The Great White Shark of Powerlifting
Larry Pacifico was the Man
Powerlifting was formalized as a sport in 1964. The first world championships were held in 1971. During the 1970s two powerlifting superstars arose: Bill “Kaz” Kazmaier and Larry Pacifico. Kaz was a force of Nature. He had been a division I football player at Wisconsin, where he trained with Jeff and Corey Everson along with Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield and future NFL hall-of-fame center Mike Webster. Wow, what a college weight room that must have been.
Kaz was a lean 260 when he switched from football to powerlifting. He eventually bench-pressed 660 lbs. raw, deadlifted a world record 887 lbs. and squatted 950 lbs.. He could do a seated front barbell press with 475 and tripled 450. His bodyweight soared to 325 and he looked incredible. Kaz was aggressive and fierce. He switched to the emergent strongman competitions and his battles with Jon Paul Sigmarson were the stuff of legend. Kaz subscribed to a high volume/high intensity approach, his extended and extensive workouts done often would kill lesser men.
The other superstar of the 1970s was Larry Pacifico. This New York native lived in Dayton, Ohio. He stood 5-6 and weighing 195 pounds could bench press 500-pounds. He won his first world title in 1971 and won nine world titles in a row. He set 53 world records and became a power God. When he pushed his bodyweight up to 220 he became a superstar. Light years better than the rest of the world.
When it came to the bench press, only bench specialist Mike McDonald was in Larry’s class. The two men battled back and forth, setting world record bench presses that the other would then best. Larry eventually bench pressed 600-pounds, raw, with a pause, weighing 230. He was a world record holder in the squat, having hit 800 in the 220-pound class. He consistently deadlifted 720-740. A freak accident ended his career: he cut a finger off replacing a heavy bench press.
By the early 1970s, Larry became unbeatable. He routinely won the ‘champion of champions’ award given at the national championships to the best overall lifter in the entire competition, regardless of weight class. Mike Lambert, editor and owner of Powerlifting USA magazine wrote of Larry at his peak. “Larry is the great white shark of powerlifting. He always wins. He wins when he is healthy, and he wins when sick or injured. Larry always wins. When Pacifico passes by there are lots of respectful greetings, as befitting a monarch.”
In a very weird twist of fate, in 1980 my then training partner, the fearsome Mark Dimiduk won the 220-pound class at the national championships when an obscure rule technicality prevented Pacifico from attempting a deadlift that he would have made and would have given him the win. He was robbed of the opportunity to lift at the world championships and win his tenth world title. He injured himself shortly after and lost his mojo.
Mark Dimiduk won the world title in the 220-pound class that year. Soon after Larry had his devastating injury that, for all intents and purposes, ended his career, though he did attempt a ‘comeback’ a few years later. Larry was an extremely smart man and an extremely smart trainer. Larry liked to train and trained a lot. One of my favorite strength books of all time is Pacifico’s obscure book, Champion of Champions.
I knew Larry way back when and he asked me to review the book for Muscle & Fitness, which I gladly did. While I loved the book, others found it impossible to read. One friend bought it and read it at my urging called me, disgruntled. “That’s the worst book I ever tried to read! It was like trying to read Egyptian hieroglyphics!” Another bitched, “That was worse than trying to read Finnegan’s Wake” James Joyce’s incomprehensible novel. What did Larry do that caused all the consternation?
He documented every single weight training workout he took during his entire competitive career. He logged every workout he ever had, every set, every rep, every poundage and how he was feeling and why. A series of workouts leads up to a competition. He relates what happened at the competition in terrific detail. Then it is back to the numerical training narrative.
For those who understand the language – like me – for those that find it super interesting to see exactlywhat workouts were used, how they were constructed, the workout content, the frequency, the sets, reps, poundage – and then to have a report card issued, a competition that quantified the effort!? Gold for a strength archeologist like myself.
I was particularly keen to follow his bench press strategy and precisely what assistance exercise he used to create one of the best bench presses of all time. There are 480 pages of Pacifico workouts. The tale follows his training as he becomes the greatest weightlifter in the world. The book is a blueprint as to how Pacifico did what he did. Amazing. To this day, 32 years after its publication, I periodically reread it and learn new things.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned. Pacifico was first and foremost an old school volume/intensity trainer. He loved to train, trained often and was good at it. Below is a one-week snapshot, a series of amazing workouts that give you a taste and flavor of what this book is about; excerpted from August 1978.
August 24th deadlift isometrics, two levels, 455 for 6-second holds
August 25th chins 3x10, pulley rows 3x10, pulldowns 3x10, leg raise 15, sit-ups 25
August 26th after warm-up sets…
squat 525x3, 615x2, 705x2, 740x1, strong but poor form, unsteady
bench press 325 4 sets of 6, 415x4, 505x2, 540x1
wide-grip bench, long pause 435x1, regrouped, 435x3
finished w/sit-ups – sore triceps – bodyweight 226
August 28th deadlift 615x2, 720 2 sets 2, 720x1, 525 2x4 deadlift personal best
August 29th chins 4x8, pulldowns 3x10, row 3x10, sit-ups 2x25, forearms 3x10
August 30th after warm-up sets…
Squat 525x3, 615x2, 705x2, 740x2
Bench 325 4x6, 415x4, 505x2, 540x2
Lying tricep press 115x8, 165x6, 185x4, 205x3, 255 miss, 255x1 sit-ups 25 bwt 223
There you go snowflake, seven days in the life of Larry Pacifico. He trains six out of seven days. I did not bother listing the warm-up weights that preceded the work sets in the squat, bench and deadlift. In six days he squatted 740 in two different squat sessions, had a PR deadlift session in between (720 for 2 sets of 2) then bench presses 540 in two different sessions – weighing 223 and all in six days? This is mind-blowing.
For me, Larry and Kaz hold out the possibility that a highly conditioned athletecan combine intensity and volume. Pacifico was a true athlete, a man that could walk on his hands and on a good day (while world champion) could do a double back hand spring with a round off finish. On a bad day he’d try it and injure himself.
Also, be aware that Larry was a big eater. My longtime training partner and Larry protégé Mark Challiet recounted meeting Larry at a Sizzler Steak house in Dayton where Larry would order multiple steak dinners. He “ate up” to support the ungodly amount of training he was doing. A serious retrospective of the strength giants of the 70s reveals that men like Kaz, Doug Young and Larry were using high volume/high intensity training tactics that would cripple the modern trainee.
Rereading Larry inspired me to reexamine some of my precious orthodoxies. I was inspired to expand upon my default ultra-minimalism. After rereading Champion of Champions, I began a period of experimentation. What better recommendation can you give a book than it inspired you to change and to try new things and different approaches. Of course, I am fluent in hieroglyphics.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.