Perhaps the most popular form of training for modern gym goers, powerlifting is nevertheless a relatively recent phenomena. Indeed, while bodybuilding and Olympic Weightlifting date to the start of the twentieth-century, it was not until the 1960s that the art of lifting incredibly heavy things was formally recognised.
Today’s article thus looks at the birth of American powerlifting, from it’s humble beginnings, past it’s first competitions and into the age of international contests. A story of strength, politics and fun.
Precursors to Powerlifting
As detailed previously on this website, weightlifting in and of itself, is a remarkably time honoured tradition. From ancient societies across the world, evidence exists of athletic programmes, weight training and individuals acts of strength. None more so than Ancient Greece, which boasted a series of fictional and living strongmen.
While cognisant of this past, it is perhaps more fitting to locate the precursors to powerlifting in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as it was during this time that the strength athlete began to emerge as a public figure. As noted by several historians ranging from Peter Bailey to Randy Roach, the nineteenth century saw the explosion of ‘Music Hall’ culture in both the United States and United Kingdom.
Predicated on the idea that entertainment was good and a variety of entertainment was even better, the Music Hall scene paved the way for performers of all hues to eke out a living. Included in this were men like Professor Atilla, Eugen Sandow and many other physical culturists at this time.
In line with this, the nineteenth-century also saw the first serious popular discussions about heavy weightlifting enter the modern world. This was best exemplified in Britain by Professor Harrison, a mid-century Indian Club swinger who advocated the use of heavy weights, far heavier weights than many thought capable. Harrison’s advice was re-iterated in the American context by George Windship, the Harvard doctor made famous for his ‘Health Lift’ contraption, which may have ultimately led to his demise. In any case, the combination of Music Hall junkets and popular health professionals made the spectacle of weightlifting, and heavy weightlifting at that, far more palatable.
Continuing on from the previous era, the twentieth-century saw the juxtaposition between these two concurrent trends reach something of a fever pitch. Owing to the fact that many entertainers proclaimed themselves to be the strongest man or woman in existence, weightlifting competitions between athletes was a regular occurrence from the 1890s onwards.
Far from trivial, such competitions encouraged the regulation of lifting standards, the monetisation of weightlifting and gave the public more of what they wanted. The athletes from this time, such as Louis Cyr and Hermann Goerner, to name but two well known strongmen, often competed in various places around the globe, thereby showcasing their strength in a variety of lifts.
The move toward standardisation came in the 1896 Olympics, which marked the first time that weightlifters began to compete in a truly competitive sense. Though missing out on the 1900 games, weightlifting returned once more to the Olympics in 1904. The following four decades would see the sport bounce in and out of the international games.
The next three decades would see Olympic lifting become the de rigour training programme of most US lifters. Indeed, even bodybuilding stars such as John Grimek and Steve Reeves incorporated Olympic style lifts into their routines. So while the squat, deadlift and bench press would being used around the country, competitions focused solely on these three lifts were non-existent.
Move Towards Competition
Despite Olympic liftings tight stronghold on the weightlifting community, the 1940s saw a series of measures taken to create alternative means of competition. Spearheaded by men like Peary Rader of Ironman magazine, one such organisation interested in new means of testing was established in the late 1940s. Reflecting on the birth of US powerlifting in the 1980s, Rader noted that
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.
Interesting it was not the squat, deadlift nor bench press which became the focal point of the contest, but rather a hybrid Olympic lift…the Continental & Jerk. The decision behind this decision reveals the dependency the burgeoning sport had on Olympic lifting.
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.
The next ten years saw a series of ‘odd lift’ competitions held across the United States by Rader and his associates. Though interested in establishing powerlifting as a fully-fledged sport independent of other weightlifting activities, these pioneers of powerlifting were nevertheless forced to hold competitions in conjunction with physique or Olympic weightlifting contests. A compromise that was endured for the time being.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that during these years, Joe Warpeha has estimated that about 42 different odd lifts were used in competition. Something, which highlights the unformalised nature of powerlifting at this time.
The First, Albeit Unofficial, Competition
As Olympic lifting’s popularity began to wane and that of powerlifting began to grow, big changes emerged in the American lifting sphere. The most notable of these being the relative conversion of York’s Bob Hoffman to the sport of powerlifting. Strongly associated with the US Olympic lifting team, of whom he was often a coach, Hoffman had for many years opposed the emergence of powerlifting as a sport. The fear being that if more lifters went into powerlifting, the US Olympic team would suffer.
Sensing the ‘winds of change’, Hoffman let go of his opposition and on September 5th, 1964, held the ‘Powerlifting Tournament of America’, which many historians have taken to be the first national powerlifting competition to hit the US. Showcasing the strengths of 21 different men of varying weight classes, the competition saw some impressive lifts on offer. As far as can be ascertained, owing to the fact that ‘official’ statistics weren’t taken until the following year, the lifts were as follows.
123 Bench Press Squat Deadlift
Dave Moyer 240 425 420
Jim Kenyon 180 280 365
Ruben Melendez 180 280 360
Harold Raker 215 235 475
George Nieyty 220 275 415
William Gladstone 170 275 405
Larry Mintz 300 450 475
Robert Scott 240 380 530
Anthony Latrace 250 415 450
Nathan Harris 280 445 625
Owen Smith 310 425 545
Gene Devers 275 430 560
William Andrews 385 520 550
Paul Majors 310 470 590
Ronnie Ray 390 450 530
Stanley Blinder 315 510 600
Arthur Turgeon 390 460 550
Kevin Crouse 390 450 550
Terry Todd (317) 470 600 710
Wilbur Miller (246) 365 515 715
Ed Morliens (263) 350 520 620
1965 and the Real Deal
Following the success of Hoffman’s inaugural tournament, the following year saw the AAU’s weightlifting committee agree to an official, fully endorsed powerlifting competition. A decision which meant that all previous records were deemed to be null and void meaning that powerlifting was given a new beginning and a blank slate.
Far from a fringe exercise, 1965 saw 47 lifters from 17 US states travel to York, Pennsylvania for the event. Beginning at 11am, the powerlifting event ran into the wee hours of the following morning with the final lifter completing his attempts at 2.30am! This scheduling nightmare stemmed from the fact that the show was paired with a physique contest, meaning that both events were stretched well beyond the limits of the human attention span.
Nevertheless, the event was heralded by many as a success. Within a decade, American lifters were competing against British ones in ‘world weightlifting championships’ and soon after the International Powerlifting Federation was born. Though a new addition to the weightlifting community, powerlifting’s popularity has grown ever since.
Joe Warpeha, A History of Powerlifting in the United States: 50 Years after York. Available here.
Marunde Muscle. 1964 Records. Available here.
Jan Todd, ‘Chaos Can Have Gentle Beginnings: The Early History of the Quest for Drug Testing in American Powerlifting: 1964-1984’, Iron Game History, May/June (2004), 3-22.
Peary Rader, Powerlifting: How It All Started. Available here.