Sutherland and More
One of the enjoyable aspects of writing this series of articles for Pete Alaniz and Titan Support Systems is the feedback and correspondence generated from lifters I have not seen nor heard from in decades. My inauspicious career in strength related competition, one limited to and marked by a few local titles and a lot of enthusiastic participation in close to one hundred contests over a twenty-five-plus year period, allowed for contact with many individuals. My monthly column in Powerlifting USA Magazine and numerous articles that appeared there and in all of the major muscle building publications from 1969 through the present day, always kept me “in touch” with what was going on. Yet, some of the men and women who have been taken with this current series of articles have brought back even more memories.
In Part Seventeen, I talked about the introduction of the electrically adjustable squat racks made by Jim Sutherland. There is no doubt in my mind that zero percent of today’s active lifters know who he is or what he brought to our sport and its just as true that in the early 1980’s, very few were aware that some of the important changes in equipment design came from his fertile mind. As an example, every manufacturer of what is termed an Olympic Bench Press, and to us as lifters, is simply, “the bench,” has a spotter’s platform. When these were introduced there was an improved safety aspect for lifter and spotter, especially the shorter spotters such as myself. However, “the reach” in handing the bar to the lifter still produced some back strain and awkwardness with heavy weights and could be dangerous once the bar poundage exceeded 500. I had an Iron Island Gym lifter who insisted that I hand off his bench presses. I truly didn’t think I did a better job than anyone else and again, once the weight hit the 450-500 mark I can’t say I would have picked myself for this task, but he was adamant that I provide the hand off as he believed this allowed him to do his best. In short, I did not trust myself to do the safest or most efficient job possible. I mentioned this to Jim one day and he simply said, “I have a solution to that” and he made a bench for us that had a walk-through spotter’s platform. Every bench up to this point in time, no doubt because “it was the way it was always done,” had support braces that prevented the spotter from having the option of literally walking the bar over the lifter’s chest. Jim’s new design allowed any spotter, short or tall, to stand anywhere from head to almost waist level on the lifter, and control the bar. This was a very simple design adjustment yet one that enhanced the safety of the exercise significantly. No one gives the now-standard walk-through spotters platforms a passing thought, yet Jim was the first in the industry to provide this sorely needed advantage.
In the early 1980’s Jim was in the midst of his chosen career as a well respected high school vocational arts teacher in the rural Hastings, Michigan area. From the area, Jim had been the captain of his Delton Kellogg High School football, basketball, and baseball teams and an accomplished local level powerlifter. He enthusiastically rounded up a girls’ powerlifting team that did well in the annual in-state meets, winning the 1977 Michigan State Championships, and was one of the leaders in the movement to make powerlifting an officially sanctioned high school sport within the state. He built basic equipment for some of the other area schools who liked what he had made for his own squad. The late Wayne Bouvier, at the time a reigning National Champion who was a giant of a man, came to Jim for a complete line of custom made pieces for his home training center while preparing for the 1982 World Championships. Wayne’s huge bulk and use of outrageous weights in training did not allow him to trust the available commercial equipment. The extremely heavy duty pieces that Jim made for Wayne were functional and so obviously superior to anything else on the market, that almost everyone interested in equipment design took notice. Jim’s breakthrough piece was his electric squat rack, a design that truly changed “the culture” relative to equipment safety and efficiency.
In a number of earlier columns, I described the rather flimsy squat racks and benches that we used even with the heaviest of weights. Small bore, thin-gauge pipe with tiny “Y” saddles were considered high-tech and as heavier weights were lifted, it was obvious that these would not stand up to typical powerlifting use. The usual way of adjusting squat rack height would also have to be jettisoned, as placing 400-plus pounds on the rack, and in some cases, 600-plus pounds for a group of lifters of varying heights did not allow for safe, efficient, or rapid changes in bar height. Car jacks and then what were supposed to be heavy duty truck jacks became popular so that the lifters could ratchet the rack height up or down. Unfortunately, constant use of the jacks made for a lot of slippage, injuries became common as the jacks would unexpectedly release when a heavy barbell was replaced onto the racks, and in time, these became a last gasp solution for most. Hydraulic cylinders were put into widespread use in the late-1970’s and are used to the present. The problems with these are the problems that any hydraulic cylinder has in its usual applications. Broken or leaking seals produce seepage of fluid and a loss of pressure; short stroke jacks which include most used on powerlifting squat racks or benches, require an awful lot of pumps or strokes in order to move the height of the rack even a few inches; most of the cylinders are expensive relative to the overall cost of a pair of squat racks and they do not last forever, at times, not even months if use is heavy and constant. I attended a contest in the early 1980’s where a heavy squat was slammed into the weight saddles upon its return to the racks and the hydraulic cylinder on one of the two racks literally blew out, causing one end of the bar to immediately sink and collapse that stanchion. The lifter was fortunate to get out from beneath the bar without being decapitated.
Jim Sutherland noted all of the above and designed an electrically powered, “just-plug-into-the-wall-socket” adjustable rack that was heavy duty enough to handle more than a ton of weight, moved quickly and easily with the flick of a switch, required no repair, cleaning, or maintenance, and had the added advantage of allowing changes in bar width without needing to first remove the bar from the racks in order to move them closer to accommodate the larger lifters. It was very much consensus opinion that Larry Pacifico hosted the best contests in the world so it was a natural that Larry was the first to utilize Jim’s new rack design in his major meets. The lifters, loaders, and spotters loved the racks with the ability to quickly and effortlessly elevate or lower the huge weights that had become the norm while moving the rack width in for a more comfortable grip for the larger competitors. Jim began to supplement his teaching responsibilities with his newly formed Hastings Barbell Company.
The great bomb proof benches being produced were turning up not only at area high schools, but also in some of the major university weight rooms. Collegiate strength coaches were just becoming the norm in the Midwest and one viewing of Jim’s equipment brought a great deal of business. This was not lost on the owners and managers of the Universal Kidde Company. Almost every high school in the nation had some form of Universal strength training device by the mid-1970’s. Based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Universal produced strength training and fitness products, and the most highly regarded wrestling mats in the country if not the world. Universal Resilite matting was the norm for almost all high schools, colleges, and wrestling facilities. Joining forces with Kidde, the manufacturers of gymnastics equipment, gave Universal a stranglehold on a very large share of the fitness industry institutional business and they made a decision to expand their weight training offerings. Noting from afar the work that Jim was doing, they set their sites on bringing him into the fold and Jim’s Universal Heavy Metal line changed the face of the industry.