For the bodybuilders in our area, it almost didn’t matter what bars or plates they used as long as the bars weren’t too badly bent and the plates actually fit onto the bars. These weren’t “givens” in a lot of the storefront gyms or basements we would find ourselves visiting. Anyone who saw themselves as a “lifter” wanted to use what they considered to be a “real” barbell which meant the York Olympic bar and preferably with York Olympic plates. Especially for those preparing for a contest of any type, the Olympic bar was a must, in part because this is what would most likely be used in a contest, at least in the New York Metropolitan area, and because it seemed to be important that one use the same type of bar and plates to train with that they would be called upon to compete with. In California as I later learned, contests were held using York, Paramount, Marcy, and BFCO bars and plates, often interchangeably or with a mix of each on the competitive platform. The odd lift and early powerlift contests that used 100 pound plates most often utilized Peary Rader’s Iron Man Barbell 100’s or York standard 100’s that had been drilled out to fit the Olympic bars.
Quoting from last month’s History installment, allow me to remind our readers that the equipment used for both training and in competition often wasn’t safe. Steve Baldwin, a very successful long time competitive powerlifter and friend from Memphis, Tennessee who has an official 628 squat to his credit at 181 pounds, offered some comments after reading the June article. Those like Elite Fitness honcho Jim Wendler, who told me that after his reading of Part 12, as much as he already appreciated his equipment, “I was ready to kiss my Monolift and bench press” may be taken aback by Steve’s description of what passed for “competition conditions” in the squat.
The date of the odd lift contest I had been recruited to compete in arrived and not only would this be the first contest of its type I had been a part of, it would also be the first I had ever seen. All of us however, were prepared, not just in our training, but in the “small details” that often make or break a meet for a lifter. Through many decades, many of my early powerlifting lessons benefited me and the lifters I had the privilege to coach and/or handle at major and minor meets. The credit went to Tony as he was the sparkplug and had the know-how to do things the correct way. The standard competition attire consisted of a tee shirt, shorts or bathing suit, sneakers or work boots, and a thin four-inch wide lifting belt. Until the rules of what became the sport of Powerlifting were standardized to require a one-piece lifting singlet, yet another of the copy-cat nods given towards Olympic weightlifting, the bathing suit and tee shirt “look” was very much acceptable.
If one lifted weights in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s when I received my start in the activity, they knew York and they knew Weider. Both Bob Hoffman who was the owner of the York Barbell Company and seemingly, most other business and land holdings in York, Pennsylvania and Joe Weider were the big names in the lifting and physique game. Their stories and rise to the top of what resulted in two rather powerful business empires came from the sale of equipment and nutritional supplements. Weider also had what he often termed “a publishing empire” that included gay oriented pornography-type magazines, at least as they were judged in that time period.
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.
In the early to mid-Sixties, my garage or basement, dependent upon where I had my limited equipment set-up, would have reflected the era’s typical “home gym” for a serious trainee or at least one that wasn’t headed towards physique competition. The belief, and one that within limits was a legitimate one, was that a competition level bodybuilder needed more than the so-called basics and the equipment that could provide those movements. Thus the high level bodybuilders were seeking a broad selection of dumbbells, a high and low pulley arrangement, and numerous angled benches and they considered these to be necessities. I can recall sitting in the “Weider Headquarters” in California which was no more than a storefront with warehouse space behind it, on 5th Street in Santa Monica. My friend Dave Draper was in charge of running the place, greeting those who might have wandered in off of the street to purchase two pairs of ten pound plates or a set of Weider Aristocrat Power Stands (read that as dangerously flimsy portable squat racks). Even then the emphasis was on supplement sales and Dave had a large supply of what in New York bodybuilding circles was the ubiquitous Weider Super Pro 101 protein drink, similar to the ready-to-drink types that are currently the rage. When Dave moved from New Jersey and first arrived in California a few years previous to my visit, he trained in the bowels of the city, literally below street level in the basement of an old hotel bar. Dubbed “The Dungeon” by those who used the old, rusty, but wonderful equipment, it was a haven for the extremely dedicated which certainly included Dave who had won a great many top physique titles.
During the first few years of my training, I had little awareness of the specific qualities that made equipment “good” or “bad.” My guideline was whatever I saw within the pages of Strength And Health, Muscle Power, Mr. America (and Young Mr. America), and by 1964, Iron Man Magazines. Without knowing it, I had very serviceable equipment to train with, and it allowed me to learn and perform the basic result producing exercises. Of the fellows I knew that began weight training, nearly one-hundred percent had a basic 110-pound barbell and dumbbell set. Some used a picnic bench to perform the exercises that were illustrated in the magazines and one or two had a commercial quality bench. I was fortunate because from the beginning, I was moved to provide a means that would allow me to squat and also do presses without having to clean the bar first. My equipment, though homemade and crude, was if nothing else, overbuilt and solid enough to last for decades. Today, in 2008, one of the power racks I built in my father’s shop is still in use at my former high school. A surprise “find” was my original pair of iron horses that had been modified so that I could squat and do so with a “safety catch” if I could no longer rise with the weight which was my usual practice, press, or bench press. My brother was cleaning out a storage area of his structural steel and ornamental iron shop just a few years ago and there they were, no worse for wearthan they were when my father and I had first welded them in the early 1960’s.
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