Maurice Robert Ainsworth 1927-2015 by Peter Yates

'My Mentor, My Friend'

On February 10th of this year my dear friend and mentor, Maurice Ainsworth passed away. Maurice was my first strength training coach and martial arts instructor. Other than my Father he has been the most influential man in my life. I owe him much. He led a rich and interesting life on his own terms and this article that was written a couple of years ago is presented in honor of his memory.

Maurice Ainsworth and Peter Yates
Maurice and Peter in backyard.

He is survived by his wife Christine and son Tony. His influence as teacher reached many who continue his legacy.

Maurice Robert Ainsworth was born December 1927 in the north of England industrial town of Darwen, Lancashire - a tough town, populated by tough, hardy people. Much of the local economy had been generated by the cotton and textile industry but this was now in decline with the country in depression and many unemployed. Growing up in these times was far from easy and for many a meal was a piece of bread spread with beef dripping (fat).

At left - Maurice with wife Christine and weightlifter Dave Parker.

To make matters worse Maurice was a skinny kid with a bad stammer. This of course opened him up to ridicule and bullying. This not only from other kids from school teachers too. Maurice told me a story of one teacher who would have him stand up and order him to recite poetry. Of course he was unable to get a word out clearly. For this he was punished with a caning.

Maurice soon learned that to survive you have to fight back and one particular incident was a turning point in his life. Maurice had a piece of bread which was taken from him by an older and bigger boy. He had a choice - go hungry or fight for the bread. Enraged he chose to fight. Much to his surprise as well as his antagonists he did not come off the worst for wear. Unfortunately the bread was destroyed in the struggle. However he learned when necessary he could stand up for himself.

As he grew older he developed like so many boys and young men, the desire to be big and strong. In Darwen and surrounding districts there have always been tough men, boxers, street fighters and strongmen, the most famous of the latter being the great weightlifter, hand balancer and strong man Bill Hunt. So there was plenty of inspiration.

In order to fulfill his quest he started like many others by lifting rocks of various sizes in an abandoned stone quarry. He was accompanied by a boy who would become a lifelong friend, Chris Howson. Chris never grew past five feet tall yet became extremely well developed and strong.

Leaving school at age fourteen Maurice took a series of jobs in the building trade. Digging ditches with a pick and shovel, carrying bricks and pushing heavy wheel barrows helped him in filling out his young physique. He also took up boxing around this time and I believe was able to get a hold of a Charles Atlas course to add to his quest for muscles and might.

At eighteen he reported for national service and was sent for basic training.

In a new environment and with people who did not know him, his stammer once again made him the butt of jibes and ridicule. He told me he probably had a fight every day for the first two weeks in camp. After that he was left alone.

 Just out of the Army, Maurice with best friend, Chris Howson and dog Rex. 

On leaving the army he along with Chris Howson decided to start a weightlifting club. This was around 1949-1950. Bodybuilders of that era such as John Grimek, Clancy Ross, Marvin Eder and Steve Reeves provided inspiration along with a young north of England lad by the name of Reg Park.

The initial club was in the cellar of a coffee bar and the scrap metal yard provided steel bars and iron wheels as makeshift barbells. Soon the club attracted more members, including Maurice’s younger brother Jack, equipment was made and some donated.

In time they had to move to bigger premises.

Maurice from the start believed it was not enough to look strong; you had to also be strong. He emulated the training of Grimek, Reeves and most of all Reg Park. His favorite routine was the 5x5 system popularized by Park. This proved to be by far the most productive training for Maurice. He then taught others (myself included years later) this program starting them out on the right path. This of course is a method for building serious strength and muscle that has stood the test of time. The version Maurice mainly taught was:

  • Full Squat 5x5
  • Bench Press 5x5
  • Bent Over Row 5x5
  • Military Press 5x5
  • Dead Lift 5x5
  • Barbell Curl 5x5

To this basic routine extra work for abdominals and neck would be done. Of course this was not the only routine he used or taught others but one that he would come back to frequently. Even using top weights he would move through his workouts quite quickly with little rest between sets and exercises. To determine the weight to be used for the 5X5 system Maurice advocated taking a weight that would allow an exercise to be performed for seven repetitions. This would be the starting weight. Of course the first and second sets would be relatively easy and would be serving as a warm up. The third may be a little more challenging and fourth and fifth may be difficult to complete five repetitions. This weight would be used until all five sets could be completed for five repetitions - then an increase of five or ten pounds depending upon the exercise would be indicated.

However the 5X5 was not a beginner’s routine according to Maurice. In my case he advised that I do only body weight exercises for the first few months. This way the body would be prepared for handling weights. He reasoned that it is much easier to focus on what your body needs to be doing if you do not also have to be focusing on balancing a weight. This way it is easier to forge the mind-body link.  When a certain amount of strength and coordination has been developed barbells and dumbbells can be employed to good effect.

The first weight routine would be 10-12 exercises, one set of each for 8-12 repetitions. When the upper number of repetitions was reached weight would be added. Over a period of a few months sets would be increased to two per exercise and then three. Training would be done on three non-consecutive days. This method of training has stood the test of time and is as result producing now as it was then. After a certain period the 5X5 system would be implemented.

Although I have trained in a number of ways over the years variations of the above have been a mainstay and have been the most productive for myself and others I have trained.

As accompanying photos show Maurice built quite a fine, well proportioned physique with good definition. I once remarked to him that I wanted definition like his and he remarked back that I should concentrate on building some muscle first. That stung but of course he was right. The remarkable thing is that he built his physique while working all day as a roofer entailing carrying heavy loads of tile or slate up and down a ladder for hours on end. Photographs do not do him justice – up close he looked like chiseled granite.

Train for health and strength and the physique will take care of itself. Certainly seems like it worked for Maurice.
Mid 1950s on Darwen Moors.

In the late 1950’s he decided to emigrate to Australia hoping to find a better life for his family, a wife and two young sons. This would provide his first encounter with East Asian fighting arts. This is the story he related to me several times over the years. I never got tired of hearing it.

On arrival in Australia immigrants would be housed in a resettlement camp until they got on their feet and could get a home of their own. It was common to congregate in one of the local pubs on a Sunday afternoon to socialize.

For the most part immigrants were welcomed by the locals (who of course were children or grandchildren of immigrants themselves). However as is often the case there was some resentment from a small but disruptive element.

On one particular Sunday afternoon while having a quiet beer with friends he observed a group of five locals picking on one of the residents of the camp. Due to his past experience Maurice had a distinct lack of regard for any type of bully. As things heated up and it was clear the lone man was in for a beating he decided to intervene.

However before he could even rise out of his seat he felt a hand on his shoulder. Although seemingly gentle with little pressure it prevented Maurice from getting to his feet. The next few moments were almost a blur as the man who had restrained

Maurice moved quickly towards the group of thugs and as they turned to attack him were dispatched one by one into a heap on the floor. Maurice who had witnessed many fights had never seen anything like this. His words to the gentleman who had performed this seemingly miraculous act were, “I don’t know what you just did but I want to learn it.”

Over a drink it turned out that this was a karate master from Okinawa who was also a resident in the camp. He agreed to teach Maurice his art.

As Maurice was in perfect health and physical condition he was able to quickly adapt to the physically demanding training he was put through. With expert guidance and natural ability he soon learned the essential basics of the system. Within a year a training group had been formed with Maurice assisting the sensei in teaching.

In time his wife became homesick and was missing her family and friends so it was decided to return to England. As the building trade was flourishing he soon found work as a roofer. Many who would become roofers got their start with Maurice about this time.

Eager to continue his study of karate he looked around for suitable teachers. At this time such teachers were few and far between and mostly located in the larger cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and London. What he did find more locally did not live up to his expectations so he decided to teach what he already knew and then travel to find worthwhile teachers to continue his own progress. He soon had a good group of students including some of the weightlifters and this formed the nucleus for the Darwen Karate Club.

As often as it was possible he would travel to study with high level instructors and was also able to arrange for them to visit Darwen to teach his group of students. Some of those early masters were Suzuki, Takamasawa and Shimitsu of Wado Ryu karate.

Interestingly at this stage Maurice had no official grade. The reason for this was that traditionally in China and Okinawa there were no belt rankings. You were either a beginner, senior student, assistant instructor or master. Only when you had grasped one step would you then be taught the next and so on.

When karate was officially accepted as a Japanese martial art, pressure was applied to adopt the same belt ranking system as Judo, Kendo and other Japanese arts. Even so some of the Okinawan sensei still continued the old practice for some time before giving in.

Maurice's Role in Martial Arts


Eventually he was awarded a first degree black belt. He told me he was pleased the way he had earned it because at that time the emphasis was on sparring and he had to fight many opponents from clubs all over England. It was not the competition style sparring either but rough and ready knock down free sparring. He witnessed many broken noses, jaws and even a leg during the proceedings.

After this he gradually cut ties with any organization as he felt they were operating for financial gain. He also wanted to look at what he had already learned and start to analyze, edit, refine and see what was truly effective. He had a good understanding of the principles that enabled techniques to be effective in combat and self defense and emphasized those principles in his teaching as he also did with strength training.

He did not stop learning however and if he came across a martial artist from whom he felt he could learn he did so. He could quickly evaluate however if someone had “the goods” or not.

When I was studying under him he would take me to other clubs to watch a class then have me evaluate what I had seen and if what was being  taught had cohesion and would be effective or not. These valuable lessons enabled me to determine who would be worth studying with on my subsequent world travels.

Maurice continued to develop and refine his system. Once on returning to Darwen after a five year absence I found that he further eliminated that which he had found to be ineffective. Instead of learning hundreds of moves and techniques he had found a way to capture the essential principles in a few chosen drills. Even with the masters I had encountered in my time away I could still see Maurice was ahead of the pack. This was the height of the Bruce Lee and Kung Fu craze and clubs were opening up right, left and center, most of them quite dubious.

Maurice in his early 60's back in his beloved quarry where it all started and training like a caveman. 

Due to a severe leg injury and subsequent hip replacement in his late 50’s Maurice retired from teaching but still continued to train alone. He had some weights in his backyard, however at this time he reverted to his days as a boy and hiked the moors to the old stone quarry where his quest for might and muscle had begun. The only difference being the rocks lifted were bigger and heavier and the walls of the quarry were now filled with graffiti. On trips to England I would accompany him to his outdoor “gym” and we had some first class “dinosaur style” workouts there.

Maurice and I have kept close contact throughout the years with letters, phone calls and of course visits to Darwen. He is always interested in what I have been doing and a constant support. I owe him much. He taught me weight training, karate, roofing but much, much more. He taught me how to embrace life, to never give up, that falling down means you get to stand up again. He taught me the value of work and a job well done. He taught me respect for myself and for others. He taught me never to use my skills to show off but only ever to protect myself or others from harm. He taught me gratitude for a simple life. I could go on as there is so much more. Suffice to say it has been my privilege to be his student and to be his friend and I am glad to still have him in my life.

Over the years especially the early formative ones I heard him say things that stuck with me and helped shape my thinking about training and about life. A few examples are:

  • Train for health and strength and the body will develop naturally. This of course was a common theme among early physical culturists. What good are big muscles without vibrant health, overall strength and vigor?
  • Muscles are no good if you cannot earn a living with them. This is aligned with the previous statement. A true person of strength has the ability and vitality to do a hard day’s work with the developed muscle - what is commonly known today as functional strength.
  • If you have to fight try to finish it quickly. If you cannot make sure you are always in top condition so you can stay the course – the longer a fight lasts the more chance of you being injured. Being in top condition will not only help in a fight but also in any calamitous event.
  • No matter how hard life knocks you down, you have to find the strength to get back up. In China they say it this way: “Nine times down, ten times up.” Maurice demonstrated this in his own life. He had many injuries including the loss of an eye and he also lost loved ones, including his first wife at an early age and then his youngest son Shaun.
  • Never show your skills unless you have to, then show them all. By this he meant to avoid trouble and never start a fight and to only use your skills to protect yourself or others from harm - then do not hold back. Also do not use your fighting skills to intimidate others or for personal gain.

Of course Maurice influenced many others in the course of his life. I was recently in contact with Louigi Staffa weightlifter, martial artist and wrestler who also came under Maurice’s wing at a young age. Now living in Canada, he had this to say, “Maurice is the man. He really deserves recognition for all that he has done. I spent a lot of my life with him learning weight training, martial arts and roofing from him, the latter which took me out of a dead end factory job and gave me skills to support and sustain my family. I am proud to have been his friend.” Louigi Staffa, Canada 2011.

His son Tony had this to say: “I remember when I was a kid and he took me out. We would always be visiting at some house or other to see if they needed anything. He always had time for the older generation.

He would always train three times a week no matter how hard he had worked on the roofs. Because of his influence I would try to do the same. I did not always manage it. I just did not have his stamina or enthusiasm. He always said, “Train for life. Age does not matter. If you stay strong you can fight most things.”

As a teacher he has always given one hundred percent and never for a profit. Many have benefitted from his teaching be it weights or karate.

He is quite stubborn, probably due to his rough upbringing; being poor, etc. So he never wavered from his path. He always hated bullies and was never afraid to put them down. He was a sickly kid with a stammer so it was a big impetus to get strong by lifting rocks in the local quarry with pal Chris Howson.

Dad always said,

“Train forever and age becomes nothing to fear.”” Tony Ainsworth


Special thanks to Kim Rosado for typing the article and to Jim Vitale and Mike Talish for assistance with the photographs.

©Maurice Robert Ainsworth 1927-2015 - My Mentor, My Friend by Peter Yates

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