It was the kind of gym I like: older part of town, a deli next door and a laundromat across the street. Rooms to rent upstairs and a bus stop out front. Not a potted plant to be seen, no hanging ferns, no lavender carpets, child care pens or sprout sandwiches. No electronic gizmos from Bulgaria to measure the molecular viscosity of toenails.
It was a black iron gym, before chrome, dating back to a time when meets were held on the basketball floor of the YMCA and lifters often hung around to enter the bodybuilding contest.
Wood. Iron. Leather. Lifting platforms. The place had that feel and smell of authenticity. There were posters on the wall touting boxing matches of long ago, old York and Jowett training charts, 8 x 10's that used to be glossy, autographed by Clancy Ross, Jack Dellinger and Argentina Rocca.
Sacramento has its memories: Bill Pearl had his first gym there, and Chester O. Teagarden and the young Tommy Kono trained at the now-vanished donwtown Y, back in the early fifties.
The main thing at this place was the gang that trained there. Older crowd, ex-competitors, has-beens, never-wases, guys doing their favorite movements. No small part of it was just hanging around and getting out of the house. The owner was burned out and had long since quit watching the floor and coaching the members. He spent his days next door at the deli having coffee.
It was early summer and the redheaded 148-pounder was finishing her B.A. back in Texas. We had partnered up toward the end of my tenure at Pine Woods, and I had come out West in advance to find a house before she started graduate school in late August. I was spending a hot Sacramento June working on some articles and doing a little light training. I was kinda burned out myself and swore I wouldn't get involved with any more clubs or coaching.
But I did.
There were three college-age boys at the gym who had decided to get into their first power meet. Rich Peters was bringing his traveling circus around in the spring. No more driving hundreds of miles to contests; just wait, Rich would bring one by, hauling everything you needed in a big ole truck, hurtling through the Great American hinterland (Topeka on Friday, boys!), and if there's an off night, well, set up on the edge of town and start something.
Peters' NASA (Natural Athlete Strength Association) has become a formidable and popular operation, with classes for the ex-user, the pure, the never-touch-the-stuff, the three-years clean, the natural and the repentant. My impression is that it's a good gang to get started with because there's so many slots for those on the way up. A lifter might enter the novice, open and pure flights in the same meet when it's allowed. Is it true that one meet had 120 lifters and passed out 168 trophies?
The boys were arguing about how to set up a program. The heaviest built guy was lording it over the others. He knew that the best way to train was the way he trained. He was the strongest, wasn't he? There wasn't any need to do all those fancy routines and figure percentages, he opined. All a guy needed was to do the basics; if a person had what it takes, he'd succeed.
Now, there is much truth in that. The problem is, that attitude will win a lot of local meets, but won't do much good at state or national contests because everybody there has got what it takes. All other things being equal, the guy who uses his brain to set up his training is going to win most often in the long run. Then he said,
"With my squat and bench I oughta win easy."
There I sat in my Wampus Cat Club t-shirt. I couldn't take it.
"What about the deadlift," I asked.
The local hero shrugged it off.
"I just let my squat take care of it and do a few rows. All you need is to do them twice a month or so. Nothing to the deadlift, anyway."
Translation: "I don't like deadlifts, have made no progress in a year; I can smoke the squat and bench pretty good, buy my ego prevents me from facing up to the facts."
I introduced myself and allowed that I had actually been to a couple of meets. Offered to help. Knew the rules. The boys bought in. Said they'd read some of my articles and such. (See listing at end of this article)
Every time I get in one of these situations I feel a little like the crusty but benign gym owner in the old "Keys to Progress" series written by John McCallum for. Veterans will remember the stories about the long-suffering coach and his charges that appeared in Strength & Health magazine back in the sixties. John generally called for basic workouts, primarily for the full body and without a lot of nonsensical frills. He used a cast of continuing characters to carry the stories and to present new plots. It's an old device, sort of like a sitcom, and was not unknown to Chaucer and the ancient Greeks.
McCallum is no longer with us, but his humor and surpassing taleeft a writing legacy that dozend of Iron Game writers have been influenced by, myself included. Too many try to copy his style but have neither his skills, originality nor ability to bring characters to life and sustain a series.
But the lads at the gym in Sacramento were not the knuckleheads usually found in these types of stories. They were average guys with varying training knowledge and experience. Plus the usual amount of misinformation and a tendency to peacock around the gym.
They all used the sumo-style deadlift. Furthermore, they practiced sumo fashion every deadlift workout. I told 'em that Lamar Gant, Sylvester Anderson, Ausby Alexander, world champs all, and dozens of other record holders used conventional style. The choice depends on body type and arm length, not the style itself. Secondly, doing sumo-style is not the best way to train for sumo-style.
Sylvester Anderson receiving his award as
Marine Corps Athlete of the Year
in Washington D.C.
The first deadlift session I had the gang max out and I wrote down the results. Said not a word. I went over to the lifting platform and commenced doing high pulls from the floor, clean grip. I set up like an Olympic lifter and pulled the bar up to the breastbone. Lots of leg drive, chin an elbows high, full body extension. The next set I added weight and pulled to the belt.
The gang trailed along as I went over to the incline bench and got on it face down.The boys handed the bar off the floor and I started shrugging up toward the chest, crunching my scapula together and a little down toward the tailbone. Not up toward the ears. Kept my arms straight and got a full stretch between reps.
The gym owner watched from his office. When the bar was back on the floor, he grunted and went out on the street.
"Okay, give me five sets of five on the high pulls and four sets of eight on the shrug," I said.
The big boy was confused.
"Shrug? That don't look like any shrug I ever saw."
Then one of the others came up with a line I've been saving for years.
"Man, you think a shrug is an Italian mannerism."
I loved it. I went on.
"Increase the weight on the pulls every set and decrease on the shrugs. Use straps if you need 'em, but your grip will improve if you don't. Do these instead of your deadlift workout for a couple months."
"But Coach, when do we deadlift?"
"September . . ."
Six weeks later I walked in carrying a device about five feet long with plate sleeves on each end and two interior bars bent to make a diamond shape. The Gerard Trap Bar. The gang stared. Somebody in the back muttered that he'd seen one before and it weren't no good because you couldn't bench with it. Right.
I stood in the middle of the bar and started doing a squat deadlift move with it, stopping and setting up at the bottom of each rep. I also showed them the shrug and high pull with the trap bar. Then I took 'em over to the power rack and put a straight bar in it, with the pins set about two inches below where the bar would be at the completion of a deadlift. Piles on maybe 85% of my max deadlift. Took a clean grip and a conventional stance and just straightened up like finishing a deadlift and pulled my shoulders back. Big deal.
"Coach, how come you're not using a competition grip, and ain't your hands too wide?"
"Because I want you to develop your grip, and the bar isn't heavy enough at this stage to pull out of your hands. You shouldn't have any trouble with that till you get way over what you can max now. This is a short range move. Change your grip when you tart droppin' the bar. Straps later, maybe. The grip's wide because I want to make the movement a little tougher. This is for strength building, not performance.
"I want 4 x 8 with the Trap Bar and 5 x 5 on the power rack. Use as much weight as you can at the top setting. When the reps get easy, lower the pins a notch. When you get to the bottom in a month or so, go back to the original setting and add some weight. When you've finished the rack pulls, go do 3 x 8 with one-hand DB rows. You do these on the same day as the Trap Bar lifts, which are going to build your hip and leg drive."
I told them to squat and bench the other workout day, using high bar squats some days and very wide foot stance squats another. I hauled in a cambered bar from the weight barn behind Teagarden's house near the northside Air Force base for these.
"These 'wide foots' will help your squat and your sumo deadlift. Plus, do a few sets of wide foot placement leg presses both days. Keep your feet on the upper half of the leg press plate. No regular benches at all for a couple months. Instead try close grip benches, thumbs touching the outer pecs, on the incline. Then some flat bench DB presses and finish with one or two sets of bench shrugs. In the fall we'll work in reverse grip benches for a cycle."
"But, Coach, what about triceps work?"
"That's what I just said."
As the months went by, I got to know the young men pretty well and often shared post-workout chow downs and bull sessions. One day we went next door to the deli and tried some of the yuppified Cajun cooking. The big boy eventually located a shrimp in his gumbo.
"Coach, how come everybody's stronger now than in the old days? Is it all drugs?"
I thought about it. It sure isn't nouvelle cuisine. Here's more or less how I replied.
I'm not sure everybody is. For one thing, there is a helluva lot higher percentage of the population training now. The number of people in the heavier classes is expanding. Growth in the size of the population and leisure time are related. Diets and training info are better, and sports medicine and nutrition are becoming a science. Performances in all sports have improved. Drugs and isolated compounds are a factor. But strangely enough, many drug-free records often rival or even exceed those of known drug users.
Today's equipment is superior, although any old-timer knows you can become hellacious with nothing but a barbell and a level surface to put it on. many old-timers' records are still on the books. They didn't have the support gear that lifters now use, the "nutritional" aids or the leisure that so many now seem to have. Don Reinhoudt and Jon Cole squatted over 900 more than two decades ago while wearing wrestling singlets and thin training belts. (Cole also benched 610 and made a 430 Clean & Jerk in that era.) The competitive lifts have changed. Few indeed are now trying to one-hand bent press 275 pounds, back lift 4000, or rack a standing bar of 500 lbs. on to the shoulders for a squats. On the other hand, the bench press is a new lift, historically.
There is a psychological factor as well. I've got a harebrained theory that there were "four minute mile" barriers in weight training. Remember that when the mark was finally passed, all kind of runners did it as well very shortly afterwards? When Hideki Inaba of Japan made the first four times bodyweight lift in competition over 20 years ago, it astonished everybody. Now such lifts are more or less commonplace. Lamar Gant and a very few others have made five times bodyweight lifts in powerlifting.
The theory could be applied to Steve Stanko's breaking of the "unattainable" 1000 lbs. total in weightlifting and Pat Casey being way ahead of his time in the bench press. Maybe the passing of 1000 in the squat and 700 in the bench by a handful of current guys is raising the level for all.
There are men now lifting who have Paul Anderson's 1200-lb. squat in the back of their minds. What women have accomplished and are reaching for is even more mind-boggling. When the impossible is reached, the possible becomes attainable. That's not a bad saying, is it?
One thing more. When I was a kid struggling in the Dallas YMCA with old York sets, watching Sid Henry working toward the National weightlifting title, I'd slap on four wide-rimmed 45-lb. plates with the big flanges (225 lbs.) and tell myself, "that thing ain't as heavy as it looks." But it did look as heavy when viewed from the front as a bar loaded with four 50-kilo plates does today.
Putting on a pair of fives may be "nothin'" to some, but there's a lot of difference between 10 lbs. and 10 kilos. The conversion to kilogram sets is a factor. Putting on a pair of fives now has become what it was long ago. Also, I believe that the advent of the streamlined Olympic barbell plate had a terrific impact on the psychologies of lifters everywhere. Plus, with the thinner plates, the balance of the bar was moved in toward the lifter to his advantage. These factors may have had as much to do with the skyrocketing poundages in recent decades as the proliferation of steroids at the same time. Am I nuts?
Well, yeah, could be.
With ten months to prepare, I set the gang up with three cycles of roughly three months each, allowing for holidays and school exam periods. We'd skip a workout or two if there was any sign of overtraining.
Remember, this is for people who have been training for some time, for a first-time competition well in the future. There is nothing mysterious about cycling. Cycles are begun with higher reps and moderate weights for three or four weeks, a middle period of six to eight weeks with a higher number of sets and lowered reps, and then three to four weeks with sets of two to five reps leading to a max-out day or contest. You then take a short layoff and resume by beginning the program over but adjusting all starting weights to approximately 5-10% higher than those used by begin the previous cycle. Older trainees may find shorter cycles and more frequent layoffs more effective.
If you have no Trap Bar available, a hip belt or Magic Circle or similar apparatus may be used. If these are not available, or you don't want to bother, then add more stiff-leg DL's, and do your leg presses on B Day with several foot positions and/or wide stance squats.
Many will yell at this point that this is too strenuous a program for a ten-week cycle. Hold on a second. If that's what you think, begin the second and third cycles with one or even two weeks of working back up with higher rep sets - and - take an extra day or two between workouts whenever you feel that you are not fully recovered from the last one. There is no rigid days-per-week schedule during the last cycle. I don't believe in excessively organized schedules based on complicated steps. Why? Simply because everyone is different, and most people leading normal lives have trouble sticking to them.
Everybody, please quit trying to set up the perfect training schedule based on a rigid order of so many workouts or increases a week for this of that lift or bodypart. For most people, bench or bench assistance workouts can be performed slightly more than squat sessions, and direct deadlifting less than either. (That last may be a myth of powerlifting: Olympic weightlifters often work the lower back hard two to three times a week.)
It is your ability to recover that determines how often you train. Teens can bounce back faster than 32-year-olds. No two trainees are alike. A big recent trend is to train three days a week: squats - Monday, bench - Wednesday, and deadlift - Friday. Some would add a light bench day on Saturday, and some light leg work to the Friday session. Others, usually older, are squatting heavy as little as every 10 days, with some leg presses, Trap Bar work or high bar squats on DL day. But none of this is carved in stone.
"This shit is getting too complicated."
That is a direct quote from two-time world champion Ausby Alexander during a discussion of training methods in my apartment in Tochigi following his guest appearance at the Japan Men's National in 1991. Ausby is gentle-spoken for a Marine Gunnery Sergeant, but his frustration with conflicting and complicated training theories is understandable. I'm with Ausby.
The powerlifting routine used by more people over the years than any other is a twice-a-week program calling for heavy squats and bench and maybe some rows one day, deadlift or DL assistance, light chest and light leg the other. "Light" means moderate weight on the lifts or assistance work, that is, 8 to 12 reps. "Heavy" is roughly 4 to 6. It shouldn't be complicated.
Three workouts per week. Alternate workouts. All sets and reps listed are suggestions, not holy writ.
Day A -
1. High bar squat. 3-4 x 10-15 reps.
2. Leg press. 2 x 15-20.
3. Close grip incline bench press. 3 x 8-10.
4. Flat bench dumbbell press. 3 x 8-10.
5. Bench shrug. 1-2 x 8.
Day B -
1. High pull off floor. 4 x 5 reps.
2. Kelso shrug/incline. 3 x 8.
3. Pulldowns/Chins. 3 x 8-10.
4. Stiff-leg deadlift. 1-2 x 10-12.
5. Tinkering: curls, calves.
Fifth week: Go for triples in the competition lifts. Take a break.
Tenth week: Max out lifts. Take a break.
If you are a sumo-style deadlifter, you may want to use that style for a few warm-up sets throughout the first two cycles.
Two days a week. First five weeks:
Day A -
1. Bench press. 5 x 5 or 6 x 4 reps.
2. Reverse grip, or close grip bench press. 2 x 8.
3. Squat. 5 x 5, of 6 x 4 (squat starts in rack).
4. Leg press. 2 x 15-20.
Day B -
Trap Bar leg lifts. 4 x 8.
2. Partial pulls in rack. 5 x 5.
3. One-dumbbell row. 3 x 8.
4. Tinkering: curls, calves.
Fifth week: Go for triples in the lifts. Take a break.
Second five weeks: first week, high reps, moderate weights, then:
Day A -
1. Squat. Same.
2. Squats starts or box squats. Same.
3. "Touch 'n go" bench press warm-ups. 2 x 8.
4. Bench starts in rack. 3 x 5; lock-outs or pin pushes: 3 x 3.
Day B -
1. Trap Bar lift off block. 4 x 8u.
2. Partial pulls. 5 x 5.
3. Heavy rows or pulldowns. 3 x 8.
4. Tinkering: curls, calves.
Tenth week: Max out lifts. Take a break.
* Simplify - emphasize moves to competition form and performance.
* Go to competition style in all lifts.
* Fewer assistance sets and less "tinkering".
* Drop the reps on the three lifts and increase the number of sets.
* Begin with schemes of 6 x 4 reps one day and 3 x 6 for top weights the other, working the reps down to threes and fives over the length of the cycle.
You might try a workout at the third and sixth week marks with a weight equal to a tough triple, and do multiple single attempts with it. This is a confidence builder and trains your groove with more of less "opening attempt" poundages.
Remember, the more days per week called for and the more complex the routine, the less likely you'll be able to stick to it, and the more likely it is to have been designed by and for drug users. Yes, that remark will infuriate a lot of people. Sorry about that. Some drug-free lifters are known to train five days a week, but with very short sessions. But how many days a week anybody trains any lift or body part should be dependent only on recovery ability.
During the second cycle I utilized the power rack even more. Too often this great strength builder is used only as a squat rack. Far too many "instructors" in gyms haven't a clue how to use it. Sometimes you walk in and the locker attendant has towels drying on it.
I set the pins for the squat low so that the boys had to assume the deep position, thighs at parallel or a hair higher, to begin the lift. I noticed the gym owner was watching again. He stayed longer this time, grunting his way through a cigar.
I showed 'em that after standing erect, the bar is lowered onto the pins so that the weight is off the lifter briefly between reps. The same method is true for the bench; the pins were set so the bar was just off the chest on full inhale. If no power rack is available, this technique can be done with an extended pause in the bottom position in either movement. Start light, of course.
Other common uses for the power rack that we worked in were short lockout movements, and setting one pair of pins above the starting position so the movement could not be locked out. The trainee pushes against the pins for a count of five to ten and then lowers the bar down to the starting pins. All power rack training is tough, and I'd suggest that these exercises not be done more than once a week and then for only six to eight weeks several times a year unless you are a very advanced specimen.
The final cycle was also simple and more or less standard. I'll into more detail in the last chapter (of Powerlifting Basics, Texas Style), but it was primarily a rep scheme of five's and three's using contest style. I insisted on proper form throughout the ten months, pauses at the chest on first reps on the bench, and speed emphasis on the lifts through the first two cycles. On deadlift days we'd use sumo style for warm-up sets, just to practice form. We maxed out all lifts at the end of each cycle.
Toward the end of the last two cycles we had a single workout where we loaded our estimated opening attempts for each lift and tried to do five perfect singles with it.
I've been hearing a lot about "modern Bulgarian training methods" recently. Well, it isn't, and they ain't. Guys were doing 10 singles with a constant load for weightlifting training back in the thirties. Sticking with a weight for a high number of low-rep sets has been around and was revived in the sixties on the West Coast as "California sets," mostly using a high percentage of max singles in the 85-90% range.
Doing several heavy low-rep sets of a given lift every day, or even spaced out through the day two or three times is not new. Paul Anderson is known to have done this. It is interesting to watch some old routines coming around again, although they are sometimes claimed as new. Old-timers familiar with
Rader or McCallum may have tried doing a set of six to ten reps of curls and tricep work every hour or two - while glugging protein shakes - in hopes of adding a permanent half inch to their arms in a few days. I've done this myself with good results. (Many articles appeared over the years about this idea, always working the arms. Why not other body parts? Seems logical.)
A very recent development called "evolution training" calls for seven to eight short workouts a week with heavy doubles and singles on any given lift, arranged in an exotic scheme based on percentages. the idea is that this type of training might work well for many actually seems likely to me, but it tempered by the stone-cold fact that few are likely to get the chance to train this way unless on vacation, independently wealthy or riding a government subsidy.
Ed Coan, perhaps the dominant powerlifter of our time, has advocated long cycles of 5 x 5 and 8 x 3 constant weight rep schemes. I do not recommend this for anybody who has not been training consistently for several years unless he starts down around 60% and builds up. A slight problem is that many commercial gym owners hate this type of routine because it ties up equipment for long periods of time and discourages the less advanced.
When the contest week finally rolled around and we were loading gear into my van, the gym owner eased up to me and pressed fifty bucks in small bills into my hand.
"Thought you could use this," he growled, and shambled next door to the deli.
We spent the money on post-meet groceries. The boys came home with a couple of trophies, Class II and III rankings and big ambitions. All their lifts had gone up by 50-70 pounds since Day One. The big boy won his class by five pounds with his last deadlift. The gym owner took me to coffee.
Tried to sell me the gym.
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