Weight Training - What it was really like in the “old days”

Weight Training - What it was really like in the “old days”

Weight Training Information Sources - Then and Now

It's strange for me when I talk to people younger than I am about what weight training was really like back in the “old days”, back when I first began weight training in 1979, and how it has changed over the years. I often think, how the heck did anyone learn how to train back then without:

  • YouTube videos and other video platforms
  • Social media accounts
  • Tons of books about weight training
  • Podcasts
  • Online coaching

I wonder if I would have loved weight training so much if I had what kids have today regarding information, if I didn't have a time of self-discovery about it all. I wonder if I had all these options to learn from if I still would have been so hungry for knowledge?

There was nowhere to learn from back then but from magazines and from other people. As far as books go, there was Arnold's Education of a Bodybuilder, and that was it. The book was more of an autobiography, with a few exercise tips in there, but wasn't technical enough in its descriptions to really learn anything. Television would have the Mr. Universe on Wide World of Sports sometimes, but that was it.


Now, you have YouTube and other video sites and websites and social media accounts to learn from, and seminars everywhere and coaches that you can pay online to help you. There wasn't any of that back then, and I have to admit that I am thankful that I didn't have that stuff to learn from. It would have taken away from the excitement of learning something new on my own and either keeping what I learned in my weight training repertoire or discarding it for lack of effectiveness. Because what I do know is that when anything comes easily, I don't learn very much, but when I really have to delve into a topic and study and perform trial and error, I learn the most. When I put so much time into something, I appreciate it much more.

Although I am 53 years old, it seems like yesterday to me when I first began weight training. It has been a long, fascinating process for me over the years. I still have the same type of enthusiasm for learning about weight training that I did when I first began, and I still get the same old butterflies that I got when I was 16 before a training session, and I still get fired up and quiet when I am driving to the gym as I'm blasting Pantera or Molly Hatchet.

I look back on my weight training adventure that began when I was 14, and can still feel how I felt when my friend Davrill showed me a few of his muscle magazines. I remember it distinctly. One of the magazines had Mike Mentzer on the cover and another one had Tom Platz on the cover. I was amazed that anyone could look like that, with all the muscles so huge and defined. I studied each picture and read each article over and over again. Inside of one of the magazines, there was an article about Greg “Rocky “ Deferro training arms. He had a ratty old t-shirt on and the author described Deferro’s workout and how intense he was training. But what really stuck out was the pictures of his arms after he was done with the session. His biceps were totally pumped up and I looked at that pictures and thought, “Will I ever have arms like that?” And then I'd go to the gym and picture my arms looking like Deferro's, hoping that the next morning I would wake up and my arms would be bigger. It was a magic time, a time of self-discovery, a time of wide eyed enthusiasm and naivete. I was so hungry to learn. To my friends, weight training was just done to get stronger for football, and although that was a big reason to lift weights for me, I loved bodybuilding  also, and each workout was a quest for me to get stronger and more muscular.

The information available back then really came from only two sources; muscle magazines and other lifters. Each month, the new Muscle & Fitness and MuscleMag International magazines appeared and I would save up my allowance and buy them. My father would take me to College Park, Maryland and he'd drop me off at Dynamo Scuba and Barbell and I would run upstairs where the shop is and buy the new Muscle & Fitness and then I’d go to the 7-11 down the street from my house to buy MuscleMag International. My friend Rick also had a roommate at the time who had a mess of old muscle magazines and also some Powerlifting USA magazines. Some of them had Arnold on the cover when he was in his prime and I would read those stories over and over . There were also magazines featuring superstars of the day such as Danny Padilla, Robby Robinson, and Pete Grymkowski. And If I didn't have any money to buy the magazines, I would go to Mary’s Pharmacy off of Riggs Road and read the magazines until the old man who worked there would tell me to leave if I was not buying anything.

I experimented on my own and also learned from other weightlifters. One of my friends, Carlo, had a cousin, Louie, who was a competitive bodybuilder and also worked out at the local Gold’s Gym. Back then, Gold's had just begun franchising and there was only one Gold's Gym in our area. The fact that Louie trained there gave him a tremendous amount of credibility in my eyes. And I really got excited when Louie, who was a student at George Washington University, was assigned to my high school to do his student teaching. Louie put us all on a program and he trained with us. Being an intelligent guy, Louie taught us the basic exercises and corrected us if we made mistakes. I followed him around like a puppy dog, taking in all the knowledge that he had to offer. He really got me started on a good program. We ended up training together for years, and we had some killer sessions, pushing each other to the limit on many days.

I also had Rich Salke to consult with back then. Rich was the best bodybuilder in the Baltimore/Washington area back then, and fortunately, he was a graduate assistant for my father at the University of Maryland at the time. I remember the first time that I called Rich on the phone and how nervous I was to talk to him. And throughout the years I turned to Rich for both training and nutritional advice.

I didn't have enough money to join a gym, and I wouldn't have dreamed of asking my parents for the money, because my father would have told me to just lift weights at school, and I didn't have a driver's license or a car, so driving to a gym was out of the question. So I trained at school and I trained at my buddy Ricky's basement and in my girlfriend’s basement gym that Louie and I had set up. Maybe if I had been a member at Golds, I'd have learned faster, but I also think that I would have not been forced to learn some things on my own. I did so many wrong things looking back on it, but it forced me to explore different programs and weight training philosophies. And I tried everything! I tried Mike Mentzer's Heavy Duty, Arnold’s twenty sets a body part, Bill Kazmaier's powerlifting routine and I tried to mimic Tom Platz’s training also. What did all of that get me? Not much. I didn't really understand recovery and nutrition and how to properly perform exercise. But I persevered. I trained too often and I trained too heavy too often, but eventually, I came to realize my mistakes and through perseverance (a lot of “want to”) I began to make some gains. By the time the “new age” of learning came around, I had learned most of what I needed to learn about weight training, although to this day, I remain hungry for more understanding of it all.

I'm thankful for the process of learning that I had to go through to get to the knowledge base that I have now, and I do enjoy some of the outlets that are around today for weightlifters, especially podcasts. But I am glad that I had to discover most of it on my own, because it gave me a feeling of ownership of the whole process, and it helped me learn, through trial and error, exactly what worked best for me.


RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast
RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast

About The Author - Jim Steel
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog Basbarbell and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Jim Steel is co-host of the RAW with Marty Gallagher Podcast along with Marty Gallagher and J.P. Brice and is a monthly content contributor at IRON COMPANY.