Rant 9 March 2003: Goodbye, iron men

In March, two sad things happened. First, Cable-Bar Guy JV Askem died of a brain tumour. Then, suddenly, the originator of the Supertraining group, Dr. Mel Siff, died of a heart attack.

Yes, this is a site aimed primarily at women, but as I touch on in Boy Butches up Girl, there are lots of wonderful men who have been instrumental in creating a world where strength and hard work, not gender, are the primary qualities which matter in training. Askem and Siff are two of those men.

Training has a long history, much of which has been lost because it was anecdotal, informal, and handed down from elders to juniors in a relatively closed community. Athletes were sometimes celebrities, though not in the multimillion dollar way they are now, but in general the strong men and women of yore laboured in obscurity, creating communities of knowledge and practice. The old tyme lifters—and yes, some were women—didn’t have drugs, surgery, or supplements. They had weird lifts, hard work, and lots of real food.

It was Siff who taught my old Olympic lifting coach, John Gray, the Olympic press. This is a strange little lift, fun to do and challenging. It’s also a small piece of history, as it was discontinued in competition in the 1970s. Most folks now don’t know how to do it, or even know that such a thing existed. Askem also details the history of the press on his site. From time to time Siff would dip into his collection of weightlifting lore and come up with some obscure training tidbit: split lifts, hybrids, barbell rollouts. He would dispense these goodies like Pez candies, scattering them into our eagerly outstretched hands. I always felt in touch with the past, and with the deeds that were done in grimy basement gyms of Eastern Europe. These training goodies weren’t special magic secrets of the Soviets or anything, but rather elements of knowledge and practice that had become endangered species in the market-driven North American fitness industry of the late 20th century.

Askem and Siff appeared to share a mania for description and detail which even extended to their own lives. Askem documented the progress of his brain tumour on his site, while Siff painstakingly recorded his own lifestyle and rehab program after a near-fatal heart attack. When I visited my father in the hospital after his heart attack, I told him about Siff’s experience, how he had lain on a lecture platform in front of stricken students. As both of us are academics, we laughed a bit about possible scenarios for our own heart attacks in front of students. It was Siff’s meticulous narrative about his own cardiac rehab which comforted me when my father was sick, and which formed the basis of the rehab program I suggested to him.

Siff was a tireless provocateur, a gadfly of the fitness industry, who used his substantial scientific education to poke and prod and reveal the stupidities of people trying to make a fast buck by peddling bullshit. He continually exhorted us to refer back to first principles about how physiology and biomechanics actually worked in order to find our answers. Does movement X or supplement Y does what its promoters say it does? Why or why not? Thanks to Siff I learned that the physics of levers and forces isn’t the deathly boring subject I thought it was in high school. Rather, applied to humans in the form of biomechanics, it’s a way to think through training problems. I know why Lift A is better than Lift B, but now I know why, too. I know that the best training program is useless if it doesn’t meet the needs of the lifter. Again, I know why.

I had the privilege of meeting Siff and hearing him speak at a conference in 2002. He was a bundle of energy, and delighted the crowd with leaping about the stage, loud pratfalls to illustrate the value of peripheral stability (rather than the overhyped “core stability”), and demonstrations of the “potty training” method of teaching the squat. Now, every time I stand on the subway and use the “stepping reflex” to keep from falling over, I think of his dynamic presentation. Siff’s model of the body was one which was clever, practical, ever-responsive to change, rather than a static lump or a collection of inert parts. As far as he was concerned, our bodies were exciting microworlds which were continually self-organizing and re-organizing in response to multiple stimuli. This concept has greatly influenced my own approach to training and rehab.

I like to think of Siff and Askem as being from a generation that knew and joyfully communicated these ideas, which have been buried in the tide of crap from the fitness industry: that strong men and women of yore squatted and deadlifted and threw around heavy objects before they knew why and how it worked, that they valued manual labour and the potential of the human body, rather than viewing their bodies as fragmented enemies. I hope that the principles they taught will not be forgotten. Goodbye, iron men.