Brains and brawn… Bob Simpson and the Way of the Ronin

Published 1:03 pm Friday, June 18, 2021


Bob Simpson decided to give up on the ever-popular football and go his own way with strength training. Strength training was not a conventional physical pursuit at the time, but as you will learn, Simpson has never been accused of being a conventional type of guy.

Simpson said he first learned how to train by reading magazines, like the one that caught his eye at the bus stop. By the time he saved enough money to buy his first weight set, he was ready to launch into his physical experiment.

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The weight set came with an informational booklet on how to get started, “I threw those away immediately”, he remembers.

The standard of the day was to work out 3 times per week, but Simpson says he did whatever he wanted including multiple workouts in a single day (years later many Russian lifters would find Olympic and world-level success with similar training).

“I just had a real haphazard way of training,” Simpson remembers. After he had been training for a few decades, this young up-and-coming weightlifter wanted to look at Simpson’s workout logs.

He took them home to study them to see what nuggets he could glean. He mailed them back a few weeks later saying he looked at them and could not find any order to them. Simpson just laughed while agreeing.

Despite his unorthodox training, Simpson was enjoying the journey and making good progress, but then his National Guard unit got called up. Naturally, he took his dumbbell with him, however, when he found out that his unit would soon be shipped out to France, he needed to get creative.

This was no ordinary dumbbell that Simpson toted but a 155-pound monster. He went to a carpenter on the military base and convinced him to build a wooden crate that could support the behemoth.

Then they took it apart and nestled it into the box, so it could be shipped and later assembled in France. Simpson kept the beast in his room and lifted it regularly. “I guess you could say I got notorious around the base.” He remembers fondly.

When Simpson and his dumbbell made it back from France, he settled back in Memphis and began exercising in a gym that his uncle owned. Eventually, Simpson moved to Knoxville and the first place he could find to work out was on the second floor above a liquor store.

That did not last too long, as all the plaster rattling and chandelier jangling upset the patrons below. He had to move across town to the YMCA.

Many are familiar with the samurai culture from Japan. These were members of a hereditary military nobility who honored a strict moral code and were well respected.

Every samurai warrior was supposed to teach the code to a younger warrior. Sometimes a master would die, or a young trainee would run away. These young warriors, although they often come to possess great skill, were given a special name, Ronin.

Ronin were notable warriors yet distinct because they had no master to show them the traditional way or a set way of training. Many times, this led to them being looked down upon or even shunned for not following a more traditional path and submitting themselves to another.

Simpson became a ronin in his own right by never following one mentor or style of training. He even tried participating in accepted weightlifting competitions such as Olympic weightlifting in his early years.

He performed decently, but he just wanted to try out many new lifts and styles of training instead of limiting himself to just a few lifts deemed essential by some outside authority.

And sadly, maybe that is why Simpson and his lifting exploits have been forgotten by many as he was not part of a team, didn’t participate in highly visual competitions, or complete lifts that were considered the mainstays.

It is not that Simpson didn’t learn from others, but it was just that he would take what he learned and apply it in his own unique way. But one man that Simpson looked up to, as every lifter in this area did, was Bob Peoples from the Sinking Creek community.

Once a young lifter named Mark Latteri came to visit Simpson to ask him how to increase his deadlift.

To his astonishment, Simpson had never really trained this lift which was, and still is, a staple of any conventional weight training program. Simpson, however, knew just what to do.

He called up the greatest deadlifter in the world, Bob Peoples (who just happened to live in nearby Sinking Creek, and they both drove over to visit.

Eventually, Peoples and Simpson became great friends. Simpson remembers that he and his wife would meet Bob Peoples and his wife Juanita once a week for dinner.

They would oftentimes go to Dino’s, a standard in the Elizabethton downtown for decades. Very few people even knew that two of the strongest men in the world were occupying that corner booth.

Once Peoples came over to visit Simpson and walked into the garage where he was just getting ready to attempt a lift known as the shrug with nearly 1,000 pounds.

You must understand that the bars and weights of that time were not designed to handle such massive lifts. On this attempt, the bar was full to the end with weights, and the collars that helped keep the weights on barely had enough room to fasten.

Sometimes, Simpson even had to tie weight plates to the bar to equal the poundages he needed.

Simpson had not even realized that People was standing in the doorway watching as his friend Simpson was going to attempt an amazing lift. As Simpson gave the weight a furious pull, the collars slipped, and the numerous weights went flying off and rolled all over the room.

After the deafening roar subsided, Simpson turned to see People standing in the doorway. “He just turned around and walked out without saying a word,” Simpson remembers.

Although he started out emulating his father and uncles, was inspired by magazines, and had many friends who were also excellent weightlifters, it wasn’t until Simpson was able to free himself from all conventional training that he soon discovered limitless levels of strength that made his arms grow to the size Christmas hams.

But those arms could never match the legendary lifting exploits that would soon be written.