Early Awareness, Bars and Plates.
As a relatively astute young man whose compulsiveness leaned towards “having to know everything” about whatever it was that caught my interest, I often got hung up on minor details but it assured the completion of any task or project that was started. This made me a coach’s favorite and when motivated to go to class, a favorite of most teachers. Fortunately, there was only a two year period that could be described as “fallow” relative to my high school education and I salvaged my class standing in the final few years by displaying a dedication to academics that reflected my interest in football and strength training. Typical as an eighth to tenth grade student was my presence in the back row of any classroom, eagerly leafing through the latest edition of Strength And Health or Muscle Power magazines, and being asked, “Mr. Leistner, would you care to join the class in our discussion?” My response was always similar and given without hesitation, varying little from “Nah, I’m doing okay back here.” Needless to say, my obsession with training was a topic of conversation among teachers and coaches since during that period of time, only those considered to be weirdos or suffering from narcissistic or homosexual tendencies buried their faces in publications that featured half-dressed men either posing or tugging on a heavy barbell in what looked to be a form of undergarment. Even during the time I sporadically attended class, perhaps being the only student that would check into homeroom and then head to a job washing the breakfast dishes and serving as a short order cook at a nearby busy luncheonette until my own school lunch period, I maintained reasonably good grades. I was fortunate to have a number of concerned teachers who saw a bit of potential in me who joined with two coaches to ride me hard and keep me in line. I knew about weight training and developed a focused interest in the activity at least two years before my father allowed me to lift a weight. This wasn’t due to his concern about disrupting cartilaginous growth plates but rather, he saw the activity as a waste of time and energy that could be better spent at a part time job that would bring in family income. My father also felt that there was a threat of becoming “muscle bound” and slow, further hampering my athletic endeavors and if I trained regularly, there was his belief that I would “turn queer.” There was a long-standing relationship between the gay community and the bodybuilding culture, at least in the New York City area and a number of local weightlifters also maintained relationships of a varying nature with that same underground world, underground at least until perhaps the early-1970’s. Thus, even when explaining to my father that my sole interest was to become stronger for football, his hackles were up. Once I got going at the age of twelve however, he pitched in while never truly embracing my love for the lifting sports.
I had literally made a study of the popular muscle related magazines. “Popular” is a definite misnomer because there was nothing remotely popular about weight training in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s. It was viewed as a strange thing to put time into, a cult-like group of men who seemed to do what they did for the edification of one another because few outside of the small, closely knit training community cared about their physical development. Of course, the positive and negative of this situation was that anyone who had obvious muscular development received attention, wanted or not. If you had what appeared to be a veiny or bulging fifteen-inch arm, the odds were good that you would be asked, “Uh, do you lift weights or something?” My usual retort that “I play football” usually ended all conversation with most of the uninitiated who then assumed that playing football produced the above average degree of muscular development. Remember too that if one intended to remain on the “socially acceptable” list, attracting attention to one’s lifting activities was to be avoided. However, Hoffman’s Strength And Health and Weider’s three or four magazines with their oft-changing titles, provided photos and articles that gave me a reasonable idea of what I should do once I actually was permitted to begin my strength training activities. I knew I needed a barbell and plates, something that would pass for dumbbells, a bench, and a rack to place the bar on for some of the exercises. I realized that anything past that would be a luxury and it seemed as if the big guys didn’t really do anything “fancy” over and above the basic barbell and dumbbell exercises. I was aware, in part due to my father’s “general philosophy of life” instructions that my barbell had to be a safe and effective tool. As an ironworker, he was a typical tradesman who’s mantra was a constant and I had heard “You’re only as good as your tools” and “You take care of your tools and they’ll take care of you” at about the same young age that I was taught what every son of every manual worker was taught; “Righty tighty, lefty loosey” if anything had to be opened or closed. From the very start, I understood that while the exotic looking benches, pulleys, and tables looked great and no doubt could do things to one’s body that could cause extreme muscle growth, one first had to have the best of the most important tool which simply meant that one had to begin their equipment stash with the absolute best barbell possible.
History Supplement: Jay Rosciglione and the St. Louis Crew
There was no weight room at college which was not an unusual state of affairs in the mid-1960’s. I became a fixture at the Central YMCA on Elm Street, hitchhiking or jogging the four miles or so from campus to the basement hovel called the “Weight Training Area.” When YMCA’s still served as daily, weekly, or monthly residential hotels primarily for transients, the Central Y was in every way typical which meant that the lifting “area” was no more than a small room shoved into a corner of the basement. Pools of leaking water, a cracked concrete floor, and a lot of functional homemade equipment was the order of the day but the group of lifters, bodybuilders, and limited number of football players from both Xavier University and Cincinnati made for an enthusiastic and spirited group that was very supportive. The perception of the iron game moved forward so that by the end of the 1970’s three or four NFL teams had full time strength coaches and weight training was becoming more accepted for athletes. The storefront pits and Y basements had begun to give way to all-Nautilus clubs and large health club type facilities that allowed for sauna, racquetball, and coed socialization in relatively opulent and comfortable surroundings. When I changed careers and moved to St. Louis to attend chiropractic college, I was fortunate to find the time to train among school, clinic, family, and employment responsibilities. In St. Louis, George Turner, an old-school bodybuilder, was the main man. He had three successful health clubs with the “least fanciest” located in a shabby part of the city. The “North gym” as everyone referred to it, was home for the powerlifters. I did most of my training with Olympic lifter Mike Wittmer or by myself in my basement but in time would make regular visits to the North gym or the Granite City Y across the river in Illinois. The St. Louis group at Turner’s North were in a word, terrific. They were extremely supportive of each other’s attempts to improve and dedicated to what was still considered to be a nascent sporting activity. The best of those lifters was Jay Rosciglione.
Jay had been a high school wrestler whose non-school hours were spent working in his family’s very successful Italian bakery. He more or less wandered into powerlifting as a competitive outlet and proved to be adept at his new sport. Jay and I became friendly, and eventually became a team at major meets. I want to be very clear that I did little to contribute to Jay’s ultimate success and over time he was one of the best powerlifters in the world. His numbers, especially big in the squat, ranked him at the top of the 148 and then the 165 pound classes for years but all of that came from his ability to work hard and that discipline and focus were much more important than the actual numbers. At contests, Jay and I were often assumed to be related. I never could see the resemblance, especially from the neck down but from Munich to Dayton to El Dorado, Arkansas, there would be dozens of inquiries at every meet asking, “Are you guys cousins?” At an earlier time in life when weighing 232 pounds, I was “noticeable” as a guy who lifted weights but at 165 or lighter, I looked like “a guy” and not much more than that. Jay looked as if he stepped out of the pages of Muscle And Fitness as one of their supplement ad models or Mr. America winners. While competitive bodybuilders often commented upon the muscularity and physique development of powerlifters like Roger Estep, Jim Cash, and Jay, photos did little justice to the visual impact the depth of Jay’s muscular development and fiber-revealing definition had on observers. He was every bit as ripped as any dais-mounting muscle man and of course, multiple times stronger than any of them. Thus, when asked if we were in fact related or told that “you guys look alike” I was quite flattered and it happened often because at meets, we were usually within feet of each other a great deal of the time.
One of my perks for handling and coaching Jay was a hand-delivered, four day supply of freshly baked brownies at every venue he or I competed at. Although I was guilty on almost all occasions of finishing the entire container of brownies by myself, better than that came when visiting the bakery on Friday afternoons. Interning at the Logan College Clinic that served the rather downtrodden neighborhood of Ferguson, I could travel quickly and easily to Turner’s North and within blocks of that, to the Rosciglione Bakery. On Fridays, Jay or his brother Pete would whip up a few gigantic pizzas that served as lunch for the family. Honored to be considered as family, they usually saved a large helping (or two, or three) for me, knowing I would stop in prior to my clinic hours or training. Everyone from the New York Metropolitan area will tell anyone who will listen that pizza just isn’t pizza unless its made in New York (with top marks going to Brooklyn) and pizza anywhere else is barely edible. However, to this day, Jay’s pizza remains my favorite, the absolute best I’ve had and in my neighborhood, pizza is a U.S. Department Of Agriculture official food group! For those who used to marvel at Jay’s muscularity, where every fiber and striation literally jumped out from beneath the skin, yes, he ate the brownies, pizza, and anything else that the bakery so expertly made for all of the Italian restaurants in St. Louis and for retail sale. Jay’s training, like that of cohorts Bill Davis, Rick Wickham, and the other wonderfully talented crew at the North gym, was very basic and uncomplicated. Squats, bench press, rows, pulldowns, deadlifts, shrugs, and what everyone in St. Louis for some reason referred to as “head pulls” which was a partial deadlift from knee height done every other week, constituted ninety-five percent of their training. The basics served Jay well as he was still competing at the World Championship level to the mid-1990’s. Even today, that group of lifters from St. Louis and Jay in particular, elicit favorable comment and they were deservedly seen as a force to contend with at every contest spanning many years.
Bob Hoffman’s Strength And Health was the lifting bible for the sport while Weider’s magazines stressed the bodybuilding end of things. Years later, when York produced both Strength And Health and its companion Muscular Development as monthly editions while Weider countered with Muscle Power and Mr. America magazines, my training partner and friend Jack summed it up best by stating that “S&H and MD have the info we need but Weider’s got the photos for greater inspiration.” Iron Man magazine had also become a regular “read” for us and the bimonthly publications offered a little bit of everything and did it better than anyone else. We marveled at the photos of the lifters and the outsized bodybuilders and we already knew some of the fellows personally from our own training facility that were appearing in these very magazines. We were shocked at the kind of weight that was being lifted in both Olympic lifting and odd lift/powerlifting contests and carefully noted the photos to see what kind of equipment was being used. Hoffman pushed his York Olympic barbell and it was considered to be the ultimate. While any real Olympic bar was beyond my financial possibilities at the time, I would dream about putting my hands around the same type of bar the greats used. At Tony’s storefront however, in addition to the one York barbell on the floor, we had two Jackson Olympic barbells that seemed to be just as good if not better! I hadn’t even heard of the Jackson Barbell Company but Tony was the one who could and would fill me in.