Whatever Happened to…Ernie Frantz?
Ernie Frantz is the man. When I called to do this interview, his wife told me to call back in 5 minutes. The nearly 78-year old multiple World Championship-winning powerlifter was outside chopping wood. While most retired champs are hobbling along on walkers, grumbling about their aches and pains, Frantz is still hitting the gym regularly (ignoring his battle scars), and passionately preaching the benefits of powerlifting with the zeal of a backwoods Evangelist.
One of the most influential men to don a single-ply singlet, Frantz, has not only strived to make himself and those that asked for his guidance into stronger lifters, he worked hard to make the world a better place, convinced that powerlifting is the remedy for many societal issues. He worked with The Cradle; an Illinois-based non-profit agency that provides continued support and educational opportunities to children in need. His goal is for everyone to lift weights…because it’s fun!
In addition to being active around the house, Ernie can still walk in and squat 450 and deadlift 405 pounds, which is a claim that cannot be made by many people approaching their eighth decade. He was kind enough to spend an hour sharing some memories of his adventures in the sport and explaining what he has been up to recently.
Steve: Hey, Ernie. Thanks for letting me drag you away from your chores. You are among one of the short handful of lifters that deserve the title “Powerlifting Legend.” How long have you been lifting?
Ernie: Well, I’ve been weight lifting since I got out of the Korean War. I got out of the Korean War in ’53 and I started at the YMCA lifting weights in 1954. I think I was about 21 at that point.
They had a bodybuilding class at the YMCA and they a doctor that was interning was running the class. When he moved to Oxford, I took over the class for him. Around this time, I met a guy who played for the Chicago Bears. His name was Pete Perez. They didn’t make any real money playing pro football in those days, which was the 30′s, but they still had some great athletes. I thought I was strong, but he said I needed to overhead press my bodyweight or I wasn’t very strong. I couldn’t do that, but he took 300 and put it up over his head and then he held it up there. They didn’t have powerlifting then, they just had Olympic lifting, but that impressed me.
Steve: Did you compete in the Olympic lifts?
Ernie: Yeah, we did Olympic lifting throughout the state here. As a matter of fact, the state record back then in the 165-pound class was 220, and I broke that. But, I really didn’t particularly care for Olympic lifting as much as I did when I got started powerlifting. Of course, doing Olympic lifting gave me a great base for powerlifting since it involved so much squatting.
Steve: When powerlifting started to get organized, did you find out about it right away?
Ernie: Yeah, sure, first they had odd lifts like press-behind-the-neck and two-arm curls as the sport was finding its way – it took awhile to sort itself out. They came up with the current three lifts, and then they took away the military press from the Olympic lifting and then they did the Olympic lifting along side of the powerlifting…
Steve: Like a five-lift meet…?
Ernie: No, they often just ran them side-by-side, but I was doing both. I was also doing physique and even a little bit of gymnastics and some stunt diving. We were doing a little bit of everything that the “Y” had to offer.
Steve: After you got out of the service, were you in the Chicago area from that point on?
Ernie: Yeah, I was born in Chicago until I was 13-years-old, then I moved into a little town of a couple of 100 residents. My dad moved us to Oswego, which is about 40 miles west of Chicago. I didn’t really fit in too well because I was kind of what they called a city slicker and they were just all farmers out here.
Ernie: York Barbell’s owner, Bob Hoffman, had a magazine called Strength and Health and he was the only one that actually covered powerlifting [through editor, Terry Todd]. Hoffman ran the very first World’s that I entered in 1974, but in the early years, I entered bodybuilding and local odd-lift and powerlifting meets in Chicago with guys like Lyle Schwartz, who developed the Schwartz formula for Olympic lifting. He was a professor at Northwestern University and he was the State Chairman of Powerlifting in Chicago.
Steve: What accomplishments are you most proud of as a powerlifter?
Ernie: Hmm…one of my favorite memories was in York, Pennsylvania, in 1974 when I won my very first world championship.
Steve: How many world and national titles did you win in your career?
Ernie: Oh God…there must have been at least 30 of them, 30 world championships because there was either an Open World Championship or it would be a Master’s World Championship I would’ve entered later on. There were also World Cups. They were held up in Canada and there was also an Invitational World Meet, which was held in like Auburn, Alabama. Back in late 70′s and early 80′s, CBS and NBC were fighting for the sponsorship. CBS wanted it and paid $75,000 for the rights to film all the powerlifting championships.
Steve: Which weight classes did you compete in, Ernie?
Ernie: 165, 181, 198 and 220.
Steve: Ok, and what were your best lifts and totals at those weights?
Ernie: I was most proud of my 198-pound class numbers because I broke the world record in 1981 with a 1,951-pound total. My strongest was when I was over the 198 [weight class]. I wasn’t quite at the top of the 220-class, I was 214 or 215, and I made a 2,000-pound total. My best lifts were an 826 squat; that was an open world record even though I was a master by that time. I was in my 50′s, and I bench-pressed 550 without a shirt. I did 490 and held the record for ten years, I think that was in the 198-pound class.
Steve: I’ve heard the story about where you competed in a powerlifting and bodybuilding contest on the same day. Can you share that story with readers?
Ernie: Well, in 1974 I won at Nationals, which qualified me for the World Powerlifting Championships. The problem is that I already signed up to compete in the AAU Mr. USA on the very same day! Fortunately, they were both being held in Fort Worth, Texas…only 12 miles apart. They said that it couldn’t be done. I was supposed to go for pre-judging in the morning and the powerlifting championships didn’t start until one o’clock and then the television taping for Mr. USA was in the evening. I went probably from seven in the morning until almost midnight. I guess that was my best achievement and I feel I was probably the only person that’s ever done that and it is unlikely it will ever be done again.
Steve: Yeah, in the Mr. USA, Pat Neve won and Dave Johns and Robby Robinson were in that one as well. You placed third in that show and won your class in the powerlifting. Not a bad day!
Ernie: Yeah, I remember Robinson. It was quite a show. My muscles were cramping due to the restrictive diet to stay ripped and also trying to keep enough energy for powerlifting.
Ernie: I was happy in just achieving the goal of what I did for that day. I think that it was a fantastic achievement for me, but I think that it’s pretty hard because you don’t have enough carbohydrates in you to have the energy to excel beyond that point for lifting. Bodybuilding is different. You try to come in at your best, but it is based on the ruling of the guys on the judging panel. In powerlifting, you either make the lift or you don’t make the lift.
Another record that I still hold is in two-man deadlifts, which were big in the past. We would take the two lifters’ bodyweights and add them together, and then we would divide in two, and that would be the weight class you’d be in. Ed Coan and I teamed up 20 years ago, and we did a 1,400 double deadlift up in Wisconsin and that record has never been broken.
Steve: Tell us a little bit about Coan, how you came to know one another, and your impression of him when you first met?
Ernie: I was well-known in this area among lifters and many would come out to my gym. Ed was about 16-years-old when he first showed up. Everybody would meet on Saturdays and I divided them into about three teams: the beginning teams, a middle class team, the advanced team and we also had the women’s team. Ed was very, very shy and he couldn’t talk at all. As a matter of fact, my wife and I had to do most of the talking for him because he was a very shy boy at that age. When he started to excel beyond most lifters in the United States as a teenager, he started to come out of his shell. He went on to become kind-of-an-idol to most lifters in the world.
Steve: And during your lifting career, was most of your time spent running the gym, or in your work with the corrections department?
Ernie: My gym was a key club. I did classes in the morning in my gym and in the afternoon, I went to the prisons to train inmates, and in the evening, I trained the wardens and guards. I did this for three or four different prisons.
Steve: Tell us a little bit about the gym, apparently you had a fire there and lost that recently?
Ernie: I guess that was my biggest depressed time in my life, which was three months ago. I partnered with a chiropractor for a short time and we had two locations. It was not working out, so we were parting ways. Fortunately, I moved some of my old antique stuff out already.
Steve: Have you stayed healthy, Ernie?
Ernie: I have for the most part. My wife and I are more active than most people our age, due to the time we put in at the gym. We have both had both shoulders replaced with titanium balls, but it is a price you pay. We’ve had a good life. We have been all over the world: we’ve been to South Africa twice, Russia, Italy twice, we’ve been to Hawaii, Canada and I must have done at least 10 world championships in Las Vegas. In addition, we made many lifelong friends from powerlifting.
I helped out an organization called Cradle for Kids that provides education, discipline and opportunity for children. I’m spending more time with my wife, and enjoying time caring for my property and the animals I have on it. My daughter has a construction company. I help her out when she needs it, so I try to keep pretty busy.
Steve: Thank you, Ernie. It was an honor speaking to you.