History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 21

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

A Brief Sociological Lesson for Powerlifters


Much of the response to the Eleiko USA retrospective that I’ve penned to date has come from younger lifters. I’m including anyone under the age of forty and from this younger generation of media-saturated lifters, their primary observation, question, and source of amazement is that they believe “everyone trained the same” or close to it in “my day.” The truth is that in the 1960’s in powerlifting’s early years, there would be one individual or small group of trainees who had a major influence on the training of others in a particular town, city, state, or region. Their “style” or approach to training would very much be “the way” it was done and comparisons of methodology throughout the country did demonstrate a relatively limited approach to increasing the squat, bench press, and deadlift. This should not be viewed as a negative comment because it’s actually positive!

If one is offered a glut of equipment to train with, there is a belief and with some who are paying for the privilege of training, an obligation to use as much of the available equipment as possible. If one reads multiple magazines and what are perhaps the more influential internet sites, they are made to feel that failing to adopt the complex or lengthy training programs presented marks them as a mere beginner or know-nothing. Fortunately, becoming stronger in the three competitive lifts is rather simple in theory and the science backs it. There was a reason that there were so many very large, very strong men without the massive drug intake so common today. Then, any aspect of lifting weights, especially competing as a powerlifter, could be termed a “cult activity.” To many, the title of any training article, or name of any publication related to lifting weights should have been “Lunatics Lift Weights.” Repeating a constant theme, weight training in any form was not considered to be a “normal” activity. Young people did not sit in their homes and play video games and if they hung out anywhere, they did so only after completing school work, the list of household chores waiting for them after school hours, or at the end of their after-school job. My employment history was very typical for the type of after school, evening, or weekend “little jobs” teenagers would be responsible for in the job market. In Long Beach, I swept out Hittleman’s Bakery and carried out the garbage. I was rewarded with a dollar or two and all of the apple turnovers and blueberry muffins I wanted to carry home on my bicycle. I was fortunate to have the job because Mr. Hittleman’s nephew could have done it. He lived in an apartment over the bakery but was usually too busy shooting baskets in the playground at Central Elementary School directly across the street from the bakery and honing the basketball skills that eventually made the name Larry Brown legendary in that sport. Yes, I had this particular job only because the very famous basketball player and coach Larry Brown according to his Uncles, was a “good for nothing who only wanted to shoot basketballs” instead of doing the menial tasks I felt fortunate to claim as my own. I was also lucky that my father’s “other job” in addition to his primary work as an iron worker was managing a nightclub facility that allowed me to wash dishes, bus tables, eventually become a line cook and broiler man at the age of sixteen, and when big and strong enough, a bouncer. Working a drill press and doing rudimentary welding and cutting from the age of thirteen in the iron shop was a bonus as it allowed me to earn real money, get stronger serving as an unskilled “mule,” and afforded the opportunity to make my own training equipment.

If you weren’t doing school related work or participating in school sports, you were supposed to be working. If you were lifting weights, you were an odd ball that covered the social maladies of being narcissistic, “queer” using the derogatory parlance of the day, lazy, or misguided. Weight training, though done by those from all stations of socioeconomic existence even when the number of participants was small, was always considered to be a “lower class” activity. Any sociological or anthropological study would have indicated that the mentality of the striving-to-be-upwardly-mobile immigrant group that “my people” could lay claim to, was as follows:

Lower class men were generally uneducated or undereducated and thus worked jobs that were more closely tied to physical labor than white collar endeavors. Consequently, on the street, one never wanted to appear to be a laborer or lower class, so to purposely build one’s strength and visible muscle tissue was viewed as heresy, a definite step backwards for an upwardly mobile segment of society. Every man left the house for work in the morning and returned afterwards in a white dress shirt, trousers, shoes, and a hat. Only the truly low class guys or very poor failed to bring a change of clothes to work, and traveled in public to a job requiring manual labor wearing overalls, work boots, and a tee shirt. This of course allowed everyone to assume that those who did this, like me, did not own any other “nicer” clothing. I can recall a brutally hot summer when home from college, working like a dog in the iron shop, with weekend forays to various cities for security work with Motown Records. For a young man, I was making what was considered “good money” yet would get on the early morning weekday train with my father dressed in what he believed, was an inappropriate manner. I wore my work clothes which at the start of the day were clean and tidy if rather worn out and shabby. Before leaving the shop when the work day was finished, I would, with everyone else, remove the grease, paint, and grime by standing in front of the long and large communal sink, and washing my hands, forearms, and arms first with benzene. This later-proven-to-be-carcinogenic compound definitely removed every bit of ground in dirt but left one’s skin bleached white. I would follow with a scrubbing of pumice filled waterless cleaner, and finally remove any residue with harsh soap and water. I would then wait for my father to remove his work clothing and redress in his white dress shirt, trousers, shined shoes, and hat. Coming home on the subway and railroad, I was definitely given a bit of space because though I was spotless, my clothing was not. My parents thought this to be scandalous and I had compounded the sin of dressing and behaving like a lower class laborer, by slaving away with barbells and dumbbells so that I actually looked like a common laborer.

In an era when movies and television did not glorify any type of developed physique and a “manly man” was one with so-called natural size and strength, struggling as a powerlifter, trying to lift more weight in three specific lifts, was viewed as the extreme end of ridiculous. One did not wish to appear to be a manual laborer and anyone with bulging muscles certainly did. In an era when leisure time was precious because one often worked more than one job to survive, jobs that obviously did not pay a great deal, large muscles immediately identified one as “a laborer” and thus, not well educated nor well off. The conclusion was that anyone who purposely built their muscles so that they looked as if they came from a poorer or less esteemed social position had to have emotional problems because it flew in the face of everything the public was striving to avoid.