The Bar is Loaded (Article Banner)

I’m introducing a new opinion column with a historical perspective by masters lifter Fred Ashford. I met Fred Ashford through a letter he wrote to me in 1985. Fred had just returned to New Mexico from a two year mining project in Illinois where he was introduced to Powerlifting. He inquired about the closest meet. I decided it was high time to venture west. I scheduled a meet in Fred’s backyard. Although the stories differ depending on who’s talking, the bottom line is Fred bombed in the squat! But, Mr. Ashford soon got his lifting in line and competed in over 22 meets and supported over 47 meets from 1985 to 1991. Fred won State, National and World titles and posted his best lifts as a 242 pounder – 749 lb. squat, 451 lb. bench, and 633 lb. deadlift. Fred was the USPF State chairman, the USPF National Athlete’s representative of 1988; the 1st NASA records chairman; and a NASA meet director, judge and spotter (sometimes simultaneously). Fred returned to the sport in 1994 to win the sub-masters division at worlds. Since then the rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated and after 15 years away he has returned to the sport he loves.   You will soon see him on the Power Sport platform. Fred is a trusted friend and great supporter of all of you in NASA. He has valuable insight into the history and changes the sport has experienced and I have asked him to share. Of course these are only opinions and viewpoints. I bring to you the article installments of: “The Bar Is Loaded”

The Bar is Loaded #1: The Intro

Ay dias mio (Oh my God!) – 26 years ago I walked into Pool’s Gym in Springfield, IL and vehemently stated that “I want to powerlift”. Someone should have warned me. Someone should have warned me about the sleepless nights I would have nursing sore (insert here ______) {back, knees, pecs, tie-ins, glutes, etc}. Someone should have warned me about the perils of cutting weight (“but I benched 30 pounds more just last week!”); and someone should have warned me about listening to every gym expert from Springfield to Carlsbad (“lift with your glutes” – “no, lift with your back” – “no, lift with your eyes” –  “squat on a box” – “squat on a bench” – “squat on a rail spike” – seriously?). But, what I should have been warned about the most is the commitment – you’re either in the sport or you’re out. Well, I’m back “in”. This last May I threw my leg over the hog and rode from San Diego to Phoenix to watch Rich, Tad and the crew put on the Western Nationals at Walt’s place. Prior to making the trip I ‘hit the net’ to find out how the sport changed. After cruising the internet highway for a few hours all I could say was – “un-freakin-believable”! I really can’t believe how much has changed in the sport in 15 years.

The way I see it there have been four fundamental changes that have, well, ‘shifted’ the sport. They are (in order): 1. Gear;  2. the multitude of organizations; 3. the internet; and 4. drug use. So, without further adieu, let’s talk about gear changes.

In 1984 nobody I associated with knew what a bench shirt was. By 1988, everyone was using one. Ah, the bench shirt of yesteryear (and yes – there was only one). John Inzer’s tight, polyester version of a t-shirt. Something that gave you a nice pop off the chest (yes Virginia, everyone touched their chests when they benched).  Something that gave the heavyweights 10 – 30 pounds. Something that kept your shoulders from shredding when attempting a max. That’s all it was. Nothing more. And, don’t go comparing today’s single ply to Inzer’s bench shirt. They shouldn’t even be defined the same. I mean that! I have watched a guy from 24 Hour Fitness (yes – I trained at a 24hour) put 100 lbs. on his bench with the use of a single ply. And please don’t ask me which shirt – I don’t care. The reason I was ever interested in powerlifting was due to watching tape – yep ‘tape’ – of the big Texan Doug Young bench 585 at 242 (re: because I used the term ‘tape’ – telling you it was raw would be redundant). So I don’t even have a need to know the brand of shirt. All I know is it artificially will give some lifters a 30% – 40% increase in their one rep max bench. Come on! So what’s the big deal? How has this really ‘changed’ the sport?

In the 80’s there was Buffalo’s Ted Arcidi and Abilene’s Ken Lain battling it out at the 700 pound range. Then came the monster Anthony Clark and the freakishly strong bencher Chris Confessore. The big deal was they all had the same advantage – the inzer bench shirt. Realize most of the aforementioned lifters wouldn’t don the shirt until their third attempt: 30 lbs heavier than their second. We all knew who these guys were and they were stronger than hell! I’m not saying today’s geared benchers are not strong – they are. Their just all ‘blended’. Don’t think so? Tell me something, who is the best bencher today?  If you ask that question at any meet you’ll get as many answers as there are lifters. Another point: have you ever tried to explain today’s bench shirt to a non-powerlifting friend? How’d that work out for you?

The squat suit isn’t off the hook either. I will hand it to the manufacturers: these suits are marvels of engineering. Some serious thought, testing and cash went into the design of these things. I won’t go into the same rant as above because it’s the same argument. Who is the best powerlifter today? I asked that question in Arizona. I asked six seasoned lifters – got six different answers. When you asked that question in 1989 – you got one answer. And, he was so dominating most of you still know the answer – Ed Coan. I back spotted Ed at two separate meets. Don’t know how he is as a person but I do know he was the most dominating lifter of the eighties – period. That doesn’t exist anymore. Gear changed that. You can no longer point to one male lifter and say – “he’s the man”. The ‘gear’ conversation will come up every time. Listen, there are great lifters out there. And, since this is an opinion column, I define great lifters as those who cast ego aside and will lift in geared events, raw events, throwing events – you name it. Hell, I know (and you know him too) a lifter who competed in a strongman and highland game competition on the same day! Damn.

Our sport is an eclectic sport. Coan called it a ‘cult’ sport. I won’t go that far but suffice to say most spectators are family, friends and a few old lifters thinking they’ll make a come back as a masters powersport lifter. The only folks who truly understand the ‘gear’ conversation are powerlifters. The relationship to a geared lift in competition and a raw lift in the gym has changed now and forever. We have literally morphed into three different sports: raw, equipped and multi-ply. And there are a multitude of organizations to support this transformation. But, I’ll save that for next time.

Hey – it’s been a pleasure and my privilege to share my opinions. Give me yours. I’d like to know if you liked the column, hated the column, have a difference of opinion or want to weigh in on other topics in the future.

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Yours in NASA,