Tag Archives: Phil Jackson

Tommy Kono: A True All-Rounder



by Thom Van Vleck

When I was a kid I had my Uncle Wayne who was a “Paul Anderson Fan”.  He was all about strength and nothing about aesthetics.  Function first, looks second.  And Function was Olympic lifting!  My other Uncle, Phil, was much more at aesthetics but he also liked strength and he was a Bill Pearl fan.  The one guy they could both agree on was Tommy Kono!

Anyone that is involved in strength sports should know by now that Tommy recently passed away at the age of 85 after one of the most storied careers in strength history.  I did a story on Tommy a few years back and I’m going to say a few things here but you would need to large book to really do Tommy justice!

Tommy is famous for living in Hawaii but he was actually born in Sacramento, California and was relocated to the Tule Lake Internment Camp as a teenager during WWII due to the fear people had against those of Japaneses decent.  While this was a miserable experience in some ways it was the best thing to happen to Tommy.  During his stay the desert air helped clear up his asthma which had made him sickly.  He also got involved in weight training which obviously changed his whole life.

In 1950 Tommy was drafted into the army.  They realized his Olympic potential and gave him the opportunity to train.  Tommy worked hard and this all began to pay off in 1952 when he won the gold medal in Olympic lifting in Helsinki, Finland.  This was followed by dozens of World and National records and titles.  He was again Olympic champion in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics (when Paul Anderson famously won his gold) and the won Silver in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.  He kicked in 6 world championships and 3 Pan Am Golds to boot.  So he had the functional strength my Uncle Wayne appreciated.

Tommy also was a champion bodybuilder.  I don’t mean he looked good and did well against the best of the day.  I mean he was a 4 time Mr. Universe!  This was in the same years he was competing as a lifter as well.  So he had the aesthetics my Uncle Phil appreciated.

Tommy was also just as great a coach as lifter.  He coached three separate nations in three different Olympics.  He was elected to numerous Hall’s of Fame but what I recall that was most striking was being named “Weightlifter of the Century”.  Tommy deserved this and here’s why.

While other lifters may have won more world titles or broke more records there there three factors that made him the best.  First, he was undefeated from 1952 to 1960 on the world stage.  Second, his 26 world records were an amazing accomplishment.  Third, these were set almost equally in the three lifts contested in the day.  He was the best at all of them and not a specialist.  Fourth, and maybe most amazing, was he competed and set records in 4 different weight classes.

Maybe most important of all was Tommy was just a great person.  My Uncles met him in the 60’s while he was still lifting.  They told me he was a happy guy who offered advice and really listened to them when they asked him questions and gave them well thought out answers.  I found this out for myself in 2009 when I met him at the Arnold Fit Expo.  I stopped him in the hallway and introduced myself.  He stopped, talked at length, and made me fell like I was a good friend.  He was famous for helping others and never asking for a dime in return.

So I say Tommy all-rounder because he was the best at all the lifts, the best physique, the best coach, the best photographer of his era, and one of the best authors!  He also was just a great human being who would have been a great friend to have even if he had never picked up a weight in his lift.  So here’s to Tommy Kono.  The best!


Simple Liars, Damned Liars, and Experts

by Thom Van Vleck

I like talking about training.  Even if half the time it evolves in an argument.  The one person I have learned the most about weight training is from my Uncle Phil Jackson.  He would often say to me, “I’ve forgotten more about training than you’ll ever know”.  I still often think he is right.  Another guy I’ll mention is Al Myers.  I have learned more about throwing for the Highland Games from Al than any other person.  A lot of the USAWA crowd may know Al competed in the Highland Games but are not aware he was world class at it.  The reason I listened to Al and Phil was not because they were considered by the majority of the lifting or throwing world as experts but because both had something in common with me.  None of us were what I would call natural or “gifted”.  We all had to work for every bit we have.

First I’ll say this.  There’s a fallacy out there that great athletes make bad coaches and mediocre athletes make great coaches.  The “logic” given is that great players never really learn how to play and rely on their natural abilities while mediocre players have to learn every trick to get better.  The evidence given is that there are many coaches that were mediocre players.  Well, that’s just Bull!  The reality is that there are MANY more mediocre players and it would make sense that they would end up a majority in the coaching world over the handful of great athletes.  What really defines a great coach is knowledge and the ability to impart that knowledge in a way another will take it and use it.  They have what’s been called “Practical IQ”.

Now, I don’t know for sure about Al, but I do know that my Uncle Phil would say I’ve barely listened to him at all over the years.  He’s partly right, I have been stubborn at times.  But I would argue he’s mostly wrong.  If you look at how I train there’s more of him in there than any other person on earth.  As for Al, I know I’ve frustrated him from time to time with a million questions and when he’s been nice enough to answer me I’ve often ripped apart his answers.  Al’s such a nice guy this may be hard to believe….but I’ve made him mad more than once!  Yet, if you look at how I throw…NOBODY has had more influence on my throwing and how I train for throwing!  I have just learned over the years that there are….Simple Liars, Damned Liars, and Experts.

The title for this article refers to a saying among lawyers and judges.  It refers to the “expert” witness.  It is often used to make the point that you can get an credentialed expert witness to support about anything.  Kind of like the saying “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” that make the point that you can find stats to support just about any point of view….whether that point of view is right or not!  This is the attitude I bring into how I approach all experts.

Heck, I AM AN EXPERT!  I have been called into court numerous times to provide expert testimony as a licensed professional counselor.  I have frustrated many judges and lawyers in this role because when I KNOW I’m being looked to as an expert then all the speculation, logic, “makes sense to me” is shoved out of my brain and I got with cold, hard, facts.  And the truth is…..you can’t get much from cold, hard facts!  You need to take that leap and expand out beyond what is known and take your “best guess” sometimes to find success.  When pressed by a lawyer or judge, I would preface my “best guess” by saying this is my “opinion based on what I know”.  That rarely helped….they wanted me to tell them that I “unequivocally” knew the truth and to say it as such.

So, what does all this mean.  I guess (based on what I know…..HAHAHA) that I’m trying to say that we need to seek out experts and understand that one person’s “expert” may not be your “expert”….we all have different needs.  These experts can be anywhere and don’t always need to be the “greatest” or the “most famous”.   We also need to look at being able to mine what an expert can give us even if sometimes they aren’t the best communicators.  We should never throw out the coaching of on person simply because they gave bad advice one time.  That’s like the old saying of throwing the baby out with the bath.  Finally, we need to open ourselves to find people who know more than us and take a leap of faith on what they are telling us…..but always remember there are liars, damned liars, and experts.  It’s all in how you want to look at it.  If you think it’s a lie….or the truth…you’ll probably be right.

Ironman Lost…and FOUND!

by Thom Van Vleck

Thin style Ironman 50lb plate

There were Ironman triathlons, Iron Man comics, Black Sabbath singing “I am Iron Man”, Iron Man movies…but when I think of Ironman…I think of Peary Radar’s old magazine and all the equipment he made over the years.  In the JWC training hall we have had a pair of Ironman plates my Uncles (Wayne and Phil Jackson) ordered back in the 60’s.  There is also a missing set.  In case you didn’t know it, back then you could order them “milled” to exact weight or “unmilled” which were half as much in cost.  With the “unmilled” you never knew what you were going to get.  Both sets of plates were unmilled.

First, the plates I still have.  They are thick around the edges and weigh 57.5lbs each while they have “50” on them….looks like my Uncle’s got their money’s worth on those babies!  I have used them many times over the years because they are slightly larger than my other plates and are lifting from the floor and  put these plates on it makes the others easier to slide on and off.  Plus the fact that I gained 15lb seemed to be a psychological boost and let’s face it…they are just cool.

Thick style plates that weigh 57.5lbs each!

Now, to the story of the lost plates.  They were what I’ll call a “thin” style plate.  The one’s we had actually weighed 47.5lbs each.   There was a local lifter that was a kid my Uncle was trying to help out. He loaned the plates to him and over time the kid kind of claimed them.  That happened to my Uncle Wayne a lot!  When I tried to get them back he had SOLD them!  That also happened more than once.  I remember them in vivid detail.  They were thin, flat, with circular ridges that made them look like a bullseye.  One of the plates had a chip out of it.  I found the guy that bought them, but he gave them to his brother who lived out of state.  After a couple of attempts and promises….I finally gave up on ever getting these back.

Now that was the early 80’s so fast forward almost 30 years.  A good friend of mind called up looking for an incline and I had one.  He said he wanted to trade some stuff including a pair of Ironman plates.  When I got there I wish I could say they were he exact “long lost” pair….but they were not.  However, they were a “spot on” twin…or twins!  While not the exact pair, I am pretty pleased that somehow after all these years these plates seemed to fall right into my lap!  A plus is I might have gotten a better deal as these are right on 50lbs each.

Needless to say, like everything in my gym, they will be put to use.  And when I do….may I’ll have to put on some “Ironman” on the stereo!

Why Progressive Resistance isn’t always Progressive Pt 2

by Thom Van Vleck

Next year I turn 50.  When I was a kid I remember when my grandmother turned 50 and she made it out like she was practically dead!  On the other hand I am enjoying life quite a bit as of late.  I’m the happiest I’ve ever been to be honest.  I’m healthy, I like my work, my marriage the best ever.  All my kids are teenagers and yet we get along very well.  Life is good.  I have nothing to complain about as I roll into the 2nd half of life should I live to be 100.

I also am working out as hard as I ever have.  But there have been adjustments in how I measure progress.  When I was young I needed to have actual “progress” in my progressive resistance to be happy.  When I was 30 I benched 360.  I worked my bench for a year and then I maxed out and hit 365.  When I was 30….that was a major disappointment.  There was also a time when I squatted 400 and then spent a solid year focusing on my squat and ended at 600!  That was great progress!

As I bear down on 50 my idea of progress has changed.  It would be unrealistic for me to look at adding 200lbs to any lift….except maybe some heavy lift in the USAWA.  I am now at a point in my life where holding the line is a huge victory for me.  I push pressed 300 for the first time almost 20 years ago.  Every so often I do a few and I seem to always hit 300….but my long ago goal of 400 will not likely happen.  I throw in the highland games and I’m throwing as well or better than I ever have….but setting personal bests are few and far between.  I also understand that the day will come when I will set my last personal record.  Then my idea of progress will have to change again.

At that point, it will be begrudgingly giving up my strength.  Mark my words, I plan on going down swinging.  But I know I’ll eventually go down.  I recall trying to get a buddy that had been a good lifter in his 20’s to try masters lifting.  His comment was, “I want to be good….not good for my age”.  While I can appreciate that statement, I’ll tell you that I’m happy to be good for my age!

So as I get older my idea of progress will adjust.  Otherwise it will all become an exercise (no pun intended) in futility.  My Uncle Phil once asked me, “Why do you continue to train when you know someday age and time will take it all away”.  Of course he knew the answer and was just challenging me as he so often has in my life.  To me it’s like climbing a mountain.  Once you are at the top, the only way to go after that is down.  But I would rather enjoy the view as from up high as long as I can.  Not everyone gets to the top but everyone eventually finds the bottom.  Life is a precious gift and I plan on sliding into my grave sideways someday as they say….well worn and yelling what a ride!

Roman Chair Squat

by Thom Van Vleck

The Roman Chair Squat

Some time back Al Myers wrote a great article on the Roman Chair and it’s place in the USAWA as a contested lift.  It can be found here: http://www.usawa.com/roman-chair/.  It even inspired me to make a Roman chair and add some Roman Chair sit ups to my workout.

Recently, I have been doing some bodybuilding.  My workouts have traditionally been basic movements for low reps and heavy weights.  Not much assistance work.  My transition was not an easy one as I didn’t want to be too much of as sissy bodybuilder.  So I decided to pull out some of my Bill Pearl Training Manuals (purchased by my Uncle Phil Jackson and autographed to Phil by Pearl himself no less) and follow Bill’s advice.  Why?  Because Bill was BIG and STRONG.  My Uncle saw Bill give a seminar in 1967 after his third Mr. Universe.  He said Bill loaded 300lbs on an Olympic bar and easily power cleaned it, pressed it overhead, then pressed it behind the neck twice!

At any rate, right or wrong, I figured if Bill Pearl did it then it must be good!  I also believe most any program will help you if you believe in it and I was raised to believe that Bill Pearl was almost mythological….the Babe Ruth of Bodybuilding.  So as I looked at how Bill trained his legs I found that one of Bill’s favorite exercises was the Roman Chair Squat.  It is very similar to the Sissy Squat.  My legs have always been a weakness for me so I’ve started doing them.  I like them, but you can’t handle much weight (as a matter of fact, this is a body weight exercise for me).

I also learned a little bit of history as I went about my research on this exercise.  In Al’s article he mentioned that a lifter from Rome did work on the Roman Chair at Professor Attila’s gym and it became quite popular.  This was shared with Sig Klein who did a type of plank movement (and I suspect this led to the Roman Chair Bench Press lift in the USAWA).  But I believe I’ve found the original purpose the Roman Chair was invented for!  In ancient times latrines were basically ditches.  You would have to squat over them and since you didn’t want to fall in you would hook your feet under something and leverage out to “do you business”.  I think this is much better explanation than Al’s medieval torture device chair in his article!

What ever the case, the Roman Chair can be used for much more than sit ups!  But regardless of what you do on a Roman Chair…..it all is painful!  And I, for one, am thankful to have a modern toilet!

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