History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 37

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

Early Beginnings for Powerlifting’s Bar

I can recall an article written in the Weider publication Muscle Power, the forerunner to Muscle And Fitness magazine, and it noted that one did not necessarily need an Olympic barbell with rotating sleeves to perform the three official powerlifts, once the bench press, squat, and deadlift, in that order, were standardized as the competitive lifts.

What seemed like a small bit of news was actually something that assuaged the apprehension of a lot of prospective powerlifters. I was typical of the “home trainee” of the early 1960’s in that I was serious about training, considered myself to be a part of the very small cult like following of consistent weight trainees in the area, had a lot of actual weight or barbell plates I could load onto a barbell or dumbbell bars, yet did not own an Olympic barbell. From my perspective and that of most others, an Olympic barbell was a specialty or luxury item owned by one of the few commercial gyms where serious, hardcore lifters and/or trainees congregated or by an individual training at home who was an actual Olympic weightlifter. “Wealthy” was also a word that was usually associated with the ownership of an Olympic barbell set. With a 340 pound barbell/dumbbell combination set costing $55.95 retail, and a 310 pound Olympic barbell set costing $129.95, it was assumed that the typical basement, garage, or storefront gym would not have an Olympic barbell on the premises. If they did, like Tony Pandolfo’s small storefront gym that served our locale, there would be but one Olympic bar with accommodating plates and it would be reserved for “competition training.”
The great and largely forgotten Tom Overholtzer, one of the California lifters who changed the sport of powerlifting. He had a lengthy career and would seek out an “official” Olympic barbell set to train with to prepare for competition. Note the “tire rim” squat racks, a coveted item for 1960’s era contests.
Every trainee had a standard bar, one that would fit the one-and-one-sixteenth-of-an-inch diameter hole in the standard plates. I can recall visiting some home gyms located in a basement or garage that held over 6,000 pounds of weights during an era when what was considered a rather hardcore, serious storefront gym might stock half of that, yet be considered the town or area’s hot spot for training. An Olympic barbell with accommodating “two-inch hole” plates was another story. Even commercial leg press machines or plate loaded combination leg extension/leg curl tables would be loaded with the small-holed plates. The loading pins used to hold the plates for the wall and ceiling steel pulleys that served as lat pulldown “machines” also took the small-holed plates. When observing any of the Hammer Strength, Power Lift, or Legend Fitness plate loaded machines that fill today’s establishments, it is obvious that all of them must be used with Olympic barbell plates.
The first of the Nautilus Leverage Machine print ads featuring members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This marked the wide spread use of Olympic barbell plates on training machines.

This is a phenomenon that developed only in the mid-1980’s with the introduction of the Nautilus Leverage line of equipment and was sealed in 1988 with the formation of the Hammer Strength Corporation. The aforementioned machines were to be loaded with Olympic plates but prior to this, any plate loaded entity in a commercial gym setting utilized the smaller holed standard plates. There were so few Olympic barbell sets available, that no one had enough plates to place upon one of the few types of training machines that were available. Nautilus definitely changed the industry, in fact produced an entirely new industry but until their plate loaded leverage line was sold in 1984 -1985, their machines were selectorized or had pin-select weight stacks. The very first Nautilus pieces were in fact plate loaded, with “baskets” and/or weight pegs that accommodated the small-holed plates only. None were made to accept Olympic plates because so few had any in their training facility and if they did, the selection was most often limited to the 310 or 400 pound set that served any lifters. Even into the early 1980’s, the Nautilus plate loaded pullover machine and curl/triceps combination machine still had weight pegs for small-holed plates only. As late as 1985, I can recall that Kathy and I were stocked almost exclusively with Olympic barbell plates and I had to cut lengths of pipe, then drill and tap them for Alan head screws in order to attach them to the weight pegs of the existing plate loaded Nautilus units in order to use our Olympic plates with these pieces.

With the introduction of institutional weight rooms and the desire to be as “top of the line” and “official” as possible, Olympic barbell sets became more common, “extra” plates in large quantities became the norm, and the plate loaded equipment was altered to accept the Olympic barbell plates. However, circa 1964, this certainly wasn’t the case. Olympic barbell sets were hard to come by, even in the most hardcore of gyms, all of which were designed to have their trainees become “bigger and stronger.” Today’s standard mentality of having “six pack abs” or “defined pecs” on a 140 pound body was not the goal of 99.99% of the denizens of the 1950 and ‘60’s training emporiums. If anyone wanted to be “cut up” the pathway almost always wound through a major bulking up phase first because any defined but small/lean physique was seen as less than strong and “big and strong” was the gym standard for that era. Getting muscularly larger and stronger was and remains a function of progressive overload that is part and parcel of hard, intense, and consistent training. This was most often done with barbells and dumbbells making up 95% of the modalities either offered or used in almost any facility. That there was little need for a rotating sleeve on a barbell except for Olympic weightlifting movements also dictated that 95% of the barbells in any facility were of the small holed, standard type any place in the United States.

The debates we had as we sat around after workouts in the storefront gym owned by the recently deceased Tony Pandolfo, often compared the merits of the Olympic barbell to the standard bar. There was no doubt that the Olympic barbell was strong and more resistant to bending for example but I had purchased a seven foot length of chrome vanadium steel bar stock that was stronger than most Olympic bar shafts. Thus, I technically had a standard bar as strong as an Olympic barbell. As most trainees in our small storefront performed the press, bench press, incline press, curl, upright row, shrug, squat, deadlift, high pull, bent over row, Jefferson lift, good morning variations, and almost every other exercise ever seen in a gym other than a clean or snatch with a standard bar, we knew that an Olympic barbell wasn’t necessary to become a top title winner as a bodybuilder. We had a Jackson Olympic set but we also had a half- dozen trainees that were overall Mr. America or Mr. America class winners as regular attendees who rarely if ever used the Olympic bar. For powerlifting, the discussion ranged far and wide regarding the advantages and disadvantages of using a standard versus an Olympic barbell for the bench press, squat, and deadlift.