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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 50 0

Specialization Part Three

With what is my consistent and ongoing complaint about the state of affairs in the game of football, I utilized the installment of two month’s ago to begin another foray into a heated area of powerlifting discussion.

Historical photos of the San Diego Chargers bench pressing at training camp in 1963. Two points of interest are marked by these small, low tech photos: Keeping the prevalent perspective of the day on the bench press, the exercise description in the strength manual is buried towards the back, not the front of the program and exercise description. The exercise description itself states, "The bench press exercise is excellent for increasing arm, shoulder, and chest strength. It will assist defensive players in holding off blockers." As offensive players could not extend their arms away from the body, the exercise itself was less important to execute the blocking techniques of the era. However, the bench press was and is "excellent for increasing arm, shoulder, and chest strength" but it is far from the "primary movement" the bench press became by the 1970's. Even for powerlifters, the sage wisdom of Reverend Robert Zuver who founded Zuver's Hall Of Fame Gym Powerlifting Team rang true in three-lift competition: "The effort put into increasing the bench press by twenty-five pounds could instead result in a gain of fifty pounds in the squat or deadlift." All of this was lost to bench press mania and the soaring popularity of the lift.

Historical photos of the San Diego Chargers bench pressing at training camp in 1963. Two points of interest are marked by these small, low tech photos: Keeping the prevalent perspective of the day on the bench press, the exercise description in the strength manual is buried towards the back, not the front of the program and exercise description. The exercise description itself states, “The bench press exercise is excellent for increasing arm, shoulder, and chest strength. It will assist defensive players in holding off blockers.” As offensive players could not extend their arms away from the body, the exercise itself was less important to execute the blocking techniques of the era. However, the bench press was and is “excellent for increasing arm, shoulder, and chest strength” but it is far from the “primary movement” the bench press became by the 1970’s. Even for powerlifters, the sage wisdom of Reverend Robert Zuver who founded Zuver’s Hall Of Fame Gym Powerlifting Team rang true in three-lift competition: “The effort put into increasing the bench press by twenty-five pounds could instead result in a gain of fifty pounds in the squat or deadlift.” All of this was lost to bench press mania and the soaring popularity of the lift.

As it has been, the dialogue and debate has related to “three lifts versus one-lift.” From the moment that one-lift contests became popular, and for the sake of clarity, the overwhelming majority of one-lift contests are to no lifter’s surprise, bench press meets, the arguments began. From the moment the arguments began, they were vociferous, constant, and now, reach back decades. That the arguments did not prevent bench press meets from becoming not only popular but prevalent indicates just how pervasive the “bench press mentality” truly is. It isn’t as if I have been the only one to notice this rather obvious state of affairs. One lifter wrote:

Thanks Ken…this column is another winner! How many shoulders have been totaled by the ubiquitous Bench Press obsession? The shoulder stress from combining the rigors of playing football and over emphasis on the Bench Press is tremendous. Thanks for sharing more wisdom.

Another, the always insightful and humorous Pat Susco noted:

….another great article that makes you go HMMM ……one only has to go to Brooklyn – ( the borough of churches AND gyms ) and since the days of it being the home of the original Olympia (Brooklyn Academy of Music) see everyone training / wearing xxl tee-shirts yet be able to wear size 28 designer jeans ! In fact at one show, Billy “Superstar” Graham entered, posed AND won best arms/most muscular – wearing pants !

I used this column last month to bemoan the demise of the print edition of POWERLIFTING USA MAGAZINE, a touchstone in my athletic existence and a great source of enjoyment for me both as a reader and one of its authors. As a PLUSA editor and an early 1980’s National Athletes’ Representative, I had the advantage of constant communication with many of the administrators and lifters involved in our sport. Even without the ease of the internet and electronic mail, my columns, although not always examples of great literary execution, were usually “out ahead of things” because I knew what the men and women of the sport were thinking or complaining about. Mike Lambert managed to insure that PLUSA was topical at all times, even though the absence of today’s rapid modes of communication meant that all articles and columns had to be written weeks if not months prior to publication dates and submitted at least three to four weeks prior to the magazine’s printing schedule. Though January of 1985 to one of my age seems as if it was no more than a few months past, it is in fact more than twenty-seven years ago. Yet, allow me to present excerpts from my column in that issue as it was perhaps the first public commentary on the expanding popularity and dominance of the bench press relative to the other competitive lifts. If I had been more intelligent and insightful, it could have served as an introduction and prediction to the trend that eventually became its own industry. Some of what was written included:

“It seems as if bench press fever has gripped the Powerlifting world of late. The current debate over who is the ‘Greatest Bencher’ was aggravating enough to me, but the spate of material in the popular muscle building press recently has really driven me over the top.”

“It’s bad enough that hordes of powerlifters overtrain the bench press, forget to do enough heavy squatting, have convinced the majority of football coaches that the bench press is THE appropriate strength test for gridders, and cause disproportionate development due to all of their bench related work, but many aspects of the current bench press ‘frenzy’ merely propagate the sideshow status that powerlifting has in a lot of circles.”

Much of the remainder of the column suggested criteria for judging the “Greatest Bench Presser” and I was clear that the “numbers” weren’t the bottom line. The column read, “…if its statistics you want, this entire thing would be easy. Jim Williams would be the greatest because that son of a gun lifted half the house in his day, and did it consistently. Bottom line is that he hoisted more pure lead than anyone else, before or since. …Although powerlifting purists like myself think its great that Jim also took the time and effort to train and compete well on the deadlift and squat too (which certainly gives his accomplishments more ‘respect’ for those of us who know how hard it is to break your organ under the squat bar and then head for the bench), competence in the other lifts should not be a factor in choosing the best bench presser.”

Big Jim Williams took the bench press to another level.

Big Jim Williams took the bench press to another level.

The numbers weren’t the bottom line because there was a need to factor in bodyweight differences and that of course introduced the necessity of utilizing a formula and throughout the 1970’s and ’80’s there were a number of them that were utilized to determine a meet’s “Best Lifter” for example. I wondered “how valid it would be to use the formula (for three lift ‘Best Lifter’ determination) just on the bench press.” I eventually summed up my perspective on choosing the best of the best, once again introducing a football related analogy invoking the name of all-time great quarterback Johnny Unitas, by writing, “If you want my bottom line, it isn’t really the amount of weight lifted that determines the best bench presser and it’s not done by a formula that will allow an equivalent study of men of different weight classes. The key factor is IMPACT, impact on the sport and the people who feel that the sport is important, is the real determining factor. Believe it or not, statistically, guys like Steve Bartkowski, Bill Kenney, and Dan Fouts have thrown numbers that make Johnny Unitas look like a grade school backup, but you’d be hard pressed to make any kind of case that the three current QB’s were better than the old master. Fouts may at some point even get in the Hall of Fame on his great arm (Author’s note: he did!) but I suspect that the other two will be long forgotten ten years from now while Johnny U.’s name will still be spoken in hushed tones of reverence (Author’s note: it still is!). The man had good stats, not the stats of some of the recent hotshots who guide their offenses to 450 yards a game under the new rules, but none of these guys could hold the horseshow off Johnny’s helmet.”

Decades after the conclusion of his Hall of Fame career, Johnny Unitas is still considered "The Greatest" by many fans and experts.

Decades after the conclusion of his Hall of Fame career, Johnny Unitas is still considered “The Greatest” by many fans and experts.

Of course, for football fans who understand today’s version of the game, even a 450 yard outing might be considered pedestrian but the point made twenty-seven years ago was that changes in the rules and approach to any sport alter statistics so one might want to look past the raw numbers to determine what’s “great” and what might not be. Even Hall of Fame members are dwarfed now in the statistical margins as offensive philosophy changes, as equipment changes, and as rules change to accommodate a game meant to generate much higher scoring and fan interest. Thus comparisons of football players, just as comparisons of powerlifters from one era to another are often difficult if not impossible. Yet the term “impact” was used and that is universal and enduring. I chose my “Greatest” due to his impact on the sport, his ability to inspire others, attract positive attention to the sport, and of course, lift record breaking weights. This also produced nothing short of a vitriolic response from some who rather strongly believed that they should have worn the proverbial crown. Even with the advantage of decades of hindsight, I chuckle when thinking about some of the mail this specific column generated and that will be the material of our next installment.

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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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