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Conor Heffernan: Strength History’s Biggest Moments (Podcast)

In today’s episode, we sit down with Conor Heffernan, BarBend contributor and Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sports Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Our discussion spans thousands of years of strength, strength training and strength competition. From ancient weightlifting to the 1960s, where strength sports like Weightlifting and Powerlifting begin to split off into their own disciplines. It’s an exciting ride through the history of strong people. 

Watch our conversation here: 

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Tao talks to Conor Heffernan about:

  • How you become a strength historian (2:08)
  • The H.J. Lutcher Stark Center AKA the history museum for strength sports nerds (6:50)
  • Strength athletes that have a sizable impact in the broader community (11:55)
  • Racing through the strength history timeline: how did we get here in Strength Sports? (16:45)
  • How was the squat suit invented, and how do we decide what’s allowed and not allowed in competition? (27:00)
  • Key moments in the history of women’s strength sports (31:50)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

A lot of what we do today has its origin really in that 10 year period from 1960 to 1970, when new federations are coming, new advances in training and strength are coming, and more and more people are starting to kind of enter gym cultures, and they now have options.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the BarBend Podcast, where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host David Thomas Tao, and this Podcast is presented by BarBend’s dot com.

 

Today I’m talking to Conor Heffernan, an Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sport studies at the University of Texas at Houston. Conor is also a prolific writer and BarBend contributor. He’s one of the world’s foremost experts on the history of strength, strength training, and strength competition.

 

In our conversation, we cover literally thousands of years of strength, from lifting weights in ancient times to the 1960s where sports like weightlifting and powerlifting began to split off from one another. It’s an exciting ride through the history of strong people.

 

I also want to give a big shout-out to this episode’s sponsor, BSN, a global leader in sports nutrition. From their protein powder including their partnership line with Cold Stone Creamery to pre-workout protein bars and more, BSN has won more than 35 sports nutrition awards over the last few years.

 

Also, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend podcast in your app of choice. Now, let’s get to it.

 

Conor, thank you so much for joining me. I’ve read so many of your articles on BarBend, on your own site, and a bunch of different publications about the history of strength and strength sports, but this is our first time ever chatting on the phone. For those who might not be familiar with your work, how did you become a strength historian?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

I think when I discovered I wasn’t going to be the next Ronnie Coleman.

 

I was studying history as an undergraduate and I thought, “This is really cool.” Any sort of competitive career for me is not going to happen. Maybe I can figure out exactly what the history of this is. Maybe there’s some jam, some secret in the history of strength that I can use to advance my own strength, my own training.

 

I was studying history. I was an undergraduate. I was training in a gym that was established in 1935. I was training with people who were in their 60s and 70s. They’re telling me about all these people from the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s and ’50s. It all coalesced into being a strength historian.

 

Since then no one’s really told me to stop. The momentum is built now, and I’m in too deep actually to put an end to all of this.

David TaoDavid Tao

You’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole to get a real job. I feel that all the time. That’s my entire problem and my entire thing. We have this old saying, or at least I’ve heard this old saying that those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym, which is not fair.

 

Maybe those who can’t lift, teach. Those who can’t teach it, they just research the history of it, that’s fair. That’s what I’m saying.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

That’s fair. I am sure that there are those who can’t do teach and do gym. What happens if you’re the one teaching about gym? I mean, I’m really low on the totem pole then.

David TaoDavid Tao

Look, I have a fake job. I’m a “strength journalist.” We’re in the same boat.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

 …that’s fine.

David TaoDavid Tao

This is something where you tell your parents what you do, and they’re like, “Don’t tell me what you’re a journalist of, just tell me you’re a journalist so I know what it means.” That’s pretty much the line.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

It’s worse if your whole career is based on studying half naked men and women. That’s a really hard sell in pretty much any group.

David TaoDavid Tao

You fell into strength history because you’re interested in it. You realized that you were putting on 40-pounds of lean mass every three months, I get that. I had a similar problem, let’s just say that much.

 

In choosing this career path or falling into it, where did you end up, and where do you work today? Do you show up to strength history incorporated, and punch in the clock? Where are you based out of, and where do you work?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

Not far off, in terms of, strength history incorporated, I’m a assistant professor at the University of Texas. I get to work at the Stark Center of Physical Culture and Sports Studies. For people who don’t know, this is actually the same school where Ben Pollack, who also contributes the “BarBend”, he did his PhD work there.

 

It was founded by Jan and Terry Todd several decades ago. For people who are unaware Jan Todd was, at one point, the strongest woman in the world. She lifted the Dinnie Stones in Scotland. Terry Todd was a giant, both metaphorically and physically, very strong powerlifter, helped organize World’s Strongest Man and the Strongman classic.

 

The two of them are the founding figures in my field. For some reason, I’ve managed to have been working alongside them. The Stark Center is Disneyland for strength nerds, it really is.

David TaoDavid Tao

It is the preeminent academic institution for strength history at this point. I mean you’re biased because you work there so you’re not going to…I’m not going to say Bar Bet is the worst website for strength online. Is there anything comparable anywhere else in the world?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

Not really. That’s what makes the Stark Center quite unique because John and Terry both worked and competed in the fitness industry at a very high level. They got access to materials, people’s personal papers, dumbbells, barbells that you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world.

 

We have the personal papers of George [inaudible 6:00] . There’s a few articles about George [inaudible 6:02] on BarBend, Katie Sandwina, Putty Stockton. All of these really foundational strong men and women from the early 1900s. We have their lifting shoes, their lifting belts.

 

We have a mouth shield that [inaudible 6:16] , an American strong from 1900s used to lift weights from his jaw. You can see his teeth formation riddled into this 1900s mascot. It’s a really unique, one of a kind place.

David TaoDavid Tao

Now what is the makeup of the Stark Center? Can the public go there and see some of these, I guess you could call them artefacts, historical relics? I’m getting like this very Indiana Jones warehouse vibe or they lock away, I guess it’s the Ark of the Covenant in this like gigantic warehouse at the end of it?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

It’s open to the public and you can go around and you can see portraits and images of strong men and women from the last 150 years. There’s a Joe and Betty Weider Museum, kind of wing dedicated to the history of bodybuilding so incredible images of Frank Zane on a sore snagger, Sergio Olivier.

 

Then they also have littered around the gym, here are Professor Taylor’s kettlebells, here is a barbell used at the Arnold Strongman Classic, here is a barbell made of boulders, so you can look. You can’t lift them — I certainly can’t lift them — but we’re not allowed to lift them anyway but you can actually see these old dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, all around the floor as well.

 

It’s a really interesting place for the public to go. Then for strengtheners like me, all of the kind of images and ladders and magazines are in the back.

David TaoDavid Tao

I have an idea. I’m going to pitch you on a movie and if you want to sell this to a studio, you can, OK? It’s Night at the Museum, three or four, I don’t know how many night the museums they made with Ben Stiller.

 

Instead of being in the Smithsonian, it’s in the Stark Center and all the artefacts like the original lifters, these historical figures come alive in ghost form and they train you on how to be like a real strength athlete.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

Yeah, that would actually be great but when you enter the Stark Center, there’s a 10-foot tall Hercules. It’s based on the Farnese Hercules, one of these monumental sculptures. He’s maybe 200,300 pounds, 10-feet tall. I don’t know if I want him coming alive.

David TaoDavid Tao

You need some tension in this.

 

You need a villain, some big bad to fight off like a final boss in this movie. This is gold. If anyone from Hollywood is listening.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

Yeah, there you go. Arnold Schwarzenegger could be in this.

David TaoDavid Tao

He’s like the wise mentor that you see at the very beginning of the movie and he comes in in like the third act to help you. He seems like the Obi-Wan.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

Yeah, I think that will work.

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, use the force in the literal sense or something like that.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

…use of force actually works really well on this one.

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, use your legs. There you go. That’s what I’ll say. Use your legs.

 

The Stark Center has a public facing component and it has, I guess it’s the Weider museum, would be…

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

Yeah. The Weider museum is one part of the museum so there’s a way to museum and that’s the Joe and Betty Weider foundation have a generous donation to the Stark Center. There’s also a Muscle Beach kind of exhibit. We have old wrestling photographs.

 

We have kind of tucked away in the corner, a shrine to Tommy Kono, who is one of the United States, like most prolific and inspirational weightlifters from the mid-20th century. You can see his Olympic medals, his World Championship weightlifting medals.

 

It’s kind of sectioned off, save a little bit of everything from the world of powerlifting, weightlifting, bodybuilding, and tentatively CrossFit is now creeping in.

David TaoDavid Tao

Tommy Kono passed away. BarBend was around when Tommy Kono passed away, and it was one of the most difficult obituaries to write because how do you sum up the contributions of someone like Tommy Kono.

 

I think a lot of lifters don’t understand today that Tommy Kono at separate times in his career, was arguably the world’s best Olympic weightlifter. He was also arguably the world’s most dominant bodybuilder or one of the most dominant bodybuilders at a certain point in his career.

 

That would be unthinkable today because we’re so specialized by what he did…This is the guy who talk — who Arnold’s Schwarzenegger references as his inspiration.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

It’s just incredible. He comes out at a time when weightlifting and strength coaches in America whereas you say, you don’t specialize. John Grimek is an incredible weightlifter, but he’s now more as a bodybuilder. You got these people who are incredible physiques, athletes, and they’re able to transcend this force at the end.

 

Tommy Kono is a life worth a movie. He’s interned during the second world war because he’s a Japanese heritage. He is interned in the United States. Discovers weightlifting in an internment camp then goes on to lift for the United States. Is a very proud American. Wins gold medals in all of these contests, an incredible story.

David TaoDavid Tao

The history of strength, sports, and some of these great athletes, the more you learn about them, you learn about their accomplishments. Not only as strength athletes, but many of them were incredibly accomplished people, even outside of the strength world.

 

You had people who were accomplishing amazing things, acts of diplomacy, who were researchers. Many of them became doctor XYZ strength competitor for accelerating research in field some related to physiology, some not at all.

 

Any other historical strength athletes whose accomplishments outside of the strength realm you find particularly interesting?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

 I will quickly plug Jan Todd because she is still [laughs] working alongside me, and she is still much stronger than me.

 

If I’m being perfectly honest. You’re right. You have people in the early 1900s. George Hawkins Smith writes a lot of philosophy in the early 1900s. This is a wrestler, weightlifter/bodybuilder. You have Eustace Miles, who is a physical culturist from England in the 1900s.

 

He is also a tennis player who wins a silver medal at the Olympics. He is also a very strong advocate of women’s rights in the 1900s and 1910s. It’s interesting. Then you see the early physical cultures in the 1900s tend to have very esoteric and learned signs.

 

Then you move into the 1950s-1960s, and you see that a lot of the developments in physiology and exercise physiology come from people who are lifters. Come from, people who are powerlifters are weightlifters.

 

His name escapes me, the man responsible for the four sets by 10 reps protocol used by so many physiotherapists, rehabilitated himself using heavyweights. You’ve always gotten this spillover between the lifting world and then the broader scientific community or even literary community or philosophical community depending on the individual.

David TaoDavid Tao

This idea of the renaissance person because so much of the history of strength is the history of men’s and women’s strength, strength training, strength sports. This idea of strength as a complement to a well-rounded person and a self-actualized human.

 

It goes back even much further than the early 20th century or even the 19th century. We’re talking ancient Roman and Greek times. We’re talking Socrates talking about how to achieve man’s strength, he must achieve it mentally but also to see what his body is capable of.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

That’s the thing that so incredible about the history of strength is that it’s so long, it goes back so long. I’ll briefly plug. I have an article on BarBend about lifting weights in the ancient world. It’s fascinating because, as I say, in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, they are saying, “To be a fully actualized human being,” to you is a very 20th century…

 

…Instagrammer’s quote, “You should be strong in body and mind.” When you’ve guessed the creation of our modern gym culture is in the late 1800s, early 1900s. They’re looking at ancient Greece and saying, “OK, that’s the model, that’s the system.”

 

From the very beginning of the lifting world and the modern science, we’ve always been very keenly aware of the need to be strong in mind and spirit. Which is quite funny because to outside individuals, this the idea of the muscle-bound jock dominated who he or she can only lift weights, and that’s it.

 

Whereas within the fitness community further a century and a bit, we’ve been very concerned about developing the whole person.

David TaoDavid Tao

There are also some really interesting examples in the past, call it 120, 100 years, of celebrated academics who have this secondary or you could call it secret strength career. One that comes to mind is I believe Oliver Sacks’ was, at one point, a very competitive powerlifter. He had some California state records, I believe.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

That’s right. You’re right. For many people, it was a secret interest for many years. I know even professor Jan Todd, really accomplished academic. She started to take academia seriously after her weightlifting and powerlifting career ended.

 

Because for a large part of the 20th-century weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding was a taboo subject. It was what the strange people did, what the oddballs did. A lot of people engaged in weightlifting, powerlifting, and they’re very accomplished in personal and private lives.

 

This is something they did hidden away from the rest of their lives. I think what’s amazing about 2020 is everyone seems but not everyone, but large parts of the population embrace fitness as something that they do. It’s not what the oddballs are doing in the dungeon gymnasiums anymore.

David TaoDavid Tao

‘m curious because we talked a little bit earlier, it was a few minutes ago. I feel like we’ve covered thousands of years in a few minutes, which is one of the cool things about your job. We talked about specialization in strength sports.

 

You go back 120 years, and the difference between bodybuilders, weightlifters, strong men performers, circus performers, the lines were blurred, right. There wasn’t that level of specialization. Weightlifting becomes an Olympic sport. There are a lot of lifts to it. It’s not the snatch and clean and jerk like we have today.

 

There were one-handed lifts. There were dumbbell lifts et cetera. A little bit later on, you have Tommy Kono, competing in both bodybuilding and weightlifting, maybe one of the last to do so at such a high level across both sports.

 

Then the ’60s and ’70s come along powerlifting develops as its standalone sport. Strong Men develops his standalone sport. CrossFit comes along much later, with its type of specialization.

 

Are there any, I’d call them, hallmark moments in your mind that signify the increased specialization of strength — bodybuilding becoming its own thing separate from weightlifting, powerlifting and weightlifting splitting apart. Any moments that in your research and in your learnings that come to mind?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

The 1960s is a pivotal moment for the specialization of any of these disciplines, aside from CrossFit, which comes on later. Because the 1960s is when powerlifting starts to become a recognizable Federation sport, it’s also in the 1960s when Joe Weider’s start the Mr. Olympia contest, which sees this great shift in American bodybuilding.

 

It’s also the 1960s, where anabolic steroids start to infiltrate weightlifting and bodybuilding practices. With anabolic steroids you can see a lot more specialization and things like power lifting and bodybuilding in particular.

 

It’s within this decade that we start to see the three major strength sports — powerlifting, bodybuilding, weightlifting — go off in different directions, because prior to this time, weightlifting is kind of the primary regulated sport within the United States.

 

One of the reasons why powerlifting is so late to develop in the United States is because the heads of American weightlifting at the AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union, are reticent about federating a sport that they think will take athletes away from weightlifting.

 

This is what happens. As powerlifting grows in popularity, American weightlifting starts to decline at an Olympic level, but also in a general international level. It’s in the 1960s that they said bodybuilding, the waiters come along.

 

They snatch away bodybuilding from Bob Hoffman, who’s very influential in American weightlifting. The Weiders become the new face of bodybuilding. With that its new promotions, new athletes, specialization. People start to see Arnold Schwarzenegger. They want to be Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 

A different strain is created when bodybuilding reinvents itself in the 1960s. A lot of what we do today has its origins in that 10-year period from 1960 to 1970. When new federations are coming, new advances in training and strength are coming, and more and more people are starting to kind of enter gym cultures.

 

They now have options. If you or I joined a gym in 1920, we’d probably be trained in weightlifting and that would be it. Which would help the United States weightlifting team.

 

If we joined a gym in the 1960s, you could train in powerlifting, bodybuilding, weightlifting, or just keep fit, losing weight, looking better, now you’re good. It’s within that 10-year period that the fitness industry explodes, also splinters to mix my metaphors.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s insightful Connor. I want to touch on another subject in strength history in just a second. First let’s take a quick break to shout out our episode sponsor BSN. BSN is one of the world leaders in sports nutrition. They also have some of the tastiest protein powder around, including a partnership with Cold Stone Creamery.

 

My personal favorite of their flavors is the birthday cake remix Syntha 6. I hid some in my desk to keep the rest of the BarBend team from using it all. That’s a true story. Now back to the episode.

 

I am curious, and this is a question that I get from people who maybe might not be as knowledgeable about the particular strength sports. This is something that a casual BarBend reader, or someone just getting into their strength journey might ask, and it’s a completely legitimate question. I give 10 different answers, and they’re not very eloquent.

 

I’m going to ask you, and I’m just going to steal your answer and this is what I’m going to give. [laughs] Why is powerlifting not an Olympic sport? That is a question I get with a surprising level of frequency, and to me it’s like, “It’s not an Olympic sport because…” Then the answer becomes a little less obvious, the more I think about it.

 

A lot of it probably goes back to differences in Federations, differences in movement standards. The fact that the Olympics already had an established strength sport in weightlifting, which itself has gone through changes. It wasn’t that long ago that the press was an event in Olympic weightlifting.

 

It’s something that’s in living memory for many people still active in the sport today. Why is powerlifting not an Olympic sport? I guess my question becomes, do you ever foresee an additional strength sport like powerlifting, or maybe something else, becoming an Olympic sport?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

It’s a really good question. As already highlighted, it’s actually really hard to answer because when you start to go through the criteria of an Olympic sport, you’re like, “Oh, actually. No, this might take a lot of these boxes.” What has happened in powerlifting is, as you said, it’s relatively late to the game.

 

Weightlifting is at the first Olympics in 1896. Now it doesn’t really become regulated until the 1920s. From 1896 to the 1920s, they are trying out new lifts. It’s not the same exercise that has been used in these games. They’re using weight divisions, they are not using weight divisions. They’re not hosting its own games, they are hosting it.

 

By the 1920s, weightlifting is solidified as an Olympic sport. They’re doing the claim at the press and the military press, and that’s the case up until 1974. Powerlifting comes along in the 1960s. I’ve already talked about there was some hostility to powerlifting within the United States, because they’re afraid is going to take away from weightlifting which it ultimately does.

 

It comes along at a time when weightlifting is already established. It’s a very established sport by the 1960s. Powerlifting is new, so it’s suffering from trying to gain legitimacy in the ’60s and ’70s in sport, in general.

 

Powerlifting fragments really within about 10 years, by the late 1970s, early 1980s, you have regulated tests as in you’re being drug-tested, there are competitions are not being drug drug-tested. There are competitions where you can wear a lifting suit, there are competitions where you can’t wear lifting suits.

 

You have all these different divisions, different federations, how do we decide which federation is legitimate, which is illegitimate. That’s one of the things that still hampers powerlifting because it’s very confusing to think which standard do we take for the Olympics? Can you wear bench suit in the Olympics? Can you wear squat suit in the Olympics?

 

Should it be tested, should it be un-tested? These are some of the things hamper powerlifting, I will say that I could foresee a future in 10 to 20 years, where powerlifting or maybe even something like CrossFit, could be brought into the Olympic fold because of the popularity of it, because of the undisputed athleticism needed in it.

 

Again, to shamelessly plug an article I wrote on BarBend, bodybuilding has been attempting to become an Olympic sport since the 1970s, and actually made some headway in the past five to six years when it was included in the Pan Am Games.

 

If organizers in powerlifting or CrossFit, echoed some of the things that bodybuilding is known for the last several decades, it could possibly act out a role within an Olympic Games. I don’t need to tell you, being involved in BarBend, powerlifting and CrossFit are very popular sports. They attract men and women, they’re incredible, being used across the lifecycle.

 

I’ve seen 11-year-olds deadlift far more than they should be able to deadlift. I’ve seen 80-year-olds deadlift far more than I can deadlift. It’s a popular sport across the lifecycle, and really across the world. There is a future maybe in 15 to 20 years, where it could be an Olympic sport.

 

A lot of it stems down to how do we organize to Olympic standards which are different to how a powerlifting meet might go, or CrossFit Games might go.

David TaoDavid Tao

I should say, and actually this is something I really should have preface this section with. My apologies for not doing that. Powerlifting is a Paralympic sport.

 

In BarBend, we do actually a lot of work with World Para Powerlifting which is a really cool organization. I’m obviously biased because we do a lot of work with them. We have a lot of bias going on to this conversation and I like how we disclose it, just to throw out my allegiance here.

 

It’s not like there isn’t a precedent at the Paralympic level because the bench press is a contested lift in the Paralympic Games. The standards are incredibly strict, they’re not using bench shirts. I would argue that the standards for Paralympic powerlifting for the bench press are the strictest of any powerlifting federation in the world.

 

Again, it’s a bit debatable, because there are so many powerlifting federations. I really should preface this by saying, there is some precedent, at least for that lift when it comes to [inaudible 26:03] , what could pass muster. Let’s talk a little bit about, you mentioned earlier should bench shirts be allowed, should squat suits be allowed?

 

In the days before powerlifting, when there was weightlifting, when there was the snatch, the clean and jerk, and the clean press, and still today when is the snatch and clean and jerk. Mobility is a huge factor. You want to be able to have maximum mobility and flexibility and to move very fluidly, and honestly very rapidly.

 

There’s a lot of argument that weightlifting and powerlifting should switch names. Powerlifting, you’re just lifting weights. Weightlifting, you’re producing the most power as a measure of force and acceleration, etc., not to get too much into the equations.

 

Powerlifting, Nascent Sport in the 1960s, started developing more and more between the ’60s, and ’70s. When did people decide to put on these basically suits of armor, so to speak? How did the squat suit develop? How did the bench shirt develop? Whose crazy idea, at the time, was that?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

This is the thing that’s wonderful about studying the history of strength because you’re studying the history of human ingenuity, but also humans pushing the limits of what allowed, and what’s not allowed within a competition. Again, on BarBend, there’s an article I have written on the development of powerlifting.

 

It’s based on an article done by BarBend’s Ben Pollack, Jan Todd, and Dominic Morey. Really, the purpose of this article is to track when these things emerge? When did squat suits, when did bench suits emerge? It’s really early on in the development of powerlifting.

 

You’re looking at the late ’60s, early ’70s, they’re not particularly advanced, or nuanced devices. At one point, someone chopped a tennis ball in half and popped it behind his knee. It helped him when he’s coming out underneath the squat.

 

We have stories of people wrapping themselves really tightly in bedsheets because the tightness we’re act as a rudimentary squat suit. It’s really in the early 1970s, people are using these little tricks and techniques to maybe get a few more pounds on the squat, or the bench, or the deadlift.

 

Then, by the late ’70s, early ’80s, these things start to become formalized. Not everyone is happy with these things. Even now today in powerlifting, you can very easily start an argument by asking, “Is that legitimate?” “Is that allowed?” “Is that not allowed?”

 

The bench shirt is banned in major powerlifting competitions for really about seven or eight years, in the late ’80s, early ’90s before it’s allowed back into certain competitions. Obviously, other federation’s are saying, “Yes, this is fine.” Others are saying, “No, this isn’t allowed. It’s cheating.” I mean, if you bench 1,000 pounds, you bench 1,000 pounds.

 

I’m not going to argue how you did that because you’re much bigger than me. Really very early on in powerlifting people are trying to figure out ways to get a that little boost. By the 1970s, ’80s, people are then marketing and selling very well constructed aids to their lifts.

David TaoDavid Tao

I think about in baseball where pitchers will find ways to get pints or a little bit of extra grip on the ball. In football, we have the very famous, start all the Patriots fans out there, and the Tom Brady fans, the very famous Deflategate scandal, where it was just reduce the pressure in the ball a little bit to get that extra grip.

 

It seems like the early days of powerlifting put all of these shortcuts to shame. Corking the bat and baseball is nothing compared to taking a tennis ball, cutting it in half and putting it behind your knees to help you squat.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

 Ingenuity and lifting has been in the fitness game really for a century and a half. When people challenged each other to weightlifting competitions in the early 1900s, they had so many different tricks and cheats and little methods.

 

Some people would oftentimes nail a barbell to the floor, and then challenge members of the audience who can deadlift this weight. Then when the audience aren’t paying attention, they pull out the nails and lift it themselves.

 

We’ve always had that ingenuity in the strength. At least, powerlifting has regulated in some way. They say, “Yes, you can use these, but only the bench or the squatters, only use these little devices.”

David TaoDavid Tao

If there’s money in skirting the rules, and oftentimes the rules change to where it’s not cheating anymore.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

The problem of powerlifting is for many decades, it wasn’t actually profitable. This is people, men and women, doing it for pride and bragging rights. As well as in this case, it’s when hundreds of pounds of muscle are involved in anything, the rules will change rather than the competitors.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] That’s certainly true, and you mentioned you’re not going to tell anyone benching a 1,000 pounds, but the lift was a legitimate. Bench shirt or no, it’s probably a pretty strong person who’s worked very hard for that. Criticize at your own risk, is what we would say.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

If you can bench 1,100 pounds, then you can punch down, but certainly you can’t really punch in this certain scenario.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] That’s the hierarchy. I do want to talk a little bit because I’d be remiss to not bring this up. I want to talk about the evolution of women’s strength sports. That’s something that still shocks me even though I’ve been a strength sports journalist for quite for a number of years now, is how late some women strength sports became formalized.

 

Now that’s not how late women started lifting. The history of strength sports is also the history of women’s strength sports going back hundreds, and even thousands of years. There are legendary stories of women performing dramatic feats of strength that most men, today, most strength athletes today could never could never fathom.

 

Some of the formal women’s strength sports competitions have been very recent. In fact, the 2000 Olympic Games, The Sydney Olympics was the first year that women’s weightlifting was an Olympic sport. 1987 was the first year, there was a Weightlifting World Championships for women.

 

For a number of years, there were separate men’s and women’s World Championships, now we see the two together today. Women’s weightlifting, in many ways, on social media, you see female weightlifters that have hundreds of thousands of followers. CrossFit Games champions with millions of followers on social media.

 

In many ways, the women’s side of the sports is somewhat more popular than men. It wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t really official outlets, or official competitions for women. Besides that, first Olympic Games where women’s weightlifting was contested in 2000, what do you see as some important moments in the history of women’s strength sports over the past 100 years?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

You’re right. It’s actually jaw dropping how recent official women’s weightlifting competitions have emerged in the history of the fitness industry. Looking at, say 2000 with Olympic weightlifting, how advanced it’s become in really 20 years.

 

Looking at the history of this, you can look at the late 1800s, the early 1900s, we have the first great wave of female strong women. People like Katie Sandwina, who again Jan Todd has written quite a lot on, and Rogue Fitness produced a wonderful documentary on Sandwina.

 

We have a number of very influential strong women in Europe who, I suppose, normalized so much just a little bit. They opened the door so much for this idea of female strength culture. Gym cultures for women really opened till the 1950s, 1960s.

 

It’s calisthenics, keep fit, exercise. If they’re using dumbbells or barbells, they are two-pound dumbbells, five-pound barbells. There’s no idea of progressive overload, of getting stronger. We do get some women who rise to the top despite this lack of promotion of strength.

 

In the 1930s, there’s a wonderful British powerlifter, Ivy Russell. She’s incredible, she petitions the British weightlifting federation to create a very short-lived women’s strength contest. She goes around Britain, challenging older women to feats of strength.

 

Travels to Ireland, challenges women to feats of strength. She’s deadlifting 400 pounds out of body weight of maybe 120 or 130. She’s incredible. Now in the United States, we have Pudgy Stockton, who was, for many people, the mother of female weightlifting in the United States.

 

She helped popularize it in the 1940s. She doesn’t get to compete because female weightlifting competitions aren’t actually regulated or formalized at that time. She writes a decade-long column in strength and health magazine called “The Barbelles Column”, which is quite clever, B-A-R-B-E-L-L-E-S, Barbelles.

 

She helps popularized some form of weightlifting for women in the 1940s, 1950s. Pudgy Stockton actually hold some rudimentary, very small competitions around that time. Then it’s starting to develop the 1960s, 1970s, again is a really pivotal moment.

 

We have to give powerlifting its due in that regard. Powerlifting starts to host women’s competitions in the late 1960s, early 1970s. The wonderful thing about women’s powerlifting at that time is that they have different weight divisions. They’re not trying to force female competitors into very strict body standards.

 

There is a heavyweight division, middleweight, featherweight, etc. While that’s happening, we also have women’s bodybuilding emerging in the 1970s. Women’s bodybuilding, since its creation in the 1970s, continuing to, 19-20 has always existed in a strange nexus of, “Do these competitors look too masculine?” Whatever that means.

 

Bodybuilding for women was very emancipatory as a wonderful thing to combat in the 1970s but there’s always been an unease in the rules of women’s bodybuilding between what is “feminine,” what is “masculine.”

 

That’s why you see things like the Ms. Olympia contest asking competitors to reduce their muscle by 10 percent so they look more ladylike or canceling the shows all together because the competitors no longer attract big crowds.

 

The real landmarks for women strength cultures, I would say, date from powerlifting in the ’60s and ’70s. Bodybuilding is also important within that story, but I think it has always been a lot more restrictive of female strength, female muscularity, whereas powerlifting, “Come on in. Lift as much as you want. Grunt as much as you want. We just care about your performance.”

 

Obviously, we have the explosion in Olympic Weightlifting late ’80s but really in the 2000s. Then the latest wave, which has probably been the most encompassing, has been CrossFit which has just been really incredible and really savvy.

 

Showing the world that, “Yes, women want to lift weights. Women want to be in the gym, and they’re going to be really good at it. They’re going to be strong. They’re going to be athletic.” As you say, that’s the real growth industry.

 

In strength coaches at the moment is women’s powerlifting, women’s weightlifting, women’s CrossFit, women’s bodybuilding because it’s been held back for so many decades where it’s finally the reins are off, and people got to do what they want.

David TaoDavid Tao

To give credit where credit’s not only to powerlifting but to CrossFit, it’s the only strength sport that I’m aware of where for the entirety of it as a sanctioned competition…Now, Cross is a little different because it’s a trademark of a company. They also host a competition.

 

No one necessarily owns the term powerlifting. There are a lot of different federations, but CrossFit like, “Someone doesn’t own that term. CrossFit owns that term.” They’re the only strength sports that I can think of that for the entirety of the events as sanction competition, have had the same prizes for both men and women from the inception, from the first CrossFit games in 2007.

 

The prizes were poultry back then compared to the quarter million, or $300,000 checks today, not even to mention sponsorship and such. The prize money was the same from the beginning, they were putting the same emphasis on the female side of the competition as the men side of the competition.

 

As much as CrossFit’s been controversial in 2020 for a lot of things that founder Greg Glassman has said that ultimately led him to having to sell the company, CrossFit’s has always shown equal lights on both those divisions of the competition.

 

Which is quite interesting, and it makes you hopeful that any other strength sports that do develop as a next wave, understand that they probably need to do the same thing because that’s the standard that’s expected now.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

That’s right. The only other instance we have of prize money being split 50/50 comes in 1904, 1905, Bernarr Macfadden hosts a physique contest in New York, and he says, “$250 for the man, $250 for the female competitor.” That’s the only other instance I can think of, up until CrossFit.

 

That’s one of the reasons why CrossFit, their popularity exploded so quickly. Powerlifting was very forward thinking and bringing women in so quickly, but in other sports, the female divisions were very much an afterthought. Brought in often after it was the women who had to really fight hard to get recognition.

 

Whereas CrossFit is starting with a blank slate. We’re creating this sport from scratch. Men come on in, women come on in. One of the reasons why CrossFit was so popular, was this blank slate. You didn’t have to fight for representation, and it was very open and very welcoming of female athletes.

David TaoDavid Tao

Conor, we can talk about this. We’ll have to have you on the BarBend Podcast again because we have literally thousands of years of history, we could nerd out about. We will spare our listeners having a seven-hour episode.

 

Besides barbend.com, the best resource for strength sports on the web, where can people keep up-to-date with the work you’re doing, your own personal website where you’re writing about the history of strength sports, what’s the best place for folks to keep up-to-date?

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

With the proviso that on very unoriginal when it comes to marketing. My website is Physical Culture Study. That was the best name I could come up with, physical culture and then study tacked on to the end of it. Physicalculturestudy.com is my own personal website.

 

There’s maybe, I think I’ve 1,000 articles on various aspects of the history of strength now. I started that in 2015. As has become clear in the last half an hour, I’m very much a narrative strength. There’s a lot of different things.

 

Then the H.J Lutcher Stark Center has a wonderful website that has some of my own writings, but also John Todd’s writings, who is a much better writer than me. I would very much encourage people to look at that.

 

Physicalculturestudy.com or the Stark Center website. Then also on the Stark Center, we have interactive scrapbooks from Professor Taylor and George Hawkins Smith, old weightlifting magazines from the 1900s that you can flick through.

 

If there’s any nerd, any whatsoever, the Stark Center website or my own will hopefully scratch an itch.

David TaoDavid Tao

If you’re listening to this podcast and you’re a strength nerd you’re certainly among friends. Conor, thank you so much for joining us today. I really greatly appreciate it. I’m really excited to…

 

We’ll feature some of your articles that you’ve referenced in the show notes along with this podcast, along with your personal site. Big thanks to you for the work you’re doing in keeping the history of physical culture alive so that we can learn from that in the times ahead. Really appreciate your time.

Conor HeffernanConor Heffernan

Thanks so much. It was great.

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