Powerlifting History

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Powerlifting originated in the USA and the UK in the 1950s. Previously, the weightlifting governing bodies in both countries had recognised various ‘odd lifts’ for competition and record purposes.

During the 1950s, Olympic weightlifting declined in the United States, while bodybuilding and powerlifting gained many new followers. In 1958, the AAU’s National Weightlifting Committee decided to begin recognizing records for ‘odd lifts’, provided they were made at sanctioned AAU ‘meets’.

A national powerlifting championship was tentatively scheduled for 1959, but it never happened. The first genuine national ‘meet’ was held in September 1964 under the auspices of the York Barbell Company, Ironically, Bob Hoffman, the owner of York Barbell, had been a long-time adversary of powerlifting. But his company was now making powerlifting equipment to make up for the sales it had lost on Olympic-style equipment.

During the late 1950’s, Hoffman’s York Barbell Company, his influence in Olympic lifting and his predominately Olympic-lifting based magazine “Health and Strength” were beginning to come under ever-increasing pressure from Joe Weider’s organisation. As America’s (and Bob Hoffman’s) influence in the world of weightlifting was declining and in order to combat the growing influence of Weider, Hoffman started another magazine (Muscular Development) which would be focussed more on bodybuilding and the fast-growing interest in ‘odd-lift’ competitions. The magazine’s first Editor was the world-renowned John Grimek.

During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s various ‘odd lift’ events gradually developed into the specific ‘powerlifting’ lifts – the bench press, the squat, and the deadlift (and lifted in that order). Bob Hoffman became more and more influential in the development of this new lifting sport and organised ‘The Powerlifting Tournament of America’ in 1964 – effectively the first US National powerlifting championships. In 1965 the first named USA National Powerlifting Championships were held.

During the same period, lifting in Britain also had factions. In the late 1950’s, and because the ruling body (BAWLA) were only interested in the development of Olympic lifting, a breakaway organisation called the Society of Amateur Weightlifters had been formed to cater for the interests of lifters who were not particularly interested in doing Olympic lifting.

Although at that time there were 42 recognised lifts, the “Strength Set” (Curl, Bench Press, and Squat) soon became the standard competition lifts, and both organisations held Championships on these lifts (as well as on the Olympic lifts) until 1965.

In 1966, the Society of Amateur Weightlifters re-joined BAWLA and, in order to fall into line with the American ‘Powerlifting’ lifts, the Curl was dropped and replaced with the Deadlift. The first BAWLA British Powerlifting Championship was held in 1966.

During the late 60’s and at the beginning of the 70’s, various friendly international contests were held. At the same time, in early November of each year and to commemorate Bob Hoffman’s birthday, a prestige lifting contest was always held as part of “Bob Hoffman’s Birthday Party.” In 1971, it was decided to make this event the “World Powerlifting Championships.” There was no such thing as ‘teams’ and thus was predominantly a whole bunch of American lifters, plus four from Great Britain and one from the West Indies. All the Referees were American. This event got off the mark in York, Pennsylvania, at 10.05 am on Saturday, 1971.

Weights were in pounds. Lifting order was ‘rising bar’ (this was long before the Rounds system). The first lift was the Bench Press. There was no such thing as bench shirts or squat suits, various interpretations regarding the use of and length of knee wraps and weightlifting belts. No such thing as the IPF yet, no World Records.

To give a flavour of some of what went on, Great Britain’s 67½lg lifter, Mike Shaw, purportedly wore knee wraps which were eighteen feet long! (This didn’t go down too well with the Americans; their rules allowed for 6 feet). There was no 52kg class, no 100kg class, and no 125kg class. One of the American Superheavyweights, Jim Williams (nicknamed ‘Chimes’) benched 660lbs on a second attempt (no shirt), and almost locked-out 680lbs on a third. Some other notable lifts – Larry Pacifico benched the equivalent of 235 kg in the 90 kg class; John Kuc deadlifted 397½ kg; and Vince Anello attempted 362½ kg (800 lbs) at 90.

In 1972 the ‘second’ World Championships were held, this time over two days – 10th and 11th November. This time there were 8 lifters from Great Britain (two of whom, Ron Collins and John Pegler, did stints as Referees), 6 Canadians, 2 Puerto Ricans, 3 Zambians, and 1 from the West Indies. With 67 lifters in all, the other 47 were Americans. Lifts were still measured in pounds, the bench press was the first lift, and there were still no suits, power belts, or fancy wraps. Britain’s Precious McKenzie won his ‘second’ world title with 550 kg at 56. Mike Shaw ‘lost’ his world title, won the previous year, to American Jack Keammerer. Ron Collins made up for his ’bomb’ on the bench in ’71 and stormed to the 75kg title. Pacifico just won against another American, Mel Hennessey, at 110kg, both with enormous benches of 260kg and 255kg. At Super (over 110kg) John Kuc beat Jim Williams. Kuc attempting a 397½ (875 lbs) deadlift again, and Williams benching a massive 307½ (675 lbs) before just missing with 317½ (700 lbs). John Cole, the winner of the US Senior Championships with 1,075kg, didn’t show up to take on Cole.

The International Powerlifting Federation was formed immediately after the contest, and so none of the lifts could be yet registered as World Records.

The 1973 Worlds was also held in York, Pennsylvania. This time there were only 47 entrants; 1 from Sweden, 1 from Puerto Rico Peter Fiore – still lifting for Zambia, 2 Canadians, 1 West Indian, 8 from Great Britain, and the rest Americans. The officiating became a bit more ‘international’; Tony Fitton and Terry Jordan from Britain, a Canadian, and a Zambian, assisting with the Refereeing duties. American Bob Crist was the IPF President, and another American, Clarence Johnson, was Vice-President.

1973 was the first time that the lifts were done in the order we now recognise – Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift (although still lifting in pounds). Precious Mackenzie won his ‘third’ World title, easily beating the American teenager, Lamar Gant.

1974 was the first time that teams had to be selected in advance. With 74 entrants this was the largest Worlds so far. The 52kg class was introduced – and there were 9 lifters entered. The most successful powerlifter in the history of the sport made his first appearance here – Japan’s Hideaki Inaba – and he won by a mile. He broke World Records on every lift and the total and amazed everyone who saw him lift.

In 1975 the World Championships was held outside America for the first time, in Birmingham Town Hall, hosted by the legendary Vic Mercer. 82 lifters this time. Unusually, the Supers lifted first – because the Television people only wanted to film the big guys !! Bob Hoffman sent over tons of equipment for this contest too – and didn’t take it back (we believe it’s all still being used in the West Midlands).

The establishment of the IPF in 1973 spurred the establishment of the European Powerlifting Federation in 1974.

Since powerlifting was closely associated with bodybuilding and women had been competing as bodybuilders for years, the new sport was opened to them very quickly. The first U. S. national championships for women were held in 1978 and the IPF added women’s competition in 1979.

In the USA, the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 required that each Olympic or potential Olympic sport must have its own national governing body by November of 1980. As a result, the AAU lost control of virtually every amateur sport, including powerlifting. The U. S. Powerlifting Federation was founded in 1980 as the new national governing body, and USAPL subsequently became the IPF affiliate.

In the UK, powerlifting since its inception in the 1960s came under the control of the British Weight Lifters Association (BWLA), previously BAWLA. Most national powerlifting bodies in other IPF-affiliated countries established independent powerlifting organizations as the sport developed in their countries, but there were always strong historic links between weightlifting and powerlifting in the UK.

However, by 2008 the UK was one of the few countries to remain under the aegis of a distinct and different sport, and an amicable separation of weightlifting and powerlifting was agreed in July 2008, when BWLA decided not to reapply for affiliation to the IPF/EPF and recommended that the Great Britain Powerlifting Federation (GBPF) take over as the IPF/EPF affiliate for the UK.

All powerlifting functions of the BWLA were transferred to the GBPF. All BWLA powerlifting records continue to be recognized by GBPF.

The IPF remains the major international governing body for powerlifting and is affiliated to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA). Although not yet an Olympic sport, powerlifting is an official sport of the Paralympics, it is a World Games sport, and the IPF complies with WADA drug testing protocols and is unequivocal in its commitment to drug free lifting.

Currently, the IFP has more than 110 member countries and continues to be the pre-eminent international organisation.

Thank you to Martin Flett and the late Barrie Nelson for their input into this section.