WSBB Article: The Journey

Louie Simmons
Thu Feb 18, 2021

Tags: Reflect, Journey, Training

Time to Read: 7-8 mins

 

In life and sports, everyone must look up to someone or something. And that person or thing you look up to can change over the course of your lifetime.

My first master was the Culver City, California, Westside Barbell Club. I found a copy of Muscle Power/Builder while stationed in Berlin, Germany, in 1967, which included articles written by the top guys at Westside. The most common names I encountered were Bill “Peanuts” West, Pat Casey, George Frenn, and Joe Dimarco. 

I paid attention to what Pat Casey had to say for my bench press training. Pat was the first man to bench 600 pounds. His best was 617 pounds. Pat also was the first to squat 800 pounds and total 2,000 pounds.

Pat was good at all types of pressing—incline-decline barbell rack work along with heavy dumbbell pressing. He had his power rack bench for his pin presses. Pat was very good at the seated press and doing 210-pound dumbbell presses. He would do supersets with triceps extensions along with dips.

 (Paul Anderson would do a full range lift along with partials. To this day, I do a heavy set of triceps extensions along with 15 reps of band push-downs.) 

Pat’s program was lots of heavy-duty bodybuilding for his chest, shoulders, and arms, and lots of rowing. Put it all together, and he became the first to bench 600 pounds officially. 

Pat was a product of the Culver City Westside and played a large role in my first bench training, but Pat was just one of my mentors through the pages of Muscle Power/Builder. Two other men who led the way early in my career were Bill “Peanuts” West and George Frenn.

Bill was a real pioneer for powerlifting with elbow and knee wraps. He and George would write articles for the squat and the deadlift. They would do deadlifts while standing on a box, mostly using a four-inch box, but it could be a two-inch box or a box that would have the bar touching the top of the foot at the start. Bill also would do deadlifts with the plates on wood blocks from four inches to 12 inches and would include lots of Goodmornings, back raises, side-bends, and rowing to push up the deadlifts. 

Bill West’s approach was much like Bill Starr’s, who wrote many books with the Strongest Shall Survive. Bill Starr once wrote an article called, “If You Want to Deadlift, Don’t Deadlift.” Like Bill West, he did lots of shrugs, high pulls, and power cleans, as did Bill West. Bill Starr was good at Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. Athletes sought him out as a strength coach, and he was well educated. 

On the other hand, Bill West was one hundred percent powerlifting. He and George Frenn started training together in March 1965 at the world-famous Culver City Westside Barbell Club. Bill West set a few American records in the 1960s that would be world records if there had been world records at the time. I cannot say enough good things about Bill West or Bill Starr, but it was also a fact that when George Frenn wrote, I paid close attention to every word.

George would write about box squatting. Sometimes, the box would be called bench squats when above parallel. During my Friday workouts, I would take a weight on a 17-inch box, cut 50 pounds and move to a 15-inch box, parallel, then cut 50 pounds and move to a 13-inch box, all singles. Then, I would move to a ten-inch steel milk crate and cut to weight to do three sets of three reps. This exercise not only pushed my squat up, but also my deadlift. My Olympic lifting friend, Jimmy Benjamin, overloaded and activated the central nervous system using the high box.

 

'One day a dream came true, and George Frenn called me.'

The work took place in a 26-inch Deep Power Rack introduced by Bill West after he fell with a heavy squat. George would sometimes squat three times a week. He would start with high reps on the highest box. George was a hammer thrower with the 35-pound and held the world record with the 56-pound hammer.

He wrote a squat workout called Strong Legs Break World Records. He would do high box squats, leg presses, leg curls, leg extensions, and calf work. He squatted 854 pounds in gym shorts and an Olympic lifting belt—there was no four-inch power belts until 1978—815-pound deadlifts and a 520-pound bench press. Oh, by the way, George did not do much flat benching as it interfered with the hammer throw.

On a funny note, I had always wanted to at least talk to someone at the Culver City Club. One day a dream came true, and  George Frenn called me. I could not believe it. I was about to talk to someone about the old guys that I had only read about. I had always wanted to visit Bill West and George and the gang, but I could not get vacation time to do so. My friend, the late Roger Estep, made the trip, and that made it even worse. 

But now, I had George Frenn on the phone. What a highlight of my lifting life. I was ready to ask many questions. But then, George said, “Louie, you owe me $5,000.”

I thought he was joking, but he was dead serious as a heart attack. I was confused. Wait, was he really serious? It did not take long for me to realize he was.

I said, “George, why do I owe you $5,000?”

 “For using the name Westside Barbell,” he said.

I did not want to offend him, but I told him I had a worldwide trademark on Westside Barbell. After the call, I had my attorney send him the information to prove it. 

I have the utmost respect for the Culver City Club and all the men who passed through its door. This experience didn’t change my feelings about George in any way. He was, after all, defending his club just like I do today. I stole a line my old buddy Vince Anello, the great deadlifter, used as he defended his deadlift. When judging a competition and not passing a young boy’s deadlift, the kid said, “it was just like yours.”

Vince replied, “You can insult me, but don’t insult my deadlift.” The belief holds for me, too. You can insult me, but don’t insult Westside Barbell.

Bill Ennis called me later to smooth things down for what George had said. I told him that it did not bother me at all. I was just glad to talk to my early mentor George Frenn.

They were my training partners, even if they did not know it.

You can still learn so much from the Culver City Boys by reading Dave Yarnell’s Forgotten Secrets of the Culver City West Barbell Club. One of the things you can learn is the touch system in the deadlift.

First, the squat where a spotter from behind would bear hug the lifter to help him on the first rep from the bottom, called a rocking box squat. A training partner might also slap you on the hips at the bottom of a squat to help fire more muscles. They would place one hand on the traps for the deadlift and one on the lower back to keep the lifter upright, leading to the Westside chair deadlift. Other ideas of theirs were the belly toss off rubber pads and board presses. 

One of their top little men at 181 pounds was Tom Overholtzer. He set squat records never thought of at the time. I talked to an old Culver City Westsider named Joe DiMarco. Joe told me about how the Culver City Boys would train—lots of rack work for all three lifts. Joe did what the others were doing, but he had back problems first, so he did many back extensions to repair his low back ailment.

When I asked Joe about box squats, he said they only did high box squats. However, the articles I had read listed three levels that also used a 10-inch milk crate, so I was confused. Joe was old when we talked, and maybe he was the one confused. Joe did say that pulling with the plates off four-inch boxes was a constant exercise. Because of the box squatting, Joe said Bill West would squat with a wide stance with flat shoes, which was unheard of in the early 1960s. Columbus, Ohio Westside, however, has used a wide stance since 1967. 

Today, at my Westside Club, a lot of good lifters don’t get much media attention. That was true back then, too. Many lifters from the Culver City Westside Club did not get much print—Lou Paul for one, and Bill Thurber with his bench prowess, but I knew all the Culver City Boys. They were my training partners, even if they did not know it. I used the same template as Bill and George from 1967 to 1982. In a way, they were the masters for me.

What a journey it was with the Culver City Boys in my head during my training days. Pictures of the famous Bill “Peanuts” West, George Frenn, and Pat Casey hang on the Columbus, Ohio, Westside Dead Room wall. I will join them someday, but not today.

My next journey was talking to two powerhouse bench-pressers. First, I met Larry Pacifico in Dayton, Ohio, in 1966, just before the Army drafted me. After returning home, I saw Larry in a power meet where he told me that my squat and deadlift were good, but I would have to build a good bench if I ever wanted to win a national championship. He said the triceps are 75 percent of your bench. Larry could do triceps extensions with 300 pounds, and his bench was 500 pounds raw. Remember, there were no bench shirts until 1985.

At first, when I trained my triceps hard, my bench would go down. Why? Looking back, I was out of shape when it came to arm training. I would stop training my triceps and go to the next meet. I would go up five pounds out of pure determination. Then, I would see Larry again, and I would start the triceps training only to go backward again. Then, I would go to the meet and get five pounds more on my bench. 

I was going to a meet in Indiana, but the director sent a letter canceling the meet. I decided to start working my triceps as hard as possible. After training my triceps for six months, it was time for the next meet. My gym bench was up, and now it was meet time. At the meet, my bench jumped 20 pounds, not five pounds like before. Larry was right. When people asked him how to get a bigger bench, he would say the same thing every time: Gain weight and train your triceps, which was good advice for anyone who wanted a bigger bench.

By the way, Larry was right on my winning a Nationals, too, although it took ten years for me to make number eight on the Top Ten List. That work made it possible to make the third-highest total of all-time thanks to my bench. Thanks, Larry.

 

At first, he looked me up and down with the coldest eyes I had ever seen.

So, that’s half of my bench journey. The other half came from a top powerlifter and Mr. America competitor who won several Best Chest awards. His name is Bill Seno. Bill was massive and held some American records in the bench 198-pound class and 242-pound class. I asked him for some help, all 172 pounds of me.

At first, he looked me up and down with the coldest eyes I had ever seen. Then, he grabbed my arms and shoulders. He told me I should bench wide illegally and do a program to work up to a heavy set of six reps and add weight each week until I could go no higher. He said I should then start over with eight reps per set, adding weight each week until I could not make further progress again. At that point, I should start over with sets of 10 reps until I could go no higher. Then, back to the sets of six reps. And just like Bill told me, my six reps would be higher than the first time, and the eight-rep and the ten- rep sets confirmed it. However, since I did not like doing the eight-rep or ten-rep sets, I just started over doing six reps. You must start over at a light enough weight to last five or six weeks.

My bench was 340 pounds at 172-pound bodyweight in 1971. By 1973, I had made a touch-and-go with 450 pounds at 175-pounds bodyweight. At 197-pounds bodyweight, my bench was 500 pounds. My bench was 515 pounds when I weighed 202 pounds. I had not forgotten what Larry said about my triceps and would do lots of triceps extensions with the ultra-wide benches. I would do this until bench shirts were invented. And at that point, I would do lots of close grips. With the help of the Westside Culver City Boys, Larry P., and Bill Seno, my bench would off-and-on make Top Ten from 1980 to 2002.

Of course, men like Jim Williams and Chuck Sipes also played a large role in my longevity. I had been going hard for 12 years with lots of injuries, including two dislocated S-I joints along with fracturing my L-5 and L3 vertebrae. This old-style of training was killing me, just like it had many others. While recovering from my second back injury that would keep me from lying down for 17 weeks, I had to try something new. But what?

I don’t remember who I was talking to, but I told him that I could not train the old Western-style periodization any longer and how I was slow when I moved the bar. The guy told me I should look at what the Russians were doing in their training. Their weights were lighter than the powerlifters, but they had sports scientists who worked with the lifters and kept data to provide input on how to increase their lifts and their totals. He suggested I talk with Andrew Bud Charniga, Jr. Bud had translated the Russian strength training materials for weight lifting and track into English.

So, I called him up and asked to buy all the books he had.

Bud said, “You know these are classroom books?”

I told him that was just what I needed to fill a void in my training.

Ricky Crain, the great 165-pounder, called me to say that he did big numbers in the gym but could not duplicate them on meet day. 

“You find out what went wrong,” I replied, “and call me back. I am having the same problem.”

I knew I was missing something in training. After a year of study, I found out what it was, science. Without a plan, you plan to fail. Now I had a plan, thanks to the first book I would read, Managing the Training of Weightlifters, by N. P. Laputin and V. G. Oleshko. It was a complete guide to becoming a highly skilled weight lifter. It had lots of graphs and data to lay out a weekly, monthly, and yearly plan. I chose a three-week wave that would make it possible to determine how fast, how strong, and the level of my or any athlete’s GPP.

After returning to the platform, I was back to breaking new meet records. At this point, my teammates jumped on board, and they also started making new records. Now more than ever, they looked to me to raise the knowledge bar. Next, I  was consumed with Fundamentals of Special Strength training in Sports, becoming very familiar with the book and its author Y. V. Verkhoshansky.

I had no idea about special strengths before reading this book. I learned to break down special strengths by velocities—fast velocity or Explosive-Strength, intermediate velocity or Speed-Strength, and slow velocity, which is Strength-Velocity.

I began to understand how to train correctly. Coaches have asked how I compiled the information to create the Westside System. Well, it took many, many books to cross-reference all facets of special training. The weightlifting yearbooks were a gold mine of information and explanation of all training types for weightlifting and track and field.

I have always felt that if our Olympic weightlifters would study the same books and manuals, they could significantly improve their world status.

Dr. Mel Siff, a good friend and author of Supertraining, said he felt that because of the USA and the Soviet Union’s history, people of the US look at the Russians as “Commie Bastards” and weren’t inclined to learn from them. I think he was 100 percent correct. But, I am a student of the game, and I am always talking to lifters, good and bad. After talking to the good and the bad lifters, it is easy to see how they evolved.

However, I found that the more I read, the more our training improved. I never read books by Americans because they are 40 or 50 years behind the world of exercise science. After all, many still teach Western Periodization.

Dr. Michael Yessis translated the Russian text into a bi-monthly magazine titled Soviet Sports Review. It was a collection of data by Russia’s top coaches on weight lifting and track and field and included wrestlers and hockey. It was clear that a high level of GPP plays a major role in sports performance.

Dr. A. S. Medvedev laid a stable platform for weightlifting. In his book Fundamentals of Special Strength Training in Sports, he gave the weightlifter 100 workouts from which to choose. Workouts also are laid out in Siff’s Supertraining.

I talked to the Exercise Science doctorate classes at Ohio State University for Dr. Bartels, the department’s head. Later, I gave him a gift subscription to The Soviet Sports Review. He said it was the best gift and information that he had ever seen.

I, like many, was doing the Conjugate System without knowing it. Anyone who switches exercises, plays on a ball field, or as a boxer uses different combinations is using this system. Of course, MMA fighters are utilizing the Conjugate System in one way or another, including volume and intensities.

Y. V. Verkhoshansky and A. S. Medvedev were most responsible for structuring the Conjugate System while at the Dynamo Club. It is impossible to name all the Soviet strength coaches and sports scientists, but here is a partial list, with the top four listed first.

 

  1. A. S. Prilepin
  2. A. D. Ermakov
  3. N. S. Atanasov
  4. V. I. Frolov
  5. V. Zatsiorsky
  6. Y. V. Verkhoshansky
  7. A. Vorobyev
  8. Mel Siff
  9. B. Tabachnik
  10. R. Roman
  11. N. Ozolin
  12. V. Kusnetsov
  13. P. Komi
  14. C. Bosco
  15. A. Bondarchuk
  16. R. Berger
  17. N. Aladjalova
  18. T. Kurz
  19. T. Starzynski
  20. H. Sozanski

 

People had asked me when I went to the Soviet Union. I would replay, “Many times,” in my mind. The truth is that I never made the voyage physically. Still, reading my entire library and connecting the text with actual workouts was like the Soviet coaches and sports scientists came to me and showed me all their information personally. 

Over the past 39 years, I have been on a journey with my American and Russian colleagues’ influence that has consumed my life, and I would not have had it any other way.

Good luck, Louie