History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 6

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on June 14, 2014 Comments off

An Introduction to Equipment.

During the first few years of my training, I had little awareness of the specific qualities that made equipment “good” or “bad.” My guideline was whatever I saw within the pages of Strength And Health, Muscle Power, Mr. America (and Young Mr. America), and by 1964, Iron Man Magazines. Without knowing it, I had very serviceable equipment to train with, and it allowed me to learn and perform the basic result producing exercises. Of the fellows I knew that began weight training, nearly one-hundred percent had a basic 110-pound barbell and dumbbell set. Some used a picnic bench to perform the exercises that were illustrated in the magazines and one or two had a commercial quality bench. I was fortunate because from the beginning, I was moved to provide a means that would allow me to squat and also do presses without having to clean the bar first. My equipment, though homemade and crude, was if nothing else, overbuilt and solid enough to last for decades. Today, in 2008, one of the power racks I built in my father’s shop is still in use at my former high school. A surprise “find” was my original pair of iron horses that had been modified so that I could squat and do so with a “safety catch” if I could no longer rise with the weight which was my usual practice, press, or bench press. My brother was cleaning out a storage area of his structural steel and ornamental iron shop just a few years ago and there they were, no worse for wearthan they were when my father and I had first welded them in the early 1960’s.

In my rudimentary home gym that was constantly moved between basement and garage dependent upon the whims and needs of my father and his dictates, I had a sturdy truck axle, a selection of flywheels and gears that came from a score of abandoned vehicles, some Nassau County Department Of Public Works sewer covers, pails of concrete and sand that served as dumbbells, and as the son of an ironworker, a welded angle-iron bench with an unpadded wooden top. The modified pair of saw horses that allowed for the completion of my squats, presses, and bench presses made me feel as if I was blessed with a truly complete “professional gym.” With an overhead pipe for chins and space to do dips between the washer and dryer, I could and did stick to squats, deadlifts, rows, shrugs, presses, bench presses, dips, chins, an occasional curl, and infrequent forays into what to me was the bodybuilding world of lateral raises, flyes, and front raises. From the age of twelve until I was approximately sixteen, I will admit that I did not put the appropriate effort into the “really hard” movements like the squat or deadlift but I didn’t ignore them either and if nothing else, I fully and admittedly satisfied the descriptions of my coaches who referred to me as obsessed with training. My obsession guaranteed that I was consistent and never, and I mean never, missed a scheduled workout. Best of all, the training actually worked.

The weights delivered on their promise which was a tremendous revelation to a young teenager. My father often told me “Life isn’t fair, don’t expect it to be fair, assume you’ll be fucked over, no one is giving you anything.” He was right but hook, line, and sinker I swallowed the hyperbole that if one put the consistent effort into lifting weights the pieces of iron would in fact bring life-altering changes. I learned that “training is fair; if you do what you’re supposed to, the weights will deliver their end of the bargain” and in what we viewed as a dog-eat-dog way of life, this was perhaps the most major development after the harrowing discovery that there really wasn’t a Santa Claus! To those who knew me, the results were obvious. I was short, lean, but one of those youngsters that the older guys referred to as “a piece of wire,” and “strong for his size.” Unfortunately, this was indicative that if I lacked anything, it was size! It mattered little to me as I knew I could in time, make up for that.

History Supplement: Mike Bridges

My neighbor, classmate, and training partner during the time I attended Logan College Of Chiropractic in the late 1970’s was Mike Wittmer. Mike was a very accomplished Olympic weightlifter whose son Jeff has been one of America’s top lifters for a number of years. Mike had played high school football in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois and developed his interest in weight training as an extension of that involvement. At Rosa’s Gym, he came under the tutelage of Olympic lifters and chose that for his primary focus, competing well for quite a few years.

One of the youngsters who trained at Rosa’s showed potential for developing a great deal of strength and Mike told me about up-and-coming powerlifter Mike Bridges. Because I had heard a less-than-flattering reference about a very young Mike Bridges and I had made mention of it in one of my monthly columns in Powerlifting USA Magazine, I was told that I was “on the list” of some of Mike’s staunch followers and Rosa’s Gym members. My first personal observation of Mike was at the Heart Of America Powerlifting Contest, an annual event hosted by St. Louis gym owner and bodybuilder George Turner. The meet always attracted the very best lifters in the country and 1978’s version was no exception. Bridges was one of many record holders or top level men that included Marvin Phillips, Bill Kazmaier, Charlie Perkins, and local Jay Rosciglione. I was impressed with Mike’s world class lifting and poise as was the entire audience but I was particularly impressed with his toughness. On a record squat attempt, Mike fought the lift, diarrhea running down his thighs, until the squat was successfully completed. He took it all in stride, smiling and waving to the cheering audience. This prompted Turner to jump onto the stage and yell out, “That was the greatest effort I’ve ever seen. Mike Bridges can shit all over my platform any time he tries a World Record!”

Shortly thereafter, Mike and I met, talked, resolved any differences between us, and became good friends. He moved first to the Dayton, Ohio area to train and compete with Larry Pacifico’s crew, then to Alabama as part of the Terry Todd “research group” of lifters that trained with Kaz at Auburn University. Mike returned to Peoria and trained with his brother Bob who was one of the world’s best deadlifters. For years Mike was the dominant performer on the national and international scenes and it was almost a “given” that he would win any meet he entered. Forget being the best lifter “pound-for-pound” because in his heyday and across three or four weight classes, Mike Bridges was truly the world’s greatest lifter. Despite the fact that many claimed to “advise Mike” or “train Bridges,” he was one of the rare instinctive athletes who needed little input from anyone. I was fortunate to handle Mike at national and world competitions, making sure his warm-ups were timed properly, the projected lifts from his warm-ups were properly chosen, and his focus was optimal. This was a duty I performed for the men and women I trained, trained with, wrote programs for, or would take on just for the major meets in any year. Of all of them, no one demonstrated the relaxed and confident air that Mike had. He was never hurried, always smiling, and not for a moment had a doubt that he would fall short of his expected goals of winning and/or setting records. When he was injured, I was flattered that he would ask for rehabilitation advice but the simplicity of Mike’s approach to training, his knowledge of his body and its needs, and the absolute confidence he had in his abilities set him apart and made any solicited or unsolicited advice from anyone totally unnecessary. To this day, Mike is competing. Despite having a full plate of family responsibilities and the job of managing and maintaining his custom home building business, Mike decided to return to competition and of course, did so in 2008 while setting numerous records. Though his older records have been broken, Mike was truly a legendary lifter and shattered barriers that others did not approach until years afterward. Lifters and devotees of the sport can argue long and loudly about “Who is the best lifter” and certainly other legends like Kaz and Ed Coan as the most obvious examples have their supporters but hands-down and with no disrespect to the aforementioned greats, Mike Bridges for the lifts he made, the manner in which he approached his lifting and competitions, for his longevity, and for the attention he brought to the sport as a gracious and most sportsmanlike winner, remains my choice.

Of course, no Mike Bridges piece would be complete without a bit of discussion about the “incident” that occurred at the 1982 World Powerlifting Championship in Munich, Germany. Mike and I still laugh and place the blame upon Jay Rosciglione but for those who don’t know the story… The “little guys” completed their lifting during the first two days of the championships, held at the site of the 1972 Olympic Games. Lamar Gant, the great 132-pound multi-time world champion, was known to have a good time socially, whenever and wherever he competed and Munich was no exception. He came to Mike, Jay, and me and invited us to “a really hot club” and though Mike and Lamar were the only single gentlemen in the group, Jay’s wife thought we should all go out and enjoy ourselves. Joined by Rickey Crain and his beautiful wife Kim, we walked into a subterranean club behind Lamar, through a thick curtain of tobacco and perhaps a significant amount of marijuana smoke. As a native New Yorker, it took me less than five seconds to size up our situation, one that I realized could become precarious. The “hot and swinging club” was a hangout for U.S. servicemen, all of them African-American. The only Caucasians in the club were German prostitutes, obvious to me at least, their pimps, and a few local drug dealers that were camped at the back of the immense bar. For those who saw the movie “Animal House,” our entrance rivaled the scene where the white frat boys entered the obviously tough and all Black bar, shouting out “Otis, my man!” as a deafening silence fell on the establishment. Things lightened up a bit as Lamar spread the word that “the guys are part of the US team” and quite a few of the soldiers and Air Force personnel made it a point to come over, offer to buy drinks, and thanked us for our participation in representing the United States as we in turn thanked them for their service to our country. Mike, in part because he was from Peoria, did not quite understand that the pay-for-play ladies at the bar were not going to dance with him because he was good-looking, powerful, and full of personality but he tried and for his persistence, earned the ire of one of the pimps with whom I had a pointed and semi-physical conversation as Mike instead engaged Jay’s wife on the dance floor. After a while, we decided to leave though Lamar was intent on staying through the night, and found our way blocked at the stairway to the exit door by a large group of German wannabe tough guys. It may or may not be true that Jay used profane language and perhaps one of us may or may not have snatched one of a dozen German loudmouths who were pointedly telling us how much they hated the United States and watched him and the crutches he was supporting himself on tumble down the stairs. Once on the street, we of course, were guilty as charged when the growing group of bullies continued to orally excoriate the U.S. of A but only because Jay decided he had listened to enough. I can recall Jay muttering, “I’ve had it with this shit” and as jacket collars and throats were grabbed, the funniest line came from one of the recalcitrant Germans who realized that his group had started with the wrong crew of Americans and were seriously overmatched. He gagged out, “No, no, I love America, I love Willie Mays!” Say what? We were angry but even with the violence beginning to take off, looked at each other and began to crack up laughing because we had obviously defused this group of punks. As Jay and his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Crain got into a waiting cab, we were informed that “in this zone, only four to a taxi” so Mike and I decided to walk the two or three miles back to the hotel. When we entered the lobby, we found Jay waiting for us, wanting to insure that we were safe. Was there blood on Mike’s jacket? Yes, I believe blood was in fact present on both of us. Did the blood come from the previous altercation or one in which, as stories circulated through the lifting hall the next day, from the beat down Mike and I delivered to an ever growing horde of foreign bad guys? Was it six guys or fifteen who had followed us and tried an ambush a few blocks from the club? Did we breeze home unharmed, or had we shot our adrenaline in a classic movie-style dustup trying to get out of the area and to the safety of our hotel unmarked? Was it true that Mike, known as a gentle soul, might have personally decked a half dozen antagonists? As perfect representatives of the United States, it will remain a matter of speculation and a source of riotous laughter for those of us who were present but the answer certainly remains that the 1982 World Championship was one more that Mike won handily.

 At Tony Pandolfo’s storefront, it was only with a retrospective of a number of years that I realized that despite the “homemade” quality and appearance of much of the equipment, it was not only useable, it was excellent. Because Tony set the pace as one of New York City’s best physiques, a fact that was somewhat hidden for years because he did not place high in a number of his earlier contests nor win a Mr. America level contest until the mid-1970’s, the equipment he needed to use had to be heavy duty. We had legitimate, drug free trainees who frequently topped 400, 450, 500, and 550 in a number of exercises and those who did twenty rep squat sets with 400 pounds more than once per week during specific periods of their training. The squat racks, and that was “racks” plural as in more than one because the squat was such an important exercise to every trainee who walked through the door, the benches which included flat, incline, and decline varieties, and the pulleys that were mounted into the ceiling and walls and ran with uncoated steel cables over steel pulleys with free-swinging weight baskets, served their purpose. These were instruments of stimulation, allowing for increases in both strength and muscle tissue. In that era, men came to barbell training to get muscularly stronger and larger. No one’s stated goal was “six-pack abs” or a “peaked biceps.” One may have aspired to bodybuilding greatness and Tony’s certainly had a number of world class bodybuilders on the floor as regulars, complete with those peaked biceps, but they too were there to get as absolutely huge and strong as possible with the additional feature of also being “cut to ribbons.”
The Hollywoodesque, pretty-boy, Stallone-like ideal had not yet been born and even those who believed that it was “just fine” to fully develop the upper body without sufficient attention to the lower extremities maintained a goal of striving for an upper body of tremendous, other worldly proportions. “Getting bigger” and “getting stronger” were the names of the game. Because everyone trained on the basic multi-joint exercises, anyone who was consistent in their training was relatively strong if they hung in there long enough. When one was deemed “strong enough” he was encouraged to accept a gym challenge to achieve a certain weight in a specific exercise or enter what we called, Odd Lift Contests. When Tony approached me as one of a group of our gym members, to join him as representatives of Bodybuilding Incorporated, the rather high-sounding moniker for our Spartan surroundings, I was flattered, thrilled, and a bit frightened. I did the bulk of my training at home and only occasionally or for sporadic short periods trained at the storefront although I too was afforded my very own key so that I could use the gym as my schedule allowed. When home from college for the summers, my training partner Jack and I found that we could receive additional emotional stimulation from having bigger and stronger men training around us and there was always some advice that made us more efficient, especially if Tony was giving that advice. With the prospect of an Odd Lift Contest, the only thought I had was “Wow.”