The two primary points I attempted to make in last month’s column were certainly made if the number of e mails I received is any indication. Most of the older, experienced lifters included a tale, one that became humorous through the prism of time, about inadequate warm-up room equipment and/or the subsequent mishaps that resulted at a meet because of the equipment used. If one was a self-designated powerlifter in the 1960’s, they competed on and with inadequate equipment because, as this series of articles should have made clear, almost all of the equipment was inadequate relative to the weights and stress it was subjected to. I wrote that Pat Casey was forced to have his own bench fabricated so that as “the” biggest bench presser of the day, he could compete and feel safe from injury. Pat would bring the bench with him to various competitions and not one other lifter believed that it provided him with an unfair competitive advantage. Instead they were glad to see him, knowing that they too would be utilizing a piece of equipment that was predictably safer than anything the meet director may have been providing.
Pat Casey competing on his personal bench, completing what was obliviously a huge lift for the era. Note the absence of the three to six spotters most often utilized at any of today’s meets.
Coincidentally, I can recall sharing our early contest experiences with Mike Lambert, the founder and “do-everything maestro” of Powerlifting USA Magazine. The conversation took place in the late 1970’s and referenced meets in the late ‘60’s through early ‘70’s. At that time most of Mike’s competition experience had taken place in California and Hawaii and most of mine in the New York metropolitan area and Northeast. Yet our stories overlapped regarding the shaky squat racks, rickety benches, smooth and bent bars, and forty-five pound plates that weighed anywhere from thirty-nine to fifty-two pounds. We conceded that we were certainly powerlifting soul mates when he referenced a contest at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Lifting there years apart in separate contests, Mike was first to mention that a major California contest there utilized what was actually a wooden bench with a flimsy pad thrown on top of it. I laughed as I noted that I recalled lifting on what had to be the same bench, even though the contest I was in occurred a few years before his experience at the locale. Although the readers might be surprised that the government did not spend the money on an iron, and presumably stronger Olympic bench for a major contest, such was powerlifting reality in the sport’s formative years.
The power rack craze brought on by Bob Hoffman and the York Barbell Company’s push of Isometrics and Bill March’s partial range of motion rack work had lifters everywhere scurrying to find, build, or buy a rack of their own. Certainly March became a premiere lifter utilizing this method of training but York’s introduction of anabolic steroids to many of their lifters just as certainly moved the muscle and strength building process forward. That Bill also developed one of the most striking muscular and athletic appearances using what was a new and exciting training method sort of sealed the deal in the minds of many trainees. “If March could be this strong and look so great training like this, it’s the way to go.” Many authors have noted that the pushing and pulling through a partial range of motion or while going the route of the “immovable” Isometric exercises on the rack may have helped, but March was March and few others could be pointed to as examples of tremendous development due to the training technique or the use of the specific equipment. I enjoyed rack work and always felt it had an appropriate place in a program for some but there was a definite craze that led to the development of numerous “Rube Goldberg” types of racks. The least expensive way to go was wood and many built wooden power racks and this augmented the number of wooden squat racks that enterprising lifters had built for themselves through the decades. Predictably, most did not hold up well and may have served as the introductory squat piece in one’s beginning stages but common sense dictated that once significant weight was being hoisted, wood was a rather poor choice of materials for this application.
Although the great Bob Peoples spent years lifting on his homemade wooden rack in the basement of his rural Tennessee home, most did not hold up as well.
As late as 1965 or 1966 I recall lifting in a meet in the New York City area that presented the lifters with the standard York Barbell Company bench press with narrow-spaced uprights, the “usual” bench of choice for competitions, but a wooden squat rack for the second of the three lifts. There weren’t many lifters in the meet but predictably, all mumbled their concerns and complaints. Just as predictably, despite the meet director’s expression of confidence in his carpentry abilities, it took no more than the typically hard and explosive racking of five or six 400 – 450 pound squats to vertically split one of the uprights. I should interject that as a former iron worker and grandson, son, and brother of iron workers, I am rather biased towards the use of iron and steel for all lifting related construction but admire those skilled enough to produce viable lifting equipment made out of wood. Various links on the Internet provide plans, blueprints, and many photos of wooden squat racks and power racks that appear as if they would stand the test of time for all but the most advanced lifters and trainees. However, especially in the formative years of the sport, this choice of material proved to be a safety hazard.
I noted that the wooden bench used in the Camp Pendleton contests had no more than a thin pad placed on top of it. Obviously, the pad moved when the lifter attempted to settle into the bench press lift and once the set-up techniques stressed an exaggerated low back arch, it became impossible to safely anchor to the bench. In a creative way to better secure the lifter to the bench, Purdue University’s innovative coach Pat Malone was the first to cover his bench press pads with suede. Lifters oohed and aahed at the exceptional appearance of the various colors presented by the suede coverings and Pat gets an “A” for creativity and “fashion sense.” Unfortunately, a majority of lifters would pull themselves high onto the bench surface, anchor their feet firmly to the floor, attempt to slide into an extreme high-arch position, and literally stick to the bench top! The suede was a more slip-free surface but often to an extent that it was a detriment. Additionally, as it is in the competition of many sports, one expects to lie in some or a lot of their opponents’ sweat but the suede seemed to pool the sweat into puddles that were barely absorbed by the end of the contest, but as meet directors and owners of the suede covered pads found later, eventually became permanently stained markers. While Pat has remained extraordinarily successful manufacturing quality barbells for a variety of distributors and direct retail sales outlets, and utilized his multiple Purdue University degrees in physics and biomechanics as a terrific powerlifting and gymnastic coach, the suede covered bench press pad was a very good idea that did not play out as expected in the reality of the sport.
Pat Malone with some of his 1979 Purdue University powerlifters.
Most meet directors were sincere in their attempt to hold meets that allowed the lifters they knew or who lived in their locale to compete. Little thought was given to “making money” because there was little or none to be made. There is no doubt that most had to scrounge equipment in order to host a meet of any consequence and this often meant utilizing substandard items. The obvious query would be, “If the equipment the lifters used on the competition platform was perhaps unsafe and underbuilt, what then was the state of the equipment utilized in the warm-up room?” Needless to state it outright, the warm-up room equipment was usually whatever else the meet promoter could put his or her hands on. As the sport moved forward, meets became larger and garnered more publicity and attention, competition platform equipment improved, often with the use of chromed barbell sets that were loaned to the promoter by suppliers like Ivanko Barbell, handsome benches utilizing oversized tubing frames, and adjustable squat racks of various types. However, and despite the upgrade of equipment on view to the audience and to be featured in magazines via photos, most warm-up rooms were still thrown-together affairs with “whatever was left.”
Part Three to follow: