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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training Part 67 1

Talking Diversity in Lifting Ability Part Three

In last month’s column, a computer “explosion” forced me to produce my monthly article as a lengthy e mail, hastily sent to Titan Support System’s editor. Being thankful for many things during the Thanksgiving holiday presented an appropriate and timely opportunity to note some contest and training related glitches which in turn stimulated numerous e mails along the lines of “Gee, you should have been lifting at the Senior Nationals the year that so and so lost bowel control and…” Obviously, there is material for further gales of laughter. However, in the October 2013 column, I took advantage of being the author and included a photo of Dr. Rich Seibert. The exposure was well deserved and it could be said that Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters too, get scant attention in any media outlets other than the few “niche” or “cult like” print publications or internet sites that cater to their specific interests. Even with a successful commercial gym packed with high level lifters and bodybuilders on any particular evening, I would remind our members that we really were the extraordinary minority.  As Dr. Rich has also encouraged and attracted so many young men and women to enter the sport of weightlifting, certainly the least popular of the three major “branches” of the Iron Sports, in terms of participatory numbers, he should in fact be recognized for those efforts. Holding his position as a well respected lifter counts too, but my highest level of admiration always goes to those who unselfishly work to enhance any sport they love so much. Dr. Rich reminded me of the first time he brought Curt White, also noted in October’s column, to my Manhattan office.

One of the points I have made through the years is that it’s easy to lose perspective. If one is in a gym or training facility environment, it becomes commonplace to see individuals with interests similar to one’s own, who train with the same levels of enthusiasm and consistency, and reap the efforts of doing so. We as a very small portion of the population forget that an instructive trip to one of the amusement type of parks during the summer months, will serve as a reminder that the overwhelming majority of the populace is overweight, over-fat, lacking in muscle and obvious strength, and generally look as if they haven’t done anything more physically strenuous than carry an extra large pizza from the driveway to the front door. Our perspective is changed and in a similar fashion, life on the streets of New York City is far from the norm any place else, and that includes the other large cities of the United States. When compared to life in a small, rather cloistered town in the Midwest, the perspective truly is very different. As Dr. Rich related, “I don’t know if you remember, but the day I brought Curt to your office, we stopped for a street souvlaki and then came up to the office. When you saw what he was eating, you said ‘Rich don’t give him that, it’s monkey meat !’ …on the way out of the Fisk building, we walked by the food cart again and Curt being rather naive, asked the street vendor ‘Sir, is this really monkey meat ?’ and the guy says ‘Yeah sure she’s a monkey meat !!’….I just remember him turning green…and being very careful about my next cuisine recommendation !!!”  The point of course is that when exposed to what are literally a thousand street vendors peddling hot food each day, you develop “an eye” and “a feel” for those that will provide a good meal, and those that pose the risk of instant disease exposure. We wouldn’t have expected Curt to have had that at the time and in an unintended manner, no doubt ruined his day, at least relative to his gastronomic adventures. In a similar manner, its easy to lose perspective and forget that not one in five hundred individuals will understand the nuances of your squat or clean, nor will they care.

Returning to our primary subject, I can’t state that powerlifters are more “competitive” than Olympic weightlifters, they aren’t, but their competitive nature is perhaps often expressed differently. One of the top Olympic lifters in the United States during the late-1960’s through the mid-‘70’s told me that one can “be too strong and get too psyched to lift well” of course referring to one’s participation as an Olympic lifter. I was in the presence of a man who was clearly lifting royalty so was given a moment to ponder what was meant to be an insightful and important statement. Another of the York Barbell Club lifters joined the conversation and after getting the quick summary, immediately agreed. In short, this other legend believed that one obviously had to be “strong” in order to properly compete in the three official Olympic lifts of the day. However, if one were “too strong for their technique” as he succinctly put it, they tended to try to “muscle the weight” to completion and often did not “hold their technique from start to finish.” This I understood because I competed in Olympic weightlifting contests from time to time but not once considered myself to be an Olympic lifter! One very brief look at what I considered to be a properly performed snatch for example, would have confirmed my own assessment to anyone with a smattering of lifting knowledge. I can modestly state that I was “stronger” than the weights I lifted, but a lack of technique did not allow me to express or demonstrate the strength I actually had in the involved musculature. Attending the 1979 or 1980 Junior National Championships in Chicago, I witnessed one weight class won by an individual who was obviously muscularly stronger than everyone else in his class, and two classes that were won by individuals who clearly were not the strongest lifters but clearly, “the best” lifters.

Fred Lowe - 1970 Senior National Olympic Weightlifting Championships

Standing atop the winners’ podium at the 1970 Senior National Olympic Weightlifting Championships is Michigan’s Fred Lowe. If one could choose an Olympic lifter who was exceptionally strong and could direct his intense focus on the task at hand, Fred would have been an appropriate choice. Super strong at any bodyweight, he certainly had technique but was an excellent example of an Olympic lifter who could have excelled at powerlifting and most other sports. Fred would entertain others by occasionally walking across the parking lot on his hands, a seemingly effortless activity that gave a great deal of insight to his extraordinary strength

We can return to my mantra that powerlifting does in fact require a great deal of technique, at least “good,” “successful” powerlifting does, especially over the long haul. “Good” technique has numerous interpretations but if a lifter can develop and become habituated to a lifting posture and movement that suits his or her leverages and ability to generate force, this would qualify as a reasonable definition. Olympic lifting is certainly more technique oriented than powerlifting is. However, like rolling up frying pans, a task done to both train and demonstrate forearm strength and usually done to intimidate my daughter’s potential boyfriends during her teenage years, the “trick” is to first be strong enough to actually do it! The “trick” to Olympic lifting is to first become quite strong and then be able to apply it to the lifts. The necessity for enhanced technique in comparison to the squat, bench press, and deadlift in my opinion, attracts a different personality type to the sport. I can be simplistic about it and state there is an “internal focus” for both groups but perhaps more of an outward or visible expression of that focus among powerlifters; that powerlifters are more aggressive while training and competing; that if a lifter is going to bang his head on the bar or into a wall until it bleeds, it will be a powerlifter long before it would be an Olympic lifter.

Pat Susco

Our own Pat Susco who converted his Brooklyn living room into one of the best powerlifting “gyms” in the New York City area prior to being washed away in the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, was always known as operating on the higher end of lifting intensity. “Blood and Guts” lifting was both a figurative and literal term as Pat utilized psyching techniques that included attacking the barbell with his forehead.

This is not meant to imply that any individual Olympic weightlifter is less excited, enthused, or aggressive approaching the barbell, but it does imply that there is a distinct difference in personality types and how they go about the task at hand.

With a promise to wrap up comments related to Olympic lifters that began with our October 2013 column, I must digress to the humorous statements sent after the publication of last month’s piece. Most of the “old timers” who at one point or another directed a powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting contest did so because they believed that their area truly needed a meet due to a paucity of events or had a group of lifters that would benefit from contest participation and exposure but had too far to travel or otherwise, faced many inconveniences. Meet direction of course careened into a different direction with the advent of “mega-meets” that were designed to make money for the meet director, and I have no complaints with that, but it certainly changed the “feel” of the lifting sports. Our five annual powerlifting oriented events were done to provide a local venue for local lifters though we quickly attracted competitors from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New England, and even Puerto Rico. One year, our Iron Island Gym general manager Ralph directed a World Championships though “we” as a gym staff supplied the equipment, transported all of it from Long Island to Manhattan and then of course returned it from Manhattan to the gym so that we could open the day following the two day event, set up, broke down, weighed-in, judged, built the platforms, and performed every other arduous task that is necessary to have a successful meet, large or small. Of course this was magnified for a world championships. Rather than say “Never again!” we continued to host and direct our usual five well attended contests annually, until I sold the business in October of 1998. As noted in previous columns, I directed/hosted my first contest, a “real contest,” in the late 1970’s so it was a twenty year run albeit with gaps of non-participation. Many of our meets were first class, a few posed what modern parlance refers to as “many challenges,” and what the military would agree, skipped over SNAFU and TARFU, going directly to FUBAR!

Meet direction changed as the lifters and yes, the culture surrounding lifting changed. Local meets were wonderful affairs because everyone was at least minimally acquainted with every lifter, coach, judge, spotter, loader, and often, audience member. It was a small, cult like community that competed hard against each other with a desire to win, but one with a willingness to do whatever it took to insure a successful meet. When the spotters or loaders were not experienced or strong enough to safely protect a lifter who may have unexpectedly called for huge numbers on the bar, large and strong guys would come out of the audience to spot, guys with the experience to do it. With fewer “lifers” involved in the sport, and fewer willing to commit to being there for the sport and instead solely focused upon the success of themselves and/or their lifters, contests became less fun. In the old days, no one attended local meets unless they were competing, coaching a competitor, were a family member or training partner of a competitor, or a dyed-in-the-wool lifter themselves. This may still be true to an extent, but no one is coming out of the audience to help a meet run more smoothly or safely. They would have to “save it for (their own) training,” “couldn’t take focus off of their friend,” or otherwise, could not contribute to”just” help the meet and the sport.

More next month.

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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 >

One Response to History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training Part 67

  1. Erik Bonini Erik Bonini

    Dr Ken, I have enjoyed your monthly articles since the beginning. As a fan of hardcore gyms,( I currently train at Bob Bonham’s wonderful Strong and Shapely Gym) I would love to see you write an extensive article about Iron Island, with pics if possible. As you know, Ralph sold the gym in 2008 and it bacame southshore fitness, I believe it is now closed due to hurricane sandy. I have spoken with a couple of lifters from Iron Island, and they still wax poetic about what a pecial time and place that it was.

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