History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training
History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training - Part One
by Dr. Ken Leistner
History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training Part 1
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.
Through the 1950’s and early 1960’s Olympic weightlifting was the dominant sport for those who lifted weights. Some, myself included, realized early and accepted the fact that they were not athletic enough, explosive enough, quick enough, or patient enough to excel as proponents of the two-hand press, snatch, and clean and jerk. Those were the three official lifts and if anyone on a New York City subway thought you lifted weights or noted that your physical development was above average, and of course had the gumption to approach you about it, the leading question would always be “How much can you press?” Even the lay person or “unathletic” knew that the press was the measuring stick for those who believed themselves strong. Weight training of any type was considered to be a cult activity until the late 1960’s. Even in the New York City Metropolitan area with its millions of inhabitants, it was a cult and most of us were acquainted with each other or recognized each other on sight. In discussion about the Weider sponsored national level “Mr.” contests that were usually held at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music, in part to lend the occasions an air of legitimacy and elegance, there was a casual closeness to the audience. My comment to a young enthusiast who has a strong interest in the history of the iron game, was that “if 5000 people attended the 1968 grouping of contests that included the Mr. American, Mr. Universe, and Mr. Olympia contests on the same evening, 3000 of us would either know each other or recognize one another from the various hole-in-the-wall gyms, garages, basements, or storefront facilities throughout the City and Long Island. The other 2000 would be gay guys who stood in the bathroom and watched the big bodybuilders taking a leak.” Don’t shoot the messenger, it was a different time and that’s how it was.
Astounding to the past two or three generations of trainees is the fact that most of the big time bodybuilders were very strong and most of the Olympic and powerlifters had very good, well developed physiques. This was the result of having limited equipment to train with and the use of the same basic exercises by almost everyone who trained in a serious manner. For example, Olympic weightlifters would do squats or front squats as their primary lower extremity movements and supplement that with deadlifts, cleans, snatches, and pulls. Doing full squat cleans or snatches and arising from the bottom, the equivalent of placing oneself at a severe disadvantage before doing a front squat, gave obvious work to the hips and thighs. As the Odd Lifts of the bench press, squat, deadlift, and barbell curl in varying order and with varying rules grew into the official sport of powerlifting, competitors performed squats, front squats, and deadlifts as their primary lower extremity work, and supplemented this with cleans or power cleans ala the typical regimen of Olympic lifters. Serious bodybuilders, those big and hard enough to consider competing, did squats and front squats, deadlifts and cleans, and prior to competition “cut up” with additional leg extensions and leg curls. Upper body work for all centered around the standing barbell press and heavy rows and shrugs. The Olympic lifters would include snatch work, the bodybuilders would include arms and some pulldowns or chins, and the powerlifters would incorporate almost any of the basic movements done by the other two groups. With the emphasis on basic multi-joint movements, almost everyone who lifted weights in a consistently serious manner, over time, became quite strong and looked darned good if their diet wasn’t totally out of order.
In an age of specialization where most lifters and bodybuilders don’t even train in the same facilities, I’m sure this seems quite strange and pointless. However, everyone believed they were “in it together” because the general public viewed anyone with developed muscles and anyone who devoted more than a passing moment to lifting weights as “odd,” “off,” “a narcissist,” or misguided. Until the post-World War II era, few could devote any time to weight training because economic conditions demanded that everyone, meaning every male, be gainfully employed and often with two jobs. The leisure time that sprung from the prosperity of post-War America allowed for time and energy to be placed upon developing one’s strength and physique if one wished and only then did any of the weight sports begin to grow beyond the bounds of cult-status and become part of the consciousness of the general public.
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. Hoffman may have called the shots for the entire sport, exerted his will to shape specific Olympic or national teams, and certainly played favorites, but no one disagrees that without him and his support, the sport would have withered and perhaps been little more than a footnote before anyone heard of John Grimek, Steve Stanko, Tommy Kono, the George Brothers, and Bob Bednarski. Many of the York Barbell Club lifters were imported from other parts of the country, provided with employment at “The Barbell” as the company was referred to by those on the inside or earlier in the century, in one of Bob’s related businesses, and perhaps to the surprise of the current generation, actually worked a full time daily job before entering the hallowed halls of the The York Barbell Club gym to train. Some of the jobs were difficult, others less so and I can recall the great Bill March, who handed Hoffman both lifting titles and a Mr. Universe physique victory loading cans of protein powder by day. Others heaved and hauled in the warehouse hefting what at times I’m sure seemed like an endless parade of 100 and 45 pound plates and Olympic bars through entire days and weeks. If one lived in the York area and desired to lift weights, there was the exposure to and the opportunity to train with some of the best Olympic lifters in the world and certainly, the best in the United States.
In California, especially Southern California, while there was Olympic lifting activity, it was perhaps the sun and surf and the exposure one’s physique would have all through the year due to the wonderful weather that made bodybuilding a major attraction. As the great Bill Pearl said to me in the late-1960’s as I talked about returning to the East Coast to continue college and collegiate football, “Go to school and play football out here. Why would you want to go back home? You can ride a bike, run on the beach, and wear a tee shirt and shorts all year and its ideal (weather) for training.” He was correct of course, explaining at least in part, the fact that the heart and soul of bodybuilding rested at Santa Monica’s famed Muscle Beach. By the time I arrived on the West Coast in the late-1960’s, “Muscle Beach” had moved from its original environs down the beach a bit to Venice, to New Yorkers like my buddy Jack and me, the epitome of “the land of fruits and nuts.” Among the strange sightings along the beach and boardwalk of Venice, there was the well-known weight pen where “power lifters”, even before the sport of powerlifting was officially christened, threw up huge chunks of iron in both the Olympic lifts but more formally, in the “odd lifts” such as the incline press, bench press, and deadlift. Steve Merjanian, Bill “Peanuts” West, Mike Barnett, Lee Phillips, and others known only to the California crowd had worked hard to earn a reputation as tremendously strong men among the bodybuilding crowd. Pat Casey, who by 1966 had become the first man to bench press 600 pounds under something akin to official conditions, later became a very dear friend, right up to the time of his death. This coterie of strongmen gave many the impression that California was indeed the birthplace of powerlifting. However, by the time 1964 rolled around and the first Tournament Of Champions was contested and billed as the inaugural United States championship in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, performed in that order, there were pockets of lifters throughout the nation that could have made the same claim.
Often its one individual who influences many others to do what he is doing and before anyone realizes it has occurred, that village, city, state, or region is “the place” for whatever activity has been the focus of the group’s attention. Parts of Texas had early advocates of what became the sport of powerlifting, men like Paul Barbee, Jim Witt, and to the credit of his everlasting self-promotion, Terry Todd. The entire state of Pennsylvania, perhaps as an outgrowth of having the York lifters as the fabric of “lifting” in the U.S. and of course, because of financial support and magazine exposure via Bob Hoffman and his publications, boasted some of the very best in the early years of the sport. Illinois and New England too, were hotbeds of this new activity, one that supported the popular notion that the less gifted athletically could compete at a barbell related activity that wasn’t Olympic lifting. The New York Metropolitan area with its overflowing population sample, had plenty of everything. Olympic lifters, powerlifters, and bodybuilders could be found wherever weights were lifted. All forms of the iron sports were still brandishing “cult status” but each permutation had its advocates and participants.
The Quest For Knowledge.
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.
Old Habits Die Hard: Dr. Ken explaining the nutritional advantages of Cincinnati’s Graeter’s Ice Cream to Dave Draper in the Leistner kitchen.
I would travel to Manhattan and hang out in bodybuilder Leroy Colbert’s health food store on Broadway at 84th Street. I met another fellow there, a bit older than me and a lot larger. Big, blonde, and very strong Dave Draper was a newcomer, like me a guy who trained at home from a very young age, who would sit in the back of Leroy’s store on a Saturday, and ask a lot of questions. We would drink quarts of milk, eat foot long ham or roast beef sandwiches, and learn from Leroy and whomever else came through the door and many of the best in the New York City area came to Lee for advice and supplements. Like gyms, this type of establishment was not frequently seen and certainly none could offer the expertise that Colbert and his legitimate 20” arms could. Leroy was friendly with and did a lot of work for Joe Weider at his Union City, New Jersey office and warehouse, just across the river from Manhattan. Through Leroy, I first met Joe Weider when I was fourteen, already a two year veteran of a haphazard but consistent weight training regimen. I would have started at the age of ten but was warned of the evils of training by my father and his cronies who made the racetrack their home when not toiling at their two and three concurrent jobs. “You’ll get musclebound,” “you’ll stove up” which was another way of saying “you’ll get stiff or musclebound,” “you’ll get slower” which for an aspiring athlete was of course the kiss of death, “you’ll go queer” which was the common parlance of the day for a gay lifestyle, and the ever present warning that “geez, these gyms got hop heads, queers, and losers in every one I seen, you can’t go in there.” I once wrote in Powerlifting USA regarding this above noted statement that even at the age of ten or eleven, I silently thought that the old man was referring to the boxing gyms in the area. We had plenty of those as boxing was extremely popular, as it is in all tough neighborhoods, with instruction available at the Police Boy’s Club, Police Athletic League, in many of the church programs, and from the Parks Department. The cigar smoking creeps doing illegitimate business was a stock stereotype but a true one. Decades later watching the steroid, cocaine, and heroin deals go down in many of the area gyms with activity being echoed across the country as organized crime figures took over ownership of some of the major chain type gyms and training facilities, I finally got to agree with my long dead father.
He gave me permission to train with weights when I was twelve and the catch was, I had to purchase them myself. That was a joke as we had been living in a summer bungalow that we utilized as a full time, year round residence. No heat, no hot water, the stove and oven on all night to augment electric heaters strung up all over the place so that pipes wouldn’t freeze and burst, water in the toilet freezing overnight, and heating water on the stove in order to take a bath in one-inch of tepid water. No, I don’t think my various part-time “kid jobs” were going to allow the purchase of any real weights. To the old man’s credit, he came through. We lived next to a lot where trucks and cars would be abandoned on a regular basis, thus, a truck axle and flywheels made up my first “barbell” and he was quick to weld up anything that would make my uninhibited attempts at copying what I saw in the magazines a bit safer. Pails of concrete and sand, the benefit of living in a beachside community, allowed me to mimic the dumbbell exercises I saw in the magazines. Weider’s Muscle Power and Young Mr. America were the primary sources of information, supplemented with Hoffman’s Strength And Health. Olympic lifting and bodybuilding were the focus for the York publication and of course, both of the major players in the iron sports used their magazines as product catalogues, hyping various protein pills and powders, Brewer’s yeast, wheat germ oil, and what even by 1975 appeared to be the flimsiest of training equipment.
I also had the advantage of the train station, bus, and subway, all of which allowed me to travel and seek out training information. Long before DVD’s, CD’s, the internet, and ubiquitous seminars, one gathered information about training “the old fashioned way”; you got off your ass, located those who were actually doing what you wanted to do, and discovered or created a way to watch, ask questions, and eventually perhaps, become part of the group. As a cult activity, weight training, most often done in basements and garages of private homes, in storefront gyms, in the YMCA’s of major cities, or in the warehouse of a “lifting guy” who had a business, was difficult to find and learn about. As a teenager, I would hitchhike to York, Pennsylvania, leaving the house at 3 or 4 AM on a Saturday that allowed me to take time off from one of my part time jobs, and spend the day literally hanging out and just watching the best American lifters do what they did. Taking the train, subway, and bus to Brooklyn allowed me to go to Mr. V’s Sport Shop, the only bodybuilding outlet in the borough at the time, to watch proprietor and mentor Jack Meniero work with Larry Powers, Freddie Ortiz, and others I had actually seen in the magazines. When powerlifting began to flourish, the accumulation of information was done in the same manner. Trips east out towards “the other end” of Long Island to watch a guy named Bob Meyers bench press the incredible weight of 500 pounds, a quick bus ride over the City line to Far Rockaway in order to find “these two guys who use a ton of weight” or hitchhiking to Inwood because “some kid” and that kid turned out to be Dennis Tennerino, a future Mr. America and Mr. Universe, “was using huge weights and looked freaky.” When The Silver Knight, a local bar, known for its weekend bloodbaths of mano-a-mano combat hired real, live, competitive powerlifters from the City to keep the peace, we had a place to go, or at least stand outside of, where we could engage the bouncers in bench press, squat, and deadlift conversation all night. For me, it was the start of a competitive adventure and a pursuit of pure strength that would augment my desire to “train to be a better football player” which had been the driving force behind my fascination with a barbell from the day I began to train.
The New York Scene.
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.
History Supplement: Bev Francis
Bev Francis preps for the 1985 Women's World Championships in Dr. Ken's garage.
A bodybuilding icon and the first woman to truly redefine women’s physique competition, Australia’s Bev Francis has more importantly been one of the nicest individuals to grace the iron sports. An entire generation or two might not realize that for approximately six years, Bev was a female powerlifter who could easily have worn the mantle “The Best Of All Time” had she extended her career and eschewed the lure of bodybuilding. Bev hit the sport of powerlifting like a bolt of lightening, a member of Australia’s international track and field team who excelled at the shot put and discus but who was also fast enough to be an alternate in sprint events. She was immediately great as a lifter, strong, tenacious, and fearless and frankly, I believe she intimidated the other competitors. Any intimidation came from her performance, not from her attitude or demeanor as few were more gracious. Everyone agreed that Bev could not have been nicer or warmer to those around her. She was extremely bright and was a physical education and math teacher by profession, so she knew how to carry herself in public. There was no guile and no bullshit, she was just a very smart, capable individual who was nice to everyone but her performances were for the time, otherworldly and this put a lot of people off. Bev and my wife Kathy became friendly at the first Women’s World Championships. When Bev moved to the United States, she and Steve lived literally, around the corner from us in Valley Stream, N.Y. It should be noted that although Steve was not a competitive lifter, he was a very big and very strong man who was knowledgeable. Despite the impression given by numerous magazine articles, the movie Pumping Iron II: The Women, and quite a few interviews that surrounded the movie and that followed for years, the only two people who “coached” Bev to achieve her bodybuilding success were in fact Bev and Steve.
A self-made champion powerlifter, Australia's Bev Francis cranks out the reps.
Bev and Dr. Ken discussing the next set circa 1985. There was little Dr. Ken needed to tell Bev, an instinctive and truly gifted athlete.
She certainly received useful information from others and a lot of assistance which she was publicly appreciative of when she first entered competitive bodybuilding, but she was truly self coached and self trained. It was held as a secret, except from those close to her, that the 1985 World Powerlifting Championships would be Bev’s final meet and she would then focus exclusively on bodybuilding. She was already supplementing her power training with physique work which made her preparation a bit more difficult and unfortunately sustained a severe low back injury. Few athletes from any field would have endured the pain and limitation that Bev did but the commitment was made to go out on top and continue the string of World Championships she had won annually from 1980 through ’84. I treated her injury and it was decided that the safest and most efficient way to insure that Bev would be able to make a reasonable showing at the contest, was if every rep was supervised. Thus, for approximately two months prior to the 1985 World Powerlifting Championships, Bev trained with Kathy and me, in the garage, basement, or at a local club that was nice enough to allow us to come in at 10 PM just as they were closing for the evening. Each workout was carefully planned, discussed with Bev and Steve, supervised and evaluated. Rep by rep it was determined what could be done, where technique could be maintained, and Bev’s response to it. To Bev’s credit, she never complained, never missed a lift or begged off of an exercise. It was this type of focus and display of physical and mental toughness that made her the multi-sport champion she was. Despite discomfort that she hid from others, Bev won her sixth consecutive World title and retired from the sport. As a bodybuilder, she turned women’s physique competition upside down as her muscular size and definition were so advanced relative to other competitors. She upset and confused a lot of the judges who had no reference point for a physique like hers and for that reason she placed second a number of times in the Ms. Olympia Contest but was never given the top prize she so obviously deserved. Most fans of the iron sports don’t remember Bev as one of our greatest lifters but she surely was. She was a great physique champion and that legacy remains as she carries on her work at her Long Island gym with Steve, mentoring many other champions. However, no matter how extensive the accolades, Bev remains a figure that truly has not received the appropriate recognition relative to her contributions to our history.
Bodybuilding was always popular in New York and legendary gyms like Mid-City, Lenny Russell’s, Abe Goldberg’s, and Sig Klein’s always had renowned visitors and big time contest winners on the gym floor when they were in town. The popularity of bodybuilding held steady and was not negatively affected by the decline in popularity of weightlifting. A new sport however, had taken hold in the early 1960’s and could be characterized as one of the causative agents in the demise of Olympic lifting, at least in our area. “Odd lift contests” were being held as organized events as the 1950’s slid into the Sixties. While it was common for men in any gym to challenge each other to see who might be stronger in a specific movement that was not one of the three Olympic lifts, contests began springing up to test one’s mettle in the bench press, squat which was referred to as the barbell deep knee bend, deadlift, barbell curl, and barbell upright row. The rules at times varied from contest to contest and different combinations of the five lifts were utilized but these were "real, live" contests to actually prepare for. The trophies, in those instances that trophies were even offered to place winners, were tiny but inconsequential to the bragging rights one had if they could for example, travel into the Bronx, and have the highest bench press for the day in what were arbitrarily decided weight classes. Most often the contest promoters, a term I am using loosely because the meets were almost always held at a gym and the gym owner would be the only official, fulfilling the role of head referee, judge, jury, and final arbiter, would more or less follow the guidelines of Olympic weightlifting. Weight classes reflected this as did the number of attempts given for each lift although a democratic vote among the lifters, if met by agreement of the gym owner, often dictated four or five official tries in each lift in order to post the highest aggregate total.
My training was done at home, in the basement or garage dependent upon where I had stashed my axle, flywheels, sewer covers, homemade wooden bench and other unsophisticated training equipment.
One of Dr. Ken’s “big plates,” a sewer cover courtesy of Nassau County Dept. Of Public Works
In time, I purchased a York 555 Set which to me, was the ultimate tool available for the development of the strength needed to compete well on the gridiron. Too young and not yet worldly enough to view “training articles” as puff pieces or advertising copy, it was with hook, line, and sinker that I swallowed the recommendation to purchase a barbell set that contained but five pair of plates. What else would a true strongman need other than a chrome vanadium steel bar, and one pair each of 100, 75, 50, 25, and 12.5 pound plates? The plates were “standard”, meaning they were not “Olympic plates” with a two-inch portal (and at York, that meant 1.9999” so that the York Olympic plates would fit snugly on the York Olympic bar but would not slide onto the Weider Olympic bar that was being sold as a competitor) but rather, the “small-holed” plates. That meant little to me, I had large denomination plates and in fact, had bought a pair of Iron Man 100-pounders from a trainee who ran an ad in the local “advertising newspaper” and knew I had what was necessary to now become a better and feared football player. With twenty-five pound jumps as the minimum possible, I reluctantly had to utilize the five and ten pound plates I had bought from classmates who had enthusiastically bought Billard and York 110 Pound Combination Barbell And Dumbbell Sets, only to surrender to laziness or their desire to instead hang out on the corner, in the local pool hall, or with girls, and had then decided to sell off what were usually brand new five foot standard bars and a collection of ten and five pound plates, for next to nothing. Everyone in a three or four town radius knew to call me, I would walk up to three miles away, load up the 110 pounds or so onto the bar, place it in squat position across my upper back, and walk home with my new-found treasure. With the acquisition of the York 555 set and some training advice from the bouncers at The Silver Knight bar and the fellows training at a hole-in-the-wall storefront in Valley Stream, I was on my way to becoming a football player who was also going to compete in the brand new activity of odd lifting.
A Bit Of Lifting And Training History From My Perspective.
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 Long Beach, a beach community whose urban decay, crime, racial division, and murder spawned an Esquire Magazine article by Michael McAlary that eventually became the movie "City By The Sea" had a number of tough, strong characters on the street. Sorely in need of tax revenue, a joint decision by the County government and City Of Long Beach came to pass. The agreement allowed for the housing of mentally ill individuals and the dispossessed elderly in welfare and government subsidised dwellings throughout the city. This event was not a mere blip on the socioeconomic landscape but an explosion of immense change because it involved an awful lot of mentally ill and otherwise homeless elderly that were let loose in the city. Predictably, what had once been a summer haven for the New York City wealthy would slide downhill and become a pit of dog-eat-dog social degeneration. Some rich and some middle class remained but the underbelly of the town increased markedly in a fifteen year period and the reputation grew worse in the retelling of tales of violence and debauchery. There were no gyms or health clubs in town, just a few garages that perhaps housed a homemade power or squat rack, one or two bars, pipes that served as chin or dip stations, and a pile of plates. Because we lived on a street that held but six residences, one a “multifamily dwelling” that served as home for as many as thirty otherwise homeless Cuban refugees at any one time, I had the luxury of a lot of empty space to push, carry, or lug around unusually shaped or heavy objects that were left abandoned on the empty lots or entrance to the beach area.
History Supplement: Football and Cubanos
I asked one of my long time trainees who also grew up in Long Beach, if my description of our hometown was a bit harsh. He replied, "You nailed the prevailing feeling of the time. The underlying sense of foreboding that lurked around every corner as you went about your daily lives made LB a strange place" and truly, it was. For both of us though, the memories remain wonderful and I was exposed to my first "live" football game at Long Beach High School. In Brooklyn, many of the public high schools didn't and still don't have the facilities, funds, nor athletic fields to support a football team and the only available games were all out tackle football on the street. Running into parked cars at full speed and getting pounded into the concrete as delivery trucks slowed in order to pass a game in progress was standard and this was the only football I knew. I had watched college games on television and was immediately obsessed with every aspect of the game (view Helmet Hut for my monthly columns in the Helmet News section and my seasonal summaries for the college helmet presentations) but my first live viewing of a football game came at Long Beach High School as the hometown Marines defeated the Knights of Uniondale High School. Long Beach fullback Lenny Beck, who later played at the University Of North Carolina was the star that day and I was hooked. At a later date, Odd Lift and powerlifting contests were another competitive outlet that came as a natural extension of my training. The "Cubanos" as we referred to the many men living in the house next to us, had been in the Cuban Army or supporters of deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista and had to hustle out of Cuba before Fidel Castro's rebels assassinated them. Thus, our neighbors were a hard, tough, humorless crew of fighters, most of whom were later involved with the failed Bay Of Pigs invasion. Though unusual for that period of time, perhaps a dozen of these men had a lifting background of some type, either in Olympic weightlifting or bodybuilding. As they learned English, I would at times be invited to sit on their front steps, eat arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans) or tostones (fried plantains), and listen to their tales of violence and intrigue as they described the revolution and cursed Castro as "a fraud who the world would see as a worse dictator than Batista." Every one of them advised me to do the barbell deep knee bend and press and those two movements have remained a staple in all of my programs.
July 01, 1968, Dr. Ken becomes 12th man to successfully clean and press Zuver's 200 Pound Barrel of shifting water.
Even when preparing for the Odd Lift or powerlifting contests that utilized the bench press, the overhead press (and never referred to with the prefix "overhead" as it was understood that a "press" did in fact mean an overhead press) was done just as often as the bench press. The three or four Cubanos that looked to be at the level of competitive bodybuilders said the same thing numerous times and this is advice that could be successfully applied today.
Needless to say, I loved it and because we were somewhat isolated from Long Beach and the much smaller town of Point Lookout in the other direction, I had a great deal of “alone time” to consider my quest to become stronger, the best way to go about it, and the time and privacy to actually do so. The Long Beach Recreation Center had a few barbells and what appeared to be homemade wooden and metal benches and wall pulleys and there was a hard-core group of rough and tumble guys training there whom I viewed as being frightening when I was first made aware of their existence. The only “real gym” anywhere close to us was in Valley Stream, the first town over the New York City border. The seven mile trip was usually completed by hitchhiking, a common and in our area, relatively safe form of travel during that time period.
Tony Pandolfo and the two Jaycox brothers were the owners of a storefront key club where keys to the front door were offered to trusted members who could literally come and go as they pleased as long as the overhead gas heater was turned off during winter months, and the doors locked when the workout was completed.
Tony Pandolfo, NOT in the sixties but in his sixties!
Tony was THE motivating spark for weight training in the area.
Others could show up and train during loosely agreed upon times. For the day, the narrow storefront was actually a wonderful place to train. The camaraderie, as expected, was high as was the level of enthusiasm and most importantly, the expectations for results. The men were dedicated and happily immersed in what was considered to be a small cult-like activity. The fellows who frequented the dank space were for the most part, advanced in physique and strength development and when iron game dignitaries were in New York for a contest or otherwise visiting, our little place was a “must see” stopover. Boyer Coe, Dennis Tennerino, Joe Abbenda, Steve Michalik, Chris Dickerson, and Bob Galluci were big-time Mr. America or Mr. Universe winners who visited and/or trained with us regularly for a short period of time. Tony, who bought out the Jaycox boys and became sole owner-operator was himself a Mr. America class winner. We had a number of big bench pressers, big overhead pressers, and big squatters. We also had a wide range of equipment, both homemade and bought from the few companies such as Ed Jubinville who made commercial quality equipment. I learned a few things that would speed me along on the path to larger muscles and higher levels of strength and a few more things about equipment.
Be sure to come back December 1
An Introduction to Equipment.
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. In my rudimentary home gym that was constantly moved between basement and garage dependent upon the whims and needs of my father and his dictates, I had a sturdy truck axle, a selection of flywheels and gears that came from a score of abandoned vehicles, some Nassau County Department Of Public Works sewer covers, pails of concrete and sand that served as dumbbells, and as the son of an ironworker, a welded angle-iron bench with an unpadded wooden top. The modified pair of saw horses that allowed for the completion of my squats, presses, and bench presses made me feel as if I was blessed with a truly complete “professional gym.” With an overhead pipe for chins and space to do dips between the washer and dryer, I could and did stick to squats, deadlifts, rows, shrugs, presses, bench presses, dips, chins, an occasional curl, and infrequent forays into what to me was the bodybuilding world of lateral raises, flyes, and front raises. From the age of twelve until I was approximately sixteen, I will admit that I did not put the appropriate effort into the “really hard” movements like the squat or deadlift but I didn’t ignore them either and if nothing else, I fully and admittedly satisfied the descriptions of my coaches who referred to me as obsessed with training. My obsession guaranteed that I was consistent and never, and I mean never, missed a scheduled workout. Best of all, the training actually worked.
My lifting odyssey took me from 125 to 232 pounds. Would you let this fullback into your backfield or onto your lifting platform? This look guaranteed few social engagements.
The weights delivered on their promise which was a tremendous revelation to a young teenager. My father often told me “Life isn’t fair, don’t expect it to be fair, assume you’ll be ****ed over, no one is giving you anything.” He was right but hook, line, and sinker I swallowed the hyperbole that if one put the consistent effort into lifting weights the pieces of iron would in fact bring life-altering changes. I learned that “training is fair; if you do what you’re supposed to, the weights will deliver their end of the bargain” and in what we viewed as a dog-eat-dog way of life, this was perhaps the most major development after the harrowing discovery that there really wasn’t a Santa Claus! To those who knew me, the results were obvious. I was short, lean, but one of those youngsters that the older guys referred to as “a piece of wire,” and “strong for his size.” Unfortunately, this was indicative that if I lacked anything, it was size! It mattered little to me as I knew I could in time, make up for that.
History Supplement: Mike Bridges
My neighbor, classmate, and training partner during the time I attended Logan College Of Chiropractic in the late 1970’s was Mike Wittmer. Mike was a very accomplished Olympic weightlifter whose son Jeff has been one of America’s top lifters for a number of years. Mike had played high school football in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois and developed his interest in weight training as an extension of that involvement. At Rosa’s Gym, he came under the tutelage of Olympic lifters and chose that for his primary focus, competing well for quite a few years.
Mike Wittmer was a superb Olympic lifter in 1984
One of the youngsters who trained at Rosa’s showed potential for developing a great deal of strength and Mike told me about up-and-coming powerlifter Mike Bridges. Because I had heard a less-than-flattering reference about a very young Mike Bridges and I had made mention of it in one of my monthly columns in Powerlifting USA Magazine, I was told that I was “on the list” of some of Mike’s staunch followers and Rosa’s Gym members. My first personal observation of Mike was at the Heart Of America Powerlifting Contest, an annual event hosted by St. Louis gym owner and bodybuilder George Turner. The meet always attracted the very best lifters in the country and 1978’s version was no exception. Bridges was one of many record holders or top level men that included Marvin Phillips, Bill Kazmaier, Charlie Perkins, and local Jay Rosciglione. I was impressed with Mike’s world class lifting and poise as was the entire audience but I was particularly impressed with his toughness. On a record squat attempt, Mike fought the lift, diarrhea running down his thighs, until the squat was successfully completed. He took it all in stride, smiling and waving to the cheering audience. This prompted Turner to jump onto the stage and yell out, “That was the greatest effort I’ve ever seen. Mike Bridges can shit all over my platform any time he tries a World Record!”
Dr. Ken attends to Mike’s hand injury following a battle with a soda can
Shortly thereafter, Mike and I met, talked, resolved any differences between us, and became good friends. He moved first to the Dayton, Ohio area to train and compete with Larry Pacifico’s crew, then to Alabama as part of the Terry Todd “research group” of lifters that trained with Kaz at Auburn University. Mike returned to Peoria and trained with his brother Bob who was one of the world’s best deadlifters. For years Mike was the dominant performer on the national and international scenes and it was almost a “given” that he would win any meet he entered. Forget being the best lifter “pound-for-pound” because in his heyday and across three or four weight classes, Mike Bridges was truly the world’s greatest lifter. Despite the fact that many claimed to “advise Mike” or “train Bridges,” he was one of the rare instinctive athletes who needed little input from anyone. I was fortunate to handle Mike at national and world competitions, making sure his warm-ups were timed properly, the projected lifts from his warm-ups were properly chosen, and his focus was optimal. This was a duty I performed for the men and women I trained, trained with, wrote programs for, or would take on just for the major meets in any year. Of all of them, no one demonstrated the relaxed and confident air that Mike had. He was never hurried, always smiling, and not for a moment had a doubt that he would fall short of his expected goals of winning and/or setting records. When he was injured, I was flattered that he would ask for rehabilitation advice but the simplicity of Mike’s approach to training, his knowledge of his body and its needs, and the absolute confidence he had in his abilities set him apart and made any solicited or unsolicited advice from anyone totally unnecessary. To this day, Mike is competing. Despite having a full plate of family responsibilities and the job of managing and maintaining his custom home building business, Mike decided to return to competition and of course, did so in 2008 while setting numerous records. Though his older records have been broken, Mike was truly a legendary lifter and shattered barriers that others did not approach until years afterward. Lifters and devotees of the sport can argue long and loudly about “Who is the best lifter” and certainly other legends like Kaz and Ed Coan as the most obvious examples have their supporters but hands-down and with no disrespect to the aforementioned greats, Mike Bridges for the lifts he made, the manner in which he approached his lifting and competitions, for his longevity, and for the attention he brought to the sport as a gracious and most sportsmanlike winner, remains my choice.
Of course, no Mike Bridges piece would be complete without a bit of discussion about the “incident” that occurred at the 1982 World Powerlifting Championship in Munich, Germany. Mike and I still laugh and place the blame upon Jay Rosciglione but for those who don’t know the story… The “little guys” completed their lifting during the first two days of the championships, held at the site of the 1972 Olympic Games. Lamar Gant, the great 132-pound multi-time world champion, was known to have a good time socially, whenever and wherever he competed and Munich was no exception. He came to Mike, Jay, and me and invited us to “a really hot club” and though Mike and Lamar were the only single gentlemen in the group, Jay’s wife thought we should all go out and enjoy ourselves. Joined by Rickey Crain and his beautiful wife Kim, we walked into a subterranean club behind Lamar, through a thick curtain of tobacco and perhaps a significant amount of marijuana smoke. As a native New Yorker, it took me less than five seconds to size up our situation, one that I realized could become precarious. The “hot and swinging club” was a hangout for U.S. servicemen, all of them African-American. The only Caucasians in the club were German prostitutes, obvious to me at least, their pimps, and a few local drug dealers that were camped at the back of the immense bar. For those who saw the movie “Animal House,” our entrance rivaled the scene where the white frat boys entered the obviously tough and all Black bar, shouting out “Otis, my man!” as a deafening silence fell on the establishment. Things lightened up a bit as Lamar spread the word that “the guys are part of the US team” and quite a few of the soldiers and Air Force personnel made it a point to come over, offer to buy drinks, and thanked us for our participation in representing the United States as we in turn thanked them for their service to our country. Mike, in part because he was from Peoria, did not quite understand that the pay-for-play ladies at the bar were not going to dance with him because he was good-looking, powerful, and full of personality but he tried and for his persistence, earned the ire of one of the pimps with whom I had a pointed and semi-physical conversation as Mike instead engaged Jay’s wife on the dance floor. After a while, we decided to leave though Lamar was intent on staying through the night, and found our way blocked at the stairway to the exit door by a large group of German wannabe tough guys. It may or may not be true that Jay used profane language and perhaps one of us may or may not have snatched one of a dozen German loudmouths who were pointedly telling us how much they hated the United States and watched him and the crutches he was supporting himself on tumble down the stairs. Once on the street, we of course, were guilty as charged when the growing group of bullies continued to orally excoriate the U.S. of A but only because Jay decided he had listened to enough. I can recall Jay muttering, “I’ve had it with this shit” and as jacket collars and throats were grabbed, the funniest line came from one of the recalcitrant Germans who realized that his group had started with the wrong crew of Americans and were seriously overmatched. He gagged out, “No, no, I love America, I love Willie Mays!” Say what? We were angry but even with the violence beginning to take off, looked at each other and began to crack up laughing because we had obviously defused this group of punks. As Jay and his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Crain got into a waiting cab, we were informed that “in this zone, only four to a taxi” so Mike and I decided to walk the two or three miles back to the hotel. When we entered the lobby, we found Jay waiting for us, wanting to insure that we were safe. Was there blood on Mike’s jacket? Yes, I believe blood was in fact present on both of us. Did the blood come from the previous altercation or one in which, as stories circulated through the lifting hall the next day, from the beat down Mike and I delivered to an ever growing horde of foreign bad guys? Was it six guys or fifteen who had followed us and tried an ambush a few blocks from the club? Did we breeze home unharmed, or had we shot our adrenaline in a classic movie-style dustup trying to get out of the area and to the safety of our hotel unmarked? Was it true that Mike, known as a gentle soul, might have personally decked a half dozen antagonists? As perfect representatives of the United States, it will remain a matter of speculation and a source of riotous laughter for those of us who were present but the answer certainly remains that the 1982 World Championship was one more that Mike won handily.
Equipment typical of the 1960’s yet we used this to bench press 400-500 pounds.
At Tony Pandolfo’s storefront, it was only with a retrospective of a number of years that I realized that despite the “homemade” quality and appearance of much of the equipment, it was not only useable, it was excellent. Because Tony set the pace as one of New York City’s best physiques, a fact that was somewhat hidden for years because he did not place high in a number of his earlier contests nor win a Mr. America level contest until the mid-1970’s, the equipment he needed to use had to be heavy duty. We had legitimate, drug free trainees who frequently topped 400, 450, 500, and 550 in a number of exercises and those who did twenty rep squat sets with 400 pounds more than once per week during specific periods of their training. The squat racks, and that was “racks” plural as in more than one because the squat was such an important exercise to every trainee who walked through the door, the benches which included flat, incline, and decline varieties, and the pulleys that were mounted into the ceiling and walls and ran with uncoated steel cables over steel pulleys with free-swinging weight baskets, served their purpose. These were instruments of stimulation, allowing for increases in both strength and muscle tissue. In that era, men came to barbell training to get muscularly stronger and larger. No one’s stated goal was “six-pack abs” or a “peaked biceps.” One may have aspired to bodybuilding greatness and Tony’s certainly had a number of world class bodybuilders on the floor as regulars, complete with those peaked biceps, but they too were there to get as absolutely huge and strong as possible with the additional feature of also being “cut to ribbons.”
At Dr. Ken’s garage its still about getting “huge and strong.” Representing the NY Giants and Texas A&M are Frank Ferrara, John Sullivan, and Mike Barrow with Doc.
The Hollywoodesque, pretty-boy, Stallone-like ideal had not yet been born and even those who believed that it was “just fine” to fully develop the upper body without sufficient attention to the lower extremities maintained a goal of striving for an upper body of tremendous, other worldly proportions. “Getting bigger” and “getting stronger” were the names of the game. Because everyone trained on the basic multi-joint exercises, anyone who was consistent in their training was relatively strong if they hung in there long enough. When one was deemed “strong enough” he was encouraged to accept a gym challenge to achieve a certain weight in a specific exercise or enter what we called, Odd Lift Contests. When Tony approached me as one of a group of our gym members, to join him as representatives of Bodybuilding Incorporated, the rather high-sounding moniker for our Spartan surroundings, I was flattered, thrilled, and a bit frightened. I did the bulk of my training at home and only occasionally or for sporadic short periods trained at the storefront although I too was afforded my very own key so that I could use the gym as my schedule allowed. When home from college for the summers, my training partner Jack and I found that we could receive additional emotional stimulation from having bigger and stronger men training around us and there was always some advice that made us more efficient, especially if Tony was giving that advice. With the prospect of an Odd Lift Contest, the only thought I had was “Wow.”
Let's Keep Talking About That Classic Equipment.
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.
Dave is not impressed with Doc’s posing or physique!
The Dungeon unfortunately, had been closed, the entire building abandoned and while there was a small area in the warehouse section of the establishment where Dave and others in the Weider stable who might have been working on any specific day could train, he was using the original Gold’s Gym in Venice. He asked how I liked the gyms I had trained at while in California which to that point included Bill Pearl’s Manchester Avenue gym that had originally been founded by George Redpath in 1949, the well known Vince’s Gym, Gold’s, and Zuver’s Hall Of Fame Gym down the coast in Costa Mesa. Explaining that I was most comfortable at Pearl’s, in part because Bill allowed me to train with him at 5 AM and it was close to the dirt-cheap apartment we had located in Inglewood, and at Zuver’s because it was full of powerlifters and football players like me, he agreed that those were excellent facilities.
The great Bill Pearl and Dr. Ken get together in 1998, thirty years after training together
I asked him why he didn’t set up a home gym for himself, knowing that Dave was not a social person. He explained that for the level of bodybuilding he was at and needed to maintain, he would require more room and more equipment than his house would allow. As a football player who was interested in being stronger, faster, and more resistant to injury, the equipment made by my father and me on the premises of Koenig Iron Works on 19th Street in Manhattan and a few store bought pieces from York and Weider, gave me a great facility by the time 1966 rolled in.
My decision to enter an odd lift contest came before I put the crowning touch on my home gym with a harrowing drive to York, PA, but my obsessive quest to have equipment I believed I needed to have in order to reach my potential is well reflected in that specific trip. My training partner Jack joined me on this memorable ride to York that had us taking turns literally hanging out of the windows to wipe away the snow, sleet, and highway slush that was continuously thrown up onto my windshield as we navigated the roads of small town Pennsylvania without operating windshield wipers. Covered from the waist up with highway sludge and mud, we struggled into the barbell company parking lot just as the first employees were arriving to open the doors to the famous York Barbell Club training gym, Hoffman's strength museum, and small retail store. Although it was not the original York Barbell Club training headquarters that was used in the 1940’s, the building on North Ridge Avenue had the pedigree. Home to the best Olympic weightlifters in the country, it boasted heavy duty platforms, a stairstep squat rack, and tons of the famous York barbell plates and bars. Once inside, we were impressed by everything we saw but first ran to purchase the York “Model W.W.” Power Rack I had come for. The portable model that could be screwed into a plywood platform was all of $59.95, but big bucks for a working adolescent. That York did not open for retail sales of equipment on Saturdays but instead, catered to an influx of visitors who bought protein shakes and lots of Hoffman’s protein bars while they watched the greats throw weight around the training area, was but a minor deterrent to Jack and me. We bitched and moaned in a polite and soft-spoken manner, wonderful practice for Jack’s future profession as an attorney, and eventually worked our way up the chain of command until we were granted an audience with John Terpak.
The very impressive Bill March also played pro football and was a great York lifter
Mr. Terpak ran the day to day operation for York Barbell Company, a former lifting champion and as was typical of the era for any business person, dressed to the nines in a suit, even though he was present to do little more than observe the lifters with Bob Hoffman. Explaining that we had braved a blizzard in order to get to York, had taken a Saturday off from one of our many jobs, and needed the rack so that we could continue to “get strong for football,” he and Bob thought we were the most dedicated and perhaps the most mentally ill visitors the place had seen in ages and after continuous pleading on our part, finally relented. We were shown to the warehouse in the back and let loose to carry our own rack out to the parking lot. Not wishing to miss any of the lifting activity, we ran out the back door, literally plunked the metal rack across the hood of my Ford and in our logical and brilliant manner, figured we could secure the thing to the roof after our observation of Bill March, Bill Starr, and Bob Bednarski. In a blinding snowstorm, who was going to walk away with the power rack? Thus, with my York 555 set, assorted “junk yard equipment,” saw horse squat, press, and bench press rack, our heavy duty from-the-shop flat bench, and literally more than a ton of plates we could do whatever had to be done. I cut short bars in the shop and my father and I welded large washers onto them to serve as inside collars. With the stash of small-holed plates I had accumulated, we used the bars and mismatched plates to make a wide range of dumbbells that lined one wall of the garage. I was convinced that we had all that was necessary for success. Supplementing our at-home training with visits to Tony Pandolfo’s storefront, we felt that we were enjoying the cutting edge of high technology training.
Tony’s place was a stereotype for the era (more fully described in Part Six, December 2008 installment of this series), a storefront that housed a desk, chair, and broken down couch in the entryway, all serving as “an office area”, an old-fashioned store display case that in this specific case, contained four pound tins of Rheo Blair’s milk and egg protein powder, and various bottles of Blair’s, Weider’s, and Hoffman’s nutritional supplements. No spandex, belts, gloves, or logoed tank tops, none of which were on the lifting scene until many years later. The gym members were all male, all street tough with a hard edge, and all strong no matter what their size because of the type of training that was done. The equipment consisted of a few small benches that could be used for various dumbbell movements and included a York standing inclined bench, something almost never seen since 1980 but a great piece that I enjoyed so much that I had two of them made for our Iron Island Gym in 1992. That one’s feet were placed into York Iron Boots that served as footrests in the original model of this piece, made it even more exotic. Two benches with upright racks and weight saddles, “professionally made” by York with the uprights closely spaced, non-adjustable, and with “Y”- shaped saddles that were perhaps an inch-and-an-eighth wide made a degree in physics a must to avoid launching an unevenly loaded bar across the gym, a not uncommon occurrence in the Sixties as some would unload one end of a bar completely, forgetting that even one 45 pound plate on the other side could be enough to cause a NASA investigation. The metal pulleys were wall and ceiling mounted and held barbell plates that were dropped onto a loading pin. God help the trainee who unhooked the S-hook that connected the cable from the loading pin that traveled around the pulley and finally attached to the pulldown bar if they did not first securely fasten that S-hook to an eye-hook in the wall. A rapidly falling pulldown bar striking the head and/or neck of the trainee himself or a nearby observer was enough to cause concussion and lacerations and often did. The power rack was homemade and the pair of portable squat racks were the infamous York pair that looked as if anything more than 100 pounds would cave them in. The very tiny “Y” weight saddle, a duplicate of that used on the bench press uprights, made it an exacting science to place the bar directly and cautiously into the “Y” when racking the bar. One can imagine this challenge after an exhausting set of 20 or 30-rep squats. Yet I took an ill advised squat-to-the-bench with in excess of 600 pounds and we had a number of lifters who weekly squatted various rep sets with 400-500 pounds on those very flimsy posts. A ladder arrangement that provided a hookup for a few sit-up boards lined the back wall while a variety of homemade dumbbells of varying denominations, all welded with what was for the most part non-matching plates, sat to one side of the gym. Of course, much more important than the equipment was the atmosphere, enthusiasm, and instruction provided by Tony and the more advanced men in this small, poorly ventilated but productive haven. Names such as Bob Van Dina and Nick Isoldi mean little to iron game historians and were not even immediately recognized by followers of the sport at the time but these were two among other truly strong and well developed men who pushed everyone else along. What we also had that marked our workout spot as “serious” was a grouping of very good York and Jackson Olympic bars and plates and it was only upon examining the two very different looking types of sets that I realized that one’s bars and plates did in fact matter a lot and constituted the most important part of one’s equipment arsenal.
Early Awareness, Bars and Plates.
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. I was fortunate to have a number of concerned teachers who saw a bit of potential in me who joined with two coaches to ride me hard and keep me in line. I knew about weight training and developed a focused interest in the activity at least two years before my father allowed me to lift a weight. This wasn’t due to his concern about disrupting cartilaginous growth plates but rather, he saw the activity as a waste of time and energy that could be better spent at a part time job that would bring in family income. My father also felt that there was a threat of becoming “muscle bound” and slow, further hampering my athletic endeavors and if I trained regularly, there was his belief that I would “turn queer.” There was a long-standing relationship between the gay community and the bodybuilding culture, at least in the New York City area and a number of local weightlifters also maintained relationships of a varying nature with that same underground world, underground at least until perhaps the early-1970’s. Thus, even when explaining to my father that my sole interest was to become stronger for football, his hackles were up. Once I got going at the age of twelve however, he pitched in while never truly embracing my love for the lifting sports.
The great Bill March trains on the York Olympic barbell, the gold standard of the 1960’s.
I had literally made a study of the popular muscle related magazines. “Popular” is a definite misnomer because there was nothing remotely popular about weight training in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s. It was viewed as a strange thing to put time into, a cult-like group of men who seemed to do what they did for the edification of one another because few outside of the small, closely knit training community cared about their physical development. Of course, the positive and negative of this situation was that anyone who had obvious muscular development received attention, wanted or not. If you had what appeared to be a veiny or bulging fifteen-inch arm, the odds were good that you would be asked, “Uh, do you lift weights or something?” My usual retort that “I play football” usually ended all conversation with most of the uninitiated who then assumed that playing football produced the above average degree of muscular development. Remember too that if one intended to remain on the “socially acceptable” list, attracting attention to one’s lifting activities was to be avoided. However, Hoffman’s Strength And Health and Weider’s three or four magazines with their oft-changing titles, provided photos and articles that gave me a reasonable idea of what I should do once I actually was permitted to begin my strength training activities. I knew I needed a barbell and plates, something that would pass for dumbbells, a bench, and a rack to place the bar on for some of the exercises. I realized that anything past that would be a luxury and it seemed as if the big guys didn’t really do anything “fancy” over and above the basic barbell and dumbbell exercises. I was aware, in part due to my father’s “general philosophy of life” instructions that my barbell had to be a safe and effective tool. As an ironworker, he was a typical tradesman who’s mantra was a constant and I had heard “You’re only as good as your tools” and “You take care of your tools and they’ll take care of you” at about the same young age that I was taught what every son of every manual worker was taught; “Righty tighty, lefty loosey” if anything had to be opened or closed. From the very start, I understood that while the exotic looking benches, pulleys, and tables looked great and no doubt could do things to one’s body that could cause extreme muscle growth, one first had to have the best of the most important tool which simply meant that one had to begin their equipment stash with the absolute best barbell possible.
History Supplement: Jay Rosciglione and the St. Louis Crew
There was no weight room at college which was not an unusual state of affairs in the mid-1960’s. I became a fixture at the Central YMCA on Elm Street, hitchhiking or jogging the four miles or so from campus to the basement hovel called the “Weight Training Area.” When YMCA’s still served as daily, weekly, or monthly residential hotels primarily for transients, the Central Y was in every way typical which meant that the lifting “area” was no more than a small room shoved into a corner of the basement. Pools of leaking water, a cracked concrete floor, and a lot of functional homemade equipment was the order of the day but the group of lifters, bodybuilders, and limited number of football players from both Xavier University and Cincinnati made for an enthusiastic and spirited group that was very supportive. The perception of the iron game moved forward so that by the end of the 1970’s three or four NFL teams had full time strength coaches and weight training was becoming more accepted for athletes. The storefront pits and Y basements had begun to give way to all-Nautilus clubs and large health club type facilities that allowed for sauna, racquetball, and coed socialization in relatively opulent and comfortable surroundings. When I changed careers and moved to St. Louis to attend chiropractic college, I was fortunate to find the time to train among school, clinic, family, and employment responsibilities. In St. Louis, George Turner, an old-school bodybuilder, was the main man. He had three successful health clubs with the “least fanciest” located in a shabby part of the city. The “North gym” as everyone referred to it, was home for the powerlifters. I did most of my training with Olympic lifter Mike Wittmer or by myself in my basement but in time would make regular visits to the North gym or the Granite City Y across the river in Illinois. The St. Louis group at Turner’s North were in a word, terrific. They were extremely supportive of each other’s attempts to improve and dedicated to what was still considered to be a nascent sporting activity. The best of those lifters was Jay Rosciglione.
Jay had been a high school wrestler whose non-school hours were spent working in his family’s very successful Italian bakery. He more or less wandered into powerlifting as a competitive outlet and proved to be adept at his new sport. Jay and I became friendly, and eventually became a team at major meets. I want to be very clear that I did little to contribute to Jay’s ultimate success and over time he was one of the best powerlifters in the world. His numbers, especially big in the squat, ranked him at the top of the 148 and then the 165 pound classes for years but all of that came from his ability to work hard and that discipline and focus were much more important than the actual numbers. At contests, Jay and I were often assumed to be related. I never could see the resemblance, especially from the neck down but from Munich to Dayton to El Dorado, Arkansas, there would be dozens of inquiries at every meet asking, “Are you guys cousins?” At an earlier time in life when weighing 232 pounds, I was “noticeable” as a guy who lifted weights but at 165 or lighter, I looked like “a guy” and not much more than that. Jay looked as if he stepped out of the pages of Muscle And Fitness as one of their supplement ad models or Mr. America winners. While competitive bodybuilders often commented upon the muscularity and physique development of powerlifters like Roger Estep, Jim Cash, and Jay, photos did little justice to the visual impact the depth of Jay’s muscular development and fiber-revealing definition had on observers. He was every bit as ripped as any dais-mounting muscle man and of course, multiple times stronger than any of them. Thus, when asked if we were in fact related or told that “you guys look alike” I was quite flattered and it happened often because at meets, we were usually within feet of each other a great deal of the time.
Jay and Dr. Ken circa 1982.
One of my perks for handling and coaching Jay was a hand-delivered, four day supply of freshly baked brownies at every venue he or I competed at. Although I was guilty on almost all occasions of finishing the entire container of brownies by myself, better than that came when visiting the bakery on Friday afternoons. Interning at the Logan College Clinic that served the rather downtrodden neighborhood of Ferguson, I could travel quickly and easily to Turner’s North and within blocks of that, to the Rosciglione Bakery. On Fridays, Jay or his brother Pete would whip up a few gigantic pizzas that served as lunch for the family. Honored to be considered as family, they usually saved a large helping (or two, or three) for me, knowing I would stop in prior to my clinic hours or training. Everyone from the New York Metropolitan area will tell anyone who will listen that pizza just isn’t pizza unless its made in New York (with top marks going to Brooklyn) and pizza anywhere else is barely edible. However, to this day, Jay’s pizza remains my favorite, the absolute best I’ve had and in my neighborhood, pizza is a U.S. Department Of Agriculture official food group! For those who used to marvel at Jay’s muscularity, where every fiber and striation literally jumped out from beneath the skin, yes, he ate the brownies, pizza, and anything else that the bakery so expertly made for all of the Italian restaurants in St. Louis and for retail sale. Jay’s training, like that of cohorts Bill Davis, Rick Wickham, and the other wonderfully talented crew at the North gym, was very basic and uncomplicated. Squats, bench press, rows, pulldowns, deadlifts, shrugs, and what everyone in St. Louis for some reason referred to as “head pulls” which was a partial deadlift from knee height done every other week, constituted ninety-five percent of their training. The basics served Jay well as he was still competing at the World Championship level to the mid-1990’s. Even today, that group of lifters from St. Louis and Jay in particular, elicit favorable comment and they were deservedly seen as a force to contend with at every contest spanning many years.
Bob Hoffman’s Strength And Health was the lifting bible for the sport while Weider’s magazines stressed the bodybuilding end of things. Years later, when York produced both Strength And Health and its companion Muscular Development as monthly editions while Weider countered with Muscle Power and Mr. America magazines, my training partner and friend Jack summed it up best by stating that “S&H and MD have the info we need but Weider’s got the photos for greater inspiration.” Iron Man magazine had also become a regular “read” for us and the bimonthly publications offered a little bit of everything and did it better than anyone else. We marveled at the photos of the lifters and the outsized bodybuilders and we already knew some of the fellows personally from our own training facility that were appearing in these very magazines. We were shocked at the kind of weight that was being lifted in both Olympic lifting and odd lift/powerlifting contests and carefully noted the photos to see what kind of equipment was being used. Hoffman pushed his York Olympic barbell and it was considered to be the ultimate. While any real Olympic bar was beyond my financial possibilities at the time, I would dream about putting my hands around the same type of bar the greats used. At Tony’s storefront however, in addition to the one York barbell on the floor, we had two Jackson Olympic barbells that seemed to be just as good if not better! I hadn’t even heard of the Jackson Barbell Company but Tony was the one who could and would fill me in.
York, Weider, and Jackson.
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. I met Joe when I was fourteen and with explanations from Leroy Colbert, understood his “deal” quickly. To his credit, he loved bodybuilding, enjoyed the other lifting sports, and gave all of it financial support, but without making any mistake about it, he was in it for the dollar, a lot of dollars. He also found a great deal of humor in the complaint I registered upon meeting him the first time, that over the school Christmas vacation, I had done little but work on the back of my father’s truck, lift weights, eat stacks of sandwiches, and drink his highly touted Weider Crash Gain Weight Formula 7, yet gained but one pound total, not the pound-a-day-for-two-weeks as the ads had promised. My rather bold request for a refund was met by his derisive laughter and comment, “Yeah, you and a lot of other people.” This was my first wake-up call relative to the nutritional supplement industry.
In the small town of Point Lookout where we lived, there were relatively few full time, year-round residents. Considered a summer beach community, many who stayed, or who were forced to live there through the winter months, like our family, did so without heat or hot water. There were substantial, year-round homes that of course made the ramshackle summer bungalows that others lived in pale by comparison and in one of these nice houses lived Mr. Angelo Siciliano. He was a splendid looking gentleman, always neat, well groomed, and in great physical condition, even at what was to my teenaged judgment, his "older age." He jogged on the beach and lived quietly with his family and my father was insistent that I always refer to him as “Mr. Siciliano.” As I saw him daily, I was careful to do just that and not ever refer to him by his more famous and internationally known name of Charles Atlas. Yes, “that” Charles Atlas was actually a neighbor, one of the nicest men, no, gentleman in the truest sense of the word. He was polite, had an air of intellect and “finish” about him although he was an immigrant “off the boat” as the old timers would say, and probably had no more of a formal education than my father did. He was always very encouraging once I made it known that I intended to become bigger and stronger.
Another local who was a bit of a celebrity due to his time on television has remained one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the iron game and is still promoting physique contests and going strong in his mid-eighties. Dan Lurie was the only one of six or seven brothers who did not join the family moving business. Even in the late 1940's, "Abe Lurie And Sons Movers" emblazoned on the side of trucks could be seen zooming around the area. Dan’s obsession with lifting weights and building his scrawny physique to huge proportions more or less was mirrored in my quest decades later. He began at a young age and he still hasn’t stopped. He never became “huge” but was extremely muscular, well proportioned, and strong for his size. He placed high in the early AAU Mr. America contests and by 1945 became “a professional”, regularly appearing as “Sealtest Dan The Muscle Man” on America’s first in-color television show. A little known fact was that Dan was Joe Weider’s business partner when Joe began to distribute his products from Canada to the U.S. Dan would be the first to tell anyone that he was but one on a long list of individuals that Weider took advantage of (see Dan Lurie ) and because he was another resource, I heard his side of the story more than once. When I met Joe, upon hearing that I lived in relatively close proximity to Lurie, he blasted his former partner, even taking a verbal shot at the Statue Of Liberty Dan displayed on his lawn for many years. Dan sold barbells and plates out of his Brooklyn factory and store and many former trainees from my era can boast of having a Lurie Barbell set although these were few and far between in other parts of the country.
Sealtest Strongman Dan Lurie
York and to a lesser extent, Weider, were the barbell suppliers, at least in our area. There was no doubt that the York bar was viewed as the pinnacle of quality and it had its association with the famous barbell company and its Olympic lifters. The latter fact gave it a great deal of credibility. The desire to use a York barbell, for many of the guys followed along the lines of typical Madison Avenue group-think: “If the best lifters in the world and in our country are using only York bars and plates, I’ll train better if I use a York barbell and plates.” There was an “official York distributor” on 14th Street in Manhattan, and if memory serves me correctly, it was Gem Sporting Goods. It was a small store that always had a York 310 Pound Set displayed on the floor and when working in the shop with my father on 19th Street, I would occasionally walk over to Gem at lunch time. Just to say I had received the opportunity to lift on a York bar, I would terrify the clerk and do three or four sets of ten reps in the deadlift with the fully loaded display set. While the hired help was never happy to see me as it was obvious I wasn’t purchasing anything, I was justified in “having to try it” to see if I wanted to eventually buy it. There was no doubt in my mind that I was emulating the Olympians when my hands were on the York barbell.
Doc’s son Greg squats 500 for reps with York as the standard of the day.
Through the pages of his magazines, Weider touted his set as being superior to that of Hoffman and there were a few floating around the metropolitan area. We were led to believe that all of the Canadian strongmen trained on Weider barbells but everyone who read Weider’s magazines also believed that the Weider Research Clinic had guys in lab jackets rushing around from one test tube to another while in reality, the “Clinic” was no more than a storage closet with a sign on it reading “Weider Research Clinic.” York was considered to be the gold standard in our area and probably throughout the U.S, despite Weider’s protestations to the contrary. I was to learn later that in California, one could purchase Olympic sets made by Walter Marcyan or Paramount. Of course we never saw these in New York although Walt “Marcy” was a rather well known name in the iron game, dating back to the 1940's. A former competitive lifter and bodybuilder as per the norm in those days, he was one of the pioneers in the health club industry, opening his House Of Health string of gyms and then beating the better known and more widely distributed Universal to the punch with his truly innovative multi-station Circuit Trainer machine. What I didn’t know until Tony Pandolfo pointed it out to me was that in the small storefront we trained in, we had what many considered to be the finest barbell set in the world, the Jackson Barbell Olympic set.
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