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Chaos and Pain

  /  tips   /  Bill “Peanuts” West, The Godfather of Modern Powerlifting (and the Westside Method), Part 1

Bill “Peanuts” West, The Godfather of Modern Powerlifting (and the Westside Method), Part 1

When people think of the men and women behind the curtain in the world of powerlifting, names like Mark Rippetoe and Louie Simmons, Dave Tate and Jim Wendler likely spring to mind. This is because powerlifting is about the most fad-driven pastime this side of table-top gaming and 20-something women’s fashion, and because powerlifters are generally about as well informed as your average Afghani herdsman. To say the majority of powerlifters are mentally defective lemmings is like saying NBA players are shitty at hand to hand combat, or that the average Redditor rates right around Hitler for value to collective humanity, or that left wingers who love Tumblr could stand to toughen the fuck up a little. You wouldn’t know that speaking to one, however, because most powerlifters seem to think they’re the most hyper-analytical and well-informed people to touch a weight since Einstein tripped over a dumbbell one time in the dark. And this massive collective intellectual conceit, combined with the aforementioned faddism of the lifting world, is the reason why the name Bill “Peanuts” West is not spoken in solemn tones in the hallowed halls of your local weight pit.  

In case you haven’t logged onto Facebook recently, there’s a documentary out on Youtube about Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell Club.  It briefly mentions West, but you’ll see in this series that without Bill West, powerlifting wouldn’t be what it is today.

I realize that had I published this article a month ago I would not be met with the ridiculous indignation likely forming in the minds of half of you, because surely everyone knows the name of this titan of the iron- after all, he was name checked a dozen times in the Westside documentary that just dropped. Whether or not you’ve seen the documentary is immaterial, because Peanuts is hardly an individual who received his due in his lifetime. Regardless, he was the man behind most of the training advances made in the last 50 years, referred to by pundits as the “Godfather of Powerlifting,” the man who popularized the box squat, board press, and rack pull, a legendary 198lb powerlifter, an avowed gear whore who popularized wide lifting belts, the progenitors of modern knee wraps, elbow wraps, squat briefs, and wrist wraps, one of the greatest coaches in the history of strength sports, bit part actor on TV shows, extra in films, and stand-in for Peter Lorre (who was a big deal actor back in the day), and ultimately a walking Greek tragedy who died homeless and was buried in a pauper’s grave with no headstone.  

  Before we begin, it bears mentioning (since most sources fail to report this) that Bill “Peanuts” West was not the sole genius or driving force behind the Culver City Westside Barbell Club- it was actually the result of the work of three men (possibly four, with the addition of Ike Berger). Bill was the leader / trainer / cheerleader of the crew, George Frenn was the Flavor Flav of the crew and their analyst- he analyzed their system to determine how best to make it work and who organized meets like the first international powerlifting meet; and Joe DiMarco was the Dick Cheney to West’s Bush- he created the programs that drove the entire system, though without all of the poisonous fangs, black blood pumping through his dead heart, and riches from starting random wars in random countries for personal profit. In short, the OG Westside Club was hardly the Bill West show- it was a team effort in which Bill was absolutely central, but not exactly indispensable. As Bob Hise, famed strength sports author (who referred to West as the Godfather) of powerlifting, put it:

Probably Bill’s greatest asset is his genuine love for helping others and this has earned him many friends. There are no charges assessed for training at the Bill West Muscle Factory, those who train there are those who have been invited, and that number is great. On special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, etc., Bill’s training partners will purchase extra plates and through these generosities the gym boasts of over 5000 pounds of weight.”

For whatever reason, most of the guys of this era were reported to be sickly little goofs when they were kids, and I’ve no idea if it was simply commonplace, or if these guys just read too many comic books and wanted a good origin story. Either way, Bill West’s story is no different. Born William Weiss in 1937, Peanuts spent his formative years in Philadelphia looking, I’d imagine, very much like that tragic little broad Adelia Rose, only without the progeria.  

For whatever reason, everyone wanted us to believe this was a plausible origin story for lifters back in the day. If this comic was written now it’d end with the kid even scrawnier at age 30, on a bare mattress in his parents’ basement, masturbating to Recoil Magazine while wearing a MAGA hat and posting on redpill boards.  Well, and without the victorious bit wherein the kid actually lifted weights- these days he’d just talk about lifting online a bunch and go to sleep smug as shit every night.

As I mentioned in the previous article about the Cube Zero of the Westside Method, Bill West was first introduced to the gym when he was 15 years old. At that age he was a hilariously scrawny 87lbs, and looking like an emaciated middle schooler, West slunk his way into an East Coast mecca gym- John Fritshe’s in Philadelphia. This was one of the two most prestigious bodybuilding gyms on that coast, the other being the legendary trainer and strongman Sig Klein’s physical culture gym in New York City, and would essentially being akin to walking into Larry Wheel’s home gym looking like a concentration camp escapee. West somehow talked his way into becoming the reigning Mr. Pennsylvania’s training partner (which at that time was a much bigger deal than it might seem now), and within six months the two training partners and Bill’s brother Burt (about whom I could find absolutely no information whatsoever and who never seemed to be mentioned in connection with Westside Barbell) all hopped a bus for California.  

 

To say that the Wests’ and Wells’ first meal in California was a bit ignominious would be an understatement to match “Robert Pattinson seems a poor choice for Batman,” because the West brothers shared a can of dog food between them and then begged a loaf of bread off the shopowner who sold them the dog food. Nevertheless, these intrepid sonsabitches immediately dropped the 35 cents on a bus ticket to Santa Monica and boarded at the legendary Muscle House by the Sea, which may or may not have been a house of male prostitution but was certainly a party house filled with shirtless, jobless, muscular, tanned men who somehow managed to make gains and pay rent. And speaking of gainz, Bill West made them with a vengeance.

“Bill’s training resumed as did his consumption of peanuts. He ate one pound of raw peanuts, ½ cup of peanut butter and six spoonfuls of peanut oil every day. His bodyweight rose from 87 to 102 pounds. In 60 more days his weight was up to 132; and at the end of the first year his weight had risen to 155. It was during this period that Joy stamped the name “Peanuts” onto Bill’s locker, giving him the nickname which he has carried to this day. After his third year of weightlifting, Bill had risen to a bodyweight of 180. In the year 1955 and Bill started to compete in various lifting meets. He eventually posted Olympic lifts of a 260 press, 230 snatch and 315 clean & jerk” (Vuono).  
Bill West, presumably a year or two into lifting.

That year, Bill also tried his hand at odd lifting, and won his second of those meets with a 330 bench and a 420 squat, which seems incredibly low now, but at the time was a big deal in the Southern California lifting scene. Seeing his success in odd lifting relative to his comparatively lackluster performances in weightlifting, Ike Berger suggested West ditch the fancy bullshit and just focus on the brute strength events contested in the odd lifting meets… a suggestion that would change the nascent sport of powerlifting forever.

Peanuts was awesome at a lot of things, and one of them was surrounding himself with absolute monsters in the gym. Here, he’s flanked by Steve Merjanian and some unidentified giant of a pro wrestler.

Also on the advice of Berger, West kicked his fat boy peanutfest of a diet into high gear, which led to massive gains in both his lifts and his fat ass. Granted, Berger was likely already using dianabol, which was being handed out at York Barbell like breath mints, so it stands to reason that by 1956 he may have been feeding West his “vitamins” as well. Winners do what it takes to win, and Bill West, as you will see, treated winning like most people treat living- he was going to do it no matter what anyone else thought, said, or did. It would be another 50 years until the natty bros and form Nazis would hit the scene, but had they existed at the time, West would have just stuffed them into trash cans and tossed them off the top of the tallest building he could find, as should we all.  

Like I said, the man surrounded himself with greatness- West lifted with three of these guys- Berger, Ashman, and Sheppard.

Training with gold medalist weightlifters Ike Berger and Dave Ashman and eating like a 10 year old with Prader-Willi’s an hour out of fat camp, Peanuts’ squat and bench went through the goddamn roof. According to people who saw his transformation, you could literally see him getting bigger from training session to training session. Though a somewhat fat 218, the man finished out 1957 ONE HUNDRED TWENTY GODDAMN POUNDS HEAVIER than he’d been four years earlier, proving that there is literally no obstacle in training through, over, and around which you cannot train and eat… especially when you surround yourself with badasses of every variety and have the right attitude.  

Frankly, the guy’s shape was pretty damn good given his bizarre diet.

By this point he was hitting an impressive 355 in competition on the bench (if you’re scoffing, recall this is three or four years into training), a double dumbbell clean & press with 127lb dumbbells, seven reps with 130lb dumbbells on the incline, and a 175lb strict curl. Though I don’t have an exact date on it (it was around the time Muscle Beach was shut down), it was around this time that West and Joe DiMarco opened the Culver City Westside Barbell Club in a garage Bill rented for that purpose, then moved to the garage behind his house because the garage in which they’d been training had no electricity or heat, as brutal as those guys were, no one really wanted to train in prehistoric conditions.

And speaking of “the guys,” it bears mentioning who comprised the Culver City Westside Barbell Club- it was a veritable who’s who of lifters of the 50s and 60s.  

 

The Culver City Westside Barbell Crew

  • Joe DiMarco, the silent driving force behind the OG Westside Club. Though far from the strongest man in the club, he was the one to introduce shit like box squats to the crew and was an avid proponent of pad presses and the belly toss. Stuck between the superheavyweights (which at the time was everything over 198, and Bill West’s domination of that class, DiMarco had trouble making room for himself in the limelight on such a stacked team.
  • As everyone knows, Pat Casey was the first man to bench press 600; under Bill’s tutelage Casey also went on to become the first man to squat 800 and total 2000. In spite of the fact Casey ran a health food store inside of the famed Bill Pearl’s Gym, he did all of his training in West’s gym.
  • Bill Thurber, American record holder in the bench press and total in the 148s; under the steely eyed gaze of West, he went on to hold American records in the squat, bench press and total in two weight classes, and pulled 485 (and was apparently a beast at dips).
  • Leonard Ingro, the first 181lber to to squat 500, and who pulled 540 in competition at 165… which was bizarre because the guy was between 5’8 and 5’10” and that is crazy light for that height.
  • Superstar Billy Graham, jacked-as-hell pro wrestler, powerlifter, and future article subject. As a teaser, he was benching 605 when his lifting partner, Pat Casey, held the world record with 616.
  • Gay bodybuilding biker of a world-renown powerlifting neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, who pulled 620 in addition to the 600lb squat pictured below.
  • World record holder in the hammer throw Hal Connolly. Connolly was a better thrower than Frenn, so Frenn did everything he could to show up Connolly on the platform, which led to some insane competition in the gym, including Connolly hitting a 700 squat in training after hearing Frenn did, when his training max appeared to be 550.
  • Dallas Long, who won gold in the shot put in the 1960 Olympics, trained with Bill exclusively and not with the rest of the crew, and as a result could incline press 430.
  • Olympian, powerlifter, and all around badass George Frenn (Part 1, Part 2 of his series).
  • Douglas Aircraft engineers Jim Hamilton and Howard Einstein, who pulled 550 and squatted 500, respectively. A Revenge of the Nerds-esque pocket-protector-rocking nerd, Hamilton was one of the mathematicians on the Apollo space mission, and was at the time the youngest person ever to have an office at the Pentagon.
  • Two-time gold medalist in the shot put, Parry O’Brien, who inclined 345lbs and still holds a master’s division record for putting the six kilo shot.
  • Olympian shot-putter Dave Davis, who was injured during the 1960 Olympics but who could incline 390. Though of no importance from a lifting perspective, he was a juror in the infamous Rodney King case.
  • Dave Ashman, world record holder in the snatch and clean and jerk, was renowned for his front and back squat, and who could pull 730 with a competition grip and 790 with straps.
  • Dave Sheppard, silver medalist in Olympic weightlifting (and one of the guys who got Muscle Beach shut down) who pulled 550 at 132 and could do a ridiculous eight sets of 2 in the strict press with 200lbs.
  • Incline bench press specialist and overall monster of a man Steve Merjanian, who inclined 500 and used 400 for behind the neck presses.
  • A bodybuilder named Duke, who was a stand-in for Lou Ferrigno on the Incredible Hulk and stood 6’3″ 240. Duke was apparently a pro boxer for awhile, and though I have no information on his lifts, I can say that his one knockout in life came at the hands of a caged orangutan who’d stolen his sunglasses at a random hillbilly-owned gas station. Clearly, these men were goddamn maniacs.
Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks isn’t mentioned often outside of neurology, but he was in the Culver City crew. In addition to being the medical doctor who first pointed out the area on a real human brain that produces growth hormone for legendary lifter Chuck Ahrens one day (which might explain why Steve Michalik’s crew were drinking monkey brain juice), he was also brief record holder in the squat, wrote the book from which the film Awakenings was made, and in which Robin Williams played Sacks, is a wildly famous neurologist, was a biker and Muscle Beach staple bodybuilder in the 60s, and pretty much one of the coolest people of whom I’ve ever heard.

The mold was broken when Bill West was born- he was a wildly driven man with a penchant for partying and a love of the weights who somehow managed to always be in the right place at the right time to make friends with the right people, all of which culminated in the Culver City Westside Barbell Club. Sure, his real-life Yes Man lifestyle seems to have gotten the best of him at the end, but it’s highly likely West was so in the moment he couldn’t have cared less- this was a man who lived life to the hilt and charged harder at his avocations than most people even consider doing in their day jobs.

Clearly, the incline was a massive part of training with the OG Westside guys.
He likes everyone and everyone likes Bill West. I have found Bill to be a swash-buckling openhearted fellow with one of the most electrified dispositions I have encountered in years. He seems a mass of energy. One grand thing in his favor is his honesty and truthfulness. He speaks with authority and relates facts, especially about his lifting poundages. Bill’s sense of humor is immense. Once I chanced to catch him standing and talking in the midst of a group of seven or eight fellows. Bill was gesticulating and smiling as he talked, and all the other guys were continuously enjoying a prolonged spell of laughter. He’s a quick thinker and a very rapid talker; and yet remains true to himself, and that’s really saying something” (Liederman).

Up next, we take a look at West’s diet and the odd lifting mentality that led to the use of gear that at the time was basically just hilarious cheating gamesmanship that everyone accepted, then in part three we’ll see the unique amalgamation of assistance exercises that made Westside unstoppable on the platform in the 60s.

  Checked out Jamie absolutely sick new training text yet?  We’re not saying it’s the single greatest training book ever written, but the people who’ve read it are.

Sources:

Draper, Dave.  George Eiferman.  Dave Draper.  Web.  12 May 2019.  https://www.davedraper.com/article-159-george-eiferman.html

Herz, JC.  Learning to Breathe Fire.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2014.

Hise, Bob. “‘Peanuts’ West and his Muscle Power Factory.” Iron Man Magazine, Sep. 1966, Pp. 20-22, 72.

Liederman, Earle.  Bill “Peanuts” West.  The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban.  17 Sep 2009.  Web.  12 May 2019.  http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2009/09/bill-peanuts-west-earle-liederman.html

Murray, Jim.  A tale of two trainers- John Fritsche and Sig Klein.  Iron Game History. 1995 Apr; 3(6): 20-21.

Vuono, Peter.  Bill West, pioneer of powerlifting (1983).  The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban.  15 Feb 2011.  Web.  9 May 2019.  http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2011/02/bill-west-pioneer-of-powerlifting-peter.html

Yarnell, Dave. Forgotten Secrets of the Culver City Westside Barbell Club Revealed. Lexington: Self Published, 2014.

Comments

  • Joel

    August 5, 2019

    I liked reading about the who’s who in the crew. Awesome lineup! Also, I don’t know where the best place to say this is, but as I don’t want to crowd up the commenting on a lot of posts, I just wanted to remark that Mr. Lewis’ (or is it Mr. Chaos?) writing, in addition to being researched, having entertaining anecdotes, and useful training advice, also challenge assumptions and encourage one to think for oneself. It has been helpful to me as I work hard to banish a weakness of reacting impulsively. You may relocate this if it is in the wrong place. Thank you!

    reply

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