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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 4 0

The New York Scene.

In the New York City area, Olympic lifting was very popular in the early to mid-1960’s. There were pockets of activity that spread from The McBurney YMCA basement on 23rd Street in Manhattan to Lost Battalion Hall in Queens, all the way out to Suffolk County’s Islip Youth Center. All boasted good lifters, some like Larry Mintz, a young Artie Dreschler who is now active as the director of the Association Of Oldetime Barbell And Strongmen, and Tom Marshall were of national level. York Barbell Club lifters usually made an annual showing at the larger metropolitan area contests and the City was seen as a hotbed of Olympic lifting until the entire sport began to sag in participation by the end of the decade. Unfortunately the standard procedure by the mid-‘60’s was to hold the weightlifting contest and only afterward, present the physique contest that was scheduled for the same date and venue. It made for a very long day and evening, with the bodybuilders often asked to show their wares at 1 AM and sometimes later. However, this was perhaps the only way to guarantee a solid crowd for the heavier and later-held weight classes of the lifting competitions, such was the state of the sport. Neither the lifters nor the physique men were pleased with the arrangement. In fact, at the 1970 Junior National Weightlifting Championships and Junior Mr. America contest held in Islip, half as many observers were on hand to cheer Dreschler’s world record press than there were for Chris Dickerson’s physique victory. This was typical and I can recall Dickerson’s brother Henry, who was seated next to me commenting more than once that he couldn’t believe “how late it was” as the physique men mounted the dias after the midnight hour.

History Supplement: Bev Francis

Bev Francis preps for the 1985 Women's World Championships in Dr. Ken's garage.

Bev Francis preps for the 1985 Women’s World Championships in Dr. Ken’s garage.

A bodybuilding icon and the first woman to truly redefine women’s physique competition, Australia’s Bev Francis has more importantly been one of the nicest individuals to grace the iron sports. An entire generation or two might not realize that for approximately six years, Bev was a female powerlifter who could easily have worn the mantle “The Best Of All Time” had she extended her career and eschewed the lure of bodybuilding. Bev hit the sport of powerlifting like a bolt of lightening, a member of Australia’s international track and field team who excelled at the shot put and discus but who was also fast enough to be an alternate in sprint events. She was immediately great as a lifter, strong, tenacious, and fearless and frankly, I believe she intimidated the other competitors. Any intimidation came from her performance, not from her attitude or demeanor as few were more gracious. Everyone agreed that Bev could not have been nicer or warmer to those around her. She was extremely bright and was a physical education and math teacher by profession, so she knew how to carry herself in public. There was no guile and no bullshit, she was just a very smart, capable individual who was nice to everyone but her performances were for the time, otherworldly and this put a lot of people off. Bev and my wife Kathy became friendly at the first Women’s World Championships. When Bev moved to the United States, she and Steve lived literally, around the corner from us in Valley Stream, N.Y. It should be noted that although Steve was not a competitive lifter, he was a very big and very strong man who was knowledgeable. Despite the impression given by numerous magazine articles, the movie Pumping Iron II: The Women, and quite a few interviews that surrounded the movie and that followed for years, the only two people who “coached” Bev to achieve her bodybuilding success were in fact Bev and Steve.

A self-made champion powerlifter, Australia's Bev Francis cranks out the reps.

A self-made champion powerlifter, Australia’s Bev Francis cranks out the reps.

Bev and Dr. Ken discussing the next set circa 1985. There was little Dr. Ken needed to tell Bev, an instinctive and truly gifted athlete.

Bev and Dr. Ken discussing the next set circa 1985. There was little Dr. Ken needed to tell Bev, an instinctive and truly gifted athlete.

She certainly received useful information from others and a lot of assistance which she was publicly appreciative of when she first entered competitive bodybuilding, but she was truly self coached and self trained. It was held as a secret, except from those close to her, that the 1985 World Powerlifting Championships would be Bev’s final meet and she would then focus exclusively on bodybuilding. She was already supplementing her power training with physique work which made her preparation a bit more difficult and unfortunately sustained a severe low back injury. Few athletes from any field would have endured the pain and limitation that Bev did but the commitment was made to go out on top and continue the string of World Championships she had won annually from 1980 through ’84. I treated her injury and it was decided that the safest and most efficient way to insure that Bev would be able to make a reasonable showing at the contest, was if every rep was supervised. Thus, for approximately two months prior to the 1985 World Powerlifting Championships, Bev trained with Kathy and me, in the garage, basement, or at a local club that was nice enough to allow us to come in at 10 PM just as they were closing for the evening. Each workout was carefully planned, discussed with Bev and Steve, supervised and evaluated. Rep by rep it was determined what could be done, where technique could be maintained, and Bev’s response to it. To Bev’s credit, she never complained, never missed a lift or begged off of an exercise. It was this type of focus and display of physical and mental toughness that made her the multi-sport champion she was. Despite discomfort that she hid from others, Bev won her sixth consecutive World title and retired from the sport. As a bodybuilder, she turned women’s physique competition upside down as her muscular size and definition were so advanced relative to other competitors. She upset and confused a lot of the judges who had no reference point for a physique like hers and for that reason she placed second a number of times in the Ms. Olympia Contest but was never given the top prize she so obviously deserved. Most fans of the iron sports don’t remember Bev as one of our greatest lifters but she surely was. She was a great physique champion and that legacy remains as she carries on her work at her Long Island gym with Steve, mentoring many other champions. However, no matter how extensive the accolades, Bev remains a figure that truly has not received the appropriate recognition relative to her contributions to our history.

Bodybuilding was always popular in New York and legendary gyms like Mid-City, Lenny Russell’s, Abe Goldberg’s, and Sig Klein’s always had renowned visitors and big time contest winners on the gym floor when they were in town. The popularity of bodybuilding held steady and was not negatively affected by the decline in popularity of weightlifting. A new sport however, had taken hold in the early 1960’s and could be characterized as one of the causative agents in the demise of Olympic lifting, at least in our area. “Odd lift contests” were being held as organized events as the 1950’s slid into the Sixties. While it was common for men in any gym to challenge each other to see who might be stronger in a specific movement that was not one of the three Olympic lifts, contests began springing up to test one’s mettle in the bench press, squat which was referred to as the barbell deep knee bend, deadlift, barbell curl, and barbell upright row. The rules at times varied from contest to contest and different combinations of the five lifts were utilized but these were “real, live” contests to actually prepare for. The trophies, in those instances that trophies were even offered to place winners, were tiny but inconsequential to the bragging rights one had if they could for example, travel into the Bronx, and have the highest bench press for the day in what were arbitrarily decided weight classes. Most often the contest promoters, a term I am using loosely because the meets were almost always held at a gym and the gym owner would be the only official, fulfilling the role of head referee, judge, jury, and final arbiter, would more or less follow the guidelines of Olympic weightlifting. Weight classes reflected this as did the number of attempts given for each lift although a democratic vote among the lifters, if met by agreement of the gym owner, often dictated four or five official tries in each lift in order to post the highest aggregate total.

My training was done at home, in the basement or garage dependent upon where I had stashed my axle, flywheels, sewer covers, homemade wooden bench and other unsophisticated training equipment.

One of Dr. Ken’s “big plates,” a sewer cover courtesy of Nassau County Dept. Of Public Works

One of Dr. Ken’s “big plates,” a sewer cover courtesy of Nassau County Dept. Of Public Works

In time, I purchased a York 555 Set which to me, was the ultimate tool available for the development of the strength needed to compete well on the gridiron. Too young and not yet worldly enough to view “training articles” as puff pieces or advertising copy, it was with hook, line, and sinker that I swallowed the recommendation to purchase a barbell set that contained but five pair of plates. What else would a true strongman need other than a chrome vanadium steel bar, and one pair each of 100, 75, 50, 25, and 12.5 pound plates? The plates were “standard”, meaning they were not “Olympic plates” with a two-inch portal (and at York, that meant 1.9999” so that the York Olympic plates would fit snugly on the York Olympic bar but would not slide onto the Weider Olympic bar that was being sold as a competitor) but rather, the “small-holed” plates. That meant little to me, I had large denomination plates and in fact, had bought a pair of Iron Man 100-pounders from a trainee who ran an ad in the local “advertising newspaper” and knew I had what was necessary to now become a better and feared football player. With twenty-five pound jumps as the minimum possible, I reluctantly had to utilize the five and ten pound plates I had bought from classmates who had enthusiastically bought Billard and York 110 Pound Combination Barbell And Dumbbell Sets, only to surrender to laziness or their desire to instead hang out on the corner, in the local pool hall, or with girls, and had then decided to sell off what were usually brand new five foot standard bars and a collection of ten and five pound plates, for next to nothing. Everyone in a three or four town radius knew to call me, I would walk up to three miles away, load up the 110 pounds or so onto the bar, place it in squat position across my upper back, and walk home with my new-found treasure. With the acquisition of the York 555 set and some training advice from the bouncers at The Silver Knight bar and the fellows training at a hole-in-the-wall storefront in Valley Stream, I was on my way to becoming a football player who was also going to compete in the brand new activity of odd lifting.

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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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