Exploring the Controversial Legacy of a Powerlifting Pioneer

Louie Simmons died last month at the age of 74

Looking back at the history of powerliffting.
Victor Freitas/Unsplash

Last month, Westside Barbell Gym founder Louie Simmons died at the age of 74. Simmons is best-known for developing the conjugate training method, which he described as using elements from the Soviet and Bulgarian systems and combining them into something more effective than either. That in itself makes for fascinating reading — though Simmons’s look back at his life also includes lines like, “It was in 1983 when I broke my lower back for the second time.”

This was not a system where practitioners could easily avoid injury. And in a new article for The New Yorker, writer Lauren Michele Jackson — who knows this world well, having competed in powerlifting competitions in her 20s — reflects on Simmons’s life and the controversies he left in his wake.

Some of those controversies had to do with his choice of words in certain situations; Jackson writes that Simmons “evinced a blatant homophobia and an offhand misogyny, expressed in slurs and bad jokes.” But he also had a penchant for various chemical enhancements — what Jackson describes as “his go-hard-or-go-home enthusiasm for anabolic enhancement.”

Jackson’s article offers a complex portrait of a complex person — someone who held several patents for weightlifting devices but who also did tremendous amounts of harm to his body over the years. Simmons’s influence on the sport is well-documented, but the full scope of that influence is likely to be debated for years to come.

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