How Louie Simmons defined the extreme sport of powerlifting

In the sport of powerlifting, “gear” can refer to two different forms of body augmentation. The first is anabolic steroids, the assembly of chemicals associated with disgraced professional athletes, shape-shifting celebrities and, of course, bodybuilders, many of whom use hormonal enhancements as casually as any dietary supplement. The second is support gear — wraps, shirts, suits of various thicknesses — that lifters use to help them carry even more than they naturally can. In either form, Equipment had no greater champion than Louie Simmons, a lifter and strength coach who captivated the sport with his club Westside Barbell, which became infamous for training some of the strongest people in the world. Simmons died in March, aged seventy-four, and his enthusiasm for anabolic enhancement could lead to rude speculation about the cause of his death. Indeed, in 2016, Simmons told Joe Rogan that he hadn’t been off the juice since his first dose, in 1970, and that he injected himself with, among other illegal substances, some arsenic and strychnine to increase his redness. number of blood cells. But asking what killed Simmons is irrelevant, as he is a man who lived with death that always pressed on his shoulders. In retrospect, we can call it a miracle that he lived as long as he did, given his passion for lifting insanely heavy loads in flaming disregard for his health.

Little brute-force pastime enjoys a squeaky-clean reputation, and powerlifting is no exception, though in reality it doesn’t enjoy a mainstream reputation at all. Since the 1980s, when Arnold Schwarzenegger published his tome, “Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding,” strength training has become much more than a niche endeavor. Even the maxim that lifting is only good for getting big has been routinely undermined by a new legion of fitness instructors; women once warned not to tackle anything more forceful than a hand weight now growl and pull with abandon. And yet, even if average gym rats have discovered body parts other than the famous “mirror muscles,” they probably won’t consider themselves part of the semi-formalized world of powerlifting. Dating back to roughly the middle of the last century, the sport revolves primarily around three lifts: the back squat (a bend at the hips and knees with the bar over the shoulders), the bench press (a leading cinematic idiom for strength, which hardly needs introduction), and the deadlift (so named for the inert weight that rests on the floor until a willing body pulls it up). Basically, powerlifting training involves thousands of progressively heavier reps, until what once felt heavy, feels light and what once seemed impossible can be done. As Simmons put it in a 2018 segment with Vice Sports, “Every day you have to do this damn thing over and over, and it gets harder and harder.”

Born in 1947, Simmons grew up in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, then on the west side of Columbus. According to his autobiography, “The Iron Samurai”—which gets some of its bizarre charm from Simmons writing it in the third person—a classmate stole his shoe on his first day of school. When he got home, his father, a World War II veteran, told him “that if it happened again and he didn’t hit the boy for doing it, he would get a beating.” Simmons did as his father said, and in the ensuing scuffle, one of his blows landed on a teacher – expelling him from school. He didn’t like schooling anyway, perhaps because he had dyslexia, which he wasn’t diagnosed with until later in life. Rather than training the mind, he focused on strengthening his body, through baseball and then weightlifting. In the summer he worked in construction, mixing mortar, building scaffolding and lugging blocks. He attended his first powerlifting meeting in 1966; he finished tenth and became enamored with the sport and its competitors, who, he wrote, had “the biggest, most powerful legs Louie had ever seen.”

At about the same time, Simmons was drafted into the army and stationed in Berlin. He has never seen Vietnam; his father died in 1968, leaving him as the only male member of his immediate family. After returning home, while still working a day job in construction, in the early 1970s he devoted himself to growing as strong as possible. He emulated and copied training protocols from the leading strength men of the time, such as Pat Casey, who was known as the first to bench press six hundred pounds, and Ernie Frantz, an Illinoisan nicknamed the Godfather of Power Lifting (a nickname Simmons later inherited). ). In particular, Simmons joined a Soviet method that came to be known as conjugate training, a regimen based on rotational variations of the primary competition lifts, to build strength and prevent stasis. According to Simmons, his 1973 competition total—a sum of the three major lifts—reached a thousand six hundred and fifty-five pounds at a body weight of one hundred eighty-one, a figure that placed him at the pinnacle of the sport. But later that year he was doing a “good morning,” pivoting forward at the waist with a four hundred and thirty-five pound barbell over his shoulders, when “he felt something break,” as he wrote in his book. He had fractured his L5 vertebra and dislocated his sacrum.

The injury became central to Simmons’ mythos within the world of lifting. Later he would like to talk about it and other injuries over the years – a second back fracture, a broken kneecap, torn biceps, numb limbs. “Trust me when I say, The List Goes On,” he wrote in a 2016 Facebook post. After the fateful first click, he led his own rehab as he stumbled upon a move that became the foundation of an exercise machine called a Reverse. Hyper, one of the many inventions for which he obtained patents. The machine works by reversing the standard back extension; instead of lifting and lowering the upper body, the user swings her lower half against resistance, relying on her glutes and hamstrings. “I’m sixty-two and I deadlifted just six-seventy easy in a competition two weeks ago. If it wasn’t for Reverse Hypers, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said during a taped demonstration of the machine. But the pinnacle of Simmons’ achievement lies in the lore surrounding Westside Barbell, his training facility, which he founded in Columbus in 1987. The place became a home to great bodies with troubled pasts who united in their devotion to pushing and pulling stupid amounts of weight. Simmons has described the psychology of the place in terms of the movie “Shogun Assassin”, in which a young son accompanies his father on a bloody path of revenge. “That’s what this gym is: a journey to hell,” he explained in the 2019 documentary “Westside vs. the World” Westside gained fame for its passionate competitive culture and for rivalry between members that wasn’t always resolved with weights. . “Looking back on it, I was like, Well, what was the positive quality of it all?” Dave Tate, an author and elite lifter who trained at Westside in the 1990s and early 2000s, said in the same documentary. “I don’t know. But we’ve all gotten stronger.”

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At the time of Simmons’ death, Westside boasted that its male and female competitors had broken more than one hundred and forty world records (although records in powerlifting are a tricky business; the sport is splintered into federations, each with its own rules, resulting in several overlapping world record holders in the sport). At Westside, Simmons and his lifters refined a system of their own called the Westside Conjugate, consisting of weekly cycles and maximum effort aided by the tension and gravity of thick rubber bands and grease chains. More than any other training school, Westside became totemic in the elevator world, a symbol of a culture grosser than that inspired by Schwarzenegger and the other golden bodies fashioned in Venice Beach. And like the Gold’s Gym gear associated with the LA crew, Westside merchandise became iconic in its own right, featuring a pit bull mascot named Nitro, holding three-fifteen of his spiked collar.

I started lifting in college and occasionally competed in my early twenties, but I can’t remember exactly when I heard about Simmons. If you spend any time thinking about how to get strong, his teachings are in the water. I still remember seeing “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” for the first time, Chris Bell’s 2008 documentary about performance-enhancing drugs. Midway through the film, Bell visits Westside Barbell and meets Simmons, who cuts a punch. Picture a bodybuilder, then picture the antithesis: bald head, thick neck, goatee and a plump shape adorned with the kind of tattoos that make you look for a stray white-power symbol. The most prominent of the inked designs were a pair of axes crossed at Simmons’ sternum, with his first name printed in capital letters below, just the right length to form an arc above his weight belt. “I have a philosophy, like many,” Simmons tells Bell. “When you go to war, you go to kill. You’re not going to be killed.”

What but a weight room could produce such a creature? Simmons embraced an ethic of old-fashioned bootstrapperism that has barely aged a day in gyms across America. He believed in a kind of masculinity now considered poisonous, and he feared what many of his generation see as the escalating softness (physical, mental) of the land. Accordingly, he testified to blatant homophobia and casual misogyny expressed in slander and bad jokes. (Meanwhile, it should be noted that the Westside women have consistently proven themselves more impressive than the men.) Among other unyielding Simmonisms was a disdain for American Olympic weightlifting coaches, whom he viewed as overly focused on technique and speed at the expense of strength.

The rigidity of Simmons’ opinions gave them an unintended comedy, a burlesque quality along the lines of what Henri Bergson called “something mechanical inlaid upon the living.” Simmons spoke like a motorcycle, spewing hard-boiled quotes with a seriousness bordering on parody: “If you run with the lame, you’ll limp”; “Weak things break.” That Simmons’ body had been broken many times and in many ways only served as positive evidence for his message: “If you’re not willing to die to do this, don’t do this.” Despite his considerable narrow-mindedness, Simmons found a counterintuitive wisdom in his physical extremism, a blind faith only in that which enables maximum performance – call it optimization on steroids. Why shouldn’t he and his athletes be free to become the strongest of them all? It’s not a goal that everyone pursues, but for a chosen few there was a way of life to be found in Simmons’ absolute purposefulness.

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