History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 60

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

Prototyping Part 7


Beginning the body of this month’s article with a reference to York Barbell Company is coincidental as I received an e mail from former and long time York Barbell employee Jan Dellinger immediately before submitting this for publication. Jan, for those who have not read previous articles in this series and/or who don’t have a foundation in the history of the Iron Game, was an important part of the company’s success and good reputation from the mid-1970’s until a change in ownership in the late 1990’s. Jan was also a strong man with a long involvement in the strength field. His comments on my previous few articles can, I believe, be instructive:

I continue to enjoy your Titan articles/installments. Great presentation as to the relevance of variable resistance in strength training, a connection some do not make because it came from the “machine culture”. Great point depicting accepted low tech forms of variable resistance, along with higher tech versions.


Let me re-emphasize the point I have made that barbells, dumbbells, machines, bags of sand, and almost anything else that can provide resistance to one’s muscles can be a viable and effective training tool. Unfortunately, too many otherwise clear thinking individuals who train with weights, decided at some point in their development that if an idea, concept, or training technique arose from anything or anyone related to the work with a weight training machine, it was wrong, ineffective, or could not be adapted to barbell training. Many have lost out because of this and the concept and application of variable resistance training was one of these concepts that Jan is referring to.


When York Barbell appeared to be lapsing momentarily into the machine age in the early-mid ’80s by teasing to handle the Schnell machines from Germany, I got a taste of the “science” side of strength training firsthand from Shnell and his designer Lothar Spitz, when they spent some time in York in 1984. We endeavored to come up with a couple of our own coined terms for the literature–like “accommodating resistance”. I think I had a part in the usage of that one. Schnell was sold on the superiority of his gear box arrangement, had bona fide data that showed the gear boxes actually provided variable resistance to those who were very short to very tall…the same stuff Nautilus said they proved. Whether accurate or not, Schnell had saturated the European market with these units in the ’70s and wanted to compete in the American market.


Schnell was a highly respected company and their Olympic barbell was always rated as one of the best in the world by the top lifters. They developed a series of variable resistance machines based upon Jan’s “gear box arrangement” term and leverage arms that were, for their time, extremely effective and innovative. Think of them as the first of the leverage equipment, with Nautilus Leverage and Hammer Strength to follow. On one of my trips to York, Kathy, Kevin, and I returned home with some of the units that we put to good use at our office facility and later, at the Iron Island Gym. Interestingly, because Schnell was so closely related to the sport of Olympic weightlifting with their superb barbells and plates, their explanation of variable resistance and the machines that offered this definite training advantage were very well accepted by European trainees. That the concept was offered even earlier by Arthur Jones and Nautilus made it unpalatable for hardcore lifters based not upon the science, but by the source of the information, again, a loss in the training results for many.


Kevin performing one-arm repetition bench pressing on the Schnell Standing Bench Press machine, a very innovative piece for the early to mid-1980’s


As to the individual leverages thing, your squat photos of Ferrara and Susco were vivid. First they are both doing a basic squat, but very different positionings due to size variations: the more compact Susco was more upright (assuming the more text book style of squat), while the taller Ferrara was closer to the text book power lifting style(a lot of forward lean out of necessity). Of course, if the latter attempted to squat in the same exact fashion as the former, he could risk falling over backward…or have to shoot his knees very much forward greatly increasing the shearing stress on his knees in order to compensate.


This of course was the point of the article. If one can make “leverage” work for them, through proper lifting technique, posture, and bar placement and also apply the same principles to their training tools with the use of correctly designed machines, and in a “lower tech” fashion, chains and bands, this becomes one more contributing factor in their training.


York Barbell had been the standard in the U.S. and truly, the world, until the mid-1960’s. The introduction of foreign Olympic barbell sets changed the thinking of many, especially as the post-World War II economies of numerous foreign nations allowed them to develop or re-establish their manufacturing abilities. Berg and Schnell of Germany, Eleiko of Sweden, and some of the Russian sets imported by California lifter Chester O. Teegarden introduced our lifters and in time, the lifting public to bars and plates that were decidedly “different” and “not from York.” A barbell that performed so that it was most importantly safe when loaded heavily, that felt controllable on one’s back with unthinkable weights on each end, and one that was durable became the quest of what seemed like numerous home based and foreign manufacturers and by the early 1980’s, one could choose among perhaps twenty different barbell brands if they wished to train seriously as a powerlifter. York too tried a few different approaches to their product line, offering bars made from a variety of compounds including stainless steel and chrome vanadium, Despite the introduction of the numerous foreign bars, almost every gym that housed serious lifting featured York barbell products. The imported sets were expensive, difficult to get, necessitated lengthy waiting periods due to transport by ship line, and required customs fees. Even those who were serious about obtaining one of the Soviet Union sets, when actually faced with the project of getting it from Point A to Point B, usually “settled” for a York Olympic barbell set.


Leo Stern owned one of the Russian Olympic barbell sets and it was used in numerous photo shoots with Bill Pearl and Pat Casey. Above, Pat is shown bench pressing the chromed set which was beautiful in appearance. The “fluted” ridges on the barbell sleeves helped to keep the plates in place and reduced rattling noise but many of the experienced Olympic lifters stated, in my presence, that the bar was “overrated” and “much stiffer” than those from other manufacturers


Of course there was a certain cachet to the knowledge that one owned a foreign weightlifting barbell. Most of the Olympic lifters of the day for example, complained loudly, if privately, that the Russian bar was extremely stiff in its movement, thus it looked great, but may not have been the “best” barbell to train or compete with. “It came from the Soviet Union” perhaps allowed one to at least imply that if the best Olympic lifters in the world used it, having one would soon find them in the same performance stratosphere. When the Miyake brothers were doing well, a lot of lifters began hunting for information related to Japanese sets, despite the fact, and long ago before the age of so much electronic and technological instrumentation it was a fact that the statement, “Made in Japan” was an insult, not a positive comment about any manufactured product. By the early 1980’s, York, Ivanko, Superior, Marcy, Paramount, and Hastings were all manufactured within the borders of the United States, had name recognition and supporters, yet were still augmented by small shops or foundries in Topeka, Kansas, northern Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and Massachusetts who sold or distributed their own bars under a variety of names. What we did not have “a lot of” was the manufacturing of bumper plates.


It might come as a shock to many lifters, especially Olympic weightlifters and even for those who have seen photos from the 1950’s and ‘60’s of the York Barbell Club lifters in action, that rubber covered or all rubber plates were a new innovation in the early 1970’s.