If one lifted weights in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s when I received my start in the activity, they knew York and they knew Weider. Both Bob Hoffman who was the owner of the York Barbell Company and seemingly, most other business and land holdings in York, Pennsylvania and Joe Weider were the big names in the lifting and physique game. Their stories and rise to the top of what resulted in two rather powerful business empires came from the sale of equipment and nutritional supplements. Weider also had what he often termed “a publishing empire” that included gay oriented pornography-type magazines, at least as they were judged in that time period.
As a relatively astute young man whose compulsiveness leaned towards “having to know everything” about whatever it was that caught my interest, I often got hung up on minor details but it assured the completion of any task or project that was started. This made me a coach’s favorite and when motivated to go to class, a favorite of most teachers. Fortunately, there was only a two year period that could be described as “fallow” relative to my high school education and I salvaged my class standing in the final few years by displaying a dedication to academics that reflected my interest in football and strength training. Typical as an eighth to tenth grade student was my presence in the back row of any classroom, eagerly leafing through the latest edition of Strength And Health or Muscle Power magazines, and being asked, “Mr. Leistner, would you care to join the class in our discussion?” My response was always similar and given without hesitation, varying little from “Nah, I’m doing okay back here.” Needless to say, my obsession with training was a topic of conversation among teachers and coaches since during that period of time, only those considered to be weirdos or suffering from narcissistic or homosexual tendencies buried their faces in publications that featured half-dressed men either posing or tugging on a heavy barbell in what looked to be a form of undergarment. Even during the time I sporadically attended class, perhaps being the only student that would check into homeroom and then head to a job washing the breakfast dishes and serving as a short order cook at a nearby busy luncheonette until my own school lunch period, I maintained reasonably good grades.
In the early to mid-Sixties, my garage or basement, dependent upon where I had my limited equipment set-up, would have reflected the era’s typical “home gym” for a serious trainee or at least one that wasn’t headed towards physique competition. The belief, and one that within limits was a legitimate one, was that a competition level bodybuilder needed more than the so-called basics and the equipment that could provide those movements. Thus the high level bodybuilders were seeking a broad selection of dumbbells, a high and low pulley arrangement, and numerous angled benches and they considered these to be necessities. I can recall sitting in the “Weider Headquarters” in California which was no more than a storefront with warehouse space behind it, on 5th Street in Santa Monica. My friend Dave Draper was in charge of running the place, greeting those who might have wandered in off of the street to purchase two pairs of ten pound plates or a set of Weider Aristocrat Power Stands (read that as dangerously flimsy portable squat racks). Even then the emphasis was on supplement sales and Dave had a large supply of what in New York bodybuilding circles was the ubiquitous Weider Super Pro 101 protein drink, similar to the ready-to-drink types that are currently the rage. When Dave moved from New Jersey and first arrived in California a few years previous to my visit, he trained in the bowels of the city, literally below street level in the basement of an old hotel bar. Dubbed “The Dungeon” by those who used the old, rusty, but wonderful equipment, it was a haven for the extremely dedicated which certainly included Dave who had won a great many top physique titles.
During the first few years of my training, I had little awareness of the specific qualities that made equipment “good” or “bad.” My guideline was whatever I saw within the pages of Strength And Health, Muscle Power, Mr. America (and Young Mr. America), and by 1964, Iron Man Magazines. Without knowing it, I had very serviceable equipment to train with, and it allowed me to learn and perform the basic result producing exercises. Of the fellows I knew that began weight training, nearly one-hundred percent had a basic 110-pound barbell and dumbbell set. Some used a picnic bench to perform the exercises that were illustrated in the magazines and one or two had a commercial quality bench. I was fortunate because from the beginning, I was moved to provide a means that would allow me to squat and also do presses without having to clean the bar first. My equipment, though homemade and crude, was if nothing else, overbuilt and solid enough to last for decades. Today, in 2008, one of the power racks I built in my father’s shop is still in use at my former high school. A surprise “find” was my original pair of iron horses that had been modified so that I could squat and do so with a “safety catch” if I could no longer rise with the weight which was my usual practice, press, or bench press. My brother was cleaning out a storage area of his structural steel and ornamental iron shop just a few years ago and there they were, no worse for wearthan they were when my father and I had first welded them in the early 1960’s.
With the proliferation of health clubs, spas, fitness facilities, gyms, and the fact that most martial arts and yoga teachers have somehow branched out into personal training or “their-specialty-specific lose weight and inches fitness training” it might be beyond the understanding of the last two generations that there actually was a time when it was almost impossible to find a gym that had barbells and dumbbells in it within the confines of any town or village in the United States. By the mid-Sixties, most of the major cities contained perhaps one or two “health clubs,” usually a chain franchise like Vic Tanny’s or Jack LaLanne’s that was filled with chromed devices designed to separate the slack-muscled from their mounds of body fat and pocket books. I would be the first to add that these “clubs” were definitely a step forward from the “health spas” of the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s that were stocked with vibrating and rolling type machines that were meant to shake, jiggle, or massage the fat off of specific areas of the body. I can recall such an establishment opening in my home town of Long Beach and even at the age of eleven or twelve, I knew a rip-off when I saw it up close and personal. Overweight men and women strapped into contraptions that seemed to have the potential to rip genitals and other vital body parts off if used incorrectly, that would produce headaches or vision problems due to the violent shaking and bumping they produced, did not seem as if they really and truly would deliver the goods they promised. Lawsuits resulting from vicious injury, as well as the predictable lack of results, dictated the closing of every one of these outlets within a year or two of their opening.
In the New York City area, Olympic lifting was very popular in the early to mid-1960’s. There were pockets of activity that spread from The McBurney YMCA basement on 23rd Street in Manhattan to Lost Battalion Hall in Queens, all the way out to Suffolk County’s Islip Youth Center. All boasted good lifters, some like Larry Mintz, a young Artie Dreschler who is now active as the director of the Association Of Oldetime Barbell And Strongmen, and Tom Marshall were of national level. York Barbell Club lifters usually made an annual showing at the larger metropolitan area contests and the City was seen as a hotbed of Olympic lifting until the entire sport began to sag in participation by the end of the decade. Unfortunately the standard procedure by the mid-‘60’s was to hold the weightlifting contest and only afterward, present the physique contest that was scheduled for the same date and venue. It made for a very long day and evening, with the bodybuilders often asked to show their wares at 1 AM and sometimes later. However, this was perhaps the only way to guarantee a solid crowd for the heavier and later-held weight classes of the lifting competitions, such was the state of the sport. Neither the lifters nor the physique men were pleased with the arrangement. In fact, at the 1970 Junior National Weightlifting Championships and Junior Mr. America contest held in Islip, half as many observers were on hand to cheer Dreschler’s world record press than there were for Chris Dickerson’s physique victory. This was typical and I can recall Dickerson’s brother Henry, who was seated next to me commenting more than once that he couldn’t believe “how late it was” as the physique men mounted the dias after the midnight hour.
In the days before the internet and immediate worldwide communication, the wonders of bodybuilding, especially in California, was brought to the attention of the many eager enthusiasts across the country, through the pages of Joe Weider’s various muscle building publications. It was necessary to present news from all of the weight training related activities. There weren’t enough of any one group of devotees that one could expect to publish and distribute a “muscle magazine” and make a living off of it if any particular group was completely ignored. Thus Joe and his various issues of Muscle Power, Muscle Builder, Muscle And Fitness, Mr. America, Young Mr. America, All American Athlete, and a few others covered all bases. The rare known athlete who admitted to utilizing weights as a training tool or as an adjunct to whatever made up the “regular training” and preparation for their sport would be featured. There would be a monthly column dedicated to Olympic weightlifting with brief contest results. Once powerlifting became popular or at least became a viable activity separate from bodybuilding or Olympic lifting, Weider always had at least one training feature and a standing monthly column that included gossip type of news, some training information, and the results of one or more contests, usually from the West Coast. I know that every lifter in the New York City area would pace the local luncheonettes and newsstands waiting for the clerk to cut open the packages that held the monthly nuggets of information, on the day of the distributor’s delivery.
One’s choice of lifting activity could have been very much determined by their geographic location in the 1940’s through the 1960’s. Referring to the first installment of this series, while most “training guys” did the same basic exercises, different parts of the country, different parts of some specific states, gravitated to one of the three major types of lifting expression. The most obvious example of this was the York Barbell Club located in York, Pennsylvania. The headquarters of Bob Hoffman’s York Barbell Company, he had funded America’s Olympic weightlifting activities, as the supplier of equipment, as the provider of funds necessary for travel, and as the sport’s chief administrator for decades. He was referred to and rightfully so, as “The Father Of American Weightlifting” and he took the title and the responsibility seriously. In fairness, while his reign was dictatorial he viewed himself as a benevolent dictator and the retrospect of a few decades indicates that he was indeed, just that.
There are many fundamental differences among the participants of the various aspects of the iron related sports. The emotional response and make up of the athletes involved in strongman competition differs from those who compete in bodybuilding shows and powerlifters think and often behave very differently than those who do Olympic weightlifting as their primary sport. It wasn’t always like this. Powerlifting wasn’t organized as a sport until 1964 and yes, I was there for that. It wasn’t seen as a momentous occasion and few of its participants believed that the “odd lift” contests that had been held on a more or less regular basis for perhaps a four or five year period, would significantly change just because the activity now had a name and an official organization. We were obviously wrong in that belief for both positive and negative reasons.
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