Note: This article is taken from the book "The A B C's of Powerlifting" by Jim Witt (1984)
It was provided courtesy of Bob Wildes . . . THANK YOU, BOB!!!
What strange madness grips those who place hundreds of pounds upon their backs, hundreds more on the ground before them, and at their worst, place that weight once again upon their chest? Odd? Perhaps, but this is powerlifting.
Our sport differs from all others, I feel, due to the intense personal battle that rages within. Perhaps, "intrapersonal" is a more exact term. There are no real winners and no losers, not to those who attend the spectacle of a staged competition. Winning and losing are dealt with inside of one's own ego and psyche. The announcer may proclaim you to be the "fourth place competitor," but on a day that sees you lifting far more than you have ever done before, you are quite a bit more than that. You are a winner, even though few, if any others share that knowledge. All games provide this, you say, and you may have a point, but always with qualification. Few activities call upon a man, or woman, to call forth every ounce of reserve, every bit of courage, all of one's mental and emotional abilities at one particular moment in time, independent of all others, their fears, hopes, mistakes, and abilities. There is a bar, there is a lifter. That's all you get.
We're interested in the numbers, the big squats, the awesome deadlifts, and the overpowering bench presses. "Hey, who got that world record?" Like other fields of athletic endeavor, the numbers have their place, keep interest of many spectators, provide for much drama. But it is the man himself, the individual who actually competes, who provides the ultimate contribution to the sport and this is to laud them, not their numbers. Besides, the numbers change place on the local level next week. No baby, screw the numbers.
As a sport, an organized athletic entity, we have grown by leaps and bounds. I have to believe that the acceptance of weight training by athletic coaches, especially those involved with the great American pastime of football, has in fact allowed for the growth of powerlifting. I well remember those great old days when the only weights available were pails filled with sand, truck flywheels, uprooted light poles. Many of us heaved, hauled, grunted and sweated over these odd objects while listening, but usually ignoring the admonitions of our coaches to cease and desist before we became musclebound. Once the football establishment realized that the "weight trainees" were beating the gongs off of most of the players, they slowly and begrudgingly allowed us to do our things. "Kicking and screaming all the way" may be the best way to describe the average coach's acceptance of weight training, but by golly, it sure did help a whole lot of us. And the exercises chosen?
Well, the Olympic lifts of the press, snatch, and clean and jerk were certainly attempted, but they were difficult to learn and dangerous if not performed correctly. That still left quite a few twists and turns of the bar, and as it occurred, that the squat, bench press, deadlift, and curl turned out to be the favored few, and with good reason. Hell, it was the fastest way to turn a 155 pound turkey into a 200 pound ass kicker!
The squat promoted the development of strong hips, lower back, and thighs. the bench press filled out the upper body pretty well, throwing work onto the pecs, deltoids, and triceps, and the deadlift, Oh Yes, the granddaddy of them all, the deadlift, where a man could see his life passing before his eyes in the instant it took to make a limit attempt. And lest we forget the exquisite soreness one would have in the upper back, along the lats, throughout the length and depth of the spinal erectors, the hips, and the butt. Not to mention the traps and forearms on a really good day.
Yes, the squat, bench press, and deadlift, in lieu of anything else, usually provided a man with all the work he could possibly want, and then some. And with the added benefit of getting stronger than ever dreamed possible in all parts of the body. The players loved it, the coaches loved it, and as improbable as it may seem, people actually enjoyed watching these events.
In the early 1960's, a number of lifters decided to get together, informally of course, and sort of test themselves on some of these odd lifts. Odd, in that the political powers of the weight and strength game did not particularly approve of them, much preferring the folks to spend their time snatching and jerking. And so the "Odd Lift Competition" was born; actual genuine competition in the bench press, the squat, and the curl.
What?? Yes, dear, the curl. A good exercise for those baseball biceps, but competition in the curl? Yeah, it does seem weird in retrospect, but every sport has its roots and that's where ours was born. Somewhere along the line, someone must have been moved to do one more really heavy lift and because anyone who ever touched a weight damn well knew that there was nothing harder than an all-out deadlift. Well, I imagine some sort of natural progression allowed the curl to be replaced by the big pull.
And so powerlifting was brought forth to the masses, to be enjoyed by thousands, viewed by millions, participated in by entire families. The potential was certainly there, but as we oldtimers know, little actually happened. Guys would meet and bench, squat, and deadlift in relative isolation, with family and friends in attendance. Television? Be serious, it would never happen. Even though physique competitors and the Olympic lifts were flashed on the tube, the powerlifting public (by and large all participants themselves) remained at arms length from the rest of the strength community. No matter that far more shot-putters, discus men, hammer throwers, and football players did many more squats, bench presses, and deadlifts in comparison with the number of snatches and jerks they did training for their sport. "No way, Jack." Powerlifters were those unwashed, unkempt vagabonds who did their own strange thing because they lacked the symmetry and lines for physique competition and/or the technical skill and coordination to perform the Olympic lifts. These losers were an embarrassment to the real lifters, or so we were told. Oh, it was one thing to use the so-called power type lifts to assist one for another sport, but to spend your leisure hours grunting in some basement or garage to elevate more and more weight in a manner that couldn't even get you onto an Olympic team? For defective personalities only.
Did I make all of this up? You think so? The majority of lifters competing or spectating today came along a good many years after the aforementioned tale went down. Those who were active in the early sixties, are, for the most part, long gone, if not to their final reward in the Big Weightroom in the sky, than at least to the sidelines, to other, less taxing pursuits, sane activities more socially acceptable. Millions now watch the major powerlifting events through the magic of television. Publications, most notably Powerlifting USA, give ample space to powerlifting happenings, keeping the believers well informed on a regular basis. Instruction booklets, informing one of the latest techniques, special attire and paraphernalia utilized to assist one's powerlifts, and commemorative patches and decals are there for one's purchase, advertised in big, bold letters for all takers. Man, the times have changed, believe me. A quick look around lets me know that, but why?
The booming interest in physical fitness doesn't adequately explain the growth of powerlifting. I wish it did explain things, life would be simpler that way. But jogging and waving 20-pound dumbbells around is a world apart from the agony one goes through on a 500-pound squat. Especially if that individual's previous best was 465! I tend to believe, and very strongly too, that we are here today, before millions of media viewers, before an international audience, with lifters from every part of the globe, due to the people of powerlifting. No, not necessarily who negotiated the fat and lucrative television contracts, not those forefathers who guided the sport from its infancy. No, like most other sports, ours has been run in a somewhat incompetent, backbiting, squabbling, fumbling manner from its inception. No, it's been lifters, those who sacrificed time, money, and much more to have the privilege of driving 350 miles in blinding snow in order to perform three lifts in front of their peers. They have made all of this, this marvelous World Championship possible.
The list of heroes and almost heroes reads like a powerlifters hall of fame: George Frenn, Bill Starr, Mitch Mitchell. Bob Packer, Mike Lambert, Mike Scott, Gus Rethwisch, Pokey Brunson, John Topsoglou, and many, many more. Huh??? Who??? Yes, some list of heroes. There have been men like George Frenn in other fields; dedicated, intense, intelligent, and just a bit obsessed.
George was one of the first greats in our sport. He lifted in a garage gym with Bill West, Bill Thurber, and others like themselves. Men who supported families with jobs respected by their neighbors, credits to their various southern California communities, but a few evenings a week and on Saturday they would congregate in this small Culver City garage to wreck havoc on a pile of iron and bars that iron sat upon. They received no financial compensation, no fame, no adulation, and believe me, their employers and neighbors couldn't have cared less, if they even knew at all. But the men themselves knew the task they had set before themselves was a worthy one. Elevating as much weight as possible in each of three lifts gave them a great deal of satisfaction and if nothing else, it was a fun way to spend Saturday morning.
And they grew with each other, and trusted each other, and came, no doubt, to love each other in their private pursuit of madness. If no one else cared, that they did was enough. It mattered little that the bodybuilders, Olympic lifters and other athletes in every gym cared not a bit for their activity. They cared enough to make the opinions of others meaningless. Not that all others turned their backs on them. Hell no! Great athletes like Harold Connolly and Bill Toomey knew a good thing when they saw it and fell into a number of those Saturday sessions, helping themselves down the road to their Olympic glories. And although the West Coast of the U.S.A. spawned the first of our powerlifting heroes, others all over the country were pulling and puffing in their garages, with the same goals in mind. Jim Witt, Ronnie Ray, John Dzurenko, Hugh Cassidy, Jack Barnes, Jon Cole, Art Turgeon, Jim Williams, Bill Travis, Joe Weinstein, Allan Lord and many others laid the groundwork for all that was to follow.
Bill Starr was one of the first athletes to do a number of things, but we will confine ourselves to relevant matters here. Bill's National record deadlift of 666 pounds in 1968 was a classic lift, all the more so as he had not done more than three deadlifts that year. His strength was built by training for the more acceptable Olympic lifts, but he proved the efficacy of doing both forms of activity and more importantly, provided the proof that there was no embarrassment in leaving the world of Olympic lifting for that of the power set, a item of contention in the old days.
Other Olympic-style athletes who made their presence felt in the fledgling sport of powerlifting included notables such as Olympic team member Ernie Pickett, National champions Homer Brannum and Larry Mintz. These latter two have the distinction of being the only competitors to win National titles in both sports. Pickett won the Junior in both endeavors.
For all the truly great lifters, past and present, there are many more, not so truly great in ability, but greater than conceivably possible in their zeal for the sport they love so much. Mitch Mitchell and Bob Packer are typical of the breed. Both have been lifting a long time, and frankly, neither is a threat to any record. Theirs has been a labor of love, a contribution measured in units of caring, sharing, and encouragement, not in pounds and kilos. The Mitches and Bobs are out there, promoting contests, recruiting lifters, providing training equipment and quarters, giving their all to the game. They also train and compete, but this is secondary, if not to them, to me, and those like me who see the value in what they do so well and what it ultimately means to our beloved powerlifting.
Mike Lambert is another lifter who has failed to set the record books on fire. He will no doubt go down as the "Worlds Strongest Editor and Publisher of a Powerlifting Journal Originating in Camarillo, California" but little else. But Mike has taken the banner of powerlifting from Dan Dewelts, Les Cramers, Bill Nelsons, and Mike Kennedys before him and has dedicated his life and livelihood to bringing the news of powerlifting, nothing but powerlifting, thank you, to the public, however limited that public might be. His Powerlifting - USA magazine provides monthly reports of contests, training routines, and all the news that's fit to print about the scene. A "different" type of publication, a specialty item, without a doubt. But ours is a special sport that has been nurtured by all of those special people like Mike.
Pokey Brunson and John Topsoglou also are not record breaking lifters although either or both may be in the future. Pokey trains in a small gym, adequately but certainly not lavishly equipped, in the rural outback of North Carolina. John trains with the legendary Larry Pacifico in one of the most beautiful training atmospheres a lifter could hope for, a testament to Larry's drive and motivation. Pokey spends his days packing bacon in a plant that produces meat products. He does this every working day, for many hours, and it leaves him exhausted. I have no idea what John does to put bread on the table, but I'm sure he's just as exhausted every day before facing the weights. Yet, face the weights is exactly what these two young men do, and do successfully, consistently, and with much enthusiasm. They both chose powerlifting as their sport, their emotional outlet, their repository for any excess energy possessed at day's end. They squat, pull, dip, and do a myriad of exercises like so many other lifters, bit and small, famous and not so famous.
They carry on, using the latest scientific approach to their training, or no systematic approach at all. They train day and night, in cold and heat, with or without the support of family and friends. Like all of us, they train and compete because they love to.
They love powerlifting.
Don't we all.