Written by: Kevin Cann
I just finished up reading “The Forgotten Secrets of Westside Culver City.” This was a really fun read. It was mainly a collection of magazine articles that told the story of some of the pioneers of the sport. These pioneers were actually a major influence on Louie Simmons, who named his gym after this one to honor their memory.
I really enjoyed reading about their training strategies. When this group was training, the internet did not exist. In fact, adequate powerlifting equipment did not exist. They needed to find ways to push the limits of strength, that few thought possible, with minimal information and minimal equipment.
The 1970s was the golden age of sports science. This was when the Russians pulled back that Iron Curtain just a little bit so that the Americans could see what they were doing. Tudor Bompa made this information readily available and Americans never looked back.
The crew at Westside Culver City, started training in the 1950s. This was long before the world ever heard of periodization. Not only did Eleiko racks and calibrated plates not exist, the power rack was yet to be invented.
Bill “Peanuts” West was the leader of this group. He would end up coaching Pat Casey, the first person to bench 600lbs raw, squat 800lbs, and total 2100lbs. These numbers would be extremely impressive even today with top of the line equipment and over 70 years of scientific progress.
Members of the Westside Culver City crew would compete in the first official powerlifting meets. According to some articles, Joe DiMarco, a member of the crew, help the first international meet where lifers from Europe were invited before Bob Hoffman ever made it official. These were the true pioneers of the sport.
Sadly, most lifters competing today have no idea who they were and how our sport came to be. I feel a history lesson would decrease the bullshit bickering that happens online between whose program is best and whether raw is better than equipped lifting. But I digress.
Before the Westside Culver City crew became the pioneers of powerlifting, they were involved in bodybuilding. Bodybuilding seemed to be very popular at the time and there was a national obsession with large muscular physiques.
Bill “Peanuts” West actually moved out to California for bodybuilding. He wanted to train at the famed Venice Beach gym. The big fitness magazine around at the time was titled “Muscle Builder.” Even when West was writing powerlifting articles, the main focus of the magazine was bodybuilding as the cover was always graced with a man flexing.
Bodybuilding culture has always been a part of powerlifting. I think it followed simple logic. A guy with a lot of muscles looks stronger so he must be able to lift more weight. I would guess that the men at the time also wanted to look that given way.
Pictures of this crew show them as jacked and pretty lean, even when training for powerlifting. The stereotypical fat powerlifter did not come onto the scene until much later it seems. I did find this observation pretty interesting.
There were stories about how they would compete with exercises like single arm lateral raises. A classic bodybuilding movement for the shoulders to see who could lift the most weight. This was also done with exercises like lying triceps extensions and barbell curls. It was like the competition from bodybuilding stopped being about looks, but who could lift the most weight in the exercises that they were typically doing. Add in the big 3 and you have what looks like a modern powerlifting program.
My question then becomes, “Were these bodybuilding exercises required to lift huge weights in the big 3, or were they just part of a culture that bled over into the first training programs?” We can look at modern science to answer that question.
Dr. Jeremy Loenneke (who has been on Boston’s Strongcast discussing this topic), from the ‘Ole Miss exercise physiology lab, has looked to answer these questions. The logic that a bigger muscle has greater strength potential has carried over from the 1950s and became further embedded in American culture with the rise of bodybuilders in action movies.
Arnold became a star of the big screen. His jacked frame kicking the ass of every human and alien in the universe. This further embedded the idea that big equals strong. I believe that this played a major role in bodybuilding still being a large part of powerlifting training.
Dr. Loenneke has published papers on the subject and says that the research that backs the bias that a larger muscle has greater strength potential is nothing more than correlation and that there is a lot of research that counters that argument.
This is not to say that hypertrophy does not matter, but instead that it may just be a natural byproduct of training the lifts. More just may not be better. The body will adapt to the demands that is placed upon it. If the training has a focus of increasing 1RM in the big 3 lifts, the body will adapt to accomplish that task. This is the law of specificity.
Now, this is not an all or nothing thing. We know that we cannot just train heavy singles in the comp lifts year round. This is due to the law of accommodation. We need to continually change up the stimulus in order to get adaptation.
I think of specificity as having a hierarchical order. Heavy singles in the comp lifts, would be at the top, heavy singles with small variations in the comp lifts next, heavy singles with a bit more variation in the comp lifts, heavy doubles of comp lifts, heavy triples, heavy fours, heavy fives, accessory movements such as good mornings, overhead press, and GHRs, finally followed by single joint bodybuilding exercises.
When I look at this list there is a lot of exercises I would choose before bodybuilding to increase the powerlifting total. Now, it is not as simple as just following that list. Multi-joint complex exercises come with a much larger recovery cost than single joint bodybuilding movements.
The coach’s job is to navigate the process between enough stimulus and enough recovery. We need to select from the list in a reasonable way that drives progress without crushing the lifter. This is very dependent upon the individual.
When we look at Louie Simmons’ Westside crew, they use a lot of bodybuilding in their programs. This actually makes a lot of sense to me. I do not think he just copied this from West’s crew and ran with it. I think he definitely finds that it works.
The lifters at Westside are lifting the highest absolute loads in the sport. These higher loads come with a higher recovery cost. They couldn’t just max out a comp lift, and then follow it up with some backdown triples. This would crush them.
For that crew they hit a variation in the lift that typically works on a weakness. Louie says a good box squatter will squat 10-15% less than his comp squat. This limits the absolute loads quite a bit. I love the box squat to build strength, but it also allows the lifter to stay fresh enough to train hard while still straining.
After that main movement for the day there may be some good morning variation for 3-5 reps followed by bodybuilding exercises. This seems like the perfect blend of stimulus and recovery based upon the athletes that train at Westside Barbell in Columbus.
I think it is important for the sake of this article to state my bias. My first 3 years in this sport I was guided by Boris Sheiko. Sheiko was a weightlifting coach before he got into the world of powerlifting. He was heavily influenced by the weightlifting culture.
I saw this and I began to look more at weightlifting for answers than powerlifting, specifically the Russians, Bulgarians, and Greeks. Bodybuilding was not a big piece in the weightlifting culture. The fact that weightlifting is very different from powerlifting is not lost on me.
I posed this question to Sheiko at one point about the efficacy of bodybuilding exercises. I asked him if they really help to push the 1RM and he said that they only help if the main movements are in the program. My next question that I posed to myself was “If they don’t work without the main lifts, then how do we know that they work at all?”
The answer that I came up with is that we don’t. It just a guess. Most likely only a part of this sport because of dogma. Because the culture of the 50s was focused on bodybuilding in the gym and when powerlifting became a sport it bled over and stayed for no other reason than that is just what people did.
The bias of the culture formulated hypotheses that we convinced ourselves were tested to be true, when in fact, there is a lot of counter research that says that we should probably suspend judgment on that answer.
I choose to spend time on the exercises that I know will have a direct carryover to success. We only use bodybuilding exercises when the other ones seem inappropriate based off of the loads lifted by the lifter and their recovery abilities.
Everything has a place, just not for everyone, and not all of the time.