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History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training Part 69 0

Talking Diversity in Lifting Ability Part Five

In Part 68 of this ongoing monthly column, I wrote:

“While bodybuilding was not ‘my thing,’ I believe I can safely say that very few Olympic weightlifters or powerlifters first saw a barbell and thought, ‘I want to be a lifter.’ They usually thought, as most young teenagers or pre-teens do that ‘I want to get bigger and stronger and look like that guy,’ with ‘that guy’ being an individual with some type of noticeable or advanced muscular development.”

Based upon both positive and negative feedback (yes, I do get that too, and not limited from my wife!), I would have been better off simplifying and stating that “Most young males who lift weights are motivated to do so by thinking ‘I want to look like that’ and not ‘I want to lift that.’” Though I am certain that there have been few legitimate studies on the subject, common sense and plenty of information about the psychological make-up of the adolescent thought process would indicate that the appearance of strength, power, and confidence is a greater motivating factor than lifting weights in order to compete at what we must accept are two very “niche” and less than popular sports. We may love powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting but most do not. It is also unusual, unless a close relative or friend of the family is in fact a powerlifter or Olympic lifter, to be attracted to lifting in the specific planes of motion demanded by those sports. What I have contended with through decades of involvement with the Iron Game and seeing my articles published since 1969, is the fact, and it is a fact, that many lifters are offended when it is implied that they lift or were first attracted to lifting for physique related reasons. This is not to say that there have not been or are not now lifters, competitive or gym-only lifters who base all of their training around the three powerlifts and their rather well known assistance movements or the two Olympic lifts with the usually associated assistance exercises who began as “lifters” and who entered their specific sport immediately and directly as lifters. With lifters like Mike Burgener and Mike Wittmer as obvious examples, we can look at their sons who both were international level lifters, with Casey Burgener an Olympian. The sons were immediately attracted to and became involved in the sports that had the competitive interest of their fathers with no stops in-between their initial workout and their first foray into competition. However, this is not the usual.

Young Jeff Wittmer in one of his very early competitions

Young Jeff Wittmer in one of his very early competitions. Jeff began his training under the watchful eye of his father Mike, an accomplished regional champion weightlifter, in the basement of his home. There was no exposure there to bodybuilding as there is for most teenagers who begin to lift weights, and Jeff progressed into one of the best lifters in the United States, representing our country in the Pan American Games and other contests.

Jeff Wittmer . A competitive weightlifte

Jeff Wittmer – Competitive Weightlifter.

One of the guiding lights of Olympic weightlifting, especially in New England and the Northeast, for many decades has been Denis Reno. A competitive weightlifter whose enthusiasm was and remains contagious, and who had a talent for expressing his thoughts and feelings about the sport exceptionally well, Denis also carved out time from a “normal life” of family, work, and other activities to literally be the “Johnny Appleseed” of New England weightlifting. “His guys” were weightlifters and he had a lot of them, with numerous state and regional championships to their credit and many making their way to the national and international level. He has served with many international teams in various capacities and it could be said that few have contributed as much to the game anywhere. He has been a terrific coach and communicator and since 1969 has published the Denis Reno’s New England Weightlifting Newsletter. Even for those who do not live in the New England area, the newsletter has always contained very useful and applicable training information, national and international meet write-ups, regional contest results, and insights to the politics of the sport.

Denis Reno and Dr Ken

The author and Denis Reno share a moment in the late 1990’s as judges at one of New England’s major national strongman competitions. Denis has been “the man” of New England Weightlifting for decades, promoting, judging, and organizing contests, coaching numerous lifters of all levels of ability, and in all ways, giving all he has to the sport he loves.

There are two points to be made regarding Denis, his lifters, and his newsletter. Many if not most of the men (and I want to point out that his female lifters were also quite accomplished when the time came that they began competing in weightlifting) that Denis trained entered the sport of Olympic weightlifting immediately from their “non-training state” of existence. They would meet Denis or know one of the other lifters he trained, take a look at what was going on, and once exposed to Denis’ shot-in-the-arm enthusiasm about doing the press, snatch and clean and jerk, begin their quest for weightlifting success. Certainly he had lifters who had been culled from the ranks of bodybuilders, powerlifters, gym wanna-be guys, and those who showed up in the gym in an effort to improve their athletic performance but other than a few other groups scattered across the United States, his has been one of the few that had boys or men begin and end their lifting activity as weightlifters. Denis’ crew, like many I saw in the St. Louis area when living there, were youngsters that were introduced to Olympic lifting before they were old enough to have the typical teenage insecurities, thus they “just became lifters,” but this is infrequently the usual course. The usual first stop is the “I want to look like ‘that’” and they eventually find their place in the weightlifting or powerlifting world. This could be said for other gyms, Y’s, clubs, schools, or lifting groups but it has always been the norm for most lifters to have first “done something else” when they began utilizing resistance exercise, and only later wander into the world of competitive lifting. The other point I wanted to make relative to Denis Reno was the fact that in the mid-1970’s, perhaps 1975, I wrote a few articles for his newsletter as did my on-an-off, long distance training partner Mike Hu.

Mike is a lengthy story in himself, a very bright, accomplished, articulate, and strong individual who later became involved in the political world of his native Hawaii but who lived in Boston when we would occasionally train together or eat in New York City’s or Boston’s Chinatown enclaves. Yes, it is true that for one specific weightlifting contest we agreed to drop enough weight to see if we could reduce two full weight classes, just to see if it could be done successfully. Yes it is true that I was too weak to compete and Mike passed out during his clean and jerk, and also true that we pulled it together to finish a six pound pork roast and many platefuls of rice together after the meet. This was followed by an unsteady walk into Boston’s Little Italy where we devoured enough cannolis to cause him to collapse onto the curb and me onto the hood of a car. That it occurred directly in front of the entrance to a local police precinct entry door made for what must have been law enforcement’s first explanation of “Impairment Due To Cannoli.” Mike had a few articles published in Denis’ newsletter and in one, noted that weightlifters were just as self conscious and conspicuous, or words to that effect, “in their Ban Lon shirts,” making reference to an older style, tight fitting, brand name shirt, as were any group of bodybuilders. He received quite a bit of negative comment from lifters and interestingly, I received the same after my comments last month.

Perhaps lifters don’t view bodybuilders as athletic, tough, rugged, manly, purposeful, and/or dedicated as they are but there has always been and continues to be, a less than positive feeling about bodybuilding in the lifting community. The responses in 1975 and the response today being the same, very much proves this point. The negative view was less prevalent in an earlier era, one I have pointed to and stressed throughout this entire series of articles, when “everyone who lifted did everything” but once the demarcation of the three sports began to take hold, lifters did not for the most part, consider it a compliment to be referred to as “a bodybuilder.”

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 >

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