History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 47

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

Commentary on Specialization


I had given consideration to discussing the “specialized” equipment and apparel that has been associated with the sport of powerlifting for decades and realized that an age of specialization now spans a number of generations. I have always described myself as it relates to my profession, my interests, my daily and weekly activities, and my focus as a “football guy.” I initially began to train at the age of twelve in order to “be a better football player.” I wasn’t certain what that truly meant but after seeing my first in-person high school football game in 1957 and thinking that the guys on the field were the biggest, strongest, and most exciting athletes I could imagine, my path was very much set in stone. I of course grew up in an era where it could be said of most activities, that there was little specialization. Watching my grandfather and father at their jobs as iron workers had me convinced that it would take too many years to ever master the ability to measure, cut with a torch, weld, heat, throw, and pound rivets, properly use a hoist, drill press, punch-and-chop Pels Ironworker machine, and then enter the blacksmith shop to heat, shape, and work metal into intricate horseshoes, railings, gates, and ornamental staircase fittings as the men in my family did. They truly could and in fact, “did it all” and I understood that it took many years to master the craft of iron working and blacksmithing if only because there were so many aspects that were incorporated into a day’s work.

Athletically, especially when football was the primary focus among other youth sports, we all learned one or more offensive positions and one or more defensive positions. Through junior and senior high school football, everyone, including the quarterbacks, played on both offense and defense. This practice was not limited to smaller schools that lacked the personnel or numbers of players who participated, but rather, it was standard procedure. A football player learned how to play the game of football which incorporated both offense and defense. Usually, one of the most athletic players and often that was the quarterback, also served as the team’s punter and/or place kicker but there was never a thought that playing more than one position in both practice and in games “watered down” one’s effectiveness. Oh boy, how things have changed. Not only have we seen the metamorphosis of “offense only” or “defense only” players down to the youth league level, but a defensive end may enter the field of play only on definite passing downs to serve as a pass rush specialist. A running back may rarely if ever actually run with the football from the line of scrimmage. Rather, as a “third down specialist” he enters the game as a short pass catching back in specific “third and X amount of yards needed” for a first down situation. Even in my late father’s trade, in many iron shops the welder welds and does little or nothing else. The cutter may do no more than cut, using a torch or one of the modern laser cutters that are computerized and almost foolproof. Whichever tool he utilizes may define his only work responsibility. Today’s “heavy equipment operator” may drive a bulldozer but unlike the individual with the same title in the mid-1960’s, drives nothing but a bulldozer, leaving the other heavy machinery to a “specialist” who does nothing else but drive and operate the one specific piece he is associated with. As I watch football, discuss the game with my sons who coach in the National Football League, or generate conditioning and rehabilitation programs with local high school coaches, I don’t pretend that I enjoy the game of football with the extreme level of specialization that now defines the game. I am quite certain that my deceased father and grandfather would look upon iron working and blacksmithing the same way. Just as I have heard coaches describe a player as “not truly understanding the game of football” because he knows little more than the responsibilities of his own position and/or assignments, I have heard some of the old timers in the iron fabrication trades complain that a worker “is a darned good welder but he can’t do a lick more than that.”

Specialization was the topic I was focused upon when I gave some thought to the perception of powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. For regular readers of this Titan/Eleiko column my thoughts about the way in which the participants themselves interpreted the activities through the past few decades won’t come as a surprise. Unfortunately, despite some of the advantages gained with specialization, I can’t say that the complete bifurcation of the two sports has been positive. When I was introduced to weight/strength training in the late 1950’s, the limited number of men involved with the activity made it perhaps a step above a cult sport. To many, lifting weights, even for Olympic weightlifters, was not truly a sport though this branch of the iron game was considered to be the only legitimate form of weight training activity. That a certain degree of “athletic ability” was necessary to successfully lift weights in the clean and press, snatch, and clean and jerk, the three official Olympic lifts of the day, was a given, even by a grudging public. Inclusion to the Olympic Games also legitimized this one aspect of activity that utilized a barbell and weights. Odd lifting, which later became organized as powerlifting was for those not “athletic enough” to pursue the Olympic lifts and bodybuilding was considered to be primarily for narcissists or homosexuals. As limited, humorous, or sad these past attitudes were, dependent upon one’s own perspective, this was the public’s interpretation of “lifting weights.” The younger generation should also recall or perhaps first learn, that the wave of immigration that determined or at least strongly influenced the day’s culture, had its primary roots in Europe, unlike today. After the mid to late-1800’s influx of Irish and German immigrants, those from War-torn and/or economically backward Eastern Europe were the ones settling the large cities of the United States. With them came a dedication to back-breaking work and the belief that America would yield a better life if only one was willing to awaken before the sun came up, and ended the work day long after it set.

Most of the great York Barbell Company and York Barbell Club Olympic weightlifting teams were composed of immigrants or the sons of immigrants, men whose parents knew poverty, relative poverty, and a lot of hard manual work. This also meant that those attracted to lifting weights and those who could actually carve time out of their day to do what was considered to be unnecessary labor by most, earned the scorn of their non-lifting peers. My father’s comment that I have repeated a number of times in print sums up the attitude of most of that segment of society well: Upon returning from his daily work as a welder and iron worker one early evening, my father stood at the open garage door, ever present cigarette dangling from his mouth, and watched my long time training partner Jack and me engaging in our usual struggle with the barbell. As he silently watched he eventually shook his head and said, “As hard as you guys work at this, why don’t you go out and get a job instead.” I noted that we were in college full time, were on athletic teams, and already had more than one part-time job. He said that we “should get another job. For the time and effort you put in here, you should be paid.” He never did understand that we enjoyed lifting, as arduous as it might have been, savored the benefits we received from becoming muscularly larger and stronger, and knew that we were improving our athletic ability with each bit of lifting progress. From my father’s perspective, one born of immigration from Poland and full time manual labor related work since dropping out of school after the fifth grade, one worked hard, one was paid to work hard, and in the few spare moments between one’s day job and night job, one did not lift weights or do anything that was so physically demanding when it could be avoided unless like their other jobs, they were paid to do it. Thus, the cult-like status of weight training of any type, entering the mid-1960’s.

A photo from the collection of the late, great Pat Casey. Photographer Gene Mozee, an excellent example of an iron game devotee who epitomized strength, health, and a great physique, caught greats Lee Phillips, Armand Tanny, Steve Merjanian, and Bill McArdle at a mid-1960’s California contest gathering. Phillips was an accomplished powerlifter and Olympic lifter, taking a serious shot for a berth on our Olympic team. Tanny was a deceptively strong bodybuilder considered one of the greatest physiques of his day. Merjanian was a “king” of the odd lifts, setting records in the incline barbell press among other oft-used exercises. McArdle won many high level physique titles and was Larry Scott’s training partner for many years. The common thread among this group of greats was a love and dedication to “lifting weights” and the utilization of the same, standard, basic barbell and dumbbell exercises. The results of not specializing “only on” one narrow aspect of weight training were men who were very strong in a variety of lifting movements and looked as if they were in fact, very strong.


The Olympic weightlifters were at the top of the lifting pyramid in the eyes of the public. Granted “athletic ability” and having Olympic Games status, it was understood that “not many guys do this but you have to be good at it to compete.” Unlike walking over to the local park and picking up a baseball to toss around, you couldn’t just walk over to a barbell and do anything resembling a snatch or clean and jerk without some instruction, practice, and ability. If there was any lifting to be seen on television, it would be a short clip of Olympic style lifting, never powerlifting. Of course, if a large, muscular individual was seen in a television show as part of the background or in the non-speaking role of a bad guy, it would be one of the California bodybuilders long before the casting directors would choose an Olympic lifter. One of the points I wanted to make this month was that in these infrequent cameos, many of the 198 pound class and heavier Olympic lifters could have served as well as their similar sized bodybuilders. Because the majority of “everyone” who trained included a core group of exercises that gave stimulating work to the major muscle groups, Olympic weightlifters “looked strong”; many of the advanced bodybuilders if not most were “as strong as they looked”; accomplished powerlifters almost always had a good “mix” of strength and muscular appearance.