History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 89, Part 1

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on May 1, 2016 Comments off


Everyone from my generation understands and accepts the fact that life is much different now than it was through the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s. The prevailing culture, economics, and all aspects of our social system are different. I wish to refrain from stating that any or all of it is “better,” “worse,” or “more or less the same as it was” because these judgments are subjective and linked to personal perspective. The above being true in my strongly held opinion, there can be little argument that as pre-teens and teenagers, “play” and athletics in an earlier era were a by-product of participant generated planning and energy. Typically, we were cut loose after an early breakfast on a Saturday morning and left to our own devices until we returned home for dinner perhaps eight or more hours later. This allowed “the adults” to tend to their own business in the only time they had from their work week (unless they also worked on Saturdays) and none of the adults were too concerned where the children were or what they were doing. It was assumed and the assumption was correct ninety-nine percent of the time that “the kids” were roaming the neighborhood and engaged in some sort of athletic game.


Even in the gang infested parts of Brooklyn where the streets were given over to the likes of the DeKalb Diplomats, the Bishops, the Hawks, the Jokers, and the Red Hook Rippers, the same general practice of allowing the youngsters and teens out on their own for the entire day was the rule. Any and all athletic teams, games, contests, or tournaments were organized and completed not by adults, but by the participating youths. Today of course and for the past thirty-five or more years, few if any youngsters are allowed to wander around their neighborhoods alone and any athletic league or contest is organized and supervised by community adults. Yes, today’s world may be more frightening and dangerous but young people no longer do much related to athletics if the activity isn’t organized, structured, and supervised for them. I believe that the initiative that was developed and the experience gained were much greater and more beneficial in my generation. An advantage that I had relative to my peer group was the years-long opportunity to both “hang out” and be allowed to join in as a full participant to the activities of much older guys. I purposely use “guys” because some of the work/employment, sports, weight training, and fighting not only involved older boys, but also involved adult males. The advantages included knowing a lot about life on the streets at a very young age, while the disadvantages included knowing a lot about life on the streets at a very young age!

In retrospect, I was generally given sound advice by the older fellows I worked and trained with. Although most of my weight training was done alone, especially at a time at the tail end of the 1950’s when the activity just wasn’t acceptable enough to publicly involve many, I was fortunate enough to run into locals who made weight training a priority and I benefitted from their experience. I have chronicled the fact that as an “underground” or cult-like activity, very much looked down upon by the general public as “lower class,” thuggish, and not suitable for true athletes, one had to search out and initiate the contacts that would yield useable information about any aspect related to lifting weights. I was willing to make the effort, utilize public transportation to locate garages, warehouses, basements, and the few storefront gyms, and spend a lot of time learning.

I could give the quick and easily understood summary that my competitive lifting career paralleled my football career and state that there was nothing spectacular about it, little that was memorable to most, and that I was a middle-of-the-pack, one-of-the-guys plugger who worked hard and enjoyed the results, benefits, participation, and camaraderie of both sports.


Even as a young athlete, I understood the limitations of my abilities and attempted to learn as much as possible about any activity I chose to become involved with in an attempt to make up for a paucity of physical talent. A key training related maxim was “train hard and train consistently” and of course, that always remained as the guiding tenant of my training and those I have been fortunate enough to work with through many decades. Another was “with any change in one’s training parameters, reduce the weight significantly until an adaptation is made.” Needless to state, none of my compatriots spoke with such “fancy” vocabulary or sentence structure but the point was made; if you change anything, back it down and back it down a lot more than you think you have to. This was a piece of early advice I was given and at Zuver’s Gym I was told the same thing. When I visited the original Westside Barbell Club in Bill “Peanuts” West’s Culver City, California garage, one of the first items under discussion while going back and forth about program alterations and the inclusion of one or two new exercises, was the necessity of reducing the resistance if any change in training was made.

In my specific case, my discussion with Peanuts was related to squat form. I will admit to having my own, unique to me manner of squatting, one that I more or less fell into when I first began training and had little instruction past copying the photos in the various muscle magazines. By the time I was shown “proper” squat form, I twisted and turned it into something that suited my physical structure and early athletic injuries. Peanuts clearly emphasized that any attempt to move a foot in as little as one-half inch would necessitate a decrease in weight to 135 pounds. Holding my chest and torso at a slightly different angle necessitated a reduction in squat weight to 135 pounds, and even as a Polack, I understood the instruction. When I rather naively asked “how heavy should I go if I’m squatting ‘X’ amount of weight” Peanuts stared at me with the all- knowing “Here’s another meatball who doesn’t get it” look and more clearly repeated, “You use 135 pounds. It’s your first set and it’s your last set until you adapt to the new form.” My follow-up question of course was “For how long?” expecting an answer that would allow me to at least begin to progress and use heavier weight in one or two “break-in” sessions. I truly didn’t get it because his advice was “at least three or four, maybe more workouts” and only then, could I begin to progressively but cautiously begin to use more resistance. Of course this echoed the advice given to me at home in New York by Tony Pandolfo, Joe Abbenda, and some of the other champion bodybuilders whom I had met and trained alongside of at the local storefront gym. “If you use a new exercise, go light and keep it light for a few workouts, then move up slowly.”

For a young, shot-in-the-ass-with-enthusiasm trainee, agog with the prospect of lifting in contests and elevating huge weights, this was very difficult advice to accept and follow. I was reminded of this because Pete Alaniz, President of TITAN SUPPORT SYSTEMS recently wanted me to try a pair of Contender Squat Powerlifting Shoes. This would be an appropriate time to mention that it was a bit of an upward step for me to have new, specific for powerlifting squat shoes. As a beginning trainee and even as a beginning powerlifter, I was not attuned to footwear or attire but rather trained in whatever I had within arms’ reach. The photos of bodybuilders in the various muscle magazines, circa early 1960’s, usually presented them barefoot and in a bathing suit while training. The photos from weightlifting contests, still prior to the organization of powerlifting as a sport, demonstrated their singlets or the York team in matching sweat suits. The lifters wore what appeared to be boots so considering myself a “strength guy” seeking to become stronger for sports, I would pull on the steel-toed work boots I wore while working in the iron shop or on the back of my father’s truck. This seemed to closely mimic the footwear of a “real lifter” and made me believe I would become stronger since I was doing one more thing correctly. In our unheated garage or in the backyard, especially with snow on the ground and the wind howling off of the ocean a few hundred yards from the house, a full sweat suit was necessary, not that the “Speedo and bare feet” look from Muscle Power and Young Mr. America magazines would have ever been an alternative.