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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