History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 88

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on April 20, 2016 Comments off


Hand in hand with making New Year’s Resolutions come other questions. Certainly, if not an “official” resolution, most individuals view January 1st of any year as a new beginning, a new start to specific endeavors or goals, and an opportunity to re-focus organization and effort. For those interested in powerlifting, and I purposely chose that description, deciding to improve one’s lifts or a specific lift, is a commonly held resolution or goal. Whether agreeing or not with the premise put forth in last month’s article as per the late Reverend Robert Zuver’s quote, everyone can improve and every lift can be improved. The related question is, “Should I compete?” For those who are already competitive powerlifters, this is a no-brainer. The logical and obvious New Year’s Resolution is to “increase my total” since that is the point of ultimate judgment in our sport. There have always been and continue to be those competitive lifters who look down upon those that “lift” but don’t compete. Even if they begrudgingly give some respect to the hard and consistent work put into the gym activity of a non-competitive trainee, many competitive lifters hold themselves above those that train but do not compete.



There are athletes like Linda Jo Belsito who love to train and compete. A fierce competitor in the gym and on the platform, she is a multi-time National and World Champion in both powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. LJ has, through many years, learned how to tap into her competitive nature in order to fulfill her highest expectations and potential. She continues to pass on her knowledge at her new gym in Maryland, a haven for serious training. Here she hoists a heavily loaded Beast Metals Beast Bell strongman dumbbell in Doc’s garage


Far too often in approximately fifty-seven years of active weight training, I’ve heard the question, “Why doesn’t that guy (or girl) compete? Their lifts are really good.” Very often a follow-up comment will include that individual’s willingness to train hard and move exceptionally heavy weights in the gym, weights that certainly would allow them to compete in an “acceptable,” respectable, “non-embarrassing” manner. Needless to add, a roundtable of fifteen noted psychiatrists or clinical psychologists would fail to reach a consensus regarding any individual’s true reasons or motivations to compete or to avoid competition. Yet despite being out-lifted by significant poundage in any of the three lifts and overall totals, there are those competitive lifters that look down upon those that do not compete in any “real” contest. Despite the disproportionate popularity of the bench press relative to the other two competitive lifts, among both competitors and trainees, there are many powerlifters, referring to those who compete in three lift contests, who slight the efforts of bench press only competitors. On this latter point, there has been debate since the inception, sanctioning, and acceptance of bench press only contests which were instituted due to “popular demand” in the 1980’s, with full contest competitors again looking at bench press only contest records as somehow inferior to those made at a full power meet.


When I began to compete the odd lift contests could and did consist of a variety of lifts, done in what could have been perceived to be a random order. When powerlifting took on the structure of a true lifting sport, the definitive and official order of the lifts was Bench Press – Squat – Deadlift. In 1973 this changed, with the squat being performed as the first lift. Recalling the conversations of the day, the belief was that performing one’s limit squat then took too much out of their best deadlift efforts when both “big lifts” followed each other. The reasoning for change, which did have some logic to it, was that allowing the major muscles of the low back, hips, and thighs to get some relief between the squat and deadlift, would make for a more “balanced” and true representation of a lifter’s capabilities. Of course this left many others complaining that handling any type of heavy squat caused their shoulders “to tighten up” prior to the bench press, thus limiting their best efforts on that lift. The majority agreed to the change in lifting order and this has defined the sport since ’73.


Tom O’Riordan took his passion for training onto the competition platform until stymied by injury. Like many, his competitive desires, a source of progress and improvement, took him to the powerlifting platform which resulted in even more progress


Even for a one-lift specialist, “Should I compete?” can cause self- debate and consternation. Some train for a while, look at You Tube or other Internet sites that show the efforts of competitive lifters on the platform or in the gym, produce thoughts of competing, but they just can’t seem to “pull the trigger” and actually enter a real, live powerlifting contest. Some make the commitment or are committed to competing but want “to wait until I can (choose one or more: win the contest; win my class; win a trophy; place in the top three in my class; place in the top five in my class; be the best in the state; set some type of record; make sure I’m not the worst one in the contest).” Needless to add, those with this attitude infrequently step forward to ever actually enter a contest, although they may spend literally years talking about their intent and training towards the goal of competing.


I wanted to write that “One of the best things about powerlifting…” but in truth, there are so many “one of the best things” that there are actually few limitations on the positive side of the ledger. Among the positive aspects of our sport are the ways in which we can mold the activity to meet our needs. The trainee can walk into the facility and compete with themselves in every workout. They can push to their limits, utilize all of the emotional and physical attributes necessary to demonstrate progress, and force themselves to add weight to the bar in any one lift or in every competition and assistance exercise. They can choose to specialize on one particular lift or group of lifts for a period of time of their own choosing. They can become stronger and muscularly larger knowing that they are successful, even if the challenge is completely internalized and they are the only arbiter of success or failure. The personal, private, and internal competition can go on for years or decades, with winning or losing determined only by the individual’s standards. For those inclined to compete with both themselves and others, there is sanctioned competition. One can choose to lift “just once, I only want to see how I do once in a real contest,” just as some runners might want to run in “just one marathon” before they are too elderly or infirm to do so. Needless to add, those who see the benefits of competition are provided with contests that allow them to push to their limits, utilize all of their organizational acumen to train as efficiently as possible, and then be courageous enough to show up on meet day and do their best when called upon to do so.


My personal belief is that the most important part of competing is being able to plan, train, and then actually do one’s best on the day his or her best is called for. Courage is involved in meeting the challenge to be prepared and then perform to one’s absolute best ability on a specific day and time. It is difficult for many to face what they deem embarrassment by falling short of the expectations of others or their own. Some just won’t risk it, content to have a good day in the gym, knowing that training partners or gym regulars know that they did well that day. The fear of failure, even if it is a highly personalized failure, is enough to keep many from the competition platform. The possibility of failure in front of family, friends, and/or training partners is an impediment that many never overcome and thus, they remain gym lifters only. Others compete knowing that some meets will prove to be more successful than others. Successful and disastrous contests give insight to possible improvement in training organization and techniques, mental preparation, weight selection, lifting attire, personal nutrition plans, weight control, and all of the “small details” that allow for maximal performance. I am of the belief that true competition encompasses both self and others, the testing of one’s ability at both the subjective and objective levels, and the “push” that comes from knowing that on a specific date, one is locked into performing at their momentary best.


Former University of Hawai’i noseguard Falaniko Noga is part of a family of athletes that are highly respected and feared in Hawaii. The St. Louis Cardinals did not move to Arizona until the conclusion of the ’87 season. Noga played linebacker for the Cardinals from 1984 through ’88, and while in St. Louis, did his off-season training with the best powerlifters in the metro area. Niko wanted to lift with the best in order to push to his personal limits. His pro football activities did not allow him to compete as a contest lifter but his competitive nature did produce an overachieving 6’, 230 pound linebacker, known for his tremendous strength  


If one trains and lifts in order to become stronger, they should want to pull out every stop in order to meet a goal that can truly never be accomplished, after all, how does one become “too strong” or “strong enough?” This is a lifetime quest, at least from my perspective and one should want to push forward in every way possible to attain their goals. Competing as a powerlifter will in every case, force one to do their best, call upon their best and most focused efforts in every aspect of training and for the day of competition. In summary, if one competes, they are on display, if only to themselves, and they will fight to tear down barriers. Why would one settle for less?