History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 80

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on June 17, 2015 Comments off



The guys who grew up in Long Beach, N.Y. in the 1950’s and ‘60’s had a reputation for being knuckleheads. Not all obviously, that would be an oversimplification and of course, broad-ranged stereotyping. Thus I will more accurately state that many of the guys I grew up with or hung out with in Long Beach, N.Y., fellows who grew up in the city, (and the politicians are very quick to point out that “Long Beach is only one of two actual, official cities on Long Island,” making it ripe for political shenanigans that have plagued it for decades), were knuckleheads. Although I was an athlete who was obsessed with my lifting and pursuit of football success, many in the crowd drank alcohol and most of us viewed street fights as adjunctive fitness training. My background has given me a compact grouping of reflexive responses when I am asked, “Can I speak to you for a minute?” that range from taking a step back and assuming a defensive body posture to the verbal jab of “Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.”

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Known locally for its beaches and surfing, Hurricane Sandy’s devastation placed Long Beach into the national consciousness  


When I speak with those I knew from Long Beach where we attended school and played sports together, it’s like viewing or listening to a mirror image and long-time friends like Richard Landsman and I often laugh about this phenomenon. Of course there are more well-known and actually famous individuals from Long Beach who claim all of the same stereotyped traits even though they haven’t been “home” in perhaps forty years! The one thing all of us received however was a very strong foundation in the educational fundamentals, gratis of the Long Beach Public School System, and a huge dose of common sense. Examining any field of endeavor, I am often struck by the lack of common sense displayed by so many, even those who have been successful. Extending this into the powerlifting arena, I have, since 1964, attended and competed in both Odd Lift and official Powerlifting competitions that displayed a lack of clear thought, foresight, or vision. It would be laughable if the safety of the lifter was not put at risk in so many meets. I am specifically referring to warm-up room and platform equipment and what occurred in the late 1960’s is still on display today.


I competed in the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, and Central States areas of the U.S. As a former, long-time meet director, with experience ranging from the late 1970’s through 1998, and national and world championships announcer and coach, I have witnessed contest venues both large and small in different parts of the world and in most regions of the United States. I know how difficult it can be to scrounge and gather up enough equipment to have a decent contest and make it as comfortable and safe as possible for the competitors. Like most “older citizens” I have a bias, one that I have freely and often expressed in my writing, that I have a preference for the former days of powerlifting relative to the trajectory I witnessed in the sport from the early 1990’s to today. Allow me to state as I have in the past, that powerlifting is not a mainstream sport, will never be a mainstream sport, was not meant to be a mainstream sport, and attempts to dress it up as a mainstream sport have done little but weaken its initial premise which was to place the competitors’ skills and courage on display for their families, friends, and training partners. One can “do it” in the gym or garage but few have the gumption to actually leave home base and place their abilities in public view. There is value in this relative to character development and for the boost in training the entire process demands. Preparing for a contest in almost every case enhances the level of enthusiasm of the entire group of training partners that the competitor is with. It demands extra attention to diet, planning, and all of the little things that go into taking the next step on one’s ladder of self-planned improvement. I can go to the oft-used quote of former President Theodore Roosevelt to reinforce the point:


“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”





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Pat Susco, one of New York area’s best lifters for decades, shown lifting at an early Iron Island Gym contest



We held numerous meets at our Iron Island Gym from 1992-1998. We also held meets at New York City hotels, local Knights Of Columbus halls, high schools, and junior high schools. We even held contests in our driveway, and in every case, the meets were fully and legally sanctioned. Even in our two driveway meets where the garage was equipped with multiple warm-up platforms and a competition platform was built on the driveway in front of the garage, every judge was a national or international card holder with lengthy lifting, competition, and judging experience. I hate to burst the bubble for those who don’t believe that there is, or at least has been corruption in the sport of powerlifting but we held our driveway contests because one of the local competitors or group of lifters we were acquainted with needed to qualify for a national contest. We purchased the sanction, procured the services of the judges, insured that the weigh-ins were done in accordance with the rules of the organization the meet represented, and as one world meet experienced lifter remarked afterward, “The judging here was stricter than I’ve had at the nationals, any nationals. Man, it’s a driveway.” Kathy and I always believed that a meet was a meet and that everything needed to be done correctly with the provision of safe equipment and excellent spotters. We even wrote up the meet results and a report and sent it to the governing body and Powerlifting USA Magazine. When Kathy and I were visiting California, a world record holding powerlifter was talking about the record lift he had made a few weeks prior to our meeting. I told him that there was much conversation and speculation about his preparation for the prestigious invitational contest he made his world record at. It did not seem possible that he would have had time to qualify with the requested minimal total, and then recover on time to lift record breaking weights again only two weeks later. This highly respected world record holder looked at me as if I had two heads and said, “Are you serious? Of course we didn’t have a meet, no way could I lift that heavily to qualify, and then come back so soon to set the record. We just made up the meet results after we paid for the sanction.” I hate to state that I was naïve but this I came to learn, was done by a number of lifters. Our meets, large and small, were done correctly. The driveway contests we had were followed by burgers and chicken off of the grill and all of the food brought by the training partners, friends, and family members of the six to ten lifters we had in those meets as the instructions were for everyone to “bring enough food to feed two.” We had water and fruit too during the actual lifting and we carried that tradition on at Iron Island. More importantly, the equipment used to warm-up on if not identical to that on the platform, was at least of the same quality, safety standard, and accuracy and that’s where the emphasis must be for any meet, big or small.




In attempting to package and present powerlifting as a mainstream sport or make it more palatable to the general public, there was and continues to be the necessity of giving them “a show.” The music blares and I have seen lifters, only an hour prior to their opening attempt, still agonizing over their decision to come out for their first attempt squat to the screeching of Iron Maiden instead of Metallica. Some of the meets have included swirling colored lights, explosive devices, and fog machines. Needless to add for those who have witnessed this grand design to catapult powerlifting into the Olympic Games, onto television, or into the forefront of sporting events, none of it has worked! Powerlifting was, is, and will remain an activity that tests one’s mettle, one’s planning, one’s courage, and one’s will to do one’s best on a specific date and at a specific time but that really is it. It also happens to be enough and one shouldn’t need more than that. With all of the bells and whistles in the presentation, the audience at every meet is still primarily comprised of family and friends of the participants. The meets that claim huge spectator numbers are also the meets with twenty to forty different weight, ability, experience, and age classifications that guarantees numerous competitors and thus, numerous friends and family members. In short, this is not an activity that most of the public wants to see and we don’t need them to.


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The late Ed Gillie who won multiple titles in the early 1980’s, lifts just as officially in the park as he would have on the biggest of stages


Anyone at any bodyweight that has placed 400 pounds or more onto their backs has a certain degree of courage and confidence. This is a heavy weight by any standard and can damage one’s body if not handled carefully and properly. I would explain to non-lifters, at a time when I was regularly squatting in the mid-500’s, that 225 “was heavy.” The usual response was, “How can 225 be heavy if you can squat over 500?” Again, by any standard 225 pounds of weight, in any form is “a lot of weight” and can, stated in the most direct way possible and with no offense intended to those uncomfortable with street level language, “fuck you up.” That’s why it’s heavy, 225 can still produce damage and even to a strong man or woman, it’s heavy. Despite the frame of reference, 225 pounds translates to a lot of pounds! Few non-lifters can relate to any amount of weight and what it takes to push, pull, squat, bench press, press, or deadlift it. If a 125 pound woman states, “I deadlifted 303 at Saturday’s meet,” it’s very much like the John McCallum article from his 1960’s renowned Keys To Progress series in Strength And Health magazine. In this specific piece, McCallum had returned home one evening after setting a new personal record in the gym, a milestone as he had squatted 500 pounds for the first time. His excitement was such, that to quote the article which of course was written in the very famous and humorous McCallum style,

      “I never even stopped for a shower. I bolted home, bounced through the door, threw both arms overhead, and flexed dramatically in front of the wife. ‘I did it!’ I shouted. ‘I did it!’ I was a little out of breath. She was reading. She didn’t look up but she smiled politely. ‘Did you dear?’ she said. ‘That’s nice.’…

My daughter came into the room and said goodnight. I picked her up and put her on my knee. She had her pajamas on. She was a real cute little girl even then, with big dark eyes and thick hair and already starting to act like her mother. ‘Honey,’ I said, ‘Take your hand out of Daddy’s pocket and pay attention. I want to tell you what I did tonight.’ She reached up and pinched my nose.

‘Now,’ I said, ‘Get the picture.’ I was getting kind of choked up with emotion. ‘There’s this gym, see? An’ it’s full of weights. Tons of weights layin’ around all over the place. And…’

‘And you lifted them all. How nice.’ She slid off my knee. ‘Goodnight, Mummy.’ You’d probably like to impress your family too.”


Do our readers understand that unless your friend, family member, or co-worker actually lifts weights, they don’t get it and will never get it? It’s not done for the money, the glory, the fame, or the adulation of others. We do this for ourselves and in part, when it’s contest time, for each other. Thus, it is the lifter, not the audience that is the focus. Professional, and now collegiate sports, market to an audience but it has always been a mistake for meet directors to “market” their meet and place the lifters and the lifters’ safety and needs behind anything else. With that strongly held opinion being stated, why then, is the very best, strongest, sturdiest, and newest equipment placed upon the competition platform while at so many meets, the warm-up room is filled with junk? More lifts, most of the actual lifting, and the more careless lifting will be done in the warm-up room, yet many if not most meet directors scrounge for racks and bars to fill that vital need, forgetting the importance of providing the safest of equipment for the lifters as they prepare for the main platform.