Powerlifting: How It All Started
by Peary Rader (1983)
There has been a great deal of confusion relating to this sport of powerlifting. The conflict which has enveloped it in recent years hasn’t helped to clarify it very much.
Very few people are still around who were in on the beginning of powerlifting as it started back in about 1948. Basically powerlifting is as old as man and I suspect that Adam and his two sons did considerable powerlifting as they moved the rocks around on their fields and so on as they were forced to work for a living. Down through the ages there have been a great many powerlifters, depending on your interpretation of what powerlifting is.
Actually powerlifting refers to the basic strength of a man as compared to technique and science as used in other sports. Powerlifting is lifting with power, and power only. The strength of the muscle is doing all the work and there is no trickery or so-called science involved even though many powerlifters have attempted to introduce what probable should be termed trickery into powerlifting. They have done this in hopes of increasing their poundage in competition so that they can win; however, the rules and regulations have attempted to regulate this and restrict it as much as possible down through the years.
Most of the old-time strongmen could be classed as powerlifters. Such men as Louis Cyr, Hermann Goerner, Josef Steinbach, Wilhelm Turk, Karl Swoboda, Warren Lincoln Travis, G.W. Rolandow, Lionel Strongfort and there are a large number of other similar famous strongmen who exhibited their strength in the past, primarily as professionals, that they might make a living at it.
These men basically were powerlifters in that they lifted primarily with power. Occasionally one would introduce some technique or trickery into his lift to enable him to lift more. We come down to the present time and we find that perhaps the most prominent man of power would be Paul Anderson. Even though Paul was a tremendous man of power, he also was an active Olympic lifter and, as such, he introduced some of the so-called science of Olympic lifting into his competitive life.
This is not intended to be a complete detailed history of powerlifting as I understand that Mike Lambert is preparing a book on the history of powerlifting. He will do a lot of research and have exact dates and poundages in is historical writings.
The beginnings of powerlifting are vague and shadowy in the minds of most people and there has been much misinformation printed relating to the early powerlifting activities in this country. We are not saying this in order to show any superiority but we will say that the most accurate and authentic background history of the beginnings of powerlifting in this country is to be found in early issues of Iron Man and Iron Man Lifting News.
This all started about 1948 and your editor is one of the few people who were very actively involved in this early promotion of powerlifting that is still around and alive. There are a few other fellows who were active along with your editor, however, their recollections may not be too sharp since they were not as actively involved in the activities.
There has always been from the very beginning considerable conflict between Olympic lifting and powerlifting. This conflict still remains. Olympic lifters were always opposed to powerlifting progress because they were afraid that powerlifting would take away some of the strong athletes which they hoped would develop into champion Olympic athletes. It is probably true that man fine athletes did turn to powerlifting in preference to Olympic lifting simply because it was much easier and quicker to develop proficiency in powerlifting than it was in Olympic lifting. I, myself, was an Olympic lifter and loved to lift on the Olympic lifts and participated in many competitions during the early years. I loved Olympic lifting and respected it a great deal as being the tip sport in all athletics. Olympic lifting takes more skill, more speed, more flexibility, and more strength than any other athletic sport. This was recognized and proven at the Olympics which were held in London many, many long years ago and it was given publicity at that time. Therefore, I think that we can say that no athlete is superior in total athletic ability to an Olympic athlete. However, as I mentioned before, I recognized the fact the fact that many people do not have the desire to participate in Olympic lifting and other sports where such a great amount of skill is required. There are many people who prefer a sport where plain strength and power are the primary requirements. Many people do not have the athletic skills required in Olympic lifting and other branches of athletics but they do have the ability to excel at a simpler, more straightforward strength sport such as powerlifting.
Powerlifting offers a tremendous appeal because a young man, or for that matter an older man, can start training for powerlifting and in a very short time – say a period of two or three months – he can enter contests and meet and learn from other like-minded contestants. Such things are not possible in Olympic lifting or other branches of athletics where it takes years to acquire all the skills and physical abilities needed to excel.
In recognizing these factors, we decided to include what is now known as powerlifting as a sport in a new organization that we set up back in 1948. That is, the beginning of 1948, but it was not completely well organized and functioning properly until the middle and late 1950s. Considerable time was required for a new sport and mistakes were made and corrected and progress was made and the sport continued to grow.
As I mentioned before, there was a lot of opposition to the development and growth of powerlifting. One man in particular, who was the chief promoter of Olympic lifting, was very concerned about what powerlifting would do to the sport that he was active in. For many years he was very aggressive in his opposition to powerlifting through his magazine which went all over the country. But finally, he realized that he could not destroy powerlifting; therefore, he decided to join it, which he did, and worked with the powerlifting organization from then on.
This has been characteristic of many attempts by people who wanted to stop the progress of powerlifting. It seems like it is a sport that cannot be stopped no matter how much opposition there is to it. Even today with the tremendous amount of internal bickering and fighting among the powerlifting organization, I am sure that powerlifting will continue.
Many fellows out in the field who are doing powerlifting couldn’t care less what the officials are bickering about and most of them have no idea what this is all about. This, I suppose, is to be expected as a sport grows and gets bigger there are people that want to get into it and control it for their own benefit – either financially or for their ego – and probably ego is a greater motivating force than money.
Today we supposedly have three organizations who are attempting to take over the sport of powerlifting. How far some of these will get I do not know. They may grow or they may die on the vine, depending on the approach that they make. It is regrettable that they cannot get along and agree as the Olympic lifters do because the Olympic lifters have always had one organization and it has worked well and been well organized. Nobody gives much consideration to starting a new organization. Possibly this is because Olympic lifting today in this country is a minor sport and it does not appeal much to those who want to have power in their hands to control a lot of people.
Regardless of what is the motivating force behind all these activities, we do know that there is considerable conflict between the American organization and the international organization or the IPF. However, this has nothing to do with the past history of powerlifting though it may affect the future history of the sport.
As mentioned before, the very beginnings of powerlifting started in the minds of a few of us who were interested in this field in 1948. But it did not get too much action until some time in 1949. This actually started out as a professional association – an association that was supposed to bring all the professionals together, that is, professional athletes and gym operators and others who were making their living from the activity of lifting. As I mentioned before, the start was way back in 1948 and this start was mostly in the minds of fellows who were interested in developing an organization. The motivation we had was very high, however, we failed to take into consideration that we were dealing with human beings and when money is involved and prestige, as it is in professional athletics, it is next to impossible, no matter what branch of athletics it is, to maintain a very effective organization.
Anyhow, we went ahead with it and we had our first convention set up for June 25th and 26th in Los Angeles. This was the Professional Strongman Championships which were to be held at the Embassy Auditorium. This meet was to be sponsored by Peary Rader and Walt Marcyan. It was also held in connection with “The Mr. 1949.” Of course, the professional organization was interested in the physique contest as well as powerlifting and any other type of strongman activity.
The lift selected for this strongman contest was the Continental & Jerk. I suppose this was used as a sort of off-shoot of the Olympic lifting and it was probably done because we hoped to get some of the Olympic lifters to enter into the activities – at least some of the past Olympic lifters.
A tremendous setup was planned with a big banquet and all the trimmings. This professional show was well attended by a big share of the professionals in the country and was quite a success. I will not detail the show itself, however, I do wish to talk about the organization since this is the primary motivation for this article – to tell you where powerlifting came from. This was the beginning of the organization which eventually developed amateur powerlifting in this country.
At this beginning meeting the following people were elected as the board of directors and you will note very many famous names of the past in this organization. This was a preliminary board of directors and a permanent one was to be elected at a later date. The following people were on this board of directors: Bert Goodrich, Walt Baptiste, Gene Jantzen, Peggy Redpath, George Redpath, David Willoughby, Pudgy Stockton, Peary Rader, Leo Stern, Karris Kern, Frank Thompson, Don DeMarce, Willis Reed, Walt Marcyan, Tony Terlazzo and Mabel Rader.
If you have a copy of Iron Man Vol. 9 No. 5 of October, 1949, you will read a full report of this meeting and note the list and a picture of the directors. The officers elected were: Peary Rader, Chairman, and Don DeMarce, Secretary Treasurer. It was determined that in three months another meeting would be held at which time a permanent board of directors and officers would be elected to serve for the coming year.
You will note some women on the board of directors – even at that time the women were assuming a very prominent place in the activities of our sport. Some of them were lifting, some of them were in bodybuilding.
Dave Willoughby was given the job of making a list of records. He was also supposed to do the layout for a new rule book. A constitution and bylaws were to be prepared. A code of ethics committee was also appointed. Remember that this was primarily a professional association and organized for professionals; however, consideration and discussion was given to the fact that amateurs would also be considered and possible promotion for the amateur sport would be a major item of organization.
On October 29th and 30th of 1950, another meeting was held in Los Angeles at Botwins Cafe, all day the first day. The second meeting on the 30th was held at Marcyan’s gym. At this time the permanent officers were elected and a constitution and bylaws were carefully read and corrections necessary were made and adopted. Thus far, this had been called the Professional Strongman Association and some discussion was held about perhaps a better name with a broader meaning. Several names were suggested and discussed and the organization finally voted on the name of “International Strongman Association.”
On the second day committees were appointed which were to function for the growth and progress of the organization in the coming year. Membership dues were set up. Bear in mind that most of this activity was in favor of professional organizations and while the International Strongman Association, which it was called, was superbly organized, there were not enough people participating in the activity or even available in the professional organization to participate to make it grow and thrive.
There was still interest, however, and the meetings continued to be held. At this time Peary Rader was president; Bert Goodrich, Vice President and Karris Kern was Secretary-Treasurer. Continued plans were made for contests and other matters were discussed.
It was shortly after this that it was decided to enter more vigorously into amateur competition and this was done in connection with the AAU and the Olympic Lift Committee. It was reasoned by the Olympic Committee that if they could work with the Powerlift Committee, as it was later called, that they would be able to control the activities and prevent it from detracting from the popularity and the growth of Olympic lifting.
The powerlifts, or the odd lifts as they were called, were still not held in any high regard among the lifting fraternity at this time. Around 1958 or 1959 these lifts became known as the powerlifts or strength lifts and a national championship was planned and announced in March of 1959. These were to be held in Colorado Springs. Keep in mind that things were difficult for powerlifting at this time. Although a lot of people were apparently interested, they were often discouraged by others who did not want to see powerlifting grow into a major sport.
This first contest was supposed to be held October 11th and the lifts selected to be contested were: the continental & jerk (a belt could be used and the bar rested upon this while bringing it to the shoulders), the bench press and the squat. General AAU rules were to be followed. All bodyweight classifications of that time in the Olympic lifts were to be used in this contest. The date above was later changed to November 5th and a physique contest called “Mr. North America” was planned to go with it. A lot of planning went into the preparation for this meet, however, the entry list was so small that it was decided to cancel it.
One year later in Milwaukee they planned another National Odd Lift Meet, for November 26th and 27th. Just a year later than the other one and this time the official lifts were to be: bench press, deep knee bend and deadlift. The same lifts that we presently have.
I suppose this might be considered the actual beginning of powerlifting as we know it today, although it was drastically different than what you will see in power contests now. After a lot of planning and preparation for this contest, the entry list was so small that it again was cancelled. It does seem strange that with so many powerlift or odd lift contests being held in so many areas that they could not get enough people to compete in a national championship. It was around this time that the sport became known as Powerlifting rather than Odd Lifts.
Around March 1955 there was a big Powerlift contest held in Oakland, California. The lifts used were: the Olympic press, upright rowing, the bench press, the squat and the deadlift. At this contest the highest bench press was 360 and the highest deadlift was 625 done by a heavyweight by the name of Tiny Walsh who weighed 263 from Ed Yarick’s gym. There were also women’s contests held in conjunction with this with 10 entries, so you can see that the women have been doing powerlifting just as long as the men.
Quite a number of contests began springing up around the country at this time. There seemed to be no particular uniformity of lifts being used and each contest had a different set of lifts. On January 13, 1956, we find the Boston YMCA a powerlift contest in which the Olympic press, the squat and the deadlift were used. In the same month, a YMCA in St. Paul, Minnesota had a powerlift contest in which the bench press, the squat and the deadlift were used in that order. You can see that they were beginning to come into the lifts that are presently used.
In the July issue of Lifting News, there was a report on a discussion Bob Hoffman and I had on powerlifting. Bob, of course, was totally Olympic lifting and felt that powerlifting was damaging to Olympic lifting. He was opposed to bench pressing, deadlifting and squatting as he felt that this was bad for Olympic lifters and destroyed their abilities. I tried to point out to him that the squat especially was a very valuable exercise for Olympic lifters and that they should all do it. I could agree that possibly deadlifting was not very productive nor was bench pressing although I had no real reason to believe that these would damage Olympic lifting. They were both slow lifts and might slow an Olympic lifter up somewhat.
In previous years, the USA had dominated Olympic lifting and had most of the champions and world records but around 1959 and 1960 there began to be a decline and we have never recovered from that decline since then. Possibly many people will blame powerlifting for this decline in Olympic lifting and I think that it is true that many lifters have gone into powerlifting that might otherwise be in Olympic lifting. At that time there were probably 3,000 Olympic lifters training whereas today we have around 1,100 registered Olympic lifters. The reason for this is hard to say. I am sure that powerlifting is to blame for part of it though not all of it. Other things have drawn Olympic lifters away from that sport.
Olympic lifting is one of the most difficult sports to train for, It requires every skill and talent and physical ability, as well as mental control, that a man is capable of. It takes years and years to become a successful and outstanding Olympic lifter. Many fellows are not willing to give this dedication to it or wait this long to become proficient at the lifts and succeed. You can enter powerlifting very quickly if you have the basic ability and use the proper training methods. It was around this time in 1960 that powerlifting began to grow more and more. We have a letter in Lifting News by a Mr. Balderama who told about how they were organizing powerlifting in Michigan and were going to have a lot of meets. Other areas were doing similar things.
In the March 1961 issue of Lifting News there was an article by the famous Olympic lifter Bob Mitchell telling his opinion about powerlifting and that powerlift training could help a man in Olympic lifting. This would indicate the change in the thinking of many of the people involved in the field of lifting. Mitchell cites many of the top lifters of the time who used some of the powerlifts in their training to improve their Olympic lifting. This is another indication of the growing trend in popularity of powerlifting.
In the July and November issues of 1962 of Lifting News, the powerlift records were published. These were for the bench press, the squat, the deadlift and the curl. I have mentioned before that the Olympic Committee had assumed jurisdictional control over powerlifting back in the 1950s – from 1952 to 1954 or along in there. This continued until 1962 and at a meeting of the AAU Weightlifting Committee quite a blowup occurred when the subject of powerlifting came up in the meeting. I tried to explain that both sports could continue to work together in harmony and have a good relationship. But this did not seem to be a popular expression and there was too much hatred between the two sports to survive very long in a cooperative effort. It was, therefore, my recommendation that the Olympic Committee drip their jurisdictional control over powerlifting and let the powerlifters be allowed to organize as a separate organization under the AAU banner.
After listening a long time at this Committee meeting of the Olympic lifting and their derogatory comments about powerlifting, only two or three of us stood up and talked in favor of giving the powerlifters a chance. The powerlifters were not represented at this meeting so they could not defend themselves. Some of the members of the Olympic Committee indicated that they would continue to keep a list of the records, but they must not sanction championships and that certain lifts should not be permitted among the powerlifts practiced. You can find a full report of these discussions in the December, 1962 issue of Iron Man Lifting News. In the same issue there was a report of the Indiana State Powerlifting Championship. At this Championship they used the bench press, squat, curl and deadlift. It is difficult to understand why the curl was so often included in the powerlifts except that it was a popular exercise and a lot of people liked to perform it.
In the March issue of 1963 Lifting News there was a report of the Southern California Powerlifting Championship. I was in this contest that Pat Casey, who many of you remember, made his entrance into the world of powerlifting and made a 530 bench press, 200 curl and a 580 squat. These were the three lifts used in this contest.
In spite of opposition, powerlifting was making progress as you can see. This contest in southern California seemed to have a very large entry list and a lot of records were made. In 1963 David Matlin issued a statement regarding powerlifting indicating that powerlifting should be dropped from the Olympic Lift AAU Committee. This created such a storm among the Olympic Lift Committee that he was forced to rescind his statement and stated that the AAU Olympic Lift Committee would retain jurisdiction over powerlifting. The Olympic Committee did not want to lose this jurisdiction since they did not want powerlifting to grow.
Powerlifting did continue to grow, however, and in December, 1963 Lifting News there is a large article by Hal Stevens on the West Coast Powerlifting Championship which was very successful. It also had a report on the first AAU Atlantic Coast Powerlifting Championship which was probably the largest so far held in the United States with 40 outstanding lifters. Two or three other powerlifting contests were also reported in that issue including the Los Angeles Powerlift Championships and also the 3rd
Annual YMCA AAU Open Northern California Novice Powerlifting Championship. Also there was a Heart of America Power Festival held August 3rd and 4th in Columbia, Missouri. This was the third year for this contest and the men had so much fun in each event that they could not wait for the next one to occur. A tremendous number of different lifts were used and it was very enjoyable for the spectators as well as the lifters.
Such lifts as the abdominal raise, the one finger deadlift, right hand deadlift, Roman chair, leg press, stiff arm pullover, front squat, hack squat, full leg press lift and others were utilized in this contest. This was a two day event and so there was plenty of time to take care of all these lifts in competition. The chief competition was between Wilbur Miller and Paul Wacholz. Miller was from Cimarron, Kansas, and Wacholz was from Denver. These men had a real battle on these lifts with Miller finally coming out the victor.
Each issue of Lifting News from the beginning of 1963 on seemed to have quite a number of powerlift reports. Down in Columbia, Missouri, Bill Clark set up a national powerlift tourney for July 31, August 1 and 2 of 1964. Notice that this is not called a championship but a tourney, even though it was a national event, they had to be a little careful of what they called their events since it was still under AAU jurisdiction.
The national powerlift records were carried in Lifting News Vol. 10 No. 4 which was the December, 1963 issue. It lists the squat, bench press, deadlift and the curl. It is interesting to note that the curl record for the heavyweight was held by Luther Rogers at 235 pounds. Wilbur Miller held the deadlift record for the heavyweights at 700 pounds with the bench press being held by Pat Casey at 530 and the squat by Lee Phillips at 700.
In the April, 1964 issue of Lifting News there are three pictures of Terry Todd making a 1700 total on the three lifts and this classified as the highest powerlift total ever made up to that time (450 bench press, 575 squat and a 675 deadlift).
I seem to be getting into too many details and if I continue this way, I will never get this report accomplished.
In 1964 at the annual AAU Weightlifting Committee meeting held in conjunction with the Senior National Weightlifting Championships, it was decided that powerlifting records could not be accepted or recognized before January 1, 1965. This effectively eliminated records made up to that time. There was also a discussion of adding the 242 lb. class butt this tabled again for a later meeting. It was also decided to eliminate the curl from the powerlifts. The sequence of powerlifts was then set with the bench press first, then the squat and then the deadlift. It was also decided that the Senior Powerlift Nationals should be held in August or September and that the Junior Nationals should be held some time in August.
September 5th of 1964 there was a big powerlift tournament in York, Pennsylvania with the people in York making an about face and getting truly involved in the powerlifting business. June 25 and 26th of 1964 there was a Prison Powerlift Championship held in Leavenworth, Kansas. Powerlifting had already become quite popular in prisons and this activity stimulated growth and interest in other areas of the country.
At the National AAU Weightlifting Committee meeting in Houston, Texas in 1965, in December, in addition to all the studies and plans for Olympic lifting, they indicated a relenting of opposition and gave some time to powerlifting. It was determined that the Senior National Powerlifts would go to York, Pennsylvania and the Junior Nationals to West Patterson, New Jersey where Frank Bates was going to take care of them. The Junior Nationals held in New Jersey were a huge success and 40 meet and American records were made at this contest.
There were 47 lifters in the Senior Nationals in York coming from 17 states and there were 28 records set in this contest. From this time on, powerlifting really bloomed and grew very rapidly.
During all these preliminary years from the 1940s and 50s, your editor was very active in the field of powerlifting development – not a very popular position to be in – but we felt that powerlifting had as much right to grow and prosper as any other sport. We wanted to see it have a fair chance.
A complete report and photos of the above two National meets appeared in November, 1965 issue of Lifting News. There was also a complete list of powerlift records in that issue.
From this time on, powerlifting was a booming sport, although in later years it developed considerable internal strife which is still persisting today.
We believe that we have given enough space to the early history of powerlifting. Most of you are aware of what went on after the events that we have described and what is going on now. If there is any demand, I could continue with the history up to the present time but I believe Mike will take care of this in his book project that he plans for the future.
If there have been some mistakes in some of the data of various events, we apologize for this as this has been a tremendous task that we had to do in a very short time.
Most of you are aware of the continued growth of powerlifting until it finally reached proportions of a world wide sport that it is now. Of course, there are many things of the foreign countries that still do not have powerlifting. But we suspect that this will soon be changed as many of them are going to realize that it is a very important sport since it provides an opportunity for competition in a branch of athletics that many people enjoy a great deal.
I might also mention here that during this period the Mr. USA show was also held in conjunction with the National Powerlift Championship. At a later date, of course, the physique people went on their own and had their own organization. Powerlifting also developed their own organization with their own chairman.