A Bit Of Lifting And Training History From My Perspective.
With the proliferation of health clubs, spas, fitness facilities, gyms, and the fact that most martial arts and yoga teachers have somehow branched out into personal training or “their-specialty-specific lose weight and inches fitness training” it might be beyond the understanding of the last two generations that there actually was a time when it was almost impossible to find a gym that had barbells and dumbbells in it within the confines of any town or village in the United States. By the mid-Sixties, most of the major cities contained perhaps one or two “health clubs,” usually a chain franchise like Vic Tanny’s or Jack LaLanne’s that was filled with chromed devices designed to separate the slack-muscled from their mounds of body fat and pocket books. I would be the first to add that these “clubs” were definitely a step forward from the “health spas” of the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s that were stocked with vibrating and rolling type machines that were meant to shake, jiggle, or massage the fat off of specific areas of the body. I can recall such an establishment opening in my home town of Long Beach and even at the age of eleven or twelve, I knew a rip-off when I saw it up close and personal. Overweight men and women strapped into contraptions that seemed to have the potential to rip genitals and other vital body parts off if used incorrectly, that would produce headaches or vision problems due to the violent shaking and bumping they produced, did not seem as if they really and truly would deliver the goods they promised. Lawsuits resulting from vicious injury, as well as the predictable lack of results, dictated the closing of every one of these outlets within a year or two of their opening.
In Long Beach, a beach community whose urban decay, crime, racial division, and murder spawned an Esquire Magazine article by Michael McAlary that eventually became the movie “City By The Sea” had a number of tough, strong characters on the street. Sorely in need of tax revenue, a joint decision by the County government and City Of Long Beach came to pass. The agreement allowed for the housing of mentally ill individuals and the dispossessed elderly in welfare and government subsidised dwellings throughout the city. This event was not a mere blip on the socioeconomic landscape but an explosion of immense change because it involved an awful lot of mentally ill and otherwise homeless elderly that were let loose in the city. Predictably, what had once been a summer haven for the New York City wealthy would slide downhill and become a pit of dog-eat-dog social degeneration. Some rich and some middle class remained but the underbelly of the town increased markedly in a fifteen year period and the reputation grew worse in the retelling of tales of violence and debauchery. There were no gyms or health clubs in town, just a few garages that perhaps housed a homemade power or squat rack, one or two bars, pipes that served as chin or dip stations, and a pile of plates. Because we lived on a street that held but six residences, one a “multifamily dwelling” that served as home for as many as thirty otherwise homeless Cuban refugees at any one time, I had the luxury of a lot of empty space to push, carry, or lug around unusually shaped or heavy objects that were left abandoned on the empty lots or entrance to the beach area.
History Supplement: Football and Cubanos
I asked one of my long time trainees who also grew up in Long Beach, if my description of our hometown was a bit harsh. He replied, “You nailed the prevailing feeling of the time. The underlying sense of foreboding that lurked around every corner as you went about your daily lives made LB a strange place” and truly, it was. For both of us though, the memories remain wonderful and I was exposed to my first “live” football game at Long Beach High School. In Brooklyn, many of the public high schools didn’t and still don’t have the facilities, funds, nor athletic fields to support a football team and the only available games were all out tackle football on the street. Running into parked cars at full speed and getting pounded into the concrete as delivery trucks slowed in order to pass a game in progress was standard and this was the only football I knew. I had watched college games on television and was immediately obsessed with every aspect of the game (view http://www.helmethut.com/ for my monthly columns in the Helmet News section and my seasonal summaries for the college helmet presentations) but my first live viewing of a football game came at Long Beach High School as the hometown Marines defeated the Knights of Uniondale High School. Long Beach fullback Lenny Beck, who later played at the University Of North Carolina was the star that day and I was hooked. At a later date, Odd Lift and powerlifting contests were another competitive outlet that came as a natural extension of my training. The “Cubanos” as we referred to the many men living in the house next to us, had been in the Cuban Army or supporters of deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista and had to hustle out of Cuba before Fidel Castro’s rebels assassinated them. Thus, our neighbors were a hard, tough, humorless crew of fighters, most of whom were later involved with the failed Bay Of Pigs invasion. Though unusual for that period of time, perhaps a dozen of these men had a lifting background of some type, either in Olympic weightlifting or bodybuilding. As they learned English, I would at times be invited to sit on their front steps, eat arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans) or tostones (fried plantains), and listen to their tales of violence and intrigue as they described the revolution and cursed Castro as “a fraud who the world would see as a worse dictator than Batista.” Every one of them advised me to do the barbell deep knee bend and press and those two movements have remained a staple in all of my programs.
Even when preparing for the Odd Lift or powerlifting contests that utilized the bench press, the overhead press (and never referred to with the prefix “overhead” as it was understood that a “press” did in fact mean an overhead press) was done just as often as the bench press. The three or four Cubanos that looked to be at the level of competitive bodybuilders said the same thing numerous times and this is advice that could be successfully applied today.
Needless to say, I loved it and because we were somewhat isolated from Long Beach and the much smaller town of Point Lookout in the other direction, I had a great deal of “alone time” to consider my quest to become stronger, the best way to go about it, and the time and privacy to actually do so. The Long Beach Recreation Center had a few barbells and what appeared to be homemade wooden and metal benches and wall pulleys and there was a hard-core group of rough and tumble guys training there whom I viewed as being frightening when I was first made aware of their existence. The only “real gym” anywhere close to us was in Valley Stream, the first town over the New York City border. The seven mile trip was usually completed by hitchhiking, a common and in our area, relatively safe form of travel during that time period.
Tony Pandolfo and the two Jaycox brothers were the owners of a storefront key club where keys to the front door were offered to trusted members who could literally come and go as they pleased as long as the overhead gas heater was turned off during winter months, and the doors locked when the workout was completed.
Others could show up and train during loosely agreed upon times. For the day, the narrow storefront was actually a wonderful place to train. The camaraderie, as expected, was high as was the level of enthusiasm and most importantly, the expectations for results. The men were dedicated and happily immersed in what was considered to be a small cult-like activity. The fellows who frequented the dank space were for the most part, advanced in physique and strength development and when iron game dignitaries were in New York for a contest or otherwise visiting, our little place was a “must see” stopover. Boyer Coe, Dennis Tennerino, Joe Abbenda, Steve Michalik, Chris Dickerson, and Bob Galluci were big-time Mr. America or Mr. Universe winners who visited and/or trained with us regularly for a short period of time. Tony, who bought out the Jaycox boys and became sole owner-operator was himself a Mr. America class winner. We had a number of big bench pressers, big overhead pressers, and big squatters. We also had a wide range of equipment, both homemade and bought from the few companies such as Ed Jubinville who made commercial quality equipment. I learned a few things that would speed me along on the path to larger muscles and higher levels of strength and a few more things about equipment.
Be sure to come back December 1st 2008 to read installment #6 of Dr. Ken’s “History of Powerlifting Series”