An Initial Visit to the York Barbell Club

by Dr Ken Leistner | September 10, 2014

york barbell

Though plagued with Alzheimer’s Disease, my ninety-three year old mother had enough awareness to ask, “How can you continue to write so much about the same bullshit?” She was referring to my comment that I was going to write an article for, and after the publication of more than 1500 articles over the course of forty-five years, her comment wasn’t off base. My articles have been published in professional journals, books, muscle building and strength-related magazines, and on various internet sites. The topics have ranged from concussion mechanisms and treatment, catastrophic cervical spine injuries arising from the game of football, nutrition, injury prevention and rehabilitation, and the history of the Iron Game, to building strength and muscle tissue. Certainly the latter categories have brought me to

History and memory are linked and often subject to the vagaries of time. History is also subject to misinterpretation. When recently reading some of my initial late-’70s articles in Powerlifting USA Magazine where I had one to five monthly contributions for more than twenty-two years, it became obvious that one can inadvertently obscure their own history. In describing my first foray into powerlifting competition in California in 1968, I wrote that I had “been lifting since 1965.”  I began my weight training career at the age of twelve in 1959, had competed in numerous Odd Lift contests prior to the 1964 formation of powerlifting as an official sport, and more accurately should have written that “I continued to lift in sanctioned and unsanctioned contests until competing only in officially recognized AAU meets in 1965.”  The impression given was that of a neophyte trainee while in truth, I had almost ten years under the bar when I entered my first “big time” California contest. It is also difficult to express and convey a sense of “feel” for time and place and perhaps more than any other touchstone in training and lifting’s long history, the York Barbell Club has evoked a great deal of emotion among those who knew it. The descriptions of York and the many lifters who trained there over the course of decades, made it one of the only facilities that had its proverbial doors opened to the public on a monthly basis. Strength and Health magazine, as the York Barbell Company’s “literary and public relations arm” featured York lifters, photos of the York lifters during training sessions in its hallowed space, and presented a more or less personal glimpse into the almost mythical structure of what was “The Barbell.” As the ruling entity in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, traveling to York held mysterious and mystical promise for any serious trainee who took the time and effort to get there.

I was like most teenagers who lifted weights. I felt the extremes of being a social outcast because I engaged in weight training when few did, even in a so-called “good lifting area” that encouraged weight training, and an enhanced sense of confidence because I did in fact lift weights. With that confidence was a certain security knowing that I was among a very special breed, a cult-like group that “knew” about the wonders of strength and having a muscular physique, while “they just didn’t know” was our attitude when considering the general public. This feeling of belonging to a small, separate and rather unequal group of men, those who could recognize each other by the thickness of the traps and shoulders, and the visible veins through the biceps and forearms, gave a headiness to one’s daily existence. The opportunity to travel to the fountainhead of this very special and mostly maligned activity made for a great level of excitement. Despite feeling as if I “knew” at least something about the York Barbell Club, its lifters, and the gym itself, nothing could have prepared me for my first visit. Years of retrospective thought have made me realize that in truth, there are hundreds if not a thousand facilities that make the old York gym seem archaic, under equipped, and drab. Even for the era, some obvious shortcomings were obscured by the enthusiasm generated in just being there and the great lifters that were on display during a usual Saturday training session. 

The mid to late-1960s presented few facilities where “a lot” of top bodybuilders or lifters trained under the same roof, and did so at the same time. The gyms in California that were featured primarily in the Weider magazines held their own mystical qualities in part because they were located on the other side of the country, and because numerous physique title winners were photographed and written about, noting their group experience of training together, exhorting greater effort from each individual, and thus creating an even more powerful and successful group dynamic. The York Barbell Club accomplished the same psychological feat for not only Olympic lifters, but for those who had entered the fledging sport of powerlifting. As bodybuilding was viewed and interpreted as an activity for narcissists and “mirror athletes,” with “real athletes” more inclined to perform many of the squat, press, and pull variations that were part and parcel of the typical lifting programs, football players, track and field participants, and athletic coaches viewed York as the most important lifting establishment for “legitimate training.” 

Needless to add, though this backdrop to the world of barbell and strength training seems so unusual, prejudiced, limited, and perhaps unfathomable, weight or strength training in any form was highly discouraged for athletes and so-called normal individuals at least into and through the early 1970s. The York Barbell Club was unique in that it was truly a monument to the various arms of the Iron Game, with an obvious emphasis on Olympic weightlifting, and a place where one could observe the very top men in the game. In previous articles on this website by Bill Starr, a former managing editor for York’s Strength and Health magazine, he noted that he made the effort to invite lifters throughout the East Coast and beyond to regularly visit the York club and lift weights. Within a relatively short period of time, Saturday training sessions became robust bouts of top men challenging others in the three Olympic lifts, squatting routines that more closely resembled squatting contests, and the springboard for stories about the nation’s top lifters and friends routinely elevating near record weights. It very much became a “must see” stop for anyone seriously interested in strength training and my long time training partner Jack and I were among that group of enthusiasts.

Unfortunately, Jack and I spent a great deal of time talking about driving to York, Pennsylvania in order to see what had become an elite band of lifters that included Starr, Bill March, Tommy Suggs, Bob Bednarski, Tony Garcy, Russ Knipp, and so many others who might also be visiting on any particular Saturday. We considered the possibility of actually meeting Bob Hoffman, John Terpak, or the other great lifters of previous decades that we knew worked at or had some affiliation with the organization. The impediments were numerous, with school, college football or lacrosse practices and games, employment hours, and family responsibilities. Yet, if those in their teen years and early twenties could have a so-called Bucket List, a visit to York Barbell was very much near the top. Another limitation was our available transportation. Though this was the era of the wonderful GTOs, Oldsmobile Starfires, big-bore-engine Impalas and Furys, and exotic Alfa Romeos, we were from the Corvair/Volkswagen/1950s junker side of town, usually fighting to keep our various cars roadworthy on time-honored spit and baling wire. 

Driving the 205 miles to what was still rural Pennsylvania posed its own list of potential problems before the completion of the current Federal and State highway systems. With the back end of the journey over narrow country roads, an Amish horse drawn wagon, icy conditions, or a slow moving truck was all that was needed to add thirty minutes to an already lengthy trip. We encountered a bit of each, including a howling blizzard that struck the East Coast at approximately 3 AM, just as we were departing for our long awaited trip. As collegiate athletes in good academic standing one would have thought that perhaps a momentary check of upcoming weather conditions or the procurement of a road map was a possibility prior to setting out on what we hoped would be a momentous journey. Since Jack and I were collegiate athletes in good academic standing, but absolute lunkheads, we did what we always did which was to decide to drive to a far-off destination with little or no preparation.

The trip was in retrospect, prolonged, dangerous, and completely unjustified relative to weather and road conditions. A retrospective was unnecessary; we knew we were in a deep pool of fecal matter before we hit the New Jersey Turnpike! Vehicular speed was limited to approximately twenty miles-per-hour; visibility was little more than “can you see your hand in front of your face?” distance; and the road worthiness of my Ford was questionable. The icing on this disastrous cake was the malfunction, or lack of function, of both windshield wipers. Try driving through a blizzard that ultimately put down almost a foot-and-a-half of snow throughout the entire Northeast without operational wipers. Jack hung out the passenger side window, furiously reaching out to his side of the windshield in order to wipe away snow, road salt and grime, and occasional ice with his jacket clad forearm. Did I mention that the car lacked a heater or defroster? 

As the driver, I did my part, keeping the piece of junk Ford on the road and frequently standing up, while driving of course, in order to reach around to clear my side of the windshield in order to gain a modicum of visibility. We more or less doubled the usual driving time to York but miraculously made it. Jack, the brains of the operation, at least suggested, more than once, that we put an end to the madness, turn around, and try to get home before we ended our journey in a ditch. We were, however, motivated beyond reason to see our lifting idols. Even as a bodybuilder, Jack had great respect for Bednarski, March, and of course, the great John Grimek. Long before all-access media and the Internet, just the possibility of seeing Grimek was enough to make either of us crawl over glass, thus onward I drove until we pulled into the parking lot of the York Barbell Club.

Our goal was two-fold: watch the greatest lifters in the United States heave the weights around, and depart with a real Olympic barbell and set of plates, and one of Bob Hoffman’s power racks. In one of our initial conversations about the rack, Jack quickly noted that “You can make one of those in your dad’s shop, you’ve already made racks.” I hate to say I was a victim of brainwashing media hype but yeah, I believed that I would actually make greater progress and become stronger using a “real” York isometric-isotonic rack, despite the obvious shortcomings of having a paucity of space between the uprights, being too unstable as it stood bolted into its wooden base, and its lack of overhead height. I reasoned that if Bill March could build such outstanding levels of strength and musculature on it, so could I, and very much like the Dan Aykroyd line in the movie Ghostbusters, “You gotta try this pole” uttered while walking through what otherwise was a derelict firehouse, I was sold on the inconsequential inclusion of the chinning bar at the top of the rack. Who said “Youth is wasted on the young”? 

We parked the car and hot-footed into “The Barbell,” immediately mesmerized by the statues of Hoffman, the death mask of The French Angel, and the display of various old-time barbells. We wandered into the store area and up close and personal, saw a group of York lifters sitting at the counter of the serving area, chatting and getting ready to train. This was it! We were in the York Barbell Club with York Barbell Club lifters and we knew who they were, we had seen their photos in magazines, they were famous and we were nothing short of slack-jawed and stunned. 

Bill Starr was perhaps the first to look our way and speak to us, asking, “You guys here to train?” Wow, “here to train?” We were being mistaken for big time lifters, how great was this? Jack at least looked the part, standing six feet tall and tipping the scales at approximately 230 pounds. He was carrying a lot of shoulders and upper body on what was a very strong physique. I was “big” but short, topping out at 232 pounds at 5'5" and change while playing college football. I actually had abs but looked like nothing short of the Michelin Man while bundled up in winter clothing. Still, “…here to train?” Oh boy, we could have died and been happy right on that spot.

We explained that we drove down to pick up equipment and watch the very lifters we were speaking with, go through their Saturday training programs. After multiple comments questioning our sanity for driving in the brutal weather conditions and from the relatively lengthy distance from Long Island, we were given the news that the warehouse was closed on Saturdays and thus no equipment was available. Say what? One couldn’t get a York Olympic Barbell Set while visiting York? I was momentarily crushed, but remained resourceful and asked if “the boss was in,” I intended to plead my case. A call was made to an upstairs office and John Terpak came down as the lifters drifted into the gym area to prepare for training. 

Terpak, like the current York lifters, was still an icon in my eyes. Before me stood a middle-aged businessman in a dark blue suit – and yes, dressed for serious business in a suit, tie, and white shirt even on a Saturday in the midst of an all out blizzard – but I saw a lifting star from decades past. I knew the sport’s history and respected it. This of course did not prevent me from rambling like a maniac, explaining our harrowing trip from Long Island and driving in the most unsafe conditions imaginable. We were “York guys,” I had sent cash in an envelope to purchase a York Barbell Club t-shirt years before, and what might have been the phrase that sealed the deal, “I actually know Joe Weider, and I like York better!” 

Terpak asked how I knew Joe and I explained that I had hung out in the back of Leroy Colbert’s health food store in Manhattan, and had done that for years, trying to learn what I could from Leroy, his wife Jackie, and friends I had made through these visits, like Dave Draper prior to his departure for the sunny environs of California. I was patiently told that unless orders were confirmed and special arrangements made in advance, nothing from the warehouse was sold on Saturdays. I, of course, stated the obvious, that most people worked, attended school, or did both during the week, and that Saturday seemed like the most logical day to sell equipment. A few of the lifters made comments to John about the fact that we had braved life and limb to get to York just to watch the lifting and buy a barbell set and racks, demonstrating a level of commitment above and beyond sanity. “Come on John, sell them the stuff, they’ll carry it out themselves.”

Terpak finally relented, and we were jumping up and down. We pulled out our cash, were escorted to the adjoining warehouse, and rushed into the falling snow and cutting wind to…to do what? We had our rack, we had our bar, we had plates, and with my small two-door model car, of course had no place to put them! Well, we had departed New York without a map and no real knowledge of York’s location other than “Go south and west” so this would not have been a surprise to those who knew us. “Put it on the hood.” Jack stared at me. “Put it on the hood! Dump it, we’ll miss the lifting! We’ll figure it out later.” We literally threw the rack across the hood of the car, placed the bar catty-corner across the entire interior, leaving one window open, and ran back into the club to now watch the lifting.

We had yet to make our bathroom stop so rushed over to the small changing area that the lifters used. We literally stopped in our tracks as the cramped area was blocked by the mammoth, muscular thigh of Bill March. He had his foot propped up on the sink as he massaged Hoffman’s Rub into his quadriceps muscle. “Sorry boys, I’ll be done in a second.” Despite near-exploding bladders, we stood and stared, unable to say anything. In person, March was twice the size and much more muscular than his photos indicated. His identifying crew cut had been replaced by a growth of hair that probably now needed the use of a comb but he was the epitome of the clean cut, solid looking, athletic specimen that Hoffman always put out in front of the public as the product of sensible weight training.

He also knew who we were. We came close to urinating on each other’s shoes as we kept turning to catch a glimpse of March’s traps or thighs and continue the conversation. “You guys are the nuts that drove here from Long Island in this mess.” That was us, guilty as charged, and he both laughed and shook his head and said that he admired our “dedication.” I told him that I thought he had retired from competitive lifting and had tried to play football. He explained that he had wrangled a try-out with the Baltimore Colts, who at the time were one of the best teams in the National Football League and were also loaded at his fullback position. He modestly stated that he had played football, and what seemed liked every other available sport, at nearby Dallastown High School. With the Colts, a perennial championship contender, he ran well and head coach Don Shula seemed to like him. Shula would never refer to March by name, instead referring to him as “Mr. Universe” or just “Universe.” If he wanted Bill to enter a scrimmage or drill, he would turn to this great lifter – who also happened to have won the FIHC (Federation International Halterophile et Culturiste, or Federation of Weightlifting and Culture) Mr. Universe title in 1965, along with a number of other physique titles without truly training as a bodybuilder – and snap, “Hey Universe, get in there.”

Bill did not make the Colts final cut, but he demonstrated enough potential that even at a short 5'7" to 5'8", dependent upon who was listing his true height, and 220 pounds, he was assigned to the Harrisburg Capitols, the Baltimore farm team in the Atlantic Coast Football League. Minor league football was fun, but Bill missed weightlifting as his competitive outlet and realized that he was a long shot to actually land on the Colts’ active roster. He told me that he had just returned to York Barbell and that this would be one of his first training sessions.

Bill was famous, or infamous dependent upon one’s perspective, for both handling near World Record poundages at any and all times, and consuming tremendous quantities of food and beverage. Watching March in this, one of his first workouts since laying off and doing no more than what was considered to be “light, staying in shape” training during a very arduous football season, astounded us. He first worked up to within twenty-five or thirty pounds of the World Record in the press, and in explaining his rationale for “re-conditioning the legs for actual lifting,” then did what had to be ten or fifteen sets of three reps in what was to us, outlandishly heavy barbell squats. We had hit it off immediately and between exercises, he wandered over to our chairs that we had set up adjacent to the training platforms, and chatted. 

Observing him drink approximately a dozen cans of Pepsi and a quart of milk during the workout, I could not help but ask, “Is this your normal intake?” I was to later learn from Starr, Suggs, and numerous others that yes, Bill could drink a ton during workouts. When both making weight and then rehydrating, he would drink “two tons” and literally gain up to twenty pounds overnight. Especially after the squats, his huge thighs, often publicly touted as measuring twenty-nine or thirty inches, appeared to be even larger. “Holy smokes, can you believe the muscle on this guy?” was the only thought and comment we really could come up with to describe a sight that left us almost speechless. 

Bill and the other lifters there that day could not have been more accommodating. We saw Tony Garcy, Starr and Suggs, Roman Mielic, and had a ten-minute conversation with former great Steve Stanko. That we were so immediately accepted and that everyone seemed “so regular” was unbelievable to us, despite what was still the cult-like status of any lifting-related activity. The experience was so vivid that even today, certain sounds and odors, especially when mixing up a protein shake, bring back very clear and concise memories of that experience. Of course, everyone might have been exceptionally nice because we were seen as complete lunatics for having braved the blizzard to get there, and thus could be potentially dangerous. 

I was to learn that we had witnessed a typical York Barbell Club Saturday and that the welcoming manner demonstrated towards us was the norm.  As we contemplated a way in which to transport our newly purchased power rack and the trip home, one that would be more difficult than the trip that brought us to York earlier that morning, we realized how much we had learned and would soon put that knowledge to use.

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