Hugh Cassidy's Lair The powerlifting cottage in the woods...
Featured Strength Training Equipment: home gym, weight benches, dumbbells, barbell, weighted vest, tricep dip bars, weightlifting belt, squat rack, Olympic bar, Olympic weights
Powerlifting legend Hugh Cassidy was quiet and introverted, yet quite intense. His mother was a famous artist and labeled Hugh "a late bloomer." At his core he was a multitalented artist, with a multitude of interests…botany, music, metal sculpture, writing, strength training, these were deep interests; he was from an artistic community and he created an artistic community in his own home: his son and daughter both achieved international musical fame.
To get to Hugh's I'd travel south around the Beltway for 25 miles to US Route 450. I'd head outward for a long drive before eventually arriving at his mailbox. I would pull up the long, steep, tree-lined driveway and park behind whatever other vehicles were already there. You parked and got out and walked towards the low-slung brick house. On the left was Cassidy's detached metal welding workshop. One of his many passions was metal sculpture; he made incredible three-dimensional monster creatures that he said, "inhabit my nightmares." His metal sculpture creations were uniformly phenomenal and his work appeared at galleries under his art Nome de plume, Fitzhugh.
When I arrived for a during-the-week workout, he would still be teaching school. He was a Special Needs teacher in the local suburban school system and might not be home for hours. You parked, got your gym bag and made your way to the main house, a slightly worn, brick two-story. It was lusciously overgrown. Balzac once wrote,
"The brick walls of the home could scarcely been seen for branches of vine and sprays of rose and jasmine that interlaced and grew entirely as chance and as their own will bade them; for the inmates of the cottage seemed to pay no attention to the growth which adorned their home...a simple and kindly nature lay round about it; its rusticity was genuine and it was infused with the charm of poetry…It was like none of our conceptions; it was a spontaneous growth; a masterpiece due to nature and chance."
Hugh's home had Balzac's country cottage feel about it. Cassidy's lair was a mixture of unspoiled nature, foliage and greenery, intertwining and overwhelming the old brick home. You parked, walked to the back of the house and turned the corner to access the back door. I believe he told me he had two acres. The property was totally overgrown with two exceptions: a large garden and the spacious workshop.
I would arrive and walk to the back of the house and then in through the always unlocked back door. The sturdy blue wood stairway to the basement was steep and led into the dark, dry basement with a low seven-foot ceiling. You needed to duck your head at the doorjamb at the bottom of the steps or crack your forehead as you stepped down into the basement proper. When you did, you encountered a large, ill-lit room; to the right lay a monster pile of jagged metal and pipe, scrap iron, steel wheels and a welding torch set by a homemade worktable. In front of you lay the portion of his basement apportioned for his home gym. It was divided into three different areas, each devoted to a specific type and kind of exercise.
Straight ahead, in the right rear corner, was the overhead pressing area where you had to sit on one of Cassidy's weight benches or sturdy stools in order to press the dumbbells or barbell overhead without hitting the ceiling - still, we had some amazing seated press sessions. Marshall Peck was able to perform strict seated front barbell presses with 300 pounds (for reps) weighing 220.
Adjacent to the overhead pressing area there was an area of floor set aside for ab work and a Cassidy exercise we called, "roll-outs." We used one of those little abdominal wheels with a handle sticking out of each side. Cassidy was an early champion (the only champion?) of wearing a weighted vest while doing ab wheel rollouts. You'd kneel down and roll forward until your arms were parallel to the floor. He had us touch our nose to the concrete floor at the bottom of each rep while wearing a weight vest. If on the way down your lats gave out you smashed your face into concrete. You had a split second to twist your head to one side or the other so the blow was absorbed on the side of the head instead of directly on the nose. They were horrific.
Anyone that has ever done this abdominal exercise consistently can tell you that raising yourself and lowering yourself is primarily done with the lats - with a nice assist from the muscles of the central gut: the upper and lower abs, intercostal, serratus and even the front deltoids. He felt this exercise was a great "finisher" and built "Integrated power along the central front core, from groin to pec pits." He loved them; we hated them. As Christopher Hitchens said about Oscar Wilde, "He was right about everything - even when you didn't agree with him."
The tricep dip bars were set low against a center basement pillar. The dipping bar device was used a lot. Dips were highly favored as a bench press/overhead press assistance exercise. Cassidy reasoned that weighted dips, taken to various heights (upper arm in relation to floor) were "squats for the arms." We felt that dips had no rival as a triceps developer. Dips taken super low activated the pecs; dips taken to ‘parallel' (upper arm lowered until parallel to the floor) were superb triceps builders, especially when done wearing a weightlifting belt with plates strapped to it.
Seated and standing bicep curls were done in this area. It was not unusual to have four or five men working in rotation during an extended power session. Hugh was big on arm training, particularly triceps. Ergo we did a lot of arm work - a lot of arm work for powerlifters; which might mean 5-6 sets of biceps and triceps once or twice weekly; small potatoes by bodybuilding standards. Hugh was left-handed and he was big on alternate-arm dumbbell work, seesaw overhead presses and alternate seated dumbbell curls.
The deadlift area was right in front of the homemade DIY squat rack. You could also deadlift in the overhead press area. Hugh did not own an Olympic bar or Olympic weights; everything was done using exercise bars. Our squat bar was so short, 6-foot long, that above 600 pounds we hung dumbbells on coat hangers and looped them around the barbell. The coat hangers dangled off the ends of the barbell with dumbbells swaying. So weird and so true - we could not make this stuff up.
The hundred pound weight plates were torch cut pieces of uniform thickness scrap iron. His exercise equipment was homemade and looked like props from the Flintstones. Gym lighting came from bare bulbs: one in the overhead press area, another by the squat rack and a lamp that sat on a folding chair. In the scrap metal section of the gym the worktable had good lighting. Three small basement windows glowed but didn't draw in any light, strangled by vegetation. The sacred squat rack sat at the bottom of the stairway to the immediate left facing a grey concrete wall. It was the most used piece of gym equipment in that primitive facility.
I made the 35-mile trek twice weekly for many years. After a training session, Hugh and Barbara would often invite us up to hang out and talk. We'd sit in the dining room adjacent the kitchen and drink our recuperative milk while we talked. We'd quiz Hugh about the great lifters he knew and how they trained. We would discuss and debate strength training strategies, always trying to figure out a way to keep progressing. We might talk short-term tactics or long-term strategies; regardless Cassidy was always the adult in the room. He would throw cold water on our stupid ideas while encouraging those pathways he felt held out promise. I formulated the strategies and tactics I use to this day in that Vulcan forge of a gym.