History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 2

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on June 10, 2014 Comments off

One’s choice of lifting activity could have been very much determined by their geographic location in the 1940’s through the 1960’s. Referring to the first installment of this series, while most “training guys” did the same basic exercises, different parts of the country, different parts of some specific states, gravitated to one of the three major types of lifting expression. The most obvious example of this was the York Barbell Club located in York, Pennsylvania. The headquarters of Bob Hoffman’s York Barbell Company, he had funded America’s Olympic weightlifting activities, as the supplier of equipment, as the provider of funds necessary for travel, and as the sport’s chief administrator for decades. He was referred to and rightfully so, as “The Father Of American Weightlifting” and he took the title and the responsibility seriously. In fairness, while his reign was dictatorial he viewed himself as a benevolent dictator and the retrospect of a few decades indicates that he was indeed, just that.

Hoffman may have called the shots for the entire sport, exerted his will to shape specific Olympic or national teams, and certainly played favorites, but no one disagrees that without him and his support, the sport would have withered and perhaps been little more than a footnote before anyone heard of John Grimek, Steve Stanko, Tommy Kono, the George Brothers, and Bob Bednarski. Many of the York Barbell Club lifters were imported from other parts of the country, provided with employment at “The Barbell” as the company was referred to by those on the inside or earlier in the century, in one of Bob’s related businesses, and perhaps to the surprise of the current generation, actually worked a full time daily job before entering the hallowed halls of the The York Barbell Club gym to train. Some of the jobs were difficult, others less so and I can recall the great Bill March, who handed Hoffman both lifting titles and a Mr. Universe physique victory loading cans of protein powder by day. Others heaved and hauled in the warehouse hefting what at times I’m sure seemed like an endless parade of 100 and 45 pound plates and Olympic bars through entire days and weeks. If one lived in the York area and desired to lift weights, there was the exposure to and the opportunity to train with some of the best Olympic lifters in the world and certainly, the best in the United States.

In California, especially Southern California, while there was Olympic lifting activity, it was perhaps the sun and surf and the exposure one’s physique would have all through the year due to the wonderful weather that made bodybuilding a major attraction. As the great Bill Pearl said to me in the late-1960’s as I talked about returning to the East Coast to continue college and collegiate football, “Go to school and play football out here. Why would you want to go back home? You can ride a bike, run on the beach, and wear a tee shirt and shorts all year and its ideal (weather) for training.” He was correct of course, explaining at least in part, the fact that the heart and soul of bodybuilding rested at Santa Monica’s famed Muscle Beach. By the time I arrived on the West Coast in the late-1960’s, “Muscle Beach” had moved from its original environs down the beach a bit to Venice, to New Yorkers like my buddy Jack and me, the epitome of “the land of fruits and nuts.” Among the strange sightings along the beach and boardwalk of Venice, there was the well-known weight pen where “power lifters”, even before the sport of powerlifting was officially christened, threw up huge chunks of iron in both the Olympic lifts but more formally, in the “odd lifts” such as the incline press, bench press, and deadlift. Steve Merjanian, Bill “Peanuts” West, Mike Barnett, Lee Phillips, and others known only to the California crowd had worked hard to earn a reputation as tremendously strong men among the bodybuilding crowd. Pat Casey, who by 1966 had become the first man to bench press 600 pounds under something akin to official conditions, later became a very dear friend, right up to the time of his death. This coterie of strongmen gave many the impression that California was indeed the birthplace of powerlifting. However, by the time 1964 rolled around and the first Tournament Of Champions was contested and billed as the inaugural United States championship in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, performed in that order, there were pockets of lifters throughout the nation that could have made the same claim.

Often its one individual who influences many others to do what he is doing and before anyone realizes it has occurred, that village, city, state, or region is “the place” for whatever activity has been the focus of the group’s attention. Parts of Texas had early advocates of what became the sport of powerlifting, men like Paul Barbee, Jim Witt, and to the credit of his everlasting self-promotion, Terry Todd. The entire state of Pennsylvania, perhaps as an outgrowth of having the York lifters as the fabric of “lifting” in the U.S. and of course, because of financial support and magazine exposure via Bob Hoffman and his publications, boasted some of the very best in the early years of the sport. Illinois and New England too, were hotbeds of this new activity, one that supported the popular notion that the less gifted athletically could compete at a barbell related activity that wasn’t Olympic lifting. The New York Metropolitan area with its overflowing population sample, had plenty of everything. Olympic lifters, powerlifters, and bodybuilders could be found wherever weights were lifted. All forms of the iron sports were still brandishing “cult status” but each permutation had its advocates and participants.