History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Part 16

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on July 1, 2014 Comments off

Competitive Beginnings

If there was a consistent factor to odd lifting and powerlifting in the early to mid-1960’s, it was inconsistency. Even the equipment, as I’ve noted in our previous installments, varied from contest to contest and one could never be certain that the announced weight on the bar was in fact, close to the actual weight. Many know Pete Alaniz as “the Titan guy” and perhaps now, “the Eleiko guy” but few will recall that Pete was a competitive lifter. Coming from Corpus Christi, Texas he was, as expected, directly linked to the two biggest names from the region, names that old timers will recognize as being among the best in the sport. Paul Barbee is considered by most to be the “Father Of Powerlifting” in that part of Texas, a gentleman who started the careers of dozens of high level lifters. Rick Gaugler was among the best in his class through a good part of the 1980′s and Pete knew both, trained with both, and was influenced by both. Thus Pete’s history in powerlifting does not go back nearly as far as mine because he’s quite a bit younger but he has plenty of history under his belt.

We were discussing “inconsistencies” as it related to contest equipment and agreed that through the 1980’s, bars might be new and straight or a contest might be held on an off-brand bar that appeared to have been dropped from a fifth floor window. I was immediately reminded of the Olympic lifter who warmed-up at a national level contest that was held within an old YMCA building in a Midwest city. It was noted by his friends and lifting associates immediately after this contest that if the York Olympic bar was mentioned, he would sing its praises and note that “the bar is great, absolutely indestructible.” His new found devotion to the York bar seemed a bit odd until his buddies recalled that the warm-up room of the YMCA contest was on the third floor of the ancient building and he was the only lifter in the room when his warm-ups were completed. A bit slow to put two and two together, it was only upon entering his basement gym to train the next week and observing a new York bar that things made sense to them. Their friend was motivated to literally throw the brand new York stainless steel bar being used for warm-ups out of the window. His “warm-up” was completed by a hard-charging dash down three flights of stairs to the snow covered parking lot where the beautiful new bar was quickly dispatched to the bed of his pickup truck. This lifter was extremely impressed, as well he should have been, that the bar didn’t bend and remained in perfect working order! Pete and I both recalled many a bent bar enhancing the difficulty of completing a limit deadlift and plates that weren’t close to the stated denomination.

After I had told Pete about some contests where we just assumed that the plates were much heavier than stated because the same weights we had doubled in training, buried six or eight lifters in a row, Pete stated to me, “Amen to that plate story. I still remember competing at a Regional Championship in 1981 where Fred Hatfield, Joe Bradley, Ray Noonan, and a 275 pounder whose name I can’t remember showed up. Joe took out Mike Bridges’ squat record at 148 and the weights of course, had to be weighed in order to confirm the record. It turns out that one of the 100-pound plates was seven pounds over, and the other was eight over. Joe got credit for fifteen pounds more than the stated weight on the bar and of course, the rest of us, even after the overage in the plates was discovered, only got the stated weight on the bar on our attempts with those same 100′s. Oh yeah, the good ole days.”

By the time odd lifting was scuttled and powerlifting was organized into an official AAU sport, it was begrudgingly acknowledged by many Olympic lifting supporters. Unfortunately, it remained a stepchild to Olympic lifting in part because of the many inconsistencies that remained the rule rather than the exception for this new venture. In my opinion, one of the great things about the strongman contests when they first were organized in the mid-1970’s, was the “unknown factor.” A contest would be organized, potential contestants contacted, and almost no one knew what the competed events would be until the day of the competition. Most of our Eleiko USA readers will recognize the name of Bill Kazmaier. They may view him as “the older really big guy on Worlds Strongest Man broadcasts” but in his day, he was not just a “really big guy” but rather, he was “the guy!” The sports of strongman and powerlifting were taken over by Bill and deservedly so. He was so far out in front of anyone else, no comparisons could be made.

Before the genius of Jim Sutherland’s specialized bars that allowed truly muscularly tremendous athletes like Kazmaier to powerlift efficiently, comfortably, and safely, Bill was limited by what he first termed, “the equipment” of the sport and he was correct. He had God-awful big numbers that could have been even bigger had he been able to actually hold the bar in the squat and wedge himself between the inside collars. It may be hard to fathom but Bill was actually too large, too muscular, too “everything” physically to comfortably place any of the available bars on his back and get into position to squat.

On the strongman circuit, Bill found an expression for his great strength when he went as far as he no doubt felt he could as a powerlifter. Kaz and Jon Pall Sigmarsson would have battles that would come down to the final event and when it appeared that Kaz was the “better” man, whispers of “The fix is in!” could be heard as both men would be faced with a speed or movement type of event that favored Sigmarsson. That statement won’t win any friends for me in Scandinavia but it is my opinion. Jon Pall was one of the greats and I believe, stronger than everyone except Kaz, but often enough, it seemed as if the promoters favored his better events. If not for Kaz, any debate would have been closed within the first sentence regarding Sigmarsson’s abilities and yes, he was the best of his day other than Kaz. However, with increasing frequency, the contests seemed to be geared toward the types of events that were as much movement and speed dependent as they were strength, or “pure strength” dependent. No matter what the events were, the participants could not practice with the specific implements nor know precisely what the events would be. I have VHS tape of some of the great early contests, held in a wide variety of venues that included frozen lakes and fields surrounded by huge waves that were breaking next to the lifters and spraying them as they attempted to lift. You did not have the standardization of equipment or events, making for shining moments only for those, Kaz obviously as the best of them, who could “just show up” and dig down to perform. Pull a truck, pull a chain, pull a burlap bag filled with weights that would sink a PT boat, press a wooden log, press a square stone, or harness up to what should have been a yak driven sled and have a foot race across a frozen lake. It was all great entertainment and motivating. There are positives and negatives in having standardized equipment and events but in powerlifting, those of us who competed could find little of the positive in using equipment that was “hit-or-miss” in almost every meet.

The odd lift meets of course, were just that. “Odd Lift” contests, at least in the New York area, were unsanctioned because there was nothing to sanction and no one to do it. Usually, a few lifters from one of the local gyms would visit those from another, or two or three guys would wander into one of the gyms in Manhattan or Brooklyn to train and specifically try a piece of equipment that had been seen in a magazine but not elsewhere to that point. I’m not referring to Nautilus or Universal type of selectorized machines but rather, a bench that may have been welded at an odd angle that was reportedly bringing great results to everyone’s pecs at a place in the Bronx, or a weird pulley arrangement. To this very day, there are gyms all over the New York City area that feature a seated low cable row. Yes, so does every other part of the country and probably every gym in the nation. However, in our area there are often two of these or more, because one is going to position the trainee so that their feet are supported on foot pads that allow body stability as they perform the seated cable row, but their upper bodies will be angled backwards at approximately 45 degrees. Picture a low cable row that was married to teenage sex in the back seat of a 1963 Chevy Corvair and you will have an idea of one’s seat and body position. For those interested, the answer is “Yes” I had a Chevy Corvair, the car that made Ralph Nader famous and the answer is “Yes” that whatever might have occurred in the back seat of that Corvair was probably less complicated than performing the low cable row at the unusual angle I described. Friendly conversation and an exchange of lifting techniques or ideas would be the usual course of events and occasionally, a challenge would be put forth and two or four weeks later, a half-dozen fellows from one storefront gym might descend the stairs to a corner of a basement beneath the Bohack Supermarket in Amityville to go head-to-head in the press or bench press or deadlift, just to see which group of guys could then say, at least for a week, that they were “stronger.” It was as much fun as it was competition.

At some point and I will stand by my memory that this began on the East Coast though I am open to correction, someone actually reported the results of one of these get-togethers to John Terpak who included the information in the new Muscular Development magazine from York. We began to see more “organized” odd lift type of contests with the owners of gyms asking guys from another facility to “come on over” and lift against their men. “Open” invitations were offered, usually via word-of-mouth across Long Island, and up to fifty men might converge at one of the Y’s or gym sites to test their mettle in three to five different lifts. Like the early strongman contests, there would be times that one walked in knowing that we would bench press (always done first), squat, and deadlift but anything after that was often done by democratic vote or the dictatorial command of whomever was “in charge” and perhaps had two guys who could curl a ton of weight, thus instituting the barbell curl as one of the contested lifts.

The upright row was another one I can recall being done in our area. Run similar to Olympic weightlifting contests, we would warm-up, then have three official attempts to make a best lift with the aggregate total determining the winner. I can vividly recall one odd lift meet where we each received five official attempts and in others, if it was running late or the gym owner had a hot date, the announcement would be made that “Guys, in this last lift, we’ll go with two official attempts. Is that okay with all of you?” Thus the equipment, the actual lifts, the number of attempts, and at times the performance of the lifts themselves were as inconsistent as could be. It was loose, it was informal, and it was meant to be fun.