By: Adam benShea
Tommy Kono dominating on the strength and physique stage.
In the world of physical culture, few stories exemplify the way in which a rigorous training lifestyle can overcome the harsh realities of incarceration like that of Tommy Kono’s. Of Japanese heritage, Kono was born on June 27, 1930 in Sacramento. He would go on to medal in three Olympics, win six consecutive world weightlifting championships, and set twenty-six world records, and seven Olympic records.
Kono was also a successful bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Universe title in 1954, 1955, 1957, and 1961.
Tommy Kono, Tribute Video
Before he did all of that, Kono had to endure one of the darkest periods in American history. Like many Japanese Americans, Kono was locked in an internment camp during World War II. However, Kono did not take a victim mentality or decry his situation. Rather, like all men of merit, Kono took strength from struggle. First the dry desert helped to heal his childhood asthma. Second, he found powerful mentors, or heroes, to direct him on the path to success.
At the Tule Lake Segregation Center, a future Olympic lifter by the name of Emrick Ishikawa helped establish the Tule Lake Weightlifting and Bodybuilding Club and took a young Kono under his wing. Kono’s lifting career began with a York Ten-In-One exercise kit purchased by Block 27 of Ward II.
From these obscure beginnings, Kono became the only Olympic weightlifter in history to set world records in four different weight classes: lightweight (149 pounds or 67.5 kilograms), middleweight (165 lb or 75 kg), light-heavyweight (182 lb or 82.5 kg), and middle-heavyweight (198 lb or 90 kg).
To attain this level of dominance, Kono maintained that the body does best with short workouts done 2-3 times a week with less, rather than more exercises. In his training for the 1952 Olympics (where Kono would win gold), he trained three days per week with simply four exercises.
His routine was as follows:
Press 8 x 3
Snatches 8 x 3
Cleans 6 x 1
Squats 3 x 3
For all of these exercises, Kono would use weights that equaled or exceeded world record levels.
After stepping away from competition, Kono continued to play a pivotal role in the realm of international lifting. He was the head coach of the US lifting team at the 1976 Summer Olympics. He was also a pioneer in lifting equipment. While competing in the 1960s, Kono came up with bands to support his knees during training sessions. Eventually, these bands extended to the elbows. Kono was also instrumental in Adidas developing their low cut weightlifting shoes.
Much of his life in retirement was spent in his adopted home of Hawaii. In that north pacific place of paradise, Kono was held as an elder statesman of the iron community.
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