Dave Paxton

For the past 79 years, the Iowa Historical Society has published quarterly “The Annals of Iowa,” a journal of Iowa history that the newspaper has received like clockwork for all 38 years I’ve been around.

I’m guessing, we’ve been on the mailing list all 79 years.

Often times it is a difficult read because, while offering a whole lot of interesting history involving Iowa and Iowans, it can get really stuffy. In some ways it is written for other historians, not unlike legal documents are written by lawyers for lawyers.

At any rate, you’ve got to be a bit of a history geek to read the stuff and as a history geek, most of it is too much for me to wade through.

However, in the Winter 2020 edition I received today there is a super interesting article on the development of weight training. Everybody who knows anything about athletic weight training knows the name Chris Doyle, University of Iowa strength and fitness coach, who has routinely turned one and two star recruits in football into NFL ready linemen and tightends.

Turns out he is not the greatest mind in weight training who has come from the University of Iowa. That title goes to a guy named W.C. McCloy, a physical education teacher and assistant coach with the Iowa Seahawks (a team of pre-flight athletes bound for WWII, including Albia’s own George “Red” Frye, that ranked atop the national polls in 1943) when asked about the benefits of weight and resistance training had to admit he didn’t know. But he would find out.

Apparently flight cadets were lifting dumbells and extolling their virtues. W.C. McCloy made research into lifting weights his life work.

In the 1930s and 1940s it was a common misconception that weight lifting led to becoming “muscle bound” and thus was a detriment to competitive athletes. The article suggested that Babe Ruth had used mild weight and resistance training to prolong his career, hampered by skinny legs and almost non-stop alcohol consumption. But coaches wanted limber, speedy athletes and thought weight lifting would create lumbering, muscle-pull prone oxes.

So few lifted.

McCloy joined the University of Iowa in 1930, having been fired from Harvard for calling the President a “damned fool,” despite being recognized as one of the most innovative physical education instructors and coaches to have ever worked at the Ivy League university. He worked for the next 20 years in YMCAs, earning a masters and doctorate along the way before coming to Iowa.

In his writing, McCloy criticized university sports programs for ignoring actual physical training in favor of simply competing (and attempting to win) in sports. He criticized (Harvard in particular) for ignoring muscular development in favor of playing games. At Iowa he began to return the phys ed department back to its exercise roots, instead of “focusing on athletics and character development.”

So when challenged by athletes about the benefits of weight lifting and strength training, McCloy (a lifelong 5’8”, 145-pounder) dove headlong into the research.

Among other things, McCloy debunked the “muscle bound” athlete myth, even though it was years after his death in 1959 that high school, colleges and professional teams bought into his research.

Working with the Iowa basketball team throughout the 1950s, with the full support of head coach Bucky O’Connor, he is credited with adding two to five inches to the vertical jumps of players like All Big 10 player Bill Logan. O’Connor credited his weight training with getting the team to the Final Four. The Iowa baseball team adopted his weight training, as did the track team. Ironically, little is mentioned about the Iowa football team buying into his methods.

By 1956 his research and writings laid out solid proof that weight training was the quickest way to enhancing athletic performance. Along the way, he debunked most of the ideas that gaining muscle mass would damage sports performance.

Another irony is that this diminutive man, a life-long advocate of healthy living, suffered a heart attack at 66 and ultimately died of a stroke at the age of 73. Clearly he couldn’t defeat genetics with exercise.

Growing up on a farm in the 1960s and obtaining the occasional Charles Atlas magazine, there was this constant tension between being “farm strong” and doing weights or calisthenics. What we found out when we got our first Universal Gym in 1970 at our high school was that “farm strong” boys made rapid gains when we started to lift weights, which helped create a state championship football team in the fall of 1971.

The myths surrounding weight lifting, however, have hung on long after Professor McCloys research. I remember a mom absolutely putting her foot down when coaches wanted her baseball pitching son to start lifting in the late 1990s.

I actually stopped lifting after high school for about 20 years, preferring to play softball, basketball, racquetball, do backpacking and distance running. Right up until I tore an Achilles tendon and subsequently wrecked my lower back. At 38, not interested in living as a quasi cripple, I started reading “Muscle and Fitness” magazine, studied the benefits of abdominal exercises and built my own weight room on the second floor of a racquetball facility I helped build with three other guys.

I knew nothing of Professor McCloy, but I’ve pretty much lived by his research and now new studies that show the benefits of strength and resistance training in terms of heart health, improving bone density, and the healing effects of increased blood flow. It’s also one of the greatest stress reducers I’ve encountered.

So here’s to “The Annals of Iowa” and it’s story on the totally unheralded W.C. McCloy. Without W.C. there would likely be no Chris Doyle or Hayden Fry or Kirk Ferentz, recruiting average kids and turning them into killer athletes.

Unlike other pundits and politicians pontificating on the wisdom of President Trump whacking an Iranian terrorist, I’m going to wait and see what comes of this dust-up. History is repleat with American presidents (British prime ministers for that matter) allowing bullies and tyrants to flourish without push back. The President punching the Iranian bully in the nose by killing one of their foremost terrorism planners may do the exact opposite of Democrats and media elites screeching about dragging us into WWIII.

Particularly now when Iran appears to have pulled back.

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