My 45-Year Association with Bill Starr

by Steve Dussia | July 02, 2015

bill starr association

I accidentally entered my first Olympic weightlifting contest in May of 1968 at the Boy’s Club of Pittsburgh. I had gone there to enter my first bodybuilding contest, Mr. Teen Age, and Ed Nowosielski, the promoter, asked if I would like to enter the Olympic lifting being held earlier in the day. He said they would waive the $2 entry fee, so what the heck. I placed a close second in my class by virtue of a decent press. I watched the snatches begin from the wings, having never seen one done before, and when I saw the first lifter use the squat style, I figured I’d better start really light, because without proper coaching or a death wish, that wasn’t going to happen. I managed to power snatch 155, which gave me plenty of time to rest up for the clean and jerks, since almost everyone else started after I was finished. I placed 2nd out of 2 in my class and I was hooked.

I began to seek out information on how to do the lifts properly, a search that began and ended with Strength and Health magazine. At the time, it was the Olympic lifting/bodybuilding source out of York, Muscular Development covering powerlifting and bodybuilding. The bench press was done first then, and powerlifting was called odd lifts by some.

I was drawn to the split style, as performed by Norb Schemansky and Bill Starr, and a goodly number of the lifters of that era. I may have misinterpreted somewhat, as I did all my lifts after that split style, including cleans for the press and jerk. I entered every contest within 100 miles of my home in the next couple of years, but York, the holy grail of Olympic lifting, was a bit too far for a teenager of modest means.

However, in 1970, while representing the Butler Weightlifting Club, I entered the Teenage Nationals in, yes, you guessed it, York. I first met Bill there, and we hit it off, because he was a practitioner of the split style, and was a fan of others of the same ilk. I remember he was wearing a white knit shirt, and his trap development bordered on the ridiculous. To quote Flounder from Animal House, I thought, “Oh boy, this is great!” If I keep this up, I can become like that. And so it began.

I placed high enough (3rd) in my weight class to qualify for the training camp in York following the competition, a concept of Bill’s, designed to produce top-level lifters for the U.S. This was a dream that wasn’t to come true at that point, as the cash flow issue had reared its ugly head. Lack of cash, to be precise.

After a brief job in Michigan, I headed for Hawaii in late 1970. I was there a few years, when a friend of mine said, “Hey, Bill Starr just got hired as Strength Coach at the University of Hawaii.” So we headed for Klum Gym, a fairly nondescript building on the lower campus of the university. The weight training facility was a 20x40 foot room on one end of the gym, which housed a basketball court. This was early 1974.

Bill was the coach all right; he even had those shoes with the huge ridges on the soles, which it seems only coaches wear. Green bermuda shorts, and a shirt that had Strength Coach printed on it in bold letters, as if there was ever a doubt, completed the ensemble. The most noticeable difference was that now he had longer than shoulder length hair, and always wore a headband.

He immediately asked if I would assist him in training the athletes, most of whom thought that weightlifting and bench pressing were interchangeable terms. My new official title was weight room supervisor, as there was no provision in the budget for an assistant strength coach. I also became Bill’s assistant athletic dorm supervisor, which meant that in addition to my paltry salary, I also had a free room.

It was at this time that The Strongest Shall Survive went from concept to reality. Bill was the writer, I was a photographer, and the rest is history. Bill compiled his notes and research into the text, and I did a handful of cartoons, and upon completion of each chapter, we would pick an athlete who had acceptable technique and a world of patience, and do the accompanying photographs. All the “sequence” photos took hours to shoot and arrange, as the lift had to be performed dozens of times to catch a photo at each position. Added to this, all photos were taken with a Rolleiflex TLR, on a tripod, and film was changed every 12 shots.

My big break in show business came the day we were to shoot photos for the chapter on advanced training. Whoever had been chosen to be the model no-showed, and Bill and I sat and waited. Bill finally said, “Hell, your form is better than his anyway, you’re the new model.” I set the camera on the tripod, adjusted the exposure, and performed the exercises, while Bill pressed the shutter button. Those became the photos for chapter 7. I’m still waiting for the autograph hounds to show up.

Many of the cartoons I did of Bill showed him with sunglasses, which were, in fact, prescription. These, along with his long hair and mustache, made it hard to draw a character with these features that didn’t look like him. The more bizarre and weird the cartoons were, the better he liked them, and I did my best to oblige. I included numerous cartoons in every letter I sent to him.

Who could predict that 40 years and over 10 printings later that the book would still be reaching its intended audience, most whom weren’t even born when it was conceived. Once the book was finalized and had gone to the printer, life in the weight room went back to normal – well, as normal as weight rooms can be.

Some may think that Bill’s personal training program, from the time he started, was based on the programs outlined in The Strongest Shall Survive. In fact, his training was part trial and error, with much larger portions of trial and success. The Big 3 and the sets, reps. weight progression, nutrition, rest, etc. were a compilation of what he observed while watching, training with, and coaching some of the best Olympic lifters ever, and applying those principles to lifters and players he coached, from rank beginners to established professionals. His preface to the SSS explains what he intended his programs to accomplish. He lamented the fact that many of the strongest men who ever lived were either incapable of or unwilling to share the methods they used to become that way. His effort to digest and compile all he could learn from them into usable information became a lifetime avocation.

I would train during the day, while Bill was there, and return in the evening to train athletes whose class schedules minimized their time with Bill. When their training lifts plateaued, we would confer with Bill, and make the necessary adjustments to maintain progress.

My lifts, in the meantime, progressed from a competitive best of 270 press 230 snatch and 305 clean and jerk, to a 270 snatch and 360 clean and jerk, while still competing as a lightheavy. It should be noted that the press was dropped in the early 70s. Bill had immediately converted me to a squat style clean, but I remained a split style snatcher throughout my lifting career, as had Bill. Liberal doses of squats and heavy pulling work under Bill’s close supervision certainly played a part in this increase.

By this time, Bill’s Olympic lifting career had come to a close, due to persistent wrist issues. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but rest assured, the other links were still plenty strong. His squat was in the mid 500s, bench press over 400, and deadlift over 600. These were done with no wraps, no super suit, and no bench shirts. Bill had previously set a national record in the deadlift, doing 666 as a 198er. I always told him that it was probably the heaviest ever done by a guy wearing black leather penny loafers. If you study the photo in SSS, you will note that this lift was done without a belt, and that he used the hook grip.

I made our weightlifting belts, and they were so pliable that we rolled them up like ace bandages to put them in our gym bags. Bill regularly won any contest for chin-ups, doing in the neighborhood of 25 reps at a bodyweight of 200. These were shoulder-width picture perfect reps, chin over the bar, and straight arms at the bottom. Our favorite exercise was dips, and I had a welder make us a bar with a flat plate bottom and a chain hook at the top. We called it “The Prong” and we stacked it with 25 lb plates and maxed out at 200 for 5 reps and 250 for a single.

I should mention that until I got to the U.H. I had never done squats as an exercise. I’m sure that Bill derived a certain sadistic pleasure in helping me overcome this flaw in my personality. I finally got to the point where I was able to enjoy doing squats on occasion. I believe it was twice. Under his watchful eye and cracking whip, I progressed from 400 for a very shaky single, to 400 x 20.

We also worked some obscure exercises into our routine from time to time. Maybe routine is the wrong word, as they were spontaneous add-ons, and not necessarily done with regularity. We did one-handed deadlifts, which are the ultimate test of the hook grip, pinch gripping Olympic plates face to face, and cleaning and pressing them, Steve Reeves deadlifts, done by loading a bar with one pair of 45s and a handful of smaller weights, and lifting it by pulling inward on the 45s and standing up. Reeves was reputed to have done 400 this way. We didn’t. We also did one-hand snatches, an exercise which should certainly come with a warning label. One of Bill’s previous training partners at York Barbell Club, Bob Bednarski, had done as much as 225 in this lift. As I recall, we maxed out well short of that. I also had York “crushers” and even an Iron Horseshoe, which I still have, allowing us to train muscles used in the lifting process from angles that weights wouldn’t permit. Anything that required strength was fair game, and there were certainly others.

I also worked extensively on kneeling cleans, the subject of some of the last letters that I sent to Bill. Properly performed, it is a great movement for refining and strengthening the top pull. Improperly done, it is a waste of time and energy. Halting deadlifts, done in an Olympic lift style, to just above knee level, puts the bar in the perfect position to begin the top pull. These are exercises to strengthen the muscles used in the performance of the clean and snatch, and flawless form with maximum weights will produce the desired results. Both are done in low rep, rapid fashion, to ensure that the major muscle groups involved get the lion’s share of the work. I first worked the halting deadlifts in visits to Tommy Kono at the Nuuanu YMCA, and incorporated them into my own Olympic lifting training, and also used them in training Gus “Buzzsaw” Rethwisch of the WABDL, who credits me with helping him accomplish his heaviest competition deadlift of 860 as a superheavy.

In accessory exercises more exclusive to the Olympic lifts, I also worked heavy overhead supports into my program, again with emphasis on very low reps and maximum weights. I also continued to perform military presses to work the deltoids and triceps through a more deliberate movement, getting some work for the sticking points, which the jerk training left untouched. Due to his wrist issues, Bill provided the watchful eye, but abstained from the overhead supports. In most cases, when an accessory exercise utilized heavier weights than the lift it was enhancing, it followed that exercise and the weight progression continued upward from that for very few sets of very few reps, 2s and 3s being the norm. Any break in form at these weights signaled the end of that exercise for the day.

During the time he was in Hawaii, I never knew of Bill going to the beach. But we did do “beach work” exercises, like curls for girls, etc. The equipment selection at the U.H. weight room was basic, to say the least. Benches, power racks, incline, hyperextension bench, sit-up board, calf machine and dip and chin stations. Much of what you will find in a modern weight room was conspicuous by its absence. Because weight training was optional, even for the football players, the team consisted of some weightlifting brutes, mixed in with some powder-puff gaps in the lineup, which other teams were only too happy to exploit. Those who abstained never caught on that liberal doses of the Big 3 might have minimized the asskicking that they took weekly. Interestingly, but not surprising was the fact that the only U.H. players to reach the pro ranks were those who followed Bill’s programs in The Strongest Shall Survive.

Bill’s nickname while at the University was Odin. All you had to do was walk into the weight room and you got a nickname. Bill came up with all of them. There was Thor, Hulk, Debbie Dorm, Bubbles, Wonder Woman, Chlorine Chris, Silk Shirt, and a host of others. When he sent a copy of his second book, Defying Gravity, to me, he inscribed it, “To Big, of all the athletes I ever trained, you are my favorite. Bill Starr”. Knowing Bill’s sense of humor, I have to at least suspect that may have been his standard inscription. If it is, I don’t really want to know about it. Funny, it didn’t look like a rubber stamp. Incidentally, the name Big came from Big Stephen, which he assigned to me because there was another guy named Stephen who was a weight class below me. His nickname: Little. Thank heavens for those extra 15 lbs.

I was proud to have been associated with The Strongest Shall Survive, or as Bill referred to it, SSS. To say that it was the standard by which strength programs of its time were compared would be underestimating it. To say that it is still the standard, 4 decades later, would be more appropriate. That others have made progress and achieved great results using programs of their own design is unquestioned. Bill’s ability to convey his methods, and the reasoning behind them, in print, was one of his greatest abilities.

Bill and I, during this period, worked as doormen at various nightclubs around Honolulu, to supplement our incomes, not because we thought that staying up ‘til 4 or 5 a.m. was beneficial to our training. Bill enjoyed an occasional Harvey’s Bristol Cream as an after-work drink, while I was a complete teetotaler. I always said, “The only thing worse than being drunk in a bar is being sober in a bar.”

On one particularly memorable night, at Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand, a street level club in Waikiki, under a huge banyan tree, Bill was working the door and a belligerent drunk decided to punch him out. He found out too late that Bill had done a considerable stint as a boxer in his youth. When he missed his one and only swing, Bill drilled him with a quick left (his good wrist), and the guy staggered backward into the street and got hit by a car. The ambulance came and hauled him away, but lo and behold, about 3 hours later he was back, heavily bandaged but still wanting to fight. There happened to be some cops nearby, and they proceeded to put a severe thumping on him and then hauled him off to jail. I couldn’t help thinking that when some guys miss a lift, they get discouraged. That maniac could have given them a lesson in persistence.

On a normal night we would amuse ourselves with strength tests like squatting a medium-size telephone pole that was used as a border for the parking lot, bench pressing the front end of one of the employees Honda cars, and doing quarter-squats with one side of a Toyota, by opening the passenger side door and putting our head inside and shoulders against the top of the door frame. By locking our legs out, we could lift the 2 passenger side tires clear off the ground. It was the exuberance of youth for some of us, and we did our best to keep Bill involved. He was right there with us.

One night, Bill’s car, a beat up old Karmann Ghia, got towed to the impound, and when I drove him to get it there was a junkyard dog there that looked like he ate pit bulls for snacks. I drove toward the dog, and backed him into a corner, while Bill ran for his car. All the leg work he had ever done came into play during that sprint. When we got back to the dorm, we couldn’t stop laughing at our close call and good fortune. Even now when I think about it, I still get a chuckle out of it.

Bill was a big fan of what I call “hillbilly music.” O.K. I was too. We used to go to the Country Meating Steakhouse in Waipahu, where we ate tough steaks and listened to live bluegrass music. But his all time favorite was Patsy Cline, and if a more devoted fan of one singer exists, I have yet to meet him.

During Bill’s tenure with York Barbell, there was a distinct shortage of people who were willing and/or able to write coherent articles on strength training. To avoid diminishing the publication by using substandard material, Bill just went ahead and wrote all the training advice articles and published them under names of people that he had known as a child. As editor, he then “chose” these for publication in the magazine. The only small glitch was that when checks were issued as payment for these articles, Bill in all fairness cashed them himself. After all, he had written the articles…

Well, the powers at York didn’t see things quite this way, and this resulted in Bill being extradited from Hawaii for forgery. This put a rather abrupt end to our coaching and living situation. But while at York, Bill had come across stacks of receipts from the York Pharmacy for steroids, speed, etc. being supplied to the York lifters by none other than Bob Hoffman. Bill was able to negotiate an agreement to drop the charges by telling Hoffman that he would provide said receipts to the International Olympic Committee, effectively bringing the York empire to its knees.

That was pretty much the end of that story, except for a lighter note regarding Bill’s first and only night in the pokey. He waited until recess, loaded every weight in the place on the bar and cleaned and pressed it 10 times. That had the desired effect of keeping the undesirables at bay.

I had recently (2010-14) done an extensive series of close to 100 cartoons for his latest book on the Golden Era of Weightlifting, documenting the adventures and misadventures of the York Barbell Club and the list of lifters who made the journey to that mecca of the U.S. Olympic lifting scene in the late 60s, which was the time when he and Tommy Suggs were editing Strength and Health magazine for the York Barbell Company. I also proofread the complete manuscript, and in the process, read it an estimated 10-12 times. (In a phone conversation with Mark Rippetoe, of Aasgaard Publishing, he said I was the only person to ever see it. I pray that this situation changes as I feel that Bill’s legacy will only be complete with its publication. Mark was a protégé of Bill’s for years, and is the best source for all his books. I never met Mark, but talked to him for the first time in June of 2015, and he represents the best chance that Bill’s last book will see the light of day. I agreed to confer with him on the placement of the cartoons, provided that the manuscript comes his way.) Bill and I corresponded weekly during its first through final drafts.

Bill preferred to communicate by mail, and he probably could have had unlimited long distance for what he spent on stamps. To my knowledge, he never had a computer, but then I’ve only had one on rare occasions, so if you’re reading this, it was input on someone else’s. Many will find it bewildering that Bill and I stayed in touch until early 2015 by letters only. There were occasional lengthy gaps in our contact, and then we would start off again as if it were yesterday. Our standard letter to each other, when we hadn’t written for a while, went something like this: “Hey Big, Are you alive? Bill.” The last time I talked to him in person, or on the phone, was 1977.

He wrote a book called the Susquehanna River Hills Chronicles, a 700+ page novel, set in Maryland during the War of 1812. In it, he immortalized his brothers, Raymond and Donald, by creating characters with their names. He had the utmost respect and admiration for his brothers, and made that quite clear in his writings. The Willie in the story was in fact Bill himself, transplanted into a 19th century scenario, which makes for interesting reading. There was no mention of weightlifting in that story, but knowing Bill, he was probably doing one arm presses with a cannonball.

Bill was a voracious reader, and in a 2012 letter he told me that he had read 230 novels in 2011, but planned to cut back in 2012. To put that in perspective, I would imagine there are many who haven’t read 1/10 as many in their entire lives. He told me he had 6 full-size bookcases, sagging from the weight of all his books. These, and his workout equipment, filled his small apartment. He had an Olympic bar with bumper plates, a slant board, a bench and 10- and 20-lb dumbbell sets. He calculated his yearly workload at 125,000 lbs per year into his late 70s. He also walked 7 days a week, and never missed a workout from 2001-2015.

Few know that he was also a painter – no, not walls, but oil paintings in the same genre as the puffy- haired guy that used to be on TV, painting pastoral scenes with a 4″ brush. He didn’t have to paint his walls; his art works covered virtually every square inch. I’m no art critic, but photos of the ones I saw looked pretty damn good.

It may raise some eyebrows to know that for at least the last 10 years of his life, he never turned on the heat in his apt. In his signature outspoken way, he said that people who heated in the wintertime were wimps. I always suspected that I might be a wimp, and Bill’s analysis confirmed it.

Bill was my mentor, my coach, my adviser, and for the most fruitful part of my lifting career, my training partner. But most of all, he was my friend. I still have moments when I check my mail that I expect to hear something new from him. I’m not a big fan of closure, so to me, this will always be just one of those gaps in our correspondence.

He was a prolific writer, as most of you know. A compendium of his works would be monumental. If you applied the training principles he espoused in his writings, it’s quite probable that you could derive benefit from each and every one.

Bill never got rich in the process of enriching the lives of almost everyone who pushes and pulls on the iron. He will live on in the annals of weightlifting. You can thank him for his contributions by chalking up and trying a little harder each day than you did the day before. Remember, if you enjoy the training, you won’t enjoy the competition.

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