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Zuver’s Hall of Fame Gym Big Barrel Lift

Dr. Ken Leistner

In this story about Zuver’s Hall of Fame Gym, Robert Zuver, Jr., wrote, “The more articles that get out there, the better chance the younger generation will learn about my dad’s gym and the iron history here on the west coast.”

Of late, the readers of Dave Draper’s website have been treated to a very special peek into the training world that was Zuver’s Hall Of Fame Gym. Accompanying the articles on the site have been a number of discussions on the forum about Zuver’s, the unique equipment and some of those who trained there.

In my opinion, the most interesting writing has come from those who actually trained at the gym. I don’t believe the forum members or casual followers of davedraper.com understand that they have been treated, and in many ways blessed, to have exposure to information and photographs about Zuver’s and Reverend Bob Zuver. I know my level of motivation was taken up a level when I first heard about the gym, later walked into the gym, and then found myself training there on a regular basis. With Richard Sorin’s recent and quite wonderful contributions about Zuver’s (part one, part two) and my own correspondence with both Jean and Bob Jr., it is almost as if I have been able to rekindle even more enthusiasm for training.

With 53 years of consistent training experience, I have found one truth that never changes: Many things can stimulate one’s desire and motivation to train, but little in the way of enhanced muscular size and strength is achieved without the consistent belief that one can make progress. “Going through the motions” of training will not cut it, will not bring consistent gains.

Yes, I have found that even in my mid-60, I can and do have very productive periods of training where a 230-pound stone can be lifted and placed for reps upon our elevated platform and it doesn’t feel like one of Hercules’ labors — when a projected 10 reps in the squat becomes 20, with the feeling that I’ve got two more; when rolling frying pans with one of my late-30-something-year old training partners seems like a fun and relatively easy way to top off forearm training rather than an arduous exercise.

These tangible bouts of positive feedback bring me back into the office or garage facility and remind me that I’m not like the other typical guys my age who just don’t get it. Weight training, powerlifting, strength training, and a quest for improved health, like Dave and so many others of my generation, always allowed me to separate myself from the pack, not in a boastful or haughty manner, but in a way that reinforced the virtues of discipline and hard work in a very productive manner. Zuver’s Gym was a large part of that.

Another truth I have found is that the equipment one trains with is secondary. One can make consistent progress and reach one’s physical potential with a barbell and squat rack. However, equipment, at least for most of us, is a continual source of inspiration and motivation, providing variety, challenge, and if I dare say it, fun to what to most observers is compulsive and what appears to be a repetitive and boring activity. We as dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts understand that the obsessive nature of lifting weights is one of the attractions and again, having equipment that we know is safe, challenging and emotionally stimulating in turn stimulates our desire to change.

No gym ever provided the variety or uniqueness that Zuver’s did in terms of equipment, especially in an era when most gyms were little more than storefront holes in the wall with very basic benches, racks and few specialized pulleys. When 190-pound college running back teammate Larry Gordon, a former Teenage Mr. Ohio, left school for a semester to “see what California was all about” and came back at a ripped-to-the-bone and twice-the-size-and-strength 230 or so, his two-word explanation of his startling gains were simply, “Zuver’s Gym!” His description of the available equipment was almost hard to follow, and certainly impossible to fully grasp.

In conversation, well-known lifting coach, commentator, trainer and former competitive powerlifter Dan Martin described it well when he said, “To me, and I’m a hammerhead, Zuver’s was the ultimate homemade home gym,” and this was an extreme compliment and a statement I fully agreed with.

It was clear I would not “get it” until I actually arrived at the gym. In truth, when my training partner, Jack, and I made the 52-hour non-stop New York to Los Angeles drive in my cramped two-door Ford, and eventually wound our way down the coast to Costa Mesa, I’m not sure we “got it” that first evening at the gym.

I have previously written about my meeting with Reverend Bob, how enthusiastic he was, and the fantasyland of equipment we stumbled upon. Even today, the impact of that meeting, his words, and the initial sight of the gym is palpable. Prior to his passing, I received a phone call from Laree Draper, who explained, “Bob Zuver has been trying to reach you; he wants to talk with you.” I had not communicated with Bob or Jean in a very long time, but we spoke at length and then spoke at length a number of times. I felt extremely fortunate and in many ways honored that among others, I was still singled out by Bob as one he wished to converse with regularly in his last months.

Bob Zuver said a number of very poignant things to me, predicted success for me that I would never have predicted for myself, and from my immigrant home perspective, allowed me the continuous privilege of having open access to the family’s living area in order to sit and just talk with him and Jean. When Jean continued to communicate with me, sent previously unpublished photos of the gym, and just took the time to stay in touch, I found the same enthusiasm for training being stimulated as I had as a 20-year-old aspiring football player and powerlifter.

When Robert, Jr., and I also began to talk about the old days and the subject of equipment, a rather easy topic for the two of us with our welding and fabrication backgrounds, I saw this as an opportunity to augment Rich Sorin’s wonderful contributions. I recently wrote the following to Robert.

Robert, as expected, I enjoyed Richard Sorin’s last installment on the Draper site. Thanks for sharing so many wonderful memories. I have a question I was reminded of today, as one of our trainees asked, “How much did that barrel weigh?” He was, of course, referring to the photo shot in early July of 1968 of me completing the overhead press (jerk really) with the Big Water Barrel. That thing pre-dated all of the strongman contests by a decade or so, thus pat yourself on the back for what turned out to be another innovation and contribution to the iron game. That thing also almost killed me! I practiced after workouts, and sometimes before scheduled workouts, as well as on non-training days, until I was able to roll it up the front of my body, get it set, shove it overhead, and yell for my friend and training partner, Jack, to, “Take the picture!”

I believe your dad told me it weighed 200, 225 or 250 pounds, was 3/4-filled with water that shifted, thus making it more difficult than “straight weight,” and I was definitely the 12th man to successfully lift it with my friend, Pat Casey, being number 11. Do you recall the weight of that thing?

When I wrote, “That thing also almost killed me,” it was very much an understatement. The Big Barrel had a hold on me, the one piece other than the Big Blob that I saw and immediately said to myself, “I am going to lift this.”

My attitude and approach to the one-handed 500-pound Big Blob deadlift was very different relative to the Big Barrel. A few years into the future, while working in Florida for Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries and Arthur Jones, I learned about muscle measurements, lengths and the effect of various anthropomorphic parameters upon leverages and joint movement. Arthur also was quick to point out that, especially in my arms and forearms, I had exceptionally short muscle lengths and thus had a natural limitation to potential size in those specific muscle structures.

This certainly provided, at least in part, an explanation for my teammate’s and training partners’ constant bemusement at my lack of arm size relative to forearm size. Neither was going to challenge Sergio or Larry Scott, but everyone knew my forearms, while also not particularly large, were ropey looking and strong. I also had confidence in my grip and holding strength from years of assisting my father in his iron and welding shop and taking on a full day of man’s work on the weekends when it was not football season, starting at the age of 12.

Thus, fully dressed in street clothes one evening when Jack and a number of us were just sort of hanging out and not training, something Bob more or less encouraged as it kept us in a wholesome, positive atmosphere, I chalked up, walked over to the Big Blob, and lifted it.

Of course, this was Zuver’s Hall Of Fame Gym in Costa Mesa, California, so before I could even get an initial inner glow from what I thought was a fairly significant feat, Bob or one of the other powerlifting regulars off-handedly said, “That was nice, but you know that Jim Waters does that almost every week.”

Jim Waters was one of the Zuver’s Team lifters, tall and actually thin rather than lean, though the experienced eye could see the trained muscle on his frame. Jim was known for being the best in the gym on any of the one-handed lifts and on the extraordinarily painful one-finger lift, something I tried once and decided, “Once is enough!”

So… the Big Barrel became my nemesis. Being stronger would have helped, of course, but I had faulty technique, and, after what must have been three- or four-dozen failed attempts, creeping self-doubt. Despite Bob’s constant encouragement and my own almost dangerous level of willingness to sacrifice my body to overcome a challenge, this forerunner to today’s strongman contests had my number.

Robert, in response to my e mail above, stated,

Wow, Doc, it’s funny — I just got asked that same question yesterday by Richard (Sorin). At this time, I also can’t remember the weight of that barrel. I do remember you were #12 and Pat was # 11. Can’t recall who were the other 10 before him. If you, by any chance have that list, I would love it if you could send it to me. Also, do you remember signing the barrel? As I remember it, Pop use to have whoever completed the lift sign it. I’m sure you did. I’ve been looking through old photos I have here to try to answer that question, because dad liked showing what things weighed in the gym. When I find out for sure, you will be the first to know. I do know at The World’s Strongest Man Contest in 1977, we had 150lb, 200lb, 225lb and 250lb, barrels. It’s hell getting old and not remembering everything, but for me it’s kind of fun trying. I’ll let you know if I find out the answer.

Of course, lifting a barrel of even 250 pounds as I eventually did in the late morning of July 1, 1968, is no big deal to the behemoths who now populate the organized strongman competitions, but the shifting water in Zuver’s 250-pound Big Barrel was a tremendous challenge to me. Unlike today, when familiarity with the event due to exposure on television — and as part of the general assortment of strongman exercises at least allows one to develop the concept of lifting a barrel from the ground to overhead — the presentation of this monstrosity left me, and many others, perplexed.

Rolling the barrel up the front of one’s body and arching under it before trying to push-press it proved to be both dangerous and damaging to one’s chin, chest and spine. Robert, Jr., also noted the true difficulty in elevating the barrel to the shoulders as per the technique of the day, writing, “To me the weight of that barrel doesn’t matter. It was a feat of strength that I remember very few ever completed. Many men could press the weight once it was on their shoulders. But few could get it from the ground up to their shoulders with the water shifting. You may not think of yourself as one of the greats of that day, but to the Zuvers you will always be one of the best. You are a piece of Zuver’s history.”

After being asked about the photo showing me holding the barrel aloft, my usual response to the questions of “How difficult was it?” and “How could you do that?” is “Who knew? If I knew what it would do to me, I might not have done it!”

I was very fortunate to have the late and very great Pat Casey as a friend for more than 30 years and he was the 11th man to lift the Big Barrel at Zuver’s Gym. This certainly inspired me, especially since Paul Anderson, according to Bob, had also lifted it, and just about everything else in his gym.

Also, having the distinction and reputation in our neighborhood of being a “rockhead Polack” helped. As Jack said when we recently discussed the old days, “Zuver brings a smile to my face. I remember that big barrel. You were determined to do it and you did. Good times.”

Even with memories fading with age, I believe I signed the barrel because I felt I had earned the right to sign it considering how beat up I was as a result of my numerous attempts made over an approximate three-week period.

Remember though, long before the age of cameras in cell phones, video tape and social media where most people, it seems, document their breakfast in both prose and picture, Zuver’s was informal, and if someone made one of the challenging lifts, they would receive a handshake and a pat on the back, very much as if it was an expected occurrence.

Of course one would also walk away knowing they had done something unique. But even those of us fortunate enough to have been there and known Bob and the many wonderful lifters and characters who called Zuver’s Gym home, perhaps did not realize then just how unique the entire experience was.

Dr. Ken Leistner

Click here to enjoy another Zuver’s memory from Doc Ken.

12 Responses to 'Zuver’s Hall of Fame Gym Big Barrel Lift'

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  1. Robert Zuver said,

    on September 19th, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I just want io say you have written another great piece. Mom and I once agin thank you for the great job over the year’s covering Zuver’s Hall of Fame Gym.
    Thanks to men like you pop’s dreams live on and through your eyes others get to hear and feel what it was like to visit and train at what my dad called The Muscle Land Of The World.
    I would love to hear any comments from Dave and Laree’s members what they think about all the articals
    that have been posted here about the gym.
    One last thing thanks to all at Davedraper.com for there continued support.

    The Zuver’s

  2. Dave Yarnell said,

    on September 20th, 2012 at 5:50 am

    AWESOME!! is about all I can say, and thanks again Bob & Ken!!

  3. Jack L said,

    on September 20th, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Great article, Kenny; maybe the best you have ever written. It had substance, feel and character. Well done and thank you for mentioning me.

  4. Scott said,

    on September 20th, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Great Great read. How motivating!! These are the old school stories I like to read!!!


  5. Garage Guy said,

    on September 20th, 2012 at 10:16 am

    At the risk of sounding like a “faggot,” you always stimulate my motivation to train and apply the belief in making progress to whatever task I’m focused on in life. Great read and pictures.

  6. Jean Z said,

    on September 20th, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Wow! I am overwhelmed by how much Bob Zuver and our gym is loved and remembered. My thanks to you, Dr. Ken, especially. I love all the stories you have written about us. Bob Zuver himself would be so proud. I love you all – So much. Thanks for your love and remembering us. Lots of Hugs. Jean Zuver.

  7. Steve said,

    on September 20th, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Thanks Ken…your vivid descriptions have made Zuver’s live for all of us. I really appreciate you sharing your memories of a magical time. Thanks for keeping it all alive through your writing.


  8. Tim said,

    on September 21st, 2012 at 8:01 am

    In all the years that I’ve been a member of IOL, The Zuver’s Gym stories with Dr Ken narrating as resident historian and gym regular are one of the best threads ever. I love this stuff!

  9. Anonymous said,

    on September 23rd, 2012 at 7:47 am

    The history of training, and the articles such as Zuver’s, The Dungeon, etc… are what keep training interesting! To know where we’re going in this crazy sport…we’ve got to know where we’ve been!

  10. Robert Zuver said,

    on September 23rd, 2012 at 10:59 am

    To Anonymous
    That hit’s the nail right on the head.
    Nicely Put.

  11. Anonymous said,

    on September 25th, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Reverend Zuver is still inspiring lifting enthusiasts in 2012! What a special and unique man, family, gym and time period! It is all beautiful…Thank you very much for sharing the wonderful tributes! Reverend Zuver certainly lived a life that was well spent.

  12. Amber Zuver Ward said,

    on October 2nd, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    It is so awesome to hear all of the great memories of my grandpa and the gym. I wish I could remember myself, but I was a baby when the original gym closed. He talked about it a lot and loved to show my brother (Bob III) and me memorabilia and photos. It makes me smile to think of grandpa and the difference he made in other people’s lives. That’s what he was all about! Thanks so much for sharing and keeping his memory alive!

    Amber Zuver Ward

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