Memories of the
York Big 12 Set (and Other First Barbells)

The launch of our Retro Barbells brought forth a flood of fantastic memories of first barbells sets and what got a lot of people started down the "Iron" road. We thought it would be an excellent idea to collect these memories to show just how meaningful and important that a first barbell can be.

Notice that there are many things in common with these memories: it was rarely easy to even get your hands on a barbell in the first place. It is also interesting -- but not at all surprising -- that these folks are still training many decades later. We need more of this mentality...

Otherwise, enjoy!

Hi John, 

I have enjoyed reading the york barbell stories. I am not sure if this is suitable for inclusion but it is my roundabout York story. My first barbell consisted of bricks attached to a wooden pole. Then my dad fixed up an iron bar with iron wheels attached to which I could add weight.

As the weight sets in the magazines [ in the UK ] were way out of my price range I made do until a school pal whose dad ran a small iron foundry persuaded his dad to make me some discs. I had to go all the way across town to get them [about 100lb] and bring them home in a wheel barrow. I was 11 years old at the time.

I used this set for many years even after I joined a weightlifting club. Fast forward to a few years ago when I was setting up a garage gym at home on Long Island,  NY. I was looking for good quality used equipment and came across someone selling 500 lb. of weights for $90.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that the majority were York plates plus other old time brands such as Dan Lurie [who I actually became good friends with], Billard, Roberts and Milo. Besides standard plates were a pair of York deep dish 45lb and a pair of 35 lb. olympic plates. Obviously the guy did not know what he had. There were also some nice solid 5 and 6 foot bars and kettle bell handles so i assume this was what was left of a big twelve special. As a kid reading Strength and Health I used to wish I could get my hands on a York set and almost 50 years later, I did.

Peter Yates


In 1954, age 15, I had a morning newspaper route and Joe Weider allowed me to pay for my first barbell set in installments! The set was the same as the York Big 12.  When I received it, I was jubilent. I was able to later move on to Olympic Barbells. Only a die-hard barbell addict could understand the joy of having barbells. My son later set a world record in the bench press, and won 3 College Powerlifting Championships, as well as competing in high school football. Real Joy !

Ben Mitcham


John, I only have my original barbell left that my dad gave me with a set of plastic covered cement plates. I still use various types of iron plates on it. I am 63 years old and have had the barbell since I was fourteen.

Michael Garrison


Hi John,

I still have my original York set.  My grandchildren and my son use them.  I go to the gym.  My great grandchildren are in another state or we would have them on the York barbells here.  Just my thoughts.  You are doing a good job.

Silvernail Smith


John, I still have such a barbell set from York, first purchased back in 1961! It had a 6-foot bar, I believe it was '"100 pound set."

Robert Clarke


I had polio when I was about 9 years old,1953. It took about 6 months till I was able to walk. Somewhere during that time I saw an article in Treasure Chest magazine. It was a Catholic School magazine in comic form.

The article was on basic weightlifting. I didn't have any weights but fortunately the article had a side bar about making dumbbells using concrete filled coffee cans. I made dumbbells using 1, 3 and 5# cans. I don't know how much each weighed but 2 five pound coffee cans filled with concrete with an iron pipe between was heavy for me. I worked out for a year or more until I was able to buy a 100# Healthways barbell set. I was in heaven. Next I found a book, Weightlifting, by Jim Murray. That got me started.

I still have the book and some of the Healthways plates. I trained outside in New York, rain or shine. The only workouts I missed were when it was thunder and lightning or ice. Eventually I moved my workout into my home. Our basement had a low, 6' ceiling. To squat, I had to make sure the weights went between the floor joists.My father agreed that I could dig a hole in the basement floor to do overhead lifting. The hole was about 6' by 6' and 3 feet deep, so I could use the 5 foot Healthways bar.

I eventually got into Olympic lifting, back when there were 3 lifts. Best ever was a 250 press, 225 snatch and 315 clean and jerk at 220# bwt. I bought a 7' steel bar so I could practice the OLY lifts. but with a 6' hole I had to rest the bar on the floor and stand in the hole. All lifts were started above the knees. I use to put Vaseline on the bar so the weights would rotate like the Olympic bars did. Good memories. I still lifting every morning at 69+ and plan on lifting for a long time. Keep up the good work.

Tom McNeil


My dad got his first set of weights From York when he was 16 or 17 years old. That was in 1935 or 1936. I still have a pair of 50# plates from that set. Wish I had the bar that went with that set. My dad lifted until he died at 81. I got my first set from Dan Lurie in 1966 and still have some of those plates as well. I will be 60 next week and am looking forward to many more years of lifting.

My grandson, 15 months old, comes down and plays in my basement gym and carries around a pair of 3#ers. He loves grabbing my kettlebell handles and rocking them. Someday my weights and equipment will be his. And so the story goes. By the way, my dad started working out in the Vanguard Gym, owned by Leo Murdock in the Bronx.

Leon Ginenthal


Here is a great memory from my 87 year old father in law, Gus Riess, of Providence, RI and now of Walpole, MA.

Brought up in a loving family during the end of the depression, Gus’s father died before his birth as a result of pneumonia. Gus’s father was a renowned athlete, a competitive kayaker and a gymnast and body builder in the rich tradition of the 1920's and 1930's. Gus was determined to help his single mother and performed prodigious feats such as reroofing a steeply crowned garage by himself, at the age of 12.

Delivering newspapers well before sunrise was one of the many ways Gus was able to carry his own weight in this single parent family. He dutifully saved his money and received permission from his loving mother to send away for a York Big 12 weight set. As Gus tells the story, the local post office informed him by postcard that the eagerly anticipated weight set had arrived and needed to be picked up.

So Gus pulled his red wagon the mile and a half to the post office to pick up the Big 12. The postmaster was incredulous as this young boy wrestled the heavy boxes onto the wagon. “That weight set is for you?”

With the postmaster’s question ringing in his ears, Gus began pulling his heavy load out of the post office. Gus had no choice and was not to be deterred. After all, only rich people had cars in those days. He had to get it home using his own power.

So Gus pulled the 200-plus pound load, the wagon sagging under the weight, up hills and down hills, the mile and a half home. It must have some task and some sight for onlookers, this young boy dragging home his cherished prize. For those of us who do sled pulls, that trip home was by any measure an impressive feat, even for an adult.

And that York Big 12 set served only Gus for many years; his three sons, in their 40s and 50s today, all used the set in their own youths. Each is muscular and lean and fit even now. That is no accident. And where is that cherished York Big 12 today? More than seventy years later, the set sits in good condition in Gus’s basement, a family heirloom and a testament to the power of hard work and determination.

Frederick C. Lane


My Big 12 Special arrived on my door step March 7,1960. I still have the original set AND all the charts and booklets that came with it. I now have over 7,000 pounds of York Olympic Standard plates and bars in my home gym, but the original Big 12 Special is still used for certain movements.

I have been lifting weights since the age of 15 on a regular basis except for the years 1963-66 when I was in the Marine Corps. I am an avid power lifter and still compete in USPF meets in the Master category . I will be 69 soon and enjoy my workouts as much now as when I started in 1960.

The lessons learned from lifting are invaluable. Patience, dedication to achieving a goal, etc. It all started with the Big 12 Special. I weighed 100 pounds when I began and now weigh 205. The iron works if you dedicate to it! I have been able to set several Master's records in the bench and deadlift in the 65-69 220 class. The Big 12 Special is special.

Carmen Caputo


I remember waiting anxiously for my "Big 12" set in 1963, seemed like several weeks, and there was no home delivery, had to go to the terminal to get them  Seemed like a fortune as I was a father and making $1.75 an hour.  Got them home, set up in the 2nd bedroom of our small duplex, and started pumping iron. I was a "gym" member but wanted to add to my every other day(alternate day gym)workout.

Being able to pump to my heart's content, in my own sweat, was unbelievable, the neighbors didn't even protest, as they thought anybody torturing themselves that much were already off their rocker. My fondest, or most painful time when I strapped on the iron boots, with a pair of 10's on each, and commenced to do standing leg extensions(one rep) as I realized what I had on was a pair of roller skates, with the wheels being 10# plates, stationary leg shot forward as I tried to get the other leg down in time, but to no avail. I skated across the small room, both feet flying out and my rear making sudden contact with the floor. I did heal, went on to add weight, gained from 133 to 192.

I was 20 then, 70 today, still crazy as a bedbug because I love lifting, won a few P/L meets, but my grandkids love me. Great times back then lifting, hanging around the gym, still have friends alive from back then, and still get together with them. Probably wouldn't have those friends if it wasn't for the "iron." 

Keep up the good work, where did this all start? Of yeah, the "Big 12 set."

Wayne Clifton


Your mention of the "Big 12 Special" brings back lots of memories - my second set (needed more wt.) was the Big 12 ordered right out of S & H, this was in about 1958 - my first set was the 110 lb. "Heathways" which I got in 1956. That's a long time ago and I still look forward to my trips (3 days/week) to the gym to "pump iron"!

Keep up the good work,

Marty Johnson
North Dakota


YES! I had - well my dad had - those dumbbells! That was my intro to lifting. I was four and I would go downstairs when my dad was at work and try to lift those weights. I was smitten right then and there with wanting to continuously and progressively lift heavier items. 45 years later I'm still lifting heavier and heavier weights with each passing year. I also train with logs, rocks and anything I can find that is heavy that strikes my fancy.

John Bartucci


Like hundreds of thousands of lifters, I started my lifting "life" with the Big 12 Special. After all these decades, I still have the original set, along with several extra 25 and 50 pound plates. Even though I don't need another set, if you release a retro set based on this venerable set, I would have to be restrained by force from ordering another one.

David Sutton

Big 12 Memories