of the stilted walk of the wanna-be bodybuilder who at least in his own mind thought he had too much muscle to ambulate normally. However, even as more athletes turned to weight training as a means to improve their on-field performance, Olympic lifting was suffering from a lack of numbers.

Minnesota’s Mel Hennessey carried 240 pounds of muscle or more on a very short frame. He was atypical in that he was so much stronger than most competitors, but typical of the 1960’s in that he utilized the standard exercises for the purposes of both lifting competition and physique development

Minnesota’s Mel Hennessey carried 240 pounds of muscle or more on a very short frame. He was atypical in that he was so much stronger than most competitors, but typical of the 1960’s in that he utilized the standard exercises for the purposes of both lifting competition and physique development

Author John Fair, in his classic book Muscletown USA, a rather complete though in my opinion, less than unbiased history of the York Barbell Company, Bob Hoffman, and the events related to the so-called “Golden Age” in the iron sports, clearly states the issues that the Olympic lifting powers had with the burgeoning sport of powerlifting. Referring to powerlifting as an organized sport, Fair wrote,

“However much Bob (Hoffman) originally disdained this new sport, he soon experienced some attitude readjustment. That he could speak from both sides of his mouth is evident. He observed in 1963 that there were not enough Olympic lifters in America and that physique and odd-lift contests were ‘killing our chances of victory’ in international competition, yet he professed not to be ‘against the power lifter’ and insisted that York was doing its utmost to keep powerlifting in the AAU. He supported the efforts of weightlifting chairman David Martin to establish a national championship and official set of records. Thinking that many odd-lift enthusiasts might be lured into Olympic lifting, he advocated the upright rowing motion and press behind the neck for inclusion in the power-lift program. He also hosted the first two national meets, in 1964 and 1965, hoping perhaps to become ‘Father of Powerlifting.’ Just as Hoffman had once collected the best weightlifters in the world and greatest physique star in (John) Grimek, he now took pride in having at York the ‘best power lifter in the nation.’”

Some have gone as far to say that Bob Hoffman and the Olympic lifting powers actually pushed hard for the growth of powerlifting and of course, with Joe Weider and his group always pulling the other end of the chain in the sports early days and with yet another opportunity to oppose something that Hoffman and York were doing, it was the Weider clan that became the self-proclaimed advocates of the new sport. Needless to say, wherever money might be made, the two heavyweights in the lifting/bodybuilding game, the only two real participants of note, were going to battle for the bucks.

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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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