Bill “Peanuts” West, The Godfather of Powerlifting, Part 2
It goes without saying that Bill “Peanuts” West would be unloved in your average tryhard, super srs bro “hardcore gym these days- he bore none of their accouterments. He lacked a fancy belt, didn’t talk about training incessantly, didn’t stress and whine about lifting to random strangers at every opportunity, didn’t take endless photographs of his lifts, and never once made an excuse for a subpar lift. Nah, instead, Bill was the type of guy to challenge other lifters in his gym to a completely bullshit movement he invented on the spot, just to mess with his friends. The type of guy who’s not about to let some dickhead rooster in the neighborhood to keep him from sleeping, so he took a machete and beheaded the goddamn thing when it stuck its head through the fence to crow at him. He was the type of guy to stuff a handful of sand crabs down the front of Joe DiMarco’s swim trunks, and as he was trying to pry the evil little chitinous bastards off his junk, Bill stuffed more down the back.
In short, Peanuts not only gave no shits- he had none to give in the first place, and he couldn’t afford to give a couple even if they were financed. He was out to move big weights and then party hard for hours afterward, and that was reflected in every facet of his life. Where most of the guys in the club had full time jobs, Bill West made do working as a stand in and extra on movie sets. He wasn’t out to make big money- which is why he didn’t charge shit to lift with the club- he just wanted to have a good time. Which is what he invariably did.
Bill West’s Vital Statistics
Arms: 17 3/4″
Bench Press (official): 430lbs
Squat (official): 635lbs
Deadlift (official): 615lbs
Total (official): 1680lbs; (unofficial): 1825lbs
Were these the biggest totals in history? Hell no, but in a brand new sport with no flight system, the strongest guys followed themselves at minute and a half intervals on each lift, using dead, bent bars, benches so rickety they’d collapse under heavy weights, homemade squat stands, and unmatched plates. It was a far cry from the sterile, overly-regulated meet of today, and modern lifters would probably get trashed under those conditions. Shit, most modern lifters would be piss scared to walk out a squat wearing a flimsy, old school belt, nevermind do it three times in under five minutes.
Bill West’s Diet
Like all of the lifters of that era, Peanuts had a massive goddamn appetite. A couple of his postworkout meals seems to have typically come from the buffet mentioned in the last article- Rand’s Round Up, which was a staple eatery of every lifter in the LA area and apparently had amazing prime rib. For five bucks they ate all they wanted, and pitchers of beer were a buck apiece, which meant they were about as close to a Saxon Trio postworkout meal as anyone ever has been. Though that sounds cheap as shit now, I dropped it into an inflation calculator and the cost was actually a bit stiff- $40. Given that their meals at the Muscle House were free, however, that was still affordable a couple times a week.
There’s no information available on what he typically ate for meals, but like all of the lifters of the 1950s, he chugged raw milk around the clock and supplemented his meals with the aforementioned caloric peanut bomb, which clocked in at 2300 calories, 218g fat, 49g of net carbs (20g fiber), and 70g of protein, in addition to protein shakes. Protein shakes at that time were typically Bob Hoffman’s horrifying soy concoction, on which Ike Berger worked to flavor for a few hours a day while training at York, or the vastly superior Rheo Blair protein, which was the favorite protein of the bodybuilding community in Los Angeles. Either way, Peanuts was likely using one of these bulking formulas for his shakes, as they were more in vogue at that time than RPEs are today- and unlike RPEs, those shakes actually got dudes’ totals up.
Ever the pragmatist- Peanuts just added food when he wanted to get his weight up and cut shit out when he needed to get it down. When he felt like he was getting a bit too thick, West didn’t do anything too crazy- he just cut peanuts and milk from his diet. The man was as no frills as one could get, and that was reflected daily in everything from his diet choices to the homemade equipment on which he trained.
The OG Powerlifter
As I’d mentioned, powerlifting didn’t exist when Bill West began training for it- instead, it was odd lifting contests in which he competed, and they were a very loose, catch-as-catch-can style of lifting competition that is to modern powerlifting what rough-and-tumble fighting is to modern mixed martial arts. These meets consisted of the bench press, the squat, and either a strict curl or a deadlift, and unlike today’s epic level of clenched asshole nonsense in powerlifting, no one took the shit too seriously. According to strongman/bodybuilder Earle Liederman, “the ‘odd lifters’ didn’t usually get the same level of respect as Olympic lifters – often being stereotyped as dim-witted, flip-flop-wearing slobs.” It wasn’t as though they gave a shit, however- those guys were just about moving weights and having a good time, not about micrometers and matching plates and turning the sport into a goddamn fashion show.
The first meet consisting of the three powerlifts wasn’t held until after Bill West had switched entirely to the odd lifts, in 1956. That format was still a bit slow to catch on, however, and the first national powerlifting meet wasn’t held until 1964. It was a gradual progression from being either a completely informal pastime or an afterthought to weightlifting meets, but national support for the sport was catching on.
At what can only be surmised as the urging of Ike Berger and the other Hoffman exiles, Bill West and George Frenn teamed up with none other than bodybuilding magnate Joe Weider to host the first international powerlifting meet in 1970, which my all accounts was a absolute mess driven by the Westside guys’ rampant cheating and intimidation of the judges to get white lights. In spite of what USAPL lifters would bemoan as the Westside guys’ refusal to respect the sport of powerlifting and take it in any way seriously, this meet paved the way for future meets, and the methods the Westside guys used to dominate their opposition became the basis for modern powerlifting.
If You’re Not Cheating, You’re Not Trying
This motto went for literally everything in West’s training life- from form to gear to steroids to intimidating the shit out of the refs at a meet (massive Steve Merjanian came in handy for that, since he’d load, spot, and glare at the judges at the appropriate times), West was about winning at any cost. It’s not like he was out there with a crowbar, taking out the opposition with extreme prejudice Tonya Harding-style, but if he could find an edge on the competition, he’d use it. This was an outgrowth of the odd lifting mentality (which was the spirit in which the Greek Olympics were organized)- whatever you could get away with was legal. It’s only illegal, then, if you get caught.
“If you don’t cheat, you look like an idiot; if you cheat and don’t get caught, you look like a hero; if you cheat and get caught, you look like a dope.” – Darrell Waltrip
The weight had to get from point a to point b, however you could get it there. There were no form Nazis bitching about bar path or hitching, no pussies on Youtube screeching about how lifters were going to “Snap City” after a whopping six months of experience talking about (but likely never doing any) lifting, and no natty bros endlessly crying foul over the perceived use of anything from caffeine to growth hormone. In fact, lifters like Chuck Ahrens were inquiring about where the pituitary glad was located in monkey brains, which then makes Steve Michalik’s stories about bodybuilders chugging the liquid from monkey brains somewhat less outlandish.
The Gear Whoring Was Real
I’ll admit I was was shocked to find the prevalence of gear whoring shenanigans that went on from the very beginnings of powerlifting- in fact, powerlifting gear predates the inception of the sport. Odd lifters commonly utilized every goddamn trick of which they could think to get an edge over their competition, and provided the judges didn’t catch them, it was all cool. I’m the first person to run my mouth about the use of support gear, and I’ve always maintained that geared lifting is an entirely different sport from powerlifting- I now realize I have it backward, and geared powerlifting is the OG format. Thus, raw lifting is the newfangled imposter.
It should comes as no surprise that the California lifters are the ones who get the credit and the blame for the ridiculous arms race in support gear that was to occur in powerlifting. According to Dave Yarnell,
“The state of the art in ‘gear’ [in the 1960s] consisted of ace bandages for wraps, doctored/reinforced Levi’s jean shorts for squatting suits, elbow wraps, multiple shirt layering, and some even resorted to cleverly placed pieces of cardboard (jean pockets, under elbow wraps, etc). There were inconsistent, if any, rules governing the use of these aids early on, or at least enforcement thereof, and some lifters took full advantage of this. Elbow wraps were not allowed after 1963, and multilayered shirts were also cause for disqualification after this” (Yarnell 59).
“DiMarco recalled one lifter being disqualified from a meet in which elbow wraps were allowed, but the lifter had reinforced the wraps by placing cardboard under them. The same guys was disqualified from another contest for wearing 6-7 t-shirts! The judges did not check the jeans back then, and this was the only “aid” Joe used for squatting” (Ibid).
And it didn’t just stop there. One of Pat Casey’s proteges, Tom Overholzer, was infamous for the crazy shit with which he’d try to get over on the judges and his competition. It started with two sets of jean shorts, one skin tight and the next pair up one size, but Overholzer wasn’t done there- not by a long shot.
“At the 1968 Seniors, Tom was “caught”, as some lifters complained to the judges, that some of his teammates were wrapping him in a bedsheet. Placed over the jean shorts, the bedsheet was then wrapped with a layer of Ace bandages. The singlet went on over this. To aid the bench press which was performed first, there was already some static because some lifters had t shirts that went below the elbow, obscuring Ace bandages that had been wrapped around the upper arms and/or chest area. ” (Leistner).
If you’re wondering, like I was, how in the hell he’d have gotten caught, his methods were a bit more obvious than that. They were more obvious than a registered sex offender wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of himself diddling a child, with “I heart diddling” while walking into a goddamn kindergarten.
“‘Despite the illegal wraps, a tremendous psyche, and probably steroids along with an upper or two; the minute the guy got the bar out of the rack he looked like he was going to die … you know … he’s shaking … the bars shaking … the plates are rattling … the guy’s face is purple … he’s surrounded by half a dozen nervous spotters,’ Lambert wrote. Nevertheless, ‘with [Overholtzer’s] lifting attire on you couldn’t see any tell-tale seams from the wraps underneath,’ Lambert admitted. However, according to Glossbrenner, because Overholtzer’s hips and torso were wrapped so tightly, he was unable to walk. This meant that his handlers – one under each arm – had to carry him from the backstage warm-up area and out to the lifting platform and place him directly under the bar. At that point all he had to do was lift the bar up off the squat stands, wait while his helpers removed the squat stands, make his attempt, wait while the racks were replaced, and then have his spotters once again carry him offstage” (Todd).
Clearly, the Westside guys were really ramping up the insanity. Frenn and West were the first people to start sewing Ace bandages together to skirt the “one Ace bandage” rule for knee wraps, and then started sewing in half a tennis ball behind the kneecap to give a bit of extra bounce out of the hole. When that wasn’t enough, they’d get nylon from sailmakers and make their own squat briefs and suits, then use nylon edging from fabric stores to make super-stout knee wraps. They’d sew multiple belts together to give them the kind of support people get with thick belts today, or failing that, would wear the belt with the buckle in the back for squatting. And you might be scoffing, saying that those sort of homebrew gear fixes couldn’t put much weight on you lifts, but Overholzer’s world record squat was a metal-as-hell 666 with his gear, but a paltry 480 without- clearly, their work as amateur seamstresses was paying off with wins and weight.
Up next, I’ll cover Westside’s unique methods, which allowed them to train with crazy poundages that would prepare them for the weights they’d be under with all of their ridiculous supportive gear on, which will wrap up the Bill West series. I think by this point it’s fairly well established that the man was a absolute maniac, so his training methods shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
Hise, Bob. “‘Peanuts’ West and his Muscle Power Factory.” Iron Man Magazine, Sep. 1966, Pp. 20-22, 72.
Leistner, Ken E. Wraps, suits, and shirts. Strength Oldschool. 29 Dec 2016. Web. 30 May 2019. https://www.strength-oldschool.com/blogs/news/wraps-suits-and-shirts-some-history
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
Todd, Jan, Domininc Gray Morais, Ben Pollack, and Terry Todd. Shifting gear: a historical analysis of the use of supportive gear in powerlifting. Iron Game History, Nov/Dec 2015. 13(2,3):37-56. https://www.starkcenter.org/igh/igh-v13/igh-v13-n2-n3/igh130203p37.pdf
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