History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 70

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

 What Don’t You Get?


Though it may shock some, I have a loyal group of readers who eagerly await the publication of TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEMS monthly column, or “blog,” still a rather foreign word to me, that has been an attempt to bring perspective to the iron game sports in general and powerlifting specifically. I am very much interested in the evolution, development, and construction of equipment so there has been an obvious emphasis upon that aspect of the history. However, in the past number of months, the effort, subtle as it may have been to some, has been to point to the demarcation of the three primary branches of the Iron Sports and more or less make the point, “This isn’t really a good thing.” My earlier articles for this series, written what is now almost six years ago, stressed that if one trained with weights and trained both hard and consistently, they most often were much stronger than the average man and looked much better physically than the average man. In truth, when one trained hard and consistently, they looked quite a bit larger muscularly and were in fact a heck of a lot stronger than the average man. 

The exercises performed in a “typical” program, no matter what one’s preference was relative to bodybuilding, powerlifting, or Olympic lifting, engaged all of the major muscular structures and thus produced big, strong guys. It really was that simple. The complaint or snidely delivered commentary from powerlifters and Olympic lifters about bodybuilders or at least those who “specialized in bodybuilding” and had forsaken the “big exercises” that had led to their advanced development, was that “they look really good but they’re not very strong.” The comments made in return by the bodybuilding community always boiled down to “Yeah, the lifters are strong but they’re fat and you can’t even see their development.” Again, both sides missed the point that you could have the best of both worlds and many did for many decades.

Echoing this sentiment was long time competitive powerlifter Saul Shocket. A terrific lifter who is a contemporary of mine, Saul was a seven times World Champion, won the National Championship eight times, and set almost seventy records, with his first World title dating back to 1967. I noted that he was a contemporary but obviously, a much stronger and more talented lifter than I ever dreamed of being.

Saul has remained active as a lifter and coach while directing a successful training business in his native Massachusetts, and producing champions and top level athletes in every sport from hockey to both powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. In addition to echoing my comments about the graciousness and effect that Denis Reno has had on the lifting community in New England, we can include statements that note the fact that Saul and Denis have known each other for many years and that “all you said in regard to Denis is true,” Saul noted that he often called upon him to “help coach some of the Olympic lift movements to various college or pro athletes I was working with at the time” and that Denis “always accommodated my requests and would never accept money for his assistance.” Love of the Iron Game always drove Denis. Relative to the three branches of the lifting sports that we have focused upon, Saul noted the following:

“Regarding the three weight sports, I remember back in the early/mid 60′s, it’s true that a separation existed between each weight sport, but no where as defined as now. Because of that, early weight athletes were more accomplished in each others sport. For example, back in the 60′s, I was living in New Haven, Ct. I trained with Fred Jackson (Olympic lifter), John Varrone (Olympic lifter, powerlifter) Mike Katz (bodybuilder) etc. We trained at the same time, & often trained basic lifts together. I suspect bodybuilders were relatively stronger in those days.”

Of course Saul did not specifically note that the aforementioned gentlemen were of national and/or world champion caliber and he could in fact hang with them! My response reinforced the primary point of importance that the modern trainee, at least in my opinion, has continued to miss.

“Saul, we agree on everything you said. I like and would like to reinforce two things: Denis was always a very nice and first class man in my dealings with him, just a good, guy who loves lifting, always did the right thing. Also, the point you made so well, in ‘our day’ and at least still up to the late 1960′s, everyone did the basic lifts. Bodybuilders bulked up or went through phases during any year doing squats, deadlifts, cleans, press, bench press, row, became bigger and stronger, then perhaps started to cut up for contests. Powerlifters did overhead work and cleans, O lifters always looked to get pushed by others in the squat and did bench press to augment the press. Thus, while ‘we’ as lifters may not have wanted to be seen as ‘bodybuilders’ and perhaps narcissistic, for example, we all got along pretty well and often, as you so nicely wrote, trained together. You just never hear of that any longer. We fostered that at our gym but you can’t even find a platform in a hard core gym set up for bodybuilding nor any lat pulldowns for example, in the typical Olympic lifting or powerlifting garages or facilities. I appreciate your insightful input, always, thank you.”


I have, continue to, and cannot strongly emphasize this same point: the level of specialization in powerlifting attire and equipment such as the Monolift and improved barbells (and to a lesser extent in Olympic weightlifting), specialization in doing no more than those exercises one will compete in with the few additions of selected assistance movements, and the belief that this is the best way to approach the specific sport of interest among the lifting activities we have had under discussion, have led to record lifts but really, what has the true source been for those records? Is this driving force in record setting improved training methodologies, or do drugs, lifting attire, and other factors come into greater play? It is not an elderly athlete’s “bitch and moan” that things are different than they were “in our day” but rather, the very strong belief that those who so narrowly focus their training upon there area of strict specialization are in the long run, not doing as well, certainly not reaping all of the possible benefits weight and strength training have to offer, and probably not enjoying themselves immersed in this activity as we did in decades past.

Historic Supplement

Vern Weaver was the 1963 Amateur Athletic Union Mr. America and by anyone’s standards, very strong and very well developed. Though obviously “advanced” enough to win the Mr. America title, he was in more ways the usual, though “high end” product of what were then, the training procedures of the era. Typical of the day was his approach to training, one that echoes the points made in this month’s article. One of Vern’s close friends and training partners was Jan Dellinger whom I have quoted extensively throughout the TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEMS series of articles because of his insights and because relative to anything that concerns the York Barbell Company from 1976 through its sale to a “foreign entity at the end of the Twentieth Century,” he was there! Jan, in an interview previously published on Dezo Ban’s site, talked about Vern and very much reinforced the comments made this month.

Vern Weaver was the 1963 Amateur Athletic Union Mr. America

“And the high pull? It should be obvious from his philosophy of training that Vern brought a ‘lifter’s mentality’ to his bodybuilding craft. This shouldn’t be surprising for as I mentioned early on, Vern was as much of a lifter as he was a bodybuilder throughout most of his training career. In fact, he trained for both endeavors concurrently, doing one or two of the Olympic lifts first during his three weekly workouts and then finishing up with conventional bodybuilding exercises. While vastly higher standards in both areas prohibit contemporary athletes from ‘splitting their vision’ as Vern and his contemporaries did, pursuing this athletic duality was the norm back then largely because it paid dividends. Among those who practiced both it was widely held that one augmented the other. For starters, greater variety could be injected into one’s workouts. Secondly, the practice of Olympic-oriented movements seemed to add a distinctive ruggedness to the human form. Beyond that, it was expected that a muscleman’s physique would exude function as well as form. Possessing both in quality was the definition of ‘the total package.’”

Allow me to make comment on one of Jan’s specific statement:

While vastly higher standards in both areas prohibit contemporary athletes from “splitting their vision” as Vern and his contemporaries did, pursuing this athletic duality was the norm back then largely because it paid dividends.

While this point is well taken, remember please that by definition, the overwhelming majority of trainees will be “average,” “typical,” and in no way, shape, or form of championship quality or able to compete on the state, national, or international level. That said, they can and should leave the most highly specialized powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, or bodybuilding training programs to those whom through the years, have risen to that exalted level, and instead pursue the benefits that come from a more varied approach to weekly and yearly training.

Too many competitive lifters are in the game, do well, and disappear from all of its aspects not only when their competitive careers end, but they end those careers rather prematurely, perhaps when they realize that the championship they coveted is beyond their attainment. “We” used to train, compete, officiate, spot, and load at the meets we competed in and later, did the same just to help the sport. My wife and I would at times drive to meets where we had zero competitors that represented us or whom we even knew, just to assist. I would most often bring squat racks, and/or bars, and/or 100 pound or 45 kilo plates, or entire kilo sets when requested. We would officiate, spot, and/or load and yes, this included Kathy who could in fact load as well as most larger men despite being a former 105, 114, and 123 pound competitor. This was very typical of lifters of my generation. This just isn’t seen that often any longer.

More importantly, “we” would squat, bench, deadlift, press, row, clean, chin, and do a myriad of other basic, multi joint movements. We would vary the reps from singles to thirties. The end result is far different from today’s record holding lifters because the record holders of our era were often, not always but frequently enough, as was more importantly the typical trainee, better conditioned and healthier than those of today. The narrow specialization for example on the squat, bench press, and deadlift done for low reps has also removed any semblance of conditioning or a more balanced development from most competitive lifters. That so-called overall or more balanced development was often the difference between injury and injury avoidance in the gym, on the job, or on the street. Utilizing periods of the calendar year for high rep work or having phases of training dedicated to twenty rep squat programs, or even reducing lifting activities to enjoy spring or summer sports was typical and beneficial both physically and emotionally. Very few of the younger lifters understand this because they have not lived it but if one constructs an actuarial chart one hundred years from today and notes the life span, injury and surgical rate, and overall health history of the lifting public, my bet will be on us older folks who had a more “varied and inclusive” approach to the iron game.

More Next Month!