You’re Taking Your Life in Your Hands.
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.
We were instructed to bring two pairs of shorts and two tee shirts, much to the bitching and moaning of a few of the guys. Of course, as a competitor and coach of long standing, I have since that first meet, observed quite a few lifters throw up on or otherwise soil themselves before or during warm-ups as a result of nervousness, effort, or the poor decision to eat something that would not be a part of their usual diet. Thus, the sage instruction to have a duplication of the entire lifting uniform in one’s gym bag became and has remained one of my standard requirements. We brought hard boiled eggs and long before the day of bottled water, our group had thermoses filled with water or some type of protein shake.
Viewing the competitors, I recognized many of them as bodybuilders I had met or seen in the area gyms and in the magazines. Again, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that despite the size of the population of the New York City Metropolitan region, hard core lifting and bodybuilding were very much cult activities in the early 1960’s and most of the involved participants had a passing knowledge of one another. Any contest or meet was very much like “old home week.” The Weider influence was very strong in the New York bodybuilding community, thus quite a few of the competitive lifters were in fact representing their clubs or gyms for this particular day as “a lifter” though bodybuilding, as a competitive endeavor or as their primary purpose for training, more accurately defined them. Quite a few could boast of having their photos used to illustrate articles or were themselves the subjects of feature presentations in Muscle Power or Mr. America magazines. While I knew that many high level bodybuilders were strong because of their use of the basic multi-joint exercises, I was still awed by the fact that the men who I had previously seen only within the context of posing in Speedo-type bathing suits and waving small dumbbells around as if they were directing airplanes to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier could show up looking fierce and powerful. The names were impressive too and though time and age have eroded the entry list from my mind, included were John Maldonado, one of the best “short men” in the game, and IFBB Teenage Mr. America Tommy Aybar. In the “regulation uniform” of a tee shirt and shorts or a wrestling singlet it was easy to compare the extreme development most of the competitors possessed relative to the average athlete. I recall Maldonado lying on the bench and blowing away something around 400 pounds, every vein and sinew jumping out of his upper body. I can’t recall if Tony beat him but Mr. Pandolfo, our leader, completed a similar weight and looked just as good doing it. While some of the fellows that traveled from the Bronx with Elmo Santiago looked much larger than their stated bodyweights in the 150 pound range, our own Bob Van Dina, appeared to be the largest of all of the shorter and lighter men, certainly muscularly bigger than many top flight Mr. America competitors forty pounds heavier, his own aspirations held back only by lagging lower extremity development.
Two things stood out that day as perhaps thirty-five men enjoyed a healthy competitive atmosphere for the bench press, squat, deadlift, and curl. The first was that our use of the “right” equipment had prepared us well and enhanced the confidence of all of us. The other was that one could look great and be very strong, look like the circus fat man and be very strong, or look average and be very strong. Even then I attributed this to the use of basic muscle building exercises done in a manner that forced the lifter to train hard. The preparation came from having the correct equipment and knowing the rules of each lift. This meet used an official York Olympic Barbell, not the Jackson model but we had practiced with both barbells in our storefront gym so we were not “thrown off” or surprised by the way it felt. Others who had trained only on the standard bars and plates noticed a difference, sometimes significant enough to cost them their lifts. We were told that using 100 pound plates would feel different than using 45’s on the bar and this proved to be true. We were told that using a “real” Olympic barbell would feel different than using a standard barbell and “small-holed” plates and it did. This was one of those seminal lessons never forgotten and one I would pass on to the many powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters that used the garage facility or commercial gym I had over many decades. When my wife and I owned the Iron Island Gym in Oceanside, N.Y. from its inception and opening on February 3, 1992 until we sold it in October of 1998, we provided our lifters with any brand or type of bar that might be encountered in a lifting contest and a variety of squat racks to prepare them for the use of hydraulic racks, electrically adjusted racks, or the Monolift. The powerlifters and Olympic lifters could choose from bars that ran the gamut from the well-known and often seen to the unusual that were called into use only in one or two national or international meets each year. Included were Eleiko, York, Ivanko, the original Texas Power Bar by Buddy Capps, Capps special deadlift bar, the Passanella Bar, and a variation of the Passanella Bar dubbed “The Leistner Bar” to my lasting embarrassment by Jim Sutherland. Mr. Sutherland was the inventor of the oversized Passanella Bar, made originally for Dave Passanella who needed a longer and thicker diameter bar for his record setting squats. We modified it so that the shaft remained at a thicker-than-normal 32 mm diameter while maintaining the usual and legal measurement between the inside collars. The longer sleeve length of the Passanella Bar was maintained to accommodate the 900-plus pound squats so many powerlifters were performing. This bar design has reappeared under a variety of names including the APF Squat Bar and it serves its purpose well.
Certainly, my appreciation for and obsession with training equipment produced what one gym member and Howard Cosell fan referred to as “the plethora of bars populating this Pantheon of power.” It also stemmed from what I knew was the necessity of insuring that our lifters were ready for any competitive eventuality. Many of the odd lift contests began using the name “powerlifting contest”, especially after the introduction of Hoffman’s new publication, Muscular Development. This magazine was careful to tout its association with “powerlifting” contests, giving the sport some small degree of legitimacy. I can recall one of first contests I entered, held at the Harlem YMCA. Most odd lift or powerlifting contests with the latter title being utilized almost exclusively after 1964, used the York bench for the bench press portion of the competition. In retrospect, the bench was not particularly safe. The uprights were closely spaced which caused unevenly loaded or carelessly unloaded bars to be launched dangerously through the air. The padding was minimal causing deep bruising and hematomas on the upper back that would last for weeks after a limit attempt. The bench frame was flimsy and rather “under engineered” relative to the increasing size of the lifters and competitive weights it was called upon to support. When watching a 340 pounder like the great Pat Casey push the final inch or two with 600 pounds, one would be quick to realize that the bench held up perhaps through divine intervention. Casey in fact, began to bring his own fortified bench to contests rather than risk his well being to the available equipment. At numerous early contests the benches and often the squat racks, were made of wood, not iron. One could make a case that a well constructed wooden rack or bench, made with the heaviest lumber by a skilled carpenter, was much safer than a metal rack poorly welded from chintzy round stock, pipe, or angle iron as was usually the case in the 1950’s and ‘60’s but as the competitors began to use significant weight, one could at times feel the bench shifting beneath them or observe cracks in the support posts of the wooden racks. At one Southern California contest in the late 1960’s the lifters refused to use the unpadded wooden bench provided by the meet director. As one lifter loudly proclaimed, “You’re taking your life in your hands if you use that thing” and it wasn’t an inaccurate statement. Fortunately, Pat Casey was present as a coach and observer. Pat had his personal, reinforced bench in the bed of a pickup truck and it was brought into the gym facility so that the competitors could bench press safely. Truly, one was in fact taking their life in their hands at some meets and at many gyms when utilizing the bent bars, and dangerously constructed benches and racks.
A bench or squat rack that might collapse under the load of the lifter and the attempted weight posed and still poses an obvious danger to the lifter and anyone else in the vicinity of that lifter. What might be less obvious is that the use of a bar that is not straight, not strong enough for the imposed loads, or in any way does not accommodate its movement to the weight on the bar can produce injury and for those at the upper levels of the strength sports, inhibit gains that could mean the difference between first and third place in a major meet.