History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 54

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

Prototyping Part 1


Having spent twelve days without electrical power, heat, hot water, and water that led to the hospitalization of over one hundred individuals who were exposed to e coli and other dysentery infections after the local sewage treatment plant and electrical substation blew up as the result of Hurricane Sandy, our family fully understood the difference between being inconvenienced and truly affected by tragedy. The hurricane and aftermath was severely under reported out of the New York Metropolitan region with entire beach area communities completely wiped out and/or washed into the Atlantic Ocean on a level, though not as extensive, just as tragically as Hurricane Katrina. For those interested, there are numerous youtube videos documenting the damage and destruction to Long Beach, Island Park, and all of the Rockaways.

We were merely uncomfortable as we literally ran a relief center out of our office facility for the local youth and members of the community and helped with the extraordinary effort of a church whose school building is our immediate neighbor. As I write this column, three weeks after the storm, very little has changed. Sitting in the dark with a gasoline shortage, empty grocery shelves, and a fear of using even boiled water for those who could muster a gas flame, allows one to spend a lot of time thinking. The four inches of heavy, soggy snow that followed the hurricane made for a complete lack of communication with a cessation not only of electrical power throughout the New York – New Jersey area, but also cell phone signals and of course, computer use. With an inability to perform business or any business related functions, other than cleaning up, helping others to clean and salvage their property, walk to town to stand on gas lines that were worse than those of 1974 for the readers old enough to remember, the dyed-in-the-wool lifter could only train in the dark or by the overcast sunlight, and think about equipment development.

It was the latter that struck me as I stood between sets of squats, in our detached garage, muttering to myself about the cold, stiff and uncooperative joints, and a general lack of energy caused by a diet of chocolate chip cookies and cold cuts that were kept in an ice chest (yes, ice was being sold at exorbitant prices from the back of trucks in the parking lots of boarded up stores). Our office and rehabilitation facility, located in a home/office set-up was barely warmer than the internal temperature of the detached garage that sits a hundred feet behind the house and holds as much weight and as many bars as many Division 1 college weight rooms. However, once the temperature drops into the twenties, as it did after the Hurricane, those barbells are as cold as any frosted mug of root beer. Looking around the garage in the semi-darkness of an overcast afternoon, where no electrical power had allowed additional light for days, I was struck at the process that goes into the development of not only weight training equipment, but even something as seemingly simple as a barbell. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I was struck at the process that should go into the development of not only weight training equipment, but even something as seemingly simple as a barbell.

I have had the pleasure and excitement of fabricating my own benches, power racks, and other pieces of training equipment since the age of fifteen. I would bring various muscle magazines to my father’s iron shop on weekends when from my teenaged perspective, I was forced into indentured servitude to work an eight to twelve hour day that an adult laborer would be proud of. Being unskilled, especially relative to the other immigrant tradesmen that my father worked with, I was the shop mule with my first skilled tasks tied to the responsibilities as a grinder. Though arduous, and made more so due to my initial penchant for rushing through the job, I saw it as a way to build hand and forearm strength. The fifteen pound angle grinders of today with a multitude of plastic and epoxy components while more efficient than the “mostly metal” archaic models of my own early 1960’s and mid-‘70’s experience that may have weighed twice as much as the modern versions, could not compare as a muscle development tool. I would show the magazines to my father and some of the other workers and elicit opinions on the best manner in which to duplicate what appeared to be an essential piece of training equipment. In some cases, the results were quite good and to this day, there are two high schools in the area that still have at least one of my racks or benches in use on the premises, almost fifty years after production! In other cases, the end product was so confounding that the most experienced trainee would have difficulty figuring out what its purpose was. It wasn’t until I worked for Arthur Jones, the founder and inventor of Nautilus training equipment, that I received insight to the prototyping process and compared to today’s computer assisted process, even what seemed to be modern steps forward in equipment development were in the harsh light of comparison, ancient and laborious.


Historical Supplement – The Shrug Box

In the left forefront of the above photo, taken in the early 1980’s, is what I anointed, “The Shrug Box.” The photo was taken in the early version of our home/office rehabilitation and training facility in Valley Stream, N.Y. I was seeking an efficient way to perform the shrug exercise for both rehabilitative and training purposes. I wanted my wife to have the ability to change weights quickly and easily, and a safe piece of equipment that would carry the heaviest of loads for our athletes. In my own case, I have never had grip limitations and could in fact shrug very heavy weights, with the qualifying statement that I could in fact shrug very heavy weights if my low back was not forced into flexion due to both the load and the friction caused by contact of the barbell with the thighs. Al Gerard’s Original Trap Bar, also new to the lifting scene at the time and still available from John Wood, gave me the idea of a parallel grip that would alleviate the problem of the barbell rubbing on the thighs when heavy weights were employed. I did not want to tie up a power rack or safety stand as I believed we needed to have a piece of equipment dedicated exclusively to the shrug due to its importance in training the trapezii muscles and neck region. I welded what could be considered a prototype piece out of scrap pieces of pipe in my brother’s iron shop and it worked well. The handles were at a height that obviated the need to literally deadlift a heavy load from the floor in order to do shrugs; the loading sleeves were elevated from the floor so that one could quickly and easily change plates; the handles were set so that the slight imbalance front-to-back when gripping and holding the resistance was eliminated. As a bonus, and relative to the space we occupied, the piece was compact yet strong enough to hold as much weight as one could possibly need for shrugs. I made a more finished product,, still using pipe, and then fabricated a half dozen of them. These were given as gifts to friends in the business, including those that went into the strength training facilities of the Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals. I would never claim to have “invented” a piece of training equipment though I have been fortunate enough to have had input into some unique and what were at the time, new and innovative pieces that are considered to be standard training equipment and present in almost every gym or weight room, but I had never seen anything resembling the Shrug Box to the point in time I made my first one. Now of course, there are many models available with those manufactured by Stephen DeWitt of Strength Equipment and Elite FTS among the best. Elite’s is adjustable for height and has the option of various thicknesses in handle diameter. The Shrug Box was one of the successful pieces of training equipment I thought about and eventually brought to fruition and one that proved to be very useful in both its original form and in subsequent commercial models in our facilities. The prototyping and fabricating process for most training equipment follows the same clear cut path; thought, design, fabrication of a prototype, “tweaking,” and an eventual production model.