It might surprise some lifters to read that Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell is not the original Westside. The original was in Culver City, California and was owned by a man that everyone called Bill “Peanuts” West.
The year was 1952 and Bill West was just 15 years old. Young Bill was a skinny kid, not even 100 pounds, but he was coming to an age where he wanted to change that. He wanted to be big and strong. He wanted to be a man.
It was at the Philadelphia Junior Police League that Bill first learned about weightlifting. While the guys were sparring in the boxing ring, Bill saw a kid who looked exactly the way he wanted to: wide shoulders, muscular back, and bulging arms. He asked the kid what he did to get that way.
“You gotta take your iron pills, bud.”
Iron pills? Bill wondered. What kind of answer is that?
“He means weightlifting,” the police instructor explained. “Why don’t you try Fritsche’s Gym to gain some bulk.”
That police officer really couldn’t have suggested anything better. John Fritsche, along with Sig Klein, had one of the best gyms in Philly. He’d been a champion weightlifter himself, in the old days.
Bill West took onto the feelings of strength and power that weightlifting gave him right away. He met and befriended the reigning Mr Pennsylvania, Gene Wells, who taught him what to lift, how to lift it, and gave Bill a diet plan to gain weight. He also met the great George Eiferman, who would spin yarns about California, Muscle Beach, and a place called Muscle House By The Sea between sets of bicep curls.
They say there are dreamers and there are doers. Bill West was definitely a doer.
So powerful were Eiferman’s stories and Bill’s new-found love for the iron that within 6 months, he’d dropped out of high school and had his 90 lb butt on a bus to Los Angeles – towing his new lifting partner, Gene, along for the ride.
With nothing but $1.65 in change, a couple of empty peanut shells in his pocket, and hardly a mosquito bite for a bicep, Bill was betting it all on the iron.
Muscle House By The Sea
Bill and Gene took up shelter in the fabled Muscle House, and it was exactly as Eiferman had described it.
Muscle House By The Sea was a big old place right on the shore that was owned by a lady named Joy Crettoz. Joy was what you might call a “patron of the arts.” She kept the living cheap and made the tenants their meals, just as a way to support the weightlifters whom she loved. Touches you right in the heart, don’t it?
Joy kept Muscle House strictly vegetarian, so to bulk up, Bill started eating peanuts. Lots and lots of peanuts. We’re talking a pound of raw peanuts, a half cup of peanut butter, and six tablespoons of peanut oil every day, split into two meals. After preparing this stuff for Bill for a year, it’s pretty obvious why Joy gave him the nickname “Peanuts.”
He was also drinking a good amount of whole milk, but “Milk” is a lame nickname.
Within Peanuts’ first year in Santa Monica he’d gained almost 60 pounds. By his 3rd year, he’d gained another 30 lbs, weighed a pretty solid 180, and had won 2nd place at a Muscle Beach lifting contest with a 230 press, 205 snatch, and a 280 clean and jerk.
Maybe it was the sunshine and California’s laid-back attitude, or maybe it was just a young man developing his preferences, but around this time Peanuts decided that Olympic-style weightlifting wasn’t for him. Oly lifting was too technique-heavy and didn’t favor his pug-like proportions.
He tried his hand at that most Californian of iron sports, bodybuilding, but the strutting and posing wasn’t his style, either. He just wanted to be strong.
Powerlifting as we know it today didn’t exist yet in Peanuts’ early years. The bench press, the squat, sometimes a strict curl, and sometimes the deadlift – these are what were called the “odd lifts” in times gone by. 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. But times were changing. As interest in the Olympic lifts started to go down, the popularity of the odd lifts and bodybuilding went up.
During the 1950’s, the A.A.U. would sometimes tack the odd lifts onto the end of their Olympic weightlifting contests. In 1955, Peanuts entered and won his first of these A.A.U. contests with a 330 lb bench and a 420 lb squat. From then on, Peanuts focused solely on the power lifts.
Ironically enough, one of Peanuts’ greatest mentors in the odd lifts was the fantastic Olympic lifter, Ike Berger. Ike helped Peanuts add 100 lbs to both his bench and his squat in no time. He also helped Peanuts bulk up 40 lbs to 218, from which Peanuts dieted back down to a solid 198 lbs – a weight he maintained for the rest of his career.
The Original Westside Barbell Club
At the end of the 1950’s, the city of Santa Monica shut down Muscle Beach and all of the lifters went their separate ways. Peanuts and his friends moved into a small garage that he rented out nearby. It wasn’t a big gym and it didn’t have power – not even lighting. The boys lined the walls with candles for late-night training sessions.
As romantic as that may sound, it was also one heck of a fire hazard. Sure enough, one night a candle toppled over and burned the gym down. All of it that wasn’t made of iron and steel, anyway.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Westside Barbell Club spread its wings and said, “How are the lats coming in? Check out that width.”
Salvaging what they could, the guys packed up and moved into Peanuts’ garage at his suburban home in Culver City. And it was there, in what was basically Bill West’s home gym, that many of the techniques and training ideas of modern powerlifting were invented among homemade power racks, benches, and scorched barbells.
Bill “Peanuts” West Training Secrets
Peanuts and the Westside Barbell Club was always looking for ways to promote powerlifting and get more lifters involved in the sport, but there was a lot of resistance from the weightlifting federations and bigwigs.
Bob Hoffman was one of those bigwigs. Though Hoffman would end up as one of the greatest supporters of powerlifting, he was hesitant in the beginning. His business was in Olympic weightlifting. There was no need, in his eyes, to take a chance on something new.
Hoffman’s rival, Joe Weider, saw things very differently.
Just as Peanuts was opening his powerlifting gym in Culver City, Joe Weider was moving his magazine publishing business from the East Coast to the Pacific. It wasn’t long before Bill “Peanuts” West caught Weider’s eye. Weider needed original powerlifting content, and the Westside Barbell Club was his gold mine.
The training secrets cultivated in Culver City were published by Joe Weider for over a decade. Some of those featured:
- Partial Range of Motion – squatting to a bench (box squats), benching with a board on the chest, and deadlifting from blocks – all done to address weak points and to get the lifter used to heavier loads.
- Accessory Lifts – Certain movements were used to bring up lagging muscle groups. The stiff-legged deadlift and incline bench press were big favorites.
- Weightlifting Gear – knee wraps, elbow wraps, wrist wraps – you name it, it was wrapped. Perhaps most infamously: “Bed Sheet Technology,” where the lifter would wrap his torso in an entire California King size bed sheet – a precursor to modern powerlifting supportive suits.
- Power Rack Lifting – setting the pins at various heights to tackle lifts with a limited range of motion to build power in sticking points, e.g. rack pulls.
- “The Touch System” – Also known as forced or assisted reps. A lifter’s training partner forces the lifter to go beyond their limits by physically helping them power through sticking points.
Peanuts also preached training for explosiveness and testing your limits on a regular basis. Louis Simmons has called Peanuts’ training style “decades ahead of its time.”
The Pioneers of Powerlifting
“Old-School Bro Scientist” might be the right way to describe what Peanuts was doing in his gym. He was trying stuff out, and just kept doing whatever made him stronger. Though he did go back to school to earn a degree, Peanuts was never big on writing things down or planning. His strength was in using his hands and doing things. Figuring out how and why those things worked fell to the other members of the Westside Barbell Club.
Joe DiMarco was Peanuts’ right hand man. DiMarco would take Peanuts’ ideas and create training programs from them. George Frenn, an Olympic hammer thrower, was another great critical thinker at Westside. He was also a powerful PR man for powerlifting; supporting the sport every way he could.
Peanuts found the what, DiMarco the how, and Frenn the why. It was really through a combined effort of the entire Westside Barbell Club that their training codes were invented. Together, they became some of the strongest men in the world.
Peanuts was the first man to squat 600 pounds at a body weight of 198 and in 1970 had an official total of 1680 (430 bench, 635 squat, and 615 deadlift), though he also managed 1775 and 1825 totals in unofficial exhibitions.
Some of his greatest accomplishments, though, came as a powerlifting coach.
Peanuts trained Pat Casey into being the first man to bench over 600 pounds and to total 2000. George Frenn broke world records in Olympic hammer and weight throwing and totaled 2100. Leo Ingro was the first middleweight to squat 500 lbs. Dallas Long won a gold medal for the USA in Olympic shot put. Even bodybuilders Chuck Collras and Chuck Sipes gained from Peanuts’ training style. Peanuts was as happy coaching one of his Westsiders to a new record as he was setting records himself.
Bill “Peanuts” West never charged anyone money to train at his gym. The iron was all donated by grateful club members. *
It’s too bad that Louie Simmons waited until after Bill’s death to name his gym in honor of the original Westside Barbell. It might have brought a smile to Peanuts’ face to know that the next generation was still carrying the Westside torch – Or better yet, lifting the Westside Barbell.