History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 65

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

Talking Diversity in Lifting Ability Part 2.


Not everyone believes that watching a lifting contest is “a good thing.” I directed my first powerlifting meet in the late-1970’s and it was “de facto direction” if it was anything. My friends and training partners, highly thought of powerlifters on the verge of national recognition, decided to host a powerlifting meet which would be well attended due to the popularity of the sport in the St. Louis area. Because everyone planned to lift in the contest, their focus naturally remained on their training and the highlight of the competition for me, was being attired in a non-supportive wrestling singlet, buried beneath the announcing and scorer’s table, hooking up loud speakers, when my name was called for my first squat. Obviously there would be no time to change into the new-fangled, newly introduced supportive lifting suits, the ones that resembled skin tight burlap bags, and no time to actually warm up. I passed on my first attempt so that I could take rapid, non-stop warm-ups with 135 and 225, and ran out for my first attempt of the competition. There was no strong prediction that I would have placed any higher than fourth in a very good field of six or seven as I recall the competition, but it was a poor way to begin one’s competitive day and a lesson that one should either direct a contest or lift in a contest but probably not try to do both. When Mike Wittmer and I were asked to take over the Missouri State Olympic Weightlifting Championships, it was the first opportunity I had to design a meet tee shirt, not yet a commonly seen item.

It turned out to be a popular and attractive model that displayed the state outline and all of the appropriate verbiage to demonstrate to onlookers that “I lifted weights.” Because St. Louis was in fact a rabid lifting area, there were meets within driving distance almost weekly between powerlifting and Olympic lifting and our group competed in them, assisted as spotters and loaders, or observed on a regular basis. When Kathy and I owned the Iron Island Gym, we held five meets annually; the New York State Powerlifting Championships, a deadlift only championship, two bench press contests, and what we termed a limited, “invitational meet” that insured that all of our gym lifters had the opportunity to go head-to-head against others of similar ability from out of state. For four or five of our seven years of gym ownership, we volunteered to host the New York Empire State Olympic Weightlifting Qualifying Contest for the area lifters. Stan Bailey, a very highly ranked lifter from the 1960’s, was the coach of the Empire State Team and was meet director but we would supply spotters, loaders, the warm-up and competition facility, and I would spend the day announcing, loading, and doing whatever it took to provide them with a successful venue.


One of the truisms I learned, was that for a lifting fan, there are few things as exciting or wonderful as watching “good” Olympic weightlifting and few things as horrible from a spectator’s perspective, as watching poor lifting. There is no doubt that Olympic lifters and fans will immediately state that “nothing is worse than watching powerlifting” with emphasis on the word “boring!” It obviously depends upon one’s perspective, lifting background, and interest but there is no doubt in my mind that the personalities attracted to each segment of the iron game sports are very different. These differences are often on display during the actual lifting competitions. As usual, allow me to make reference to “the old days” of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, or at least what I experienced. Once powerlifting was established as an official sport, many of the powerlifters were Olympic lifters. Many of the Olympic lifters were powerlifters. “Everyone” who trained did so to become bigger and stronger, not “cut,” “ripped,” or “to have abs” so that they were deemed to be “hotter” than some other guy. I believe any conversation that made reference to a male that was “hot” would have made most of the gym attendees of that era cringe. Our commercial gym ownership that spanned from our first construction day of November 1, 1991, through our official opening on February 3, 1992 to our sale date of October 26, 1998 forced us to understand that the driving force behind most gym memberships was in fact, a desire for both men and women to be seen as “hot” by the same and opposite sexes. “Getting bigger and stronger” lagged far behind “gotta have abs and pecs” and “I only want to train chest and arms” on the popularity scale. The previous generations of lifters were in it for a very different goal: pack on as much muscle as possible with most men cognizant that they wanted to be lean enough to at least demonstrate through their appearance that they had in fact trained to become stronger and weren’t just circus fat men.


Bantamweight Olympic weightlifter Charles Vinci, the last American to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games in the sport, obviously knew his way around a barbell curl and chin up bar. Vinci was cited by York Barbell Company owner and Olympic weightlifting team “owner” Bob Hoffman as an example of a lifter who had “too much” muscle. AT 4’11-3/4” Vinci was as packed with functional muscle as he could be but Hoffman would chide him about doing curls and bench presses, noting that “for every ounce of muscle in his biceps, he could have trained to put it into his hips or back to lift more weight.” As multiple time national and world champion, its debatable if Vinci could have lifted much better than he did.

The Cleveland, Ohio ironworker was one of the “old school” examples of men who did a variety of lifting and training movements yet were proficient at the Iron Game specialty they placed their focus on. As a deeply religious man Vinci often attributed his success to “the will of God,” but all of his training partners noted his willingness to train day or night, and a contagious level of enthusiasm and dedication. Vinci was a true champion!


Even hard core bodybuilders were focused upon packing on as much muscle and as being as muscular as possible, in every area of their body, not targeting “pecs, biceps, and abs only” which seems to be the obsession of every twenty-something year old male. What was also obvious was the goal of most bodybuilders, even competitive bodybuilders, to be strong or considered as “strong” relative to the average man on the street. Vince Gironda was perhaps the only known physique star and gym owner who flat out stated that bodybuilding was just that, building and displaying the muscular structures of the body and the accompanying strength of those muscular structures were not only very secondary, it need not be a consideration of the serious or competitive bodybuilder. He was ridiculed or seen as a radical by his bodybuilding brethren because for anyone of that era, lifting weights implied being strong, no matter what one’s ultimate goal was.


The technical aspects of Olympic weightlifting made it beyond the consideration of many who lifted weights. Some “just knew” they would not be able to master what appeared to be intricacies involved in the clean and press, snatch, and clean and jerk. To the uninitiated, it just looked difficult. After attempting the lifts, even with excellent instruction, most were convinced it was a task that would never allow them to fulfill their barbell oriented goals. For this reason alone, those attracted to the sport were different than those attracted to the sport of powerlifting. Since I began writing for the popular muscle related press in the late 1960’s, I have noted the technical proficiency needed to be an accomplished powerlifter and the very technical aspects of each individual lift. While my competitive days are long behind me, I am still at heart “a powerlifter” before I am anything else related to a barbell but I would never try to convince myself that the technical aspects of powerlifting and the technique needed to fulfill one’s potential on the platform, compare to that necessary for successful Olympic lifting.