Monday, September 15, 2008

Jim Douglass - Fred Howell

Jim Douglass
by Fred Howell

Jim Douglass was unable to swallow for three months as the result of polio. Yet by first using a barbell made of logs and training outdoors melting the ice off his lifting bars with hot water in the winter, he was able to overcome this dreaded disease.

Inventor, gym owner and strongman, his determination to defeat illness has helped him build a stronger body and a better life for himself.

After trying for months, I was finally able to get Jim to sit still long enough to answer some questions about his personal miracle.

“When did you first start exercising, Jim?”

I first started exercising after having polio when I was 14 years old. This affected my neck, throat, shoulders and left arm. The medical doctors didn’t know any more than I did about the disease, so the only thing I knew was to run. So I ran for exercise and stayed very skinny, always getting all kinds of colds and flu. But I got so I could outrun anyone in the country school where I went, which by the way also had two years of high school.

I had always liked reading northern stories especially about the fur trade packers who carried huge loads over portages by a head strap or trump line. So I made one for myself and practiced carrying sacks of sand. I didn’t gain any weight, but I did gain some strength. Can’t remember what I carried, but the old packers had to carry at least 180 pounds and some of them would go as high as 450. In a contest at Ontario, Canada, an Indian carried 700 pounds for 700 steps!

“When did you first start to use barbells?”

I first started using barbells shortly after finishing high school. While going to the last two years of high school in a larger town, I discovered McFadden’s Physical Culture magazine. At that time David P. Willoughby was running a series of articles on weight training. He wrote on a different body part each month, giving the best exercises, ideal measurements, largest size possible and best – strength feats using those muscles. I got all of them and read them over and over again.

This was during the depression and I didn’t have the money for weights so I still ran for my exercise. About this time my best friend discovered Mark Berry’s Strength magazine and took Liederman’s cable course, so we worked out with it together.

About the year after I got out of high school I got the idea of sawing a log up into plates of various sizes, boring holes in them and using a pipe for a bar. I later made plates of concrete and that first winter I gained about 20 pounds, which brought my weight up to about 140 at the height of 5’7”. By the way, I read some place that during the first World War when Milo Steinborn was in a concentration camp in Australia he made a barbell by sawing up a tree trunk into plates, so I wasn’t the only one to think up that idea!

Back in the early days when we were just starting to lift, we would have a picnic two or three times in the summer. All the weight men would get together to lift and have a big feed. Six or eight guys from Kansas City would come out and lift with us country boys. One of them was Walt Metzler, who ran the Navy Gym where Bruce Randall trained when he gained in bodyweight to 402 lbs.

“Did you have any special health problems to overcome?”

Did I have problems! Besides being blessed with a weakness for all types of colds and flu I had never been able to drink milk and eat other things a growing boy should have to get big and strong. The local medical doctor was more interested in repeat customers than curing anyone. By the time I was old enough to find out things for myself, it was too late to benefit my skeleton very much. My teeth came in crooked due to not having cod liver oil and other necessary vitamins when I was small. While having polio and being unable to swallow for three months, I developed many cavities.

“Were you in school or working at the time?”

As this was during the depression, there just wasn’t any job except at harvest time for some farmer. I lived on a farm so I was better off than most people at the time. During this period I first read about Joe Hise, so I wrote him. In a few days back came a long letter with detailed instructions. From that time on I received at least two letters a month from him. They were always interesting and instructive and at the same time he was writing to dozens of would-be strong men, sending them reams of instruction and all of it for free.

During the summers while in my last two years of high school I worked on the section gang of the railroad. Much of our work was at a rock mine where rock was mined and crushed for the state highway department. The loading was all done by hand and the men could ship anything that could be lifted in a car. They were paid by the car, which held about three tons and they lifted some good sized rocks in the cars to fill them up fast and make more money. Some of the most massively developed men I have ever seen worked there. This impressed me and helped implant the idea of being strong in my mind.

“Did you make fast progress or did you have to experiment?”

Before writing Joe Hise, I did several exercises for each bodypart as outlined in the Willoughby articles. After hearing from Hise, I cut out the 1001 exercise routine and concentrated on 8 or 10 basic exercises.

“Where did you train, outdoors, in the basement, attic or garage?”

I trained mostly outdoors, having to shovel snow off my exercise plates and pour hot water on the bars to melt the ice off in the winter. I did part of my exercises in the barn loft when it wasn’t full of hay. There I had a ladder fastened up which I walked with my hands to stretch my shoulders and widen them. I worked up to tying weights to my feet while doing this exercise.

“What magazines did you read and who were your first lifting heroes?”

As I said before, I started out with Physical Culture, then Strength, Mark Berry’s Strong Man, Vim, and then Peary Rader came out with Iron Man and I also read Strength & Health. I always spent the money that most of the other boys were spending on cigarettes and beer on magazines. The ones I could buy on a newsstand I would get by catching a ride into Kansas City, 15 miles away when I was able to get a little spending money.

My first lifting heroes were Walter Podolak, Milo Steinborn and the all time number one, John Grimek, when he came along.

When Podolak and Steinborn would “rassel” in Kansas City, all the would-be strongmen would get together and go in and talk to them in the locker room after the matches. Incidentally, in the Willoughby article on the neck, he mentioned that George Kotzanores had the largest neck on record when he weighed 188 pounds. He was killed in a car wreck of a broken neck!

Walter Podolak got a badly mangled forearm and hand in the same wreck. The medical doctors said that he would never use the hand again, but he fooled them and was back wrestling before long.

“What type of routine did you use, Jim?”

I concentrated more on squats, hopper deadlifts, one arm presses, Eels pullovers and other Hise magic exercises. In later years I did shrugs with my Hula Hoop.

“What is your favorite exercise?

I guess perhaps squats would be the number one for me and as a close second, harness lifting. Speaking of squats, once when I was timbering in the mines I was putting in a timber where two guys were shoveling ore in a car. One of them was telling about working for a fellow who lifted weights and of working out some himself. I asked him if he had ever done squats and he said, “No, what are those?” I looked around for something to show them with and spotted a column which is a long jack screw on which a jack hammer was mounted for drilling. It was about 6 ft. long and weighed about 75 lbs. I got it on my shoulders and did a few squats. They both had to try it, and after doing 3 or 4 squats I told them they had better quit. “Naw, this is easy. How many can you do, Carl?” said one guy to his friend. So they did 10 or 12 a few times and for the next threee days they had to help each other walk because their legs were so sore!

In the early days I used to squat for one set, 20 to 25 reps and did the rest of the exercises 10 or 15 reps in the routine. In later years I did heavy squats in sets of 5, increasing the weight each set and doing 6 or more sets. In the sets of 5 squats I would take two breaths between reps and work up to limit poundage.

Sometimes I would do the bench press in single reps, curl for two sets of 12 reps, pulley press down arm extensions, alternate curl and a triceps exercise plus a set of light shrugs for 60 reps and a set of heavy shrugs for 40 reps. Then a neck exercise for 30 reps would end the routine. Then I would rest a day or two and do a squat routine doing single reps for 5 sets adding 20 pounds each set. Then I would reduce the weight 25 pounds and do 5 singles, then take off 20 more pounds and do 4 sets of 3 reps. The calf raise for 2 sets of 25 to 30 reps would round out the routine. Of course this is just for strength and not to build big muscles.

“Just what did you weigh when you started to exercise?”

When I first started weight training I weighed about 120 pounds at 5’7” height and had a 32 inch chest at the age of 19. I went up to where my best weight is around 182 pounds, although in California I got up to 190, but I was a little soft with a waist of about 34 inches. My chest at this weight hit the mark at about 47 inches or more. Once in Missouri in my early days, I had thighs of about 25 inches while my hips were only 34 at about 165 pounds in weight. I remember Mark Berry saying that with 34 inch hips one could not get over 22 ½ inch thighs. This just shows that experts can be wrong and the best way to gain your goal is to keep trying.

“How did barbells improve your health, Jim?”

Barbells improved it in just about every way. I gained more resistance to disease and I was able to assimilate my food better. After hearing from Hise that he was a great believer in milk, I got some Ovaltine and mixed it with the milk to disguise the taste and I was able to drink at least a couple of quarts a day.

“Did you ever use any special foods or diet?”
First I quit using white bread and sugar. I got wheat from the farm harvest and ground it by hand for bread and cereal using honey instead of sugar. I like plenty of raw salads and meat of all kinds.

I still was a victim of colds and flu until I read about Vitamin C being a great help and tried the drug store kind for years with no worthwhile results. I then got some Vitamin C complex containing the bioflavanoids called acerola plus. I very seldom have a cold as long as I take 1400 to 2000 mgs. a day. If I feel like the flu is starting I take 15 to 20 100-mg. tablets per hour for 3 or 4 hours and the trouble is gone.

“Do you have any special diet tips?”

Yes, leave the white bread, pastries, sweets and all junk food alone. As a kid I lived with an uncle who always had 15 or 20 fox hounds. Their usual feed was a mush made of ground yellow corn and clabbered skim milk. They did fine on this diet and were able to run all day and half the night. Someone convinced him to that it would be cheaper to feed them second day old white bread which could be bought for a cent a loaf. Plus the fact that it would save him all the work of grinding up the corn.

So he tried it and in a couple of weeks the dogs began getting running fits and strange type of paralysis. That wouldn’t do, as they were worth about 75 to 150 bucks each, so he got a vet to come and look at them. The vet told him the white bread, the wonder food for growing children, had caused the trouble. He then went back to the corn meal and mush and had no more trouble.

“When did you first meet Joe Hise?”

After writing Joe for about five years, and reading all his articles in Iron Man and other publications, he came to see me in Missouri. I think he first came to see me in the summer of 1936 or ’37 and stayed a few days. All the would-be strong men from near and far gathered in to talk to him and hear his ideas. After I came West he would always come by for a visit when in this part of the country. In his last days, when he was making a last visit to all his old friends, he came by to see me.

I was always sort of a guinea pig for his ideas, and as Dr. G. W. Kelling once said, “People may think he is crazy, but when he is right, he is so right.” And a lot of his ideas that sounded crazy have proven to be true.

“Why did you invent the Hula Hoop?”

After doing puff and pant squats for a number of years I found that a bar on the shoulders humped the shoulders forward and the puffing expanded the lower ribs at a faster rate than the upper ones. This gave one a potbellied look and everyone thought that you had a big gut!

I began to cast about for some method of doing them that would allow one to stand straight and expand the upper ribs. I thought of a device made by a friend of mine many years ago because a barbell bar bothered his back. I began experimenting and after several different models, I hit on the one now made and sold by Peary Rader.

I made one and gave it to Joe Hise and he thought it was the greatest invention since the wheel! He is the one who jokingly called it the Hula Hoop. He said, “Why didn’t I ever think of that, as it was right there before me all the time in the harness lift!”

“Explain what it is, Jim, and just how you use it.”

It is made with a round hoop of ½ x 3 flat steel. The circle is large enough so that one’s knees won’t touch the hoop when going into a full squat. Four pieces of pipe are welded to the hoop at ¼ of the way around. These are to hold a one-inch round rod on which the weights are stacked. Two rings are welded front and back tot which is snapped the harness made from two cotton webbing saddle cinches. The rings at each end of the cinches are tied together and a chain with a snap on one end is fastened in each of the four rings. This snaps in the rings welded to the hoop. The length of the chain should be such that the ring will be belt height.

Load the desired weight on the side rods and try a squat. You will find it is comfortable to use. For Hise Shrugs where a lot of weight can be used, additional weights can be placed on the front and back rods. The weight on the front and back rods would be in the way if you were doing squats.

“Jim, I hear that you run a home gym for both men and women.”

Yes, at one time I had 19 gals working out, and about that many boys. The high school athletes worked out with me until the high school purchases a universal gym. I turned out a few all-conference football players and a district shot put champion.

“Jim, you have traveled to California. What did you think of the gyms and bodybuilders on the coast?”

That was some years ago. I liked Marcy’s gym about the best. He used a lot of Hise exercises and the squatters could be heard for two blocks giving a sort of steamboat whistle as they did their puff and pants.

Some of the gyms used fancy chrome equipment to get customers, and the instructors were pressure salesmen instead of training instructors. I guess it’s the same today with a lot of equipment on the market, sold just for show and to sell the customer.

Seemed that George “Butcherman” Bruce turned out the prettiest and best figured gals. His gym wasn’t fancy, but he got results. I used to get lifting contest tickets from him and I saw for myself the results of his instruction. I remember he couldn’t understand me leaving California and going back to Utah to live.

“Do you have any special story about one of your favorite lifters?”

I used to try to get to Muscle Beach on Sunday to see Dave Sheppard train on the squat snatch. This was when he was world 198 lb. champ and he was really worth watching.

When I was a kid in Missouri there was a colored fellow who was mighty strong and one of his favorite stunts was to take the corner of a 100 lb. sack of wheat in his teeth and lift it off the ground, swing it between his legs a couple of times and throw it over the sideboard on a farm wagon. The sideboard on the wagon would be over five feet tall and he was about 5’9” tall and weighed about 200 lbs.

Incidentally, I think a teeth lifting device is the best means of developing the neck, and beats a head harness in every way.

Around threshing crews back in the days before combines, when threshing was done with a coal-fired steam engine and separator, the crews would camp at the farm where they were threshing. After supper and a few nips of corn drippings they would sometimes have a leg pressing contest trying to leg press the end of the separator. Some of the big Dutch built fellows could do it. I don’t know what it weighed but it must have been several thousand pounds.

“What are our favorite hobbies, Jim?”

Well, besides still having an interest in strongman and lifting, my number one hobby is arctic dogs. Also, reading Physical Anthropology about ancient men and animals.

“What do you do for a living today, Jim?”

For the past 16 years I have run the water plant for the city here and have been Water Superintendent.

“In the past few years you had eye trouble. How did that happen?”

Working in the uranium mills I ended up with radiation cataracts on both eyes. I guess I was lucky, as all the fellows I worked with got worse problems. I was able to have the cataracts removed and a detached retina repaired. The eye Doc forbids me to do any heavy work, so I have to use light weights right now. But my interest remains high in exercise and diet.

It’s worth the reward of good health to take care of yourself.

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