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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 38 0

A Brief But Necessary Explaination of “Powerlifting Vis-à-vis Olympic Lifting” Part 1

My compulsive nature is most comfortable when I can maintain both order and the order of completing tasks in a sequential manner. However, an interruption in communication with Ivanko Barbell founder Tom Lincir due to his schedule, and our readers’ repetitive request for further explanation about “Powerlifting as it was then” requires a month’s delay in Part 2 of our discussion about the necessity of having rotating sleeves on a barbell used exclusively for powerlifting. This also may leave my wife time to complete a photographic “assignment” for this series of articles that will help to emphasize some of the points I wish to clarify in Part 2 and in one or two subsequent installments. Thus, an attempted response to the question, “Why was it necessary or advised to adapt to and adopt so many of the Olympic weightlifting rules to powerlifting if it was to be a separate and distinct sport?” This of course is a summary of ten or fifteen questions that more or less requested the same information.

First, pick up an issue of POWERLIFTING USA Magazine. Read through the contest results as well as the articles, check the upcoming contests, and then tell me without referring back to the magazine, how many different federations there currently are. Include the ones that allow participation by those otherwise registered in more than one, or a different organization than theIr own. Did the count exceed a half dozen? Are we including “sub-categories” or organizations that form for one major contest a year and does this take the number to a dozen? Excluding the ones that pop up for only a meet or two, or only hold unsanctioned and/or local meets in a specific locale each year, are we still nudging the mid-teen numbers? In an age where choices and options seem almost limitless as this applies to every subject or activity one could think of, it may be beyond the comprehension of all of those from the past two generations to understand the concept of having one and only one ruling body in our sport. In an age where the internet and mass media communication allows for instant access to information and the broadest possible range of information, it might be impossible to understand the concept of information about a sport for example, taking weeks or months to first enter the hands of involved individuals. In the early 1960’s, this was the world as we knew it with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) directing the activities of all non-professional sports in the United States. Even the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that continues to oversee college athletics fell under the direction of the AAU for a number of the Olympic sports.

Big Paul Wrenn, an underrated yet all time great powerlifter was outstanding relative to his strength levels and achievements. His 975 squat at the 1981 Senior National Powerlifting Championships and 2342 Total were marks that others chased, the latter for many years. This photo from one of the Tennessee State Championships of the mid-1970’s demonstrates more that was typical of that era than not: lifters in wrestling singlets, plywood platforms, “home made” tire rim squat racks, and a lifter, in this case Paul himself, as a former Olympic lifter, turned Odd Lifter, and finally Powerlifter.

Big Paul Wrenn, an underrated yet all time great powerlifter was outstanding relative to his strength levels and achievements. His 975 squat at the 1981 Senior National Powerlifting Championships and 2342 Total were marks that others chased, the latter for many years. This photo from one of the Tennessee State Championships of the mid-1970’s demonstrates more that was typical of that era than not: lifters in wrestling singlets, plywood platforms, “home made” tire rim squat racks, and a lifter, in this case Paul himself, as a former Olympic lifter, turned Odd Lifter, and finally Powerlifter.

Weightlifting was one of the sports that was run by the AAU. In the United States weightlifting was run by Bob Hoffman and the York Barbell Company. Another concept difficult to grasp by today’s younger lifters in particular and athletes in general, would be the ability of one person to have a stranglehold on an entire sport. With globalization, the aforementioned ability to access information, even “behind the scenes” information, and a pervasive attitude that every individual is entitled to stick their nose into every aspect of anyone else’s business, especially a sporting activity they might be involved in, it will be difficult to relate to the way things used to be. However, York Barbell and their financial control of Olympic lifting also insured their control of the sport, and it was reinforced by the connection many if not most of the sport’s officers and primary political assignees had to Hoffman or York. With those involved with “odd lift” contests gaining popularity and momentum in their quest to have a separate yet equal barbell sport in the U.S. approval and cooperation from York Barbell was vital. Their financial contribution too, was seen by those on the ground floor, as being an essential element needed to kick start what would be termed Powerlifting.

I believe that there are “lifting historians” who can recite chapter and verse and give exact dates of the early contests, know the names of the meet directors, have the measurements for the height of the first to third place trophies, and know the material far better than I do. Their voluminous collection of yellowed muscle magazines and lifting programs would I’m sure, dwarf my stash of historical football related materials. My intent is to provide a perspective of a guy who left his garage or basement training areas to occasionally train in a local storefront gym or enter a contest, a perspective that included a great love for the activity. Knowing many of the key participants as friends or acquaintances also provided an added feature to that perspective. John Fair’s 1999 book Muscletown USA provides a succinct history of powerlifting’s origins as well as all of the extensive information about York Barbell Company itself. Certainly for the interested reader, this would be “must” material but I would prefer to give perspective on an era long gone. First recall that most “barbell men” utilized aspects of Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding in their usual programs. Prior to a contest or if particularly interested in only one aspect of the three primary branches of the Iron Game, they would specialize or utilize “only” weightlifting movements or “only” powerlifting movements but in general, the bench press, power clean, overhead press, and row most often found themselves grouped in the same week-to-week training routine. When powerlifting gained enough grass roots support to clamor for a separate federation or ruling body, it coincided with York Barbell Company’s realization that they needed to get onto the new sport’s bandwagon if they intended to both maintain these individuals as potential customers, and perhaps capture a few for the sport of weightlifting. Even York’s new Muscular Development Magazine, claiming to be “the” source for powerlifting news featured a succession of bodybuilders on the covers, not lifters. Of course one could make a case that the majority of cover men from the first year, men like John Grimek and Bill Pearl, though known best as bodybuilders, also were among the stronger echelon of that ilk. Some like Hugo Labra had been exclusively Olympic lifters before making the switch to bodybuilding yet it was obvious that presenting the typical powerlifter on the cover of a new publication was not going to attract readers in droves. Still the fight was on. The powerlifters were fighting to establish a sport separate from Olympic lifting and both Weider and York were fighting for powerlifters’ loyalties.

Another photo of Paul Wrenn, this time just failing to stand erect with a huge 887 deadlift at the 1981 Senior Nationals. Paul has spent decades using his great strength to aid his ministry as he spreads the word of his faith with that of being both spiritually and physically powerful

Another photo of Paul Wrenn, this time just failing to stand erect with a huge 887 deadlift at the 1981 Senior Nationals. Paul has spent decades using his great strength to aid his ministry as he spreads the word of his faith with that of being both spiritually and physically powerful

One of the glaring differences between “the old days” and the present can be summed up in a conversation I had with a young man who had read a lot of my previously published materials and who asked, “Where can I view the videos online of some of these 1960’s lifters?” There is an absence of awareness that the only men and women who owned a camera that they actually walked around with most of the time, were professional photographers. The Polaroid camera and smaller hand held cameras expanded the market through the 1950’s and ‘60’s but it was rare to find anyone with a camera in a gym, taking still photos of training sessions, unless this was done specifically for one of the muscle magazines. While video recorders/cameras came into vogue in the early to mid-1980’s, it wasn’t as if they were carried into the gyms and garages to routinely tape training sessions or even contests. Even with the small and rarely seen Peary and Mabel Rader publication Lifter’s Journal and the introduction of Muscular Development in January of 1964, and through its first few years of publication, one would see the published results of very few contests. The major contests would receive coverage or at least mention with perhaps a listing of partial or full meet results but very often, one would search each issue before realizing, eight or nine months later, that the contest they competed in was going to join the majority of meets that were never mentioned within the pages of any source of lifting information. Now of course, it seems as if every half assed training lift or session is forever immortalized on You Tube to what should be, but never seems to register, as the mortal embarrassment of its subject. I’ve noted in past installments that reliable training information was garnered almost exclusively by locating a group of lifters who were having some success, and then traveling to their facility to personally witness what they were doing and augment that with questions and discussion. One did not “dial it up” on the internet.

With a relative paucity of information in the “lower ranks” of powerlifters, the actual mechanization of forming an organization and having rules was left to the political types and “name lifters.” With the powers that be in the Iron Game being rooted in Olympic lifting, it should be no surprise that most of the rules for the early days were just adopted from Olympic weightlifting. What could be easier and of course, what could be more acceptable to the weightlifters who controlled the AAU? It wasn’t until 1969 or ’70 that there was in fact, a separate Powerlifting Committee in the AAU, one distinct and separate from Olympic weightlifting. It was only then that there was a serious effort made to establish weight classes that made more sense for the actual participants that were involved with the sport. It was then that the actual specific requirements of the sport and what it might take for each lifter to perform at their highest level, were tweaked with a conscious separation from Olympic lifting. The historians could I’m sure direct the readers to numerous sources that highlight the struggle to become an accepted amateur and unified sport, though the latter term may seem misplaced relative to the suffocating number of federations that now exist. However, while there is little that is similar between the performance of the Olympic lifts and the official powerlifts, we very much were an “Olympic lifting influenced” sport for our first five to ten years of existence. Weightlifting “uniforms” of shorts and tee shirts or a wrestling (or wrestling type) singlet became standard. The weightlifting judging and jury procedures became standard. The weightlifting system of choosing lifts and maintaining a lifting order became standard. With no surprise, the Olympic barbell and plates used for the sport of weightlifting became standard and thus, we have the origins of the use of the rotating sleeves as part and parcel of the sport of powerlifting, whether it was ideal, useful, advantageous, or not.

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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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