Author: Conor Heffernan

Conor is Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sport Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. When not in the library or the gym, he likes to try his hand at writing, often with mixed results.

The History of Powerblock Dumbbells

This, admittedly, is an article promoted by the Covid-19 pandemic. For the past three months, gyms in my area have been closed or reopened on restricted times. The market for home gym equipment has seen unprecedented levels of demand and adjustable dumbbells are selling for two or three times their original value.

Today’s post looks at Powerblock, one of the more popular sellers of adjustable dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells were not invented by Powerblock, but they did, as we’ll see, help promote them among a new generation of lifters.

Charles Gaines, ‘Cutting Some Fancy Figures, Sports Illustrated, 10 July (1972).

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Outside the auditorium, or Pavilion, as it’s called, it is a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at the Mountain Park amusement center in Holyoke, Mass. A roller coaster clatters up and down a wooden trestle. Children fly around in little whirly things that look like boats with wings. There are clam bars, pizza stands, dart throws, cotton-candy booths, a commando machine-gun stall. The sky is raucous blue, the sun is hot and a lot of people are laughing. Outside Mountain Park, on all sides, stretches Holyoke suburbia, big homes and fine lawns that make the place feel mischievous and isolated, an island of gaudery in the midst of all that yawning green. Especially today. Today in the Pavilion a body contest is going on, a “Festival of Flesh”—maybe the gaudiest of all sporting events and strange as a llama race to the average suburban fan. Leon Brown, who works in a laundry in New York, is in there posing for the 1972 Mr. East Coast title.

The History of the Zercher Squat

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Mentioned at various points on this particular site, the Zercher Squat has been described by many as one of the most effective but painful methods of building big quads. Uncomfortable to the nth degree, this lift isn’t exactly the most popular amongst gym goers. A point which leads us into today’s post. Why invent such a painful method of lifting? When did it come about and why has it remained with us today?

Alan Calvert, ‘General Training Program’, Health, Strength and Development (Philadelphia, c. 1920s).

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Hundreds of prospective pupils write me to ask how long they will have to train; how much time they will have to spend each week, etc., etc. This seems a good place to answer those questions.

The average pupil practices the first course in developing exer­cises for two or three months. He practices every other day (that is, once in 48 hours), and the practice period covers about 30 minutes.

By the end of the second or third month the pupil has attained a certain degree of strength and development, and then his training program is altered. On two days a week he will practice the more strenuolls of the developing exercises from the first course, and two other days a week he will practice the Eight Standard Lifts; that is, the second course. He keeps up this training for two or three months and during that period the time consumed is about three hours a week.

The Standard Lifts Course, as well as the First Course in Devel­oping Exercise, is given free to every pupil who buys a bell-whether it be a low-priced plate bell or the most expensive MILO TRIPLEX bell on the list.

Louis Abele’s Back Program c. 1948

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Although unknown to the modern olympic lifter, Abele was one of America’s finest lifters during the 1940s and 1950s. Unfortunately he was overshadowed by fellow US lifters John Grimek, Steve Stanko, and John Davis during the course of his career. Similarly the outbreak of the Second World War denied Abele the chance to lift at the 1940 Olympic Games, a time when he would have been in his prime.

Nevertheless, Abele’s lifting career saw him put up some rather impressive poundages as you’ll read about.

With regards to training philosophy, Abele was a strong advocate of specialisation and high intensity training. Illustrating this, Abele tells the reader that he once exercised so hard that his teeth hurt from breathing! I suspect that this level of intensity is relatively rare in today’s gyms. Anyway what fascinates me about Abele was his advocacy of specialisation and by that Abele meant training primarily legs for 2 to 3 months before moving on to another body part for a similar amount of time. In this way Abele would focus almost exclusively on one body part, to the detriment of others, reach what he felt to be a maturation point and then switch his training up. From memory I can’t think of too many current lifters who adhere to this sort of programming although one supposes that the concept of a deload week is vaguely similar.

Anyway, the below article details Abele’s back workouts from his early 20s. For interested parties, the text itself comes from a series of letters written by Abele to Chester O. Teegarden which were published by Iron Man Industries of Alliance, Nebraska in 1948.

As always… Happy Lifting!

John McCallum, ‘Training for Gaining’, The Keys to Progress

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A bunch of us went down to the gym one time to watch Reg Park work out. He was in town doing a show. We lined up along the wall with our eyeballs hanging on our cheeks and tried not to look too jealous when he started lifting.

Park walked in looking more like Hercules than Herc did. He was weighing around 235 and it all bulged. Every time he moved he looked like he was coming through his skin.
The kid standing beside me poked me with his elbow. “Check the arms,” he whispered.
I poked him back and whispered from the corner of my mouth like they do on T.V.

Forgotten Exercise: Lat Pulldown Curl

So, cards on the table, I recently reread The Complete Keys to Progress by John McCallum. The result of Randall Strossen’s meticulous collecting, The Complete Keys details McCallum’s numerous articles for Strength and Health magazine. Admittedly McCallum’s work was more concerned with rapid bulk and strength building practices, The Complete Keys still has some things to say about bodybuilding and defining exercises. One such example was the Lat Pulldown Curl.