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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 49 0

Specialization Part Two

Installment Number Forty-Seven, placed on-site for June 2012, made it rather obvious that I did not look favorably upon the specialization that caused the three major areas of the lifting sport to become very distinct areas of endeavor. My monthly columns on the HELMET HUT web site which has presented an ongoing dialogue about the evolution and development of the sport of football and specifically issues related to the football helmet, can be described similarly. I do not believe football, played from the high school through professional levels is a “better game” today than it was prior to the age of specialization which began in earnest in the mid to late-1960’s. I received a lot of enjoyment in my role as a player who had the responsibilities of knowing multiple positions. I also received a lot of enjoyment as a spectator watching well conditioned players manning both offensive and defensive positions in the course of a game relative to observing some outright fat and unhealthy individuals play belly-bump for two plays per series before coming off of the field for an extended respite. I certainly understand the nature of the game and its requirements which has led to a dependence upon specialization but its not particularly enjoyable to watch.

One doesn't have to go back to the leather helmet era to find the requirement that players participate on both offense and defense. This made playing and watching football more enjoyable than today's highly specialized game. The well conditioned players understood and practiced the fundamentals. Strength training and powerlifting have also gone to very specialized "niches" where few if any compete at more than one aspect of the iron game sports and often, only focus upon but one of the competitive lifts.

One doesn’t have to go back to the leather helmet era to find the requirement that players participate on both offense and defense. This made playing and watching football more enjoyable than today’s highly specialized game. The well conditioned players understood and practiced the fundamentals. Strength training and powerlifting have also gone to very specialized “niches” where few if any compete at more than one aspect of the iron game sports and often, only focus upon but one of the competitive lifts.

The lack of endurance and versatility among lifters and football players reminds me of an adage I heard a number of times when working as a bouncer and later providing backstage security for a major recording company when our artists were on tour. When faced with having to engage with a very large and strong appearing individual, the usual thought was “If I can take this guy’s first few punches, I’ve got him because he’s going to blow up and be out of gas very quickly.” This wasn’t always true but certainly many very big, very strong men were not enduring and could be defeated if you survived the first furious twenty seconds of combat because they didn’t have a lot “in the tank” past that. The MMA craze of recent years has pointed out that fighting endurance can and often is just as important as being very big and strong. This same MMA popularity has also indicated that there is great value in being “good” at a number of different aspects of the same sport.

Many of my TITAN columns have lodged complaints about the progressive specialization that took men whose program consisted of the three standard power lifts, the overhead press or push press, some form of clean or power clean, and usually curls and direct triceps work, and eventually funneled them into Olympic lifting where little more than squats and the two competitive lifts were done; powerlifting where the three competitive lifts and their variations such as box squats comprise the program; and of course bodybuilding where the majority of men look great but don’t have strength levels that come close to the limits dictated by their tremendously developed physiques. The ultimate form of specialization in the sport of powerlifting was and remains, the bench press specialist. For the past two generations of lifters, they may not even realize that there were no “bench press only” divisions at major contests or “bench only” contests.

History Supplement: Pat Casey

Many immediately jump to the conclusion that the late and very great Pat Casey was a "bench press specialist," forgetting that he also was a champion POWERLIFTING competitor who had a number of contest recorded huge squats. Pat however, was definitely one of the first powerlifters to bring attention to, and enhance the popularity of, the bench press as a competitive lift and as an exercise. In this contest photo, Pat's custom "rack bench" is being used on the platform, no doubt as a much safer substitute for the bench that was to be used. Pat's bench was made to hold his 340 pounds and in excess of the 600 + he used on a regular basis. Though this was his usual training bench, he transported it to contests specifically to avoid having to bench press record weights on unsafe benches, some of which were made completely of wood with an unpadded wooden surface to lie upon.

Many immediately jump to the conclusion that the late and very great Pat Casey was a “bench press specialist,” forgetting that he also was a champion POWERLIFTING competitor who had a number of contest recorded huge squats. Pat however, was definitely one of the first powerlifters to bring attention to, and enhance the popularity of, the bench press as a competitive lift and as an exercise. In this contest photo, Pat’s custom “rack bench” is being used on the platform, no doubt as a much safer substitute for the bench that was to be used. Pat’s bench was made to hold his 340 pounds and in excess of the 600 + he used on a regular basis. Though this was his usual training bench, he transported it to contests specifically to avoid having to bench press record weights on unsafe benches, some of which were made completely of wood with an unpadded wooden surface to lie upon.

There was a time this would have been laughed at and certainly would not have been a consideration for meet promoters as almost no one would have entered. The reasons can be easily explained by two major factors. The first was that the bench press was viewed as “an exercise,” just as the squat and deadlift were considered to be “exercises” and not specialized lifts. These were certainly important movements that formed the foundation of most successful trainee’s programs but what became the three competitive lifts were in fact, three exercises that most serious barbell men utilized in their usual routines, for most of the year if not at all times. Thus, there were few bench press specialists because there was no real reason to single out that movement for special attention. Once powerlifting became popular and the sport began to grow in participation, being quite a bit easier to do, or perhaps more accurately, being less “uncomfortable” to do in comparison to the squat or deadlift, it began to grow in popularity.

The widespread use of, and increasing importance of the bench press can be laid at the feet of the sport of football. This phenomenon is still a head-scratcher for me. I didn’t “get it” then and don’t get it now but among football coaches and players, the bench press took on an overstated importance. As I have written in various publications for decades, it is absolutely important, in fact, it is vital that any player develop the musculature that is utilized in the bench press in order to meet their potential success as a football player. However, it is just as important to note that one does not necessarily have to bench press in order to develop the deltoids, triceps, and pectoral muscles in order to do so. Yet the bench press became the measuring stick for “how strong are you?” This trickled down to the average gym attendee and weekend athlete who puttered around with weights and if there was one question anyone who appeared to lift weights would be asked at some point, it would be “How much do you bench?” In truth, I can recall at more than one Senior National Powerlifting Championship at a time when there was only one in the United States champion and only one champion in each class, and the best lifters in the nation would joke or express disdain about the fact that people at work or neighbors if they asked any question about their lifting, would ask about their bench press. These top lifters knew how much work went into each of the three lifts but were rather amused that the general public and even those who trained at the local gyms or spas, just did not understand how much “harder” it was to train the squat and deadlift. Once single lift only meets were approved and became popular, it did not come as a surprise that one rarely saw a “squat only” contest or “deadlift only” meet. There was a proliferation in “bench only” contests and at times “bench and deadlift” but if powerlifting was becoming specialized as it related to the sport’s actual lifts, the bench press led the way. In today’s world of powerlifting, the bench press has become a singular 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 >

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