Thursday, November 25, 2021

The Odds for a Super Physique - John McKean


What excitement for an enthusiastic young trainee! 

I was 16 at the time and about to witness my first physique contest. As a home-based practitioner I'd never yet had the opportunity to meet anyone in the "real" Iron Game, but felt that the big annual Mr. Pittsburgh show would allow me to eyeball local stars.

As the contestants marched on stage for the introductory lineup, I was impressed by their shape and definitioin, but disappointed in their overall body size. Well, this wasn't the big leagues of California or New York, I thought . . . 

but just then a tremendously thick fellow, with the largest thighs I'd ever seen on a human walked into veiw. Moments later another absolutely awesome individual, equally impressive in the leg area but possessing unbelievably deep total body cuts strode onto the platform. To my young wide eyes these two men were far better than anyone I'd ever seen pictured in mags. It was no surprise to see one win the contest and the other copping the most muscular award.

What was a surprise was to hear the announcer mention that these two were actually weightlifters, and that each had just won a major award in something back then (early 1960's) called an "odd lift" meet. In fact, it seems the first fellow had just achieved the milestone feat of performing a 500-lb. squat -- almost unheard of in those pre-powerlifting days. Immediately, a 500 squat and those huge thighs became a personal goal -- well, at least I eventually achieved the squat. The second guy was a state champion Olympic lifter in addition to being an "odd" lifter. 

The odd-lift meets proved to be unofficial contest that a few years later evolved into powerlifting. Since Olympic lifting was the only game in town bah then, the odd lifts offered variety and a chance for men strong in other areas to strut their stuff. And these meets were usually more diverse than the three eventual powerlifts -- sometimes such things as curls, bent-arm pullovers, barbell hack lifts, presses and other lifts were contested. Even bodyweight chins and dips for reps were featured. These affairs were very similar to out present daay IAWA all-round events. 

USAWA Rulebook listing soooo many odd lifts:

IAWA Rulebook:

I've always maintained that the most powerfully built men I've seen through the years were always those who concentrated on strength with basic exercises. Some really strong guys don't look too impressive to the average eye, yet whenever I actually witness aa slimly-built lightweight push 250 pounds overhead, or deadlift 500 plus, he immediately looks as good as any Mr. Universe. 

Conversely, I once watched a local physique contest star struggle to press 140 pounds overhead (he weighed 180). Instantly, my mind reduced his big arms and cuts to absolute zero. All his formerly impressive bulk might just as well have been pure fat.

But for the most part, when I run into someone who has devoted years to acquiring strength, he looks genuinely rugged and impressive to everyone -- you can always tell he's a lifter.

With this in mind, come down memory lane with me as I recall some fantastically builit "odd" lifters and the key exercises which helped form them. The approach that helped build them may help build you. Just choose odd lifts that you can perform safely and in consistently good form.

Odd lifts always had a way of surfacing at the famous York Barbell Club picnics, which Bob Hoffman hosted the day after big lifting meets in his home town. Generally, the staff of the old Strength & Health magazine would circulate and ask those in the visiting crowd if anyone would like to demonstrate any strength feat on the big open-air stage. We were always treated to amazing performances by unknowns as well as the current lifting stars. It was a rather loose atmosphere amidst the picnic -style eating and drinking. And it was always amazing to see a few of those super staunch heaalth food advocates grabbing a hot dog and aa beer. But such relaxation often led to world record (but unofficial) performances.


At one of these picnics we coerced a few of our hometown buddies to take the stage. Neither had ever been in anything but small Pittsburgh events. One of them, whose nickname as "Pig," stood 5'6" and weighed nearly 300 pounds. When he warmed up with more weight than any superheavyweight had done at the previous night's National Powerliftinbg Championship, the normally boisterous picnic became very quiet. Oblivious to the attention, Pig quietly called for heaver and heavier singles, casually approaching the then-current world record held by Pat Casey. Each lift was done in perfect form complete with a long pause of the bar at the chest. Never breaking a sweat, he ignored the enthusiastic chant to attempt a world record, instead quietly commenting to his buddy, "Say, Doug, I'm gonna take a break. Why don't you do something easy for the guys like a strict curl with 250 or so?" 

Doug, dressed in his longsleeved plaid shirt, was as huge s the mythical Paul Bunyon who he resembled, and could have curled such a weight with ease, but was painfully shy. 

Both Pig and Doug always trained hard on their favorite odd lift -- the incline bench press. They acquired huge upper body size by merely performing five or six progressively heavier singles on this lift each workout. 

Amazingly, they both achieved weights in excess of 500 pounds on the incline press. Pig did some regular benching burt very limited work (almost never) on the squat or the deadlift, and therefore he never made much of a dent in the annals of powerlifting. 

On the other hand, big Doug used some of his huge fram to bull up high poundaages in the squat and deadlift, entered one naational power meet, took the superheavyweight division easily, then disappeared from the scene. 


One guy I occasionally saw training during my late teens was a bonafide physique star. Charlie would suddenly appear, do several very heavy sets of half squats, weighted dips, or bent arm-arm pullovers, then leave -- usually just one exercise per session. We often wondered when he did his "actual" bodybuilding routine with all the supersets, pumping, and concentration-style movements. After all, the guy was phenomenal. Though only 4'11" tall he had superb muscle size in all major areas, long muscle bellies, and mindblowing definition. His arms were especially impressive.

As it proved over several years of observation, Charlie never did standard pumping routines, only the quick heavy moves we go to see every so often. His favorite exercise seemed to be the bent-arm pullover. I once saw him load an Olympic bar to nearly 300 pounds (close to double his bodyweight) for a couple of sets of 2 or 3 reps. What was hilarious that day were the taller boidybuilders who were performing pullovers, but with a "toy" barbell -- off the fixed weight rack and a weight of perhaps 60 pounds. 


Another intense individual trained at our large downtown YMCA. We nicknamed him "Nasser." We young trainees were afraid to ask this huge unsmiling Syrian for any personal details. This wide shouldered man never seemed to push himself but easily handled sets of progressively heavier bench presses, and bit seated PBNs with around 275 pounds. Most impressive was his unusual closing exercise -- the one-arm barbell clean. Nasser did this so easily gthat he required no collars to keep the pair of 45's on each end of the Olympic bar. That's right, he used 225 pounds! He flipped up a few quick singles with about the same effort with which modern bodybuilders upend their preworkout drinks and concoctions. Of course, Nasser's upper forearms were about the circumference of an average 16-pound bowling ball. 


In an unusual twist of fate, the benefits of an odd lift possibly saved my life one time. A local young lifter who I know only as "South Side Stan" competed in a little of everything but specialized on the reverse curl. He got big all over from squats, military presses, pulls and the Olympic lifts, but had especially striking forearms from the strength he built from palms-down curling.

A bunch of us teens who trained together ventured to a popular lakeside resort during a summer holiday one year. We were joined by 75,000 other teens, college people, bikers, and general party goers. My small group of friends ran into South Side Stan and his lifting buddies one evening. While bar hopping we spotted on of those sledgehammer, ring the bell carnival towers and Stan couldn't resist it. Using those masive, reverse-curl-built forearms, he one-armed the hefty sledge and proceeded to ring the bell about a dozen times in quick succession. A crowd formed and Stan kept noticing that the rest of us were lifters (rare, back then) and requested us to flex and show off in general. We were all a little tipsy and had a good time obliging them.

About a year later I visited a buddy in a neighboring big city, not too far from the small resort town. The friend called some college chums and we eventually located a neat looking little bar. As we sat in the club talking for a while, everyone else suddenly grew quiet. It seems this nightspot was the main turf of of most rugged street gang in the city, and they had just arrived. Their leader promply came to our table, started jawboning to the biggest guy among us, a football player, with the general theme being that out peace loving group was about to be escorted out for a very bad time. We were outnumbered about three to one. Then one fellow began vigorously pointing at me and talking quickly to his leader. I was petrified. The two approached me and asked, "Hey, aren't you the guy who did that big chest pose in Geneva-on-the-Lake last summer?" After coercing me into an impromptu demo (yeah, like I was going to refuse) they forgot all about fighting and just wanted to talk lifting. So, Stan, a much belated thanks for working so hard on your reverse curls. Your acquired hammering strength indirectly saved me from being reall hammered. 


Another outstanding Pittsburgh odd lift competitor may be well known to many readers. Professional wrestling's long time world champion, Bruno Sammartino, lifted in many of those early events. 

2019 Documentary:

"Behind the Championship Belt" - 

Every now and then I get the opportunity to discuss his lifting days with him, because he lives about a mile away. I've taught his sons in junior high school, and often see him jogging the local roads on my way to work. Incidentally, at nearly 60 years old, he still looks like he can bodyslam a bus. Of course, Bruno always was, and still is, a huge proponent of total body conditioning exercise prior to actual lifting. Even from his humble beginnings as a thin frail teenager his flair towards athletics saw him doing extensive road work, calisthenics, and wrestling. 

But when he got to lifting it was rarely lightweight stuff -- just fierce determination to always pick up something heavy, then heavier. He established records in all of our locally contested odd lifts -- squats, curls, bench presses, deadlifts, presses, etc. As his strength moved up he acquired unbelievable muscle density on a 260-lb. frame. 

A facet of Bruno's early strength-conditioining training was an unusual exercise that can be termed an odd lift . . . 

He'd get a heavy training partner to sit on his back and then he would perform as many reps as possible in the standard floor dip (push up). I still recall a photo in a local newspaper showing a 19 year old Bruno supporting five pretty ladies in this manner. 

Note: I found a photo from the Pittsburgh Gazette with four of 'em on board:

The weighted floor dip is almost a forgotten exercise these days despite its huge potentijal. For interesting variety from bench pressing, with much more total body involvement, try a cycle of these, having partners stack progressively more 45-lb. plates on your back. You may not build the ability to shoulder and slam a 600-lb. wrestler as Sammartino did, but weighted dips will add slabs of muscle to your triceps, pecs and delts.  


Speaking of dipping, 

let's not forget the benefits offered by the parallel bar version. One of my friends, Antonio Fratto, used this as his only "official" bodybuilding exercise. 

He was also a top caliber powerlifter who won the National and World Championship at 198 pounds back when powerlifting was one big happy organization and the supersuits hadn't yet been invented. I'm sure Fratto's routine of super-heavy singles on the three lifts, and a youthful preoccupation with the clean & press (he did over 300 lbs. officially at 181) had a great deal to do with his muscularity. still, he always snuck into the "Mr." events scheduled directly after his meets. He felt his thrice weekly 4 sets of 50 reps in freeform (bodyweight) dips kept his upper body sharp.


Perhaps the most heralded odd lift practicioner was mighty John Grimek. Seems, in his building years, whenever there was any strainge form of seriously heavy barbell, dumbbell, apparatus or chain lift even remotely mentioned, John would train with a vengeance to best it. In fact, for his pioneering efforts and prowess on so many odd lifts, Grimek was awarded the first lifetime achievement award granted by the IAWA. A permanent plaque verifying this award resides on the wall of the famous End Zone Sports Hotel in Foxboro.  


One time I was competing at a large powerlifting meet in Buffalo, New York. As was customary during the 1960s, a major physique contest was to be held directly after the lifting. Powerlifters and bodybuilders shared the warmup room. At that time Buffalo was famous for physique men, with several having acquired top placings in the Mr. America contest. 

The guys pumped and chattered, wondering aloud who among them would take the title that night. I was surprised to spy what I knew would soon spell their doom. A little guy dressed in shabby, cheap, plain gray sweats sat quietly in a dimly lit corner, half asleep. It was Federal Street Tony -- another training mate from the early days at the Pittsburgh YMCA. 

Tony was unknown outside the Pittsburgh area and at 151 pounds was not real noticeable, being without the genetics to ever become muscularly huge. Though short, Tony was blessed with perfect symmetry. The late Peary Rader once described Tony as having the best shape and razor sharp definition he'd ever seen in his long career as a top official. I'd have to agree -- even in all the time since, Tony would make my top five list. Oh yeah, Tony easily dominated the Buffalo event. 

Tony's training was as unconventional as his show prep. A true bodybuilder by anyone's standards, he nevertheless preferred heavy, low rep, basic movements for the bulk of his training. He employed Olympic lifts, powerlifts, and odd lifts, not for competition but for muscular enhancement through strength training. 

Once, he was unjustly accuse by jealous local lifters as being nothing more than a wasp-waisted weak bodybuilder. So, he entered an Olympi meet, just once. Though he could hardly deny that his waise measured a paltry 26 inches, he shut up cirtics with a magnificent 235-lb. clean & press, and an easy victory in a tough middleweight division. 


My wife and I traveled to Columbus, Ohio some years back, mostly to see the pro Mr. World contest, which was to be contested directly after the World Weightlifting Championship. We were anxious to see the superstars who were entered in the physique show, but the superb Olympic lifting captivated our attention. This was the meet where Alexeev became the first person to officially clean & jerk 500 pounds. When we got a glimpse of the gigantic muscle bulk of Belgium's superheavyweight, Serge Reding, we instantly forgot any need to watch mere bodybuilders. This man's shoulders, arms, chest and thighs were huge beyond belief. Seeing him deftly move in the snatch and the clean & jerk sure topped any static muscle pose. Marilyn and I left exhilarated at seeing the largest muscular human we could ever expect to see. 

We didn't bother staying for the physique meet. 

I remember reading that Reding concentrated on very heavy front squats, high pulls, and various strict forms of presses -- odd lifts in the truest sense. Magazine photos of him performing these exercises with wide stacks of 45-lb. Olympic plates on the bar demonstrated clearly exactly what it takes to really develop size. 

Do you want the best shot at achieving your ultimate physique? 
Well, train for peak strength -- you just can't beat the odds. 

More by John McKean: 

Enjoy Your Lifting! 


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