History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 3

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on June 11, 2014 Comments off

The Quest For Knowledge.

In the days before the internet and immediate worldwide communication, the wonders of bodybuilding, especially in California, was brought to the attention of the many eager enthusiasts across the country, through the pages of Joe Weider’s various muscle building publications. It was necessary to present news from all of the weight training related activities. There weren’t enough of any one group of devotees that one could expect to publish and distribute a “muscle magazine” and make a living off of it if any particular group was completely ignored. Thus Joe and his various issues of Muscle Power, Muscle Builder, Muscle And Fitness, Mr. America, Young Mr. America, All American Athlete, and a few others covered all bases. The rare known athlete who admitted to utilizing weights as a training tool or as an adjunct to whatever made up the “regular training” and preparation for their sport would be featured. There would be a monthly column dedicated to Olympic weightlifting with brief contest results. Once powerlifting became popular or at least became a viable activity separate from bodybuilding or Olympic lifting, Weider always had at least one training feature and a standing monthly column that included gossip type of news, some training information, and the results of one or more contests, usually from the West Coast. I know that every lifter in the New York City area would pace the local luncheonettes and newsstands waiting for the clerk to cut open the packages that held the monthly nuggets of information, on the day of the distributor’s delivery.

I would travel to Manhattan and hang out in bodybuilder Leroy Colbert’s health food store on Broadway at 84th Street. I met another fellow there, a bit older than me and a lot larger. Big, blonde, and very strong Dave Draper was a newcomer, like me a guy who trained at home from a very young age, who would sit in the back of Leroy’s store on a Saturday, and ask a lot of questions. We would drink quarts of milk, eat foot long ham or roast beef sandwiches, and learn from Leroy and whomever else came through the door and many of the best in the New York City area came to Lee for advice and supplements. Like gyms, this type of establishment was not frequently seen and certainly none could offer the expertise that Colbert and his legitimate 20” arms could. Leroy was friendly with and did a lot of work for Joe Weider at his Union City, New Jersey office and warehouse, just across the river from Manhattan. Through Leroy, I first met Joe Weider when I was fourteen, already a two year veteran of a haphazard but consistent weight training regimen. I would have started at the age of ten but was warned of the evils of training by my father and his cronies who made the racetrack their home when not toiling at their two and three concurrent jobs. “You’ll get musclebound,” “you’ll stove up” which was another way of saying “you’ll get stiff or musclebound,” “you’ll get slower” which for an aspiring athlete was of course the kiss of death, “you’ll go queer” which was the common parlance of the day for a gay lifestyle, and the ever present warning that “geez, these gyms got hop heads, queers, and losers in every one I seen, you can’t go in there.” I once wrote in Powerlifting USA regarding this above noted statement that even at the age of ten or eleven, I silently thought that the old man was referring to the boxing gyms in the area. We had plenty of those as boxing was extremely popular, as it is in all tough neighborhoods, with instruction available at the Police Boy’s Club, Police Athletic League, in many of the church programs, and from the Parks Department. The cigar smoking creeps doing illegitimate business was a stock stereotype but a true one. Decades later watching the steroid, cocaine, and heroin deals go down in many of the area gyms with activity being echoed across the country as organized crime figures took over ownership of some of the major chain type gyms and training facilities, I finally got to agree with my long dead father.


He gave me permission to train with weights when I was twelve and the catch was, I had to purchase them myself. That was a joke as we had been living in a summer bungalow that we utilized as a full time, year round residence. No heat, no hot water, the stove and oven on all night to augment electric heaters strung up all over the place so that pipes wouldn’t freeze and burst, water in the toilet freezing overnight, and heating water on the stove in order to take a bath in one-inch of tepid water. No, I don’t think my various part-time “kid jobs” were going to allow the purchase of any real weights. To the old man’s credit, he came through. We lived next to a lot where trucks and cars would be abandoned on a regular basis, thus, a truck axle and flywheels made up my first “barbell” and he was quick to weld up anything that would make my uninhibited attempts at copying what I saw in the magazines a bit safer. Pails of concrete and sand, the benefit of living in a beachside community, allowed me to mimic the dumbbell exercises I saw in the magazines. Weider’s Muscle Power and Young Mr. America were the primary sources of information, supplemented with Hoffman’s Strength And Health. Olympic lifting and bodybuilding were the focus for the York publication and of course, both of the major players in the iron sports used their magazines as product catalogues, hyping various protein pills and powders, Brewer’s yeast, wheat germ oil, and what even by 1975 appeared to be the flimsiest of training equipment.

I also had the advantage of the train station, bus, and subway, all of which allowed me to travel and seek out training information. Long before DVD’s, CD’s, the internet, and ubiquitous seminars, one gathered information about training “the old fashioned way”; you got off your ass, located those who were actually doing what you wanted to do, and discovered or created a way to watch, ask questions, and eventually perhaps, become part of the group. As a cult activity, weight training, most often done in basements and garages of private homes, in storefront gyms, in the YMCA’s of major cities, or in the warehouse of a “lifting guy” who had a business, was difficult to find and learn about. As a teenager, I would hitchhike to York, Pennsylvania, leaving the house at 3 or 4 AM on a Saturday that allowed me to take time off from one of my part time jobs, and spend the day literally hanging out and just watching the best American lifters do what they did. Taking the train, subway, and bus to Brooklyn allowed me to go to Mr. V’s Sport Shop, the only bodybuilding outlet in the borough at the time, to watch proprietor and mentor Jack Meniero work with Larry Powers, Freddie Ortiz, and others I had actually seen in the magazines. When powerlifting began to flourish, the accumulation of information was done in the same manner. Trips east out towards “the other end” of Long Island to watch a guy named Bob Meyers bench press the incredible weight of 500 pounds, a quick bus ride over the City line  to Far Rockaway in order to find “these two guys who use a ton of weight” or hitchhiking to Inwood because “some kid” and that kid turned out to be Dennis Tennerino, a future Mr. America and Mr. Universe, “was using huge weights and looked freaky.” When The Silver Knight, a local bar, known for its weekend bloodbaths of mano-a-mano combat hired real, live, competitive powerlifters from the City to keep the peace, we had a place to go, or at least stand outside of, where we could engage the bouncers in bench press, squat, and deadlift conversation all night. For me, it was the start of a competitive adventure and a pursuit of pure strength that would augment my desire to “train to be a better football player” which had been the driving force behind my fascination with a barbell from the day I began to train.