In the sport of power lifting, “gear” can refer to two different forms of bodily augmentation. The first is anabolic steroids, the assembly of chemicals associated with disgraced professional athletes, shape-shifting celebrities, and, of course, bodybuilders, many of whom take hormonal enhancements as casually as they would any dietary supplement. The second is supportive gear—wraps, shirts, suits of various thicknesses—which lifters use to aid them in hauling even more than they can au naturel. In both of its forms, gear had no greater champion than Louie Simmons, a lifter and strength coach who captivated the sport with his club Westside Barbell, which became notorious for training some of the strongest humans in the world. Simmons died in March, at the age of seventy-four, and his go-hard-or-go-home enthusiasm for anabolic enhancement could lead to impolite speculation about the cause of his death. Indeed, in 2016, Simmons told Joe Rogan that he hadn’t been off the juice since his first dose, in 1970, and that he had injected himself with, among other illicit substances, a bit of arsenic and strychnine to raise his red-blood-cell count. But asking what killed Simmons is beside the point, because he’s a man who lived with death always pressing down on his shoulders. In hindsight, we can call it a marvel that he lived as long as he did, given his passion for heaving insanely heavy weights in flaming disregard for his health.
Few pastimes involving feats of brute strength enjoy a squeaky reputation, and power lifting is no exception, though in truth it enjoys little mainstream reputation at all. Since the nineteen-eighties, when Arnold Schwarzenegger published his tome “Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding,” weight training has become much more than a niche endeavor. Even the maxim that lifting is good only for getting big has been routinely undermined by a new legion of fitness instructors; women who were once cautioned against handling anything mightier than a hand weight now grunt and pull with abandon. And yet, even if average gym rats have discovered areas of their physique apart from the famous “mirror muscles,” they are not likely to think of themselves as a part of the semi-formalized world of power lifting. The sport, which roughly dates to the middle of the last century, revolves around three lifts in particular: the back squat (a bend at the hips and knees with the bar held across the shoulders), the bench press (a leading cinematic idiom for strength, which hardly needs introduction), and the dead lift (so named for the inert weight at rest on the floor until a willing body pulls it up). At its basic, training in power lifting involves thousands of progressively heavier repetitions, until what once felt heavy feels light and what once seemed impossible can be gritted and done. As Simmons put it in a segment with Vice Sports, in 2018, “Every day you got to do this freakin’ thing over and over, and it gets harder and harder.”
Born in 1947, Simmons was raised in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and then on the west side of Columbus. According to his autobiography, “The Iron Samurai”—which gains some of its bizarre charm from the fact that Simmons wrote it in the third person—a classmate stole his shoe on his first day in school. When he returned home, his father, a veteran of the Second World War, told him “that if it happened again and he didn’t hit the boy for doing it, then he would be spanked.” Simmons did as his father said, and in the ensuing scuffle one of his blows landed on a teacher—that got him expelled. He was not much for schooling, anyway, perhaps because he had dyslexia, which he was diagnosed with only later in life. In lieu of an education of the mind, he focussed on fortifying his body, through baseball and then through weight lifting. In the summers, he worked construction, mixing mortar, building scaffolding, and lugging blocks. He competed in his first power-lifting meet in 1966; he placed tenth and became enamored of the sport and its competitors, who had, he wrote, “the biggest, most powerful legs Louie had ever seen.”
Around the same time, Simmons was drafted into the Army and stationed in Berlin. He never saw Vietnam; his father passed away, in 1968, leaving him as the sole male member of his immediate family. After returning home, while still working a day job in construction, he dedicated the early seventies to growing as strong as possible. He emulated and adapted training protocols from the leading strength men of that day, such as Pat Casey, who was on record as the first to bench-press six hundred pounds, and Ernie Frantz, an Illinoisan nicknamed the Godfather of Power Lifting (a moniker that Simmons later inherited). Simmons especially latched on to a Soviet method that became known as conjugate training, a regimen based on rotating variations of the primary competition lifts, to build strength and to stave off stasis. According to Simmons, his 1973 competition total—a sum of the three major lifts—reached a thousand six hundred and fifty-five pounds at a body weight of a hundred and eighty-one, a figure that placed him at the top of the sport. But, later that year, he was doing a “good morning,” hinging forward at the waist with a four-hundred-thirty-five-pound barbell across the shoulders, when “he felt something snap,” as he wrote in his book. He’d fractured his L5 vertebra and dislocated his sacrum.
The injury became central to Simmons’s mythos within the world of lifting. He would later delight in recounting it and other injuries over the years—a second back break, a snapped patella, torn biceps, numb extremities. “Trust me when I say, The List Goes On,” he wrote in a 2016 Facebook post. After the fateful first snap, he directed his own rehab, in the process stumbling upon a movement that became the foundation of an exercise machine called a Reverse Hyper, one of several inventions whose patents he secured. The machine works by inverting the standard back extension; instead of lifting and lowering the upper body, the user swings her lower half against resistance, relying upon her glutes and hamstrings. “I’m sixty-two and I just pulled six-seventy dead lift easy two weeks ago in a meet. If it wasn’t for Reverse Hypers, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said, during a taped demonstration of the machine. But the summit of Simmons’s accomplishment resides in the lore surrounding Westside Barbell, his training facility, which he founded in Columbus, in 1987. The place became a home for big bodies with troubled pasts who were joined in their commitment to pushing and pulling stupid amounts of weight. Simmons has described the psychology of the place in terms of the movie “Shogun Assassin,” in which a young son joins his father on a bloody path of vengeance. “That’s what this gym is: a journey into Hell,” he explained in the 2019 documentary “Westside vs. the World.” Westside attained renown for its passionate culture of competition, and for rivalries among members that weren’t always settled with weights. “Looking back on it, I was, like, Well, what was the positive quality of it all?” Dave Tate, an author and élite lifter who trained with Westside throughout the nineties and early two-thousands, said, in the same documentary. “I don’t know. But we all got stronger.”
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At the time of Simmons’s death, Westside boasted that its male and female competitors had broken more than a hundred and forty world records (though records in power lifting are a tricky thing; the sport is splintered into federations, each with its own governing rules, resulting in several overlapping world-record holders across the sport). At Westside, Simmons and his lifters refined a proprietary system called the Westside Conjugate, made up of weekly cycles and max-effort training aided by the tension and gravity of thick rubber bands and fat chains. More than any other school of training, Westside became totemic within the lifting world, emblematic of a culture that was cruder than the one inspired by Schwarzenegger and the other golden bodies molded in Venice Beach. And like the Gold’s Gym gear associated with the L.A. crew, Westside merch became iconic in its own right, featuring a pit-bull mascot named Nitro, holding three-fifteen from his spiked collar.
I began lifting in college, competing on occasion throughout my early twenties, but I can’t recall exactly when I learned about Simmons. If you spend any time at all thinking about how to become strong, his teachings are in the water. I do remember first watching “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,” Chris Bell’s 2008 documentary about performance-enhancing drugs. Midway through the film, Bell visits Westside Barbell and encounters Simmons, who cut a distinct figure. Picture a bodybuilder and then picture the antithesis: bald head, thick neck, goatee, and a portly shape decorated with the sorts of tattoos that make you go looking for a stray white-power symbol. Most prominent among the inked designs were a pair of axes crossed at Simmons’s sternum, with his first name printed in all caps underneath, at just the right longitude to form an arc above his weight belt. “I’ve got a philosophy, like many,” Simmons tells Bell. “When you go to war, you go to kill. You don’t go to get killed.”
What else but a weight room could produce such a creature? Simmons embraced an ethic of old-school bootstrapperism that has barely aged a day in gyms across America. He believed in a kind of masculinity that is now deemed toxic, and he feared what many of his generation perceive as the escalating softness (physical, mental) of the country. Accordingly, he evinced a blatant homophobia and an offhand misogyny, expressed in slurs and bad jokes. (It should be noted, meanwhile, that the women of Westside have proved themselves more consistently impressive than the men.) Among other unyielding Simmonisms was a disdain for American Olympic-weight-lifting coaches, whom he viewed as overfocussed on technique and speed at the expense of strength.
The rigidity of Simmons’s opinions lent them an unintentional comedy, a burlesque quality in the vein of what Henri Bergson called “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” Simmons spoke like a motor, spouting hardboiled quotes with an earnestness that verged on parody: “If you run with the lame, you will develop a limp”; “Weak things break.” That Simmons’s body had been broken many times, and in many ways, only served as proof positive of his message: “If you aren’t willing to die to do this, you shouldn’t do this.” Despite his considerable narrow-mindedness, Simmons found a counterintuitive wisdom in his bodily extremism, a blind faith only in that which facilitates maximum performance—call it optimization on steroids. Why shouldn’t he and his athletes be free to become the strongest of all? It’s not a goal that everyone aspires to, but for a self-selecting few there was a way of life to be found in Simmons’s absolute strength of purpose.