Tag Archives: Thom Van Vleck

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!


Bad Case of the Barbells

by Thom Van Vleck

When I was a kid I watched the Beverly Hillbillies.  Yes, I’m pretty old. The show was a top comedy show in the 60’s and early 70’s.  It was about a family of hillbillies that come into millions and end up in Beverly Hills.  In one particular episode the beautiful “farmer’s daughter” Elly Mae gets set up with “Mister Universe” Dave Draper.  Dave Draper was indeed a Mr. Universe and a top Bodybuilder.  In the episode the family, being backwards, sees his huge muscles and mistake it for an illness.  They ask him what they are. He said “Muscles”.  They ask how he got them and he says, “Barbells”. Granny turns to Uncle Jed and whispers, “Worst case of barbells I’ve ever seen”.  I remember watching that episode several times.

In 1977 I began to develop as bad case of barbells myself.  I evidently didn’t get them as bad as Dave as I have never been mistaken for a Mister Universe but I think I have the illness as bad as anyone since I’m going on nearly 40 years of barbell training.  Over the years I’ve joked about it being an illness and my case being incurable.  Which brings me to my point.

I do have a bad case of the barbells.  I enjoy training and when I’m not my world isn’t right.  It helps me not only physically but mentally, spiritually, and emotionally as well.  I don’t just train to achieve a goal I train because it’s a part of my life like eating, drinking, sleeping, and praying.  It’s not really an illness.  It’s a blessing.  And over the years I’ve tried to be Typhoid Thom…and infect as many people as possible with the “illness”.

So, do you have a bad case of the Barbells?

Be Stronger, not the Strongest

by Thom Van Vleck

I started a weightlifting club at the University I work at a few years back. It has been very successful even if it has evolved into more of a “crossfit” type group.  But there are some serious weightlifters in there, too.

One of the things that happened as we had more women than men sign up. I began to investigate and here’s what I found.

The guys got pretty hung up on being the strongest.  If they couldn’t be the strongest in the group they pretty quickly quit.  Of course, there can only be one guy that’s the strongest so you pretty quickly end up with a pretty small group.  It ended up often being a competition instead of a workout.

The women weren’t worried about being the strongest.  They just wanted to be stronger.  They focused on pulling each other along.  They didn’t care who was the strongest.  They all wanted each other to be stronger.  They were competitive, but not in a negative way like the guys.

When I was in the military we had a lot of competition.  Most of it was healthy, some of it was not.  When it was healthy it went like this:  As a fighting force you are as strong as your weakest member.  So you encouraged the guy next to you to be successful because at some point your life might depend on it. You elevated yourself by making them better and in turn natural competitiveness would lead you to raise your game.  When it was unhealthy it was more like this:  You elevated yourself by bringing down those around you.  You didn’t get better, they got worse.

So ask yourself.  Do I want to be the strongest?  Or do I want to be stronger!  I personally think that when you choose to be stronger it’s more likely you’ll end up the strongest.

Weigh your Weights

by Thom Van Vleck

Have you ever weighed your weights?  You might be surprised.  Unless you are buying high end competition grade weights you need to understand that your weights could be off by not just ounces but several pounds!

Back in the day when you bought weights you had the choice of “Milled” and “Unmilled” weights.  Unmilled weights were cast iron right from the mold.  Milled weights had been milled, or had some metal removed, until the weight was exact.  The Milled plates were generally much more expensive so for training the unmilled plates were often bought and used.  It was common to check those plates as you knew they were off when you bought them.

The Jackson Weightlifting Club had both.  York sets that were competition grade and a Jackson set as well.  On each you can see the rings and swirls in the metal where the milling had taken place.  We also had some old Iron Man weights that were listed at 50lbs but one set was 57.5lbs while another was 47.5lbs.  Since they were the same style and all 4 plates looked the same we painted them different colors because if you loaded the lighter plates on one side of the bar you could find yourself 20lbs heavier on one end and 10lbs off overall.

So these days you don’t see “milled” and “unmilled” plates but don’t assume what you have is exact.  I blame cheap overseas manufactures but many cheap barbell plates are off the mark.  While they aren’t as bad as the Iron Man plates I mentioned above I have found 45lb plates off 3lbs in either direction.  Smaller plates are off as well but not as much.

So you might want to take the time to check the weight of your weights.  Who knows, maybe you have a new personal best and you didn’t even know it!

Exercise is the Best Medicine

by Thom Van Vleck

When I was a kid I hung out with my grandparents often.  I probably spent more time with my grandfather than I did my father.  I noticed many things about them.

One in particular was my grandmother took a lot of medications.  Many of them were for physical health issues.  Just as many were for mental health issues with the focus being depression.  Let’s just say it was pretty bad.  She would often cry, focus on the negatives, and in generally seemed miserable most of the time.

I also noticed that my grandfather did NOT take many medications.  He did not have many health issues and later in life when it did it was because he was hit by a car.  He was very positive and he was in a great mood most of them time.  I can honestly say I never saw him lose his temper, cuss, nor complain.  He wasn’t perfect.  He could be incredibly stubborn.  But in general he was one of the least depressed people I knew.

This made them quite the pair in many ways.  Looking at their family history I can say that depression was a common theme on my grandmother’s side.  My grandfather’s side not a much.  So there may have been a genetic predisposition for it.  But I am not going to focus on the things that cannot be controlled.  There was a major difference between the two that I think played a big factor in why one was depressed and the other was not.

That difference was exercise.

My grandfather worked out almost constantly.  He also incorporated exercise into work.  If he had to shovel something he would do 5 scoops to the right and 5 to the left.  I went with him on the mail truck and every stop he would do jumping jacks or push ups.  He would even do isometrics withe the steering wheel or set up a board to do calf raises at his work bench.  I never once heard him complain about work or exercise.  I’m not saying he loved it but he certainly didn’t hate it.

My grandmother was the model of efficiency.  In other words she would figure out the way to get the most done with the least amount of effort.  She was NOT lazy.  She just saw no point to exercise.  Anything that required effort was loathed by her and she complained the entire time she had to put forth effort.  Again, she was not lazy.  She did piece work in a factory and made good money because she was fast.  It was just that when she did anything that required effort all she did was look forward to the next break.

There are dozens of studies telling you what may seem like common sense to many of us who workout regularly.  That is exercise prevents depression.  I know many times I have thought to myself, “I need a good workout” and when I did it I felt better.  The fact is science is showing more and more evidence that this is the case.

When I first came to work at the medical school as the counselor I started an exercise program.  At first my boss thought I was doing it because it was my “hobby” but the reality is I did it to promote mental health.  I knew that if we could set up fast, efficient workout programs with trainers to help motivate the students in a fun but challenging atmosphere those that did it would be better off mentally.  That club, the Osteoblasters, has become the 2nd largest club on campus and we program 7-9 workouts a week that equals over 250 individual workouts.  Fitness was only a sub-goal.

Too often when people get down or depressed the first thought is to see a doctor and get medication.  There is a time and a place for that but it is often overused.  What people really need is a good workout program and to make the time to do it!  To me, taking anti-depressants without working out would be like taking supplements without working out.  There may be some benefit but not nearly as much as if someone were working out and taking supplements!

So fight the blues with a good workout!


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