History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 72

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



I believe my point has been made definitively that a broader view of training, one that includes an awareness of health, longevity, and being strong and healthy for one’s lifetime should be within the consciousness of every competitive and non-competitive lifter and trainee. If one has to have a hobby and it is sports or activity related, utilizing weights, heavy weights in fact, ranks towards the top of “things to do” as the benefits can be so incredibly positive. A recent e mail correspondence with long time great and champion Saul Shocket sums up and emphasizes what I believe are the forgotten aspects and benefits of weight training and powerlifting. To our younger readers, this may seem like too old guys bitching and moaning about the “old days versus the current state of affairs” but there is much to be considered. A brief, enjoyable youtube piece on Saul can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wt3qP4pdMRs

SAUL: Hi Ken, good article, and platform for much discussion.


As always, good to hear from you. We no doubt date ourselves with the comments we both have made, and you and I as usual agree. If you observe the lengthy careers and what seemed like more enjoyment that guys from our era received from their training and competing, relative to many if not most of the modern guys (and women, although there were almost none in “our day”) one would have to give credence to their entire approach to the sport or activity. Even if the lifting defined us in many ways, most of us and I will admit that the smaller number of us involved contributed to this, lasted longer, seemed to be more involved in spotting, judging, loading, and helping, and just being part of the sport. I can recall some of the best lifters both locally and nationally, serving as loaders and spotters for example, at small, local YMCA or high school venue contests. Part of it was that we all knew each other or of each other and part was that we were willing to give in whatever ways possible to allow the sport and new lifters to thrive. Geez, you just don’t see or hear of much of that anymore and I can go back to our many meets at Iron Island Gym in the 1990’s, not too long ago on the continuum we are referring to, and the better lifters in the area wouldn’t think of helping like that. To me, this is all part of the same observation; the participation in whatever way possible in powerlifting was an extension and part of what and whom we were, not just what we did, it was important, and we treated it that way among the other things we did. You were an accomplished, professional musician. While a teacher and coach, I was also an accomplished and professional provider of security at the major rock and roll venues throughout the east coast and at times in California. I treated it as the profession it was and is. We took everything we did seriously, “professionally” so to speak, but enjoyed it, with lifting at the top of the list. We encouraged others, we enjoyed the company of the guys who did what we did. Again, it was more cult-like and there were fewer of us but the modern competitor seems to be focused only upon their totals, what sponsors they can attract, finding ways to benefit from the sport and while we did not have commercial opportunities, we tried to find ways to benefit the sport! In many ways, our training reflected that.


California’s Bob Packer, shown in this home gym photo from 2009, has been a competitor, meet director, contest announcer, loader, spotter, and “roustabout” since his start in powerlifting which dates to the 1960s. Bob, a member of the California Powerlifting Hall Of Fame, demonstrated the same dedication to the sport that was more typical than not, of the lifters from a previous era. Bob of course, went above and beyond with his involvement that extended to the national level and the very famous Iron Man Contest that combined lifting and bodybuilding


SAUL: When we started training at the YMCA or similar venues, the carry-over from years past was still in effect. Hand balancing, fighting sports, and a wide variety of “odd lifts” were commonly practiced in YMCA gyms across the country. For example, I came from high school hockey, to track, to boxing, to bodybuilding, to powerlifting. I suspect the varied athletic backgrounds of many earlier weight men better prepped us for the raw style of lifting. It’s easy to see how today’s extreme supportive gear has helped to create a very different style and training concept. I’m not saying that old school training would better suit today’s super equipped lifters, but as you said, the balanced and varied type of training that we grew up on, most likely produces psychologically and physically healthier athletes. Btw, the reason I included the psychological aspect, is because I know all too well how the OCD nature of many elite pl’ers, without a balance of creative, intellectual, and personal relationships, can easily get into trouble.


Let’s face it, and I have been the first to admit that I am “guilty as charged,” most lifters who stay with it for a long time and/or who become “good” at powerlifting, and/or who actually enjoy it display a grouping of behaviors or character traits that definitely fall into the “obsessive” and/or “compulsive” categories. I would add that in my opinion of more than fifty-five years of involvement in the lifting activities, the attraction for many is that the training is repetitive, controlled, known, planned, can be focused upon (should I add “obsessively”?) so that those who meet the criteria for the constellation of signs and symptoms referred to as OCD find it a “comfortable” and attractive activity. I have always told trainees that “if you’re compulsive or obsessed by some things and this is part of your broader personality, there’s nothing wrong with that, you can make it work for you instead of against you.” For example and an easily understood example, one can be non-productive and wash their hands thirty or forty times per day or instead use these aspects of their personality and be extremely organized, hard and long working in order to complete tasks within a “self-declared” time limit, and insure that everything is done correctly and precisely. You can apply the latter aspects of the statement to anything and see where success would follow but for a lifter, one would study, plan, write down, and perform their training program with the best of technique, not cut corners, demonstrate absolute consistency, and always know “where they were” relative to their physical and psychological conditions. This is what makes for success in athletics. Many attracted to the lifting sports have the psychological make-up or personality traits anyway so why not apply them positively?


SAUL: The rep scheme variety you describe is a healthy addition to most programs. I have discovered that if I cycle the light weight/high rep training for more than 5 weeks, I start to lose both power and strength. Most likely each of us has a time frame that high reps is most effective.
The ART of weight/rep/set cycling is very interesting, and complicated by the almost infinite number of variables presenting each cycle. There is a way, I believe, to gain more control over peaking, and accurately predicting a max weight without getting close to it in training. It’s called the POUNDS PER REP (PPR) system, which is established by the lifter. This is something that has worked for me, and many others I’ve trained through the years.


The variety of exercises, sets, reps, and related but “other” physical activities and sports we engaged in at least from my perspective, helped, and did not hinder one’s lifting progress. Now, show me a competitive powerlifter that does more than compete as a powerlifter. Admittedly, financial and commercial opportunities, as limited as they might be, still exist, even if it’s only to be provided with nutritional supplements each month but it is money we had to scrounge for to pay for our vitamins, minerals, liver tablets, non-fat milk powder, and cans of milk and egg protein powder. Your observation is accurate that the YMCA’s which of course were often the only places that offered weight training of any type in a typical village, town, or even moderate to large sized city, also offered basketball, boxing, wrestling, and an indoor track (man, I have nightmares about running the steeply banked indoor track at the Huntington Avenue Y in Boston when I would visit there, where it seemed as if you had to traverse seventy laps to the mile!), and judo for example. Even after a brutally hard and exhausting squat or deadlift session, I would head to the heavy bag and work it for twenty to thirty minutes. Others would play basketball or swim “to get conditioning work in.” Again, you just don’t see this and it was this ongoing exposure to a variety of activity that helped to reduce or eliminate lifting injuries.


The author’s former training partner Lyle Alzado who enjoyed a pro football career that spanned 1971 through 1985 was a former Golden Gloves boxer who regularly worked the heavy and speed bags to augment his primary sporting activity of football. This was a standard approach for the era though working to the point one could enter the ring with Muhammad Ali, even for an “exhibition fight,” was never “standard.”

SAUL: Its fun to research and intellectualize our sport, but fact is, there are no guarantees. At best, we can control some variables to some extent, but bottom line is we’re all dealing with the unknown…kind of a microcosm of life.



SAUL: Ken;

Hey man, I was running on that same banked Huntington Ave track (1971?). I remember getting dizzy before my multi lap mile was complete, then changing direction, but in doing so, risking a head on collision with someone running the other way.

I would never consider myself to be anything less than a run of the mill competitive lifter. In trying to come to an accurate number of meets I had competed in, Kathy and I sat with pencil and paper, and with input from Mike Lambert whom even the most uninitiated of lifters should know was the founder, owner, publisher, editor, and writer for POWERLIFTING USA MAGAZINE through the four decades or so it spanned, we came up with about 100 contests. Mike recalled meeting me at a contest I did not even recall lifting in. We included the Odd Lift Contests that preceded the birth and evolution of actual powerlifting meets and the Olympic weightlifting meets I attempted (that might be the most considerate word I can choose for my efforts) at the 14th Street YMCA, Harlem YMCA, and the McBurney YMCA in New York City, and the two or three in St. Louis. As my series of articles has pointed out a number of times, those who have been raised in the computer and/or internet age don’t understand that there were no magazines other than Strength And Health and Peary Rader’s Weightlifters Journal that kept track of the major meets and once powerlifting really got rolling in the late 1960’s, there would be some in Muscular Development Magazine. Results were not published or even known about unless the meet director sent the score sheet to the national governing body’s office, and most local meets remained just that, local and known only to the participants unless someone set a record or a famous lifter attended. Thus you can say I was “active” but not very good, and the record keeping was not particularly accurate. Mike told me that I had been credited with a 468 bench press. As I had competed in what was still the “pound” and not kilo age, I told him “no way” especially since my best bench had been 455 as I recalled but in his copious records, he had an unusual and not a “round number” like 465 and as you know, only record attempts that were actually weighed at the completion of the lift would be credited as more than face value. Your many accomplishments are a matter of record as a top rated powerlifter, one that performed at the highest level for many years. Thus we are relating the perspectives of a champion lifter (you) and a typical average lifter (me). I believe that most of those lifters that came after the early 1980’s would read about you and I running at the Huntington Y after a workout and note that while we’re laughing about how terrible and relatively dangerous the track could be, they would think, “These guys are lifters, why are they running?” Low level lifters such as myself, or a record setter like you, we ran or did other “athletic activities.” Again, we go back to having an awareness of maintaining one’s health and “all around development” by including other “movement activities.” Even now, with all of the advertising featuring more well conditioned, muscular, “in shape” models on television and print ads and all of the diet-awareness out there, it should be understandable that we had our training set up to do “other things too” yet the modern lifters lift and usually do not do anything else of a physical nature.

Paul Wiggin of the Cleveland Browns and Floyd Peters of the Philadelphia Eagles were early proponents of strength training for football players. They augmented their lifting with running and athletic activities that were YMCA standards for the 1930s through 1960s, handball (as above), boxing, and basketball

SAUL: The Boston Union, down the street, was the training place for Nate Harris & Peter French, two guys who exemplified the diverse sports interests of the earlier day elite lifters we refer to.

These were guys who looked it too, being both strong and well built.

SAUL: Btw, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being fairly compensated for an honest days work, whether pl related, or anything else. The problem arises, when one “sells their soul” in order to exploit what once might have been a passion. This can be a fine line, and I’ve seen it crossed many times in both the strength sports, and the music business. I’m afraid this is a very human quality, and for the sake of benefiting our sport, regular objective self motive checks are probably in order.

I have no problem with being “good enough” to attract a sponsor. Competing is expensive, like anything else that’s done the right way. One needs the correct training equipment in a commercial facility that requires a membership fee or at home which requires the purchase of equipment. You need the attire and wraps which can be extensive and as it has always been, there is time off from work and travel expenses to actually go to a meet venue and compete. I also don’t think you see, as we always did in the “old days,” guys who competed against each other in the same class and from different cities for example, agreeing to share a hotel room the night before the meet because the room was otherwise not affordable. You don’t see guys sleeping in their cars or pick up trucks the morning of a meet, in the venue parking lot, having arrived hours before, because they could not afford to either be off from work the day or evening previous to the contest, or afford the room. Everyone is entitled to benefit if they have earned it but now with expanded opportunities for some compensation, many lift not out of a love for it, but to gratify their ego, leaving in a few years if not attaining a championship, or cashing in. Of course, though I could be incorrect, I don’t think there is enough money in powerlifting to actually make a living at it as some bodybuilders and strongman competitors do.

SAUL: Finally, in regard to the toughness of our earlier strength athletes, I believe critters were tougher then also. I remember seeing a roach (cockroach that is) passing by the dip bars in the basement weight room of the same Huntington Ave Y. This fellow was almost the size of a mouse. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do love and respect living things (except ticks, deer fly’s, and mosquitoes), I really do, but we couldn’t have those suckers running around in the midst of grinding out a heavy squat. We dropped a 105 lb cannon ball DB on the roach, but after removing the weight and expecting to see a squished giant roach, it picked itself up and staggered away. We let it go. At that point it was a matter of respect for the roach’s toughness/durability, and the fact I didn’t want those same qualities turned on me by the critter’s pissed-off family.

Ha! Please, don’t get me started on the sense of entitlement, how easily discouraged, and the other psychological and sociological traits of the current generation. I will sound like my father complaining about me and my generation, but in truth, the generation(s) of lifters that came before me, were a lot tougher than my generation and it has gone downhill since!

SAUL: Regarding your reference to contemporary lifters of all levels, & their apparent disinterest in health & fitness…
There is no publication, nor has there been for many years, called STRENGTH & HEALTH. Though Hoffman’s later years raised some disturbing questions, his well known commitment to Olympic lifting, and his excellent STRENGTH & HEALTH publication presented a good representation of both strength & numerous health tips. Seems that the younger lifters of today have forgotten about that aspect. Of course, those of us more senior types have an increased sense of mortality.

which one could say explains our interest in the “health” aspect of “strength and health” but in truth, this is a carryover of a perspective that so many, not all, but more than less in my experience, had during our most active and successful days of powerlifting.

SAUL: The beauty of weight training is the adaptability to whatever life phase or life demands that you experience, your old buddy steel can accommodate.

That’s another lost aspect of training too. The current or younger generation(s) know they can utilize weights to become stronger, larger, look “better” or get close to whatever their personal ideal happens to be BUT they don’t know that the weights can also serve as their exclusive source of “fitness/cardio” exercise. Before the introduction, awareness of, or knowledge of possible benefits that can come from steppers, ellipticals, and other “cardio machines” it was either run for the utmost levels of fitness or lift utilizing a more varied repetition, set, volume, frequency, and/or pace of weight training to “get in shape” and we did. Arthur Jones used to fly in the face of what eventually came to be standard thinking in the training community and stated that one did not have to demarcate strength and muscle building from the type of work that “got one into shape.” I believe there are biochemical responses that come with steady state work so like to include some but Arthur’s emphasis was training with minimal rest while utilizing an incredibly high level of intensity throughout the course of an entire workout. I can say that absolutely, those of us that were part of the “experimental work” at Nautilus in the early 1970’s did in fact become incredibly fit and enduring while doing nothing but resistance training at that highly intense requirement. I have utilized high repetition squats, deadlifts, and other multi-joint movements to achieve the same high level of cardio-respiratory and local muscular endurance as one might build with an extensive running and “movement” type of routine. Today’s trainees have made the separation and have “cardio” on one side of the fence and “strength work” on the other in their fitness arsenal. Your final sentence sums it up and using the weights we love so much, we can achieve it all in terms of a lifetime goal of muscular strength, development, and health related fitness.



I’m still partially stuck with a competitive lifters mentality, though my concepts have been somewhat moderated by time and circumstance.


I am also “guilty as charged” but if you had to build a life time lifting template, you could do worse than building around the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Basic multi-joint movements that provide work for all of the major muscular structures would not require much more for the maintenance of strength, and muscular size and strength. It would as one ages, also provide for joint stability so this isn’t a bad thing! Of course, if the competitive lifter’s mentality included pushing too hard, too long, going too heavily, that’s another issue.


At the risk of falling into trendy/buzz words (I hate the term core training!), I still find a way to incorporate periodized (I hate that term also, but it is convenient) training in my repertoire, though I haven’t competed since 2005.
Beyond OCD driven training which I’m very familiar with, using lt wt high reps, med wt moderate reps, and high wt low reps for an appropriate length of time, and place in each training cycle. Whether woodshedding my horn, or training, I still seem to need this type of structure with my stuff. The practical thing here, is a program like this can be well ballanced both in physiological and psychological intensity. Excepting some re-hab type isolation exercises, I’ve found value in basing my training around compound joint lifts ( as opposed to what most might call exercises), which are rotated as body/mind dictate. Therein lies one difference between 20 y/o Saul and the 70 y/o version.


Obviously, we all learn when we’ve done a specific activity for so long and we also get to know what we need to do at any specific time. When some of my guys/lifting partners enter their 50’s for example, and limitations caused by injury, time constraints, work, education, family responsibilities, and all of the other “stuff” life provides note or complain that they just “can’t do ‘this’ any longer,” my advice is always to focus on what can be done, not what we can no longer do. There will always be exercises that allow for beneficial response to training and thus we can always train. If its heavy or light, fast paced or slower, as you point out, you can always tailor the program to your needs.


Back then I would stay on a pre-written, somewhat complicated training plan and weight, rep, and set cycle no matter what. I’m talking life or death determination. These days, I still deeply care about training, but the programs are more basic, with few assistance exercises, and if necessary to go off schedule, or make changes in mid stream for whatever reason, I’m ok with it..mostly.
An analogy here could be music. If you walked by the rehearsal rooms at Berklee College of Music, you’d likely hear lots of kids playing lots of notes, and very quickly. How many notes can you get in a measure, seems to be the mentality. If you followed some of those kids years later, those who were able to survive the creative music biz, you might hear a totally different approach. One where the value of silence now trumped the chaos of a million scale notes. Simplicity…saying it with passion and clarity. Training with effiency, & few or no overlaps in exercises to dilute the optimal length of training duration.
Ken, what I think all this is leading to, is that as much as superficial styles seem to change, in time they will return, again and again. Human traits of a less superficial nature seem not to change at all.
I suspect that younger weight trainees will always see the short term goal as most motivating.

Which is why in this series of articles, I have made the statement numerous times that the younger generations seem to have a shorter life span as competitors and even trainees. If they do not reach the immediate goal they set before themselves, they too often do not continue in the sport.


Tony Scrivens of Wisconsin has participated successfully as a powerlifter, bodybuilder, and strongman and at every stop on the iron sports spectrum, has hosted contests and performed every job connected with those endeavors. Tony too has gone over and above in his dedication to the sport, not only directing meets, but as a top rated chef, hosting post-meet barbeques and food-fests that have made his events most memorable

Long term chronic injuries or health conditions be damned. As a coach, you can talk over and over about the long term benefits of doing it this way or that way, but it often falls on deaf though respectful ears. Some lifters, by charging into their training with reckless abandon, providing they’re durable enough to survive, can make impressive gains very quickly. With their single minded goal of bigger, stronger and/or faster being quickly realized at least to a noticeable level, any long sighted concerns are not on their radar. This comes at a later date. A myriad of chronic inflammation, joint replacement, and a host of common health conditions at some point in later years are not un- common. Can these later “frailties” be avoided? Maybe some, but probably not all. The combo of genetics and training wisdom is at play here, and I suppose you can add history of injury.
As an older athlete, longevity both in sport and in life becomes a prime motivator. Try to push that concept on a young trainee. AINT GONNA HAPPEN. Maybe this is the natural order of things. Maybe the best we can do is to diabolically integrate some of the more mature principles of training along with just enough agressive approach to continue their interest.
Finally, I like to believe that weight challenges done with common sense and evolving purpose, can stay with you for life. Saul as usual, we agree. I am as guilty as anyone who has ever picked up a barbell, in doing too much, too soon, and in some instances, running near fatal lifting related experiments on myself! I’ve tried individual lifts (who loads 600 on the bar when their best squat at the time was 550, just to “get a feel for it”?), in retrospect bizarre exercises, unsound routines, and food related concoctions that would bulldoze the gastro-intestinal system of a mature goat in an effort to become bigger and stronger. Hopefully, we learn and as hopefully, as one grows older they realize the wonderful benefits of training for a lifetime.