Curse Of Too Many Choices
“He purposefully limited himself, he closed in his possibilities”
A mile wide and inch deep versus an inch wide and mile deep
Standing on the shoulders of Giants: Marcus and mentor Miles Davis. The mature artist pares back, leaves space, gets more from less, does fewer things better. Economy and sparseness are the highest evolution of the mature artist.
I watched an excellent documentary on Marcus Miller. Best known as one of the planet’s premier bass players, Miller is a film and jazz composer, record producer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and force of nature. Marcus was born in Brooklyn, Jamacia Queens, in 1959 and raised in a musical family. His father, William Miller, was a church organist and choir director. Marcus’ uncle is jazz bop-pianist legend Wynton Kelly. He was immersed in music from birth. Check out his credentials,
Starting at age 17, Marcus spent 15 years as a premier session musician. He co-wrote Aretha Franklin's "Jump to It" and has played bass on over 500 recordings. Appearing on albums by Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Herbie Hancock, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, The Crusaders, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Frank Sinatra, George Benson, Dr. John, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Joe Walsh, Chaka Khan, LL Cool J and Flavio Sala. Between 1988 and 1990 he was a musical director and house band bass player in the Sunday Night Band. Marcus co-wrote and produced several songs on the Miles Davis album Tutu, including the title track. He co-wrote "'Till My Baby Comes Home", "It's Over Now", "For You to Love", and "Power of Love" for Luther Vandross.
Marcus recalled an eye-opening experience he had in the mid-1970s when he had a private practice session with Jaco Pastorius, the Jimi Hendrix of the bass. Marcus was shocked when Jaco related that he purposefully did not use all the technology at his disposal; he eliminated half the electronic possibilities on purpose.
Marcus related, “There are two pickups (microphones) on Jaco’s fretless Fender Jazz bass. Jaco only used the back pickup. This made his sound, his tone, more nasal, thin – but it increased his clarity and forced him to be more creative, more nimble, more tonally aware. Jaco limited himself. He closed in his possibilities.”
Jaco was a purposeful primitive. He was doing fewer things better. By eliminating half the possibilities, he compressed the technical components he needed to master. Fewer choices forced him to be more innovative with what was left. Marcus explained that Jaco refused to be seduced by the curse of too many choices. Counterintuitively, he purposefully limited his choices. Rather than expand his choices, he reduced them.
Later Marcus noted that his ultimate mentor, Miles Davis, did much the same thing in a different way. “When Miles first came onto the scene, he wanted to play like Dizzy Gillespie, fast and high. The more Miles matured, the fewer notes he played.” And the more effective and profound those perfectly selected notes were, they impacted like thunderbolts.
The Japanese revere artistic restraint. The use of space and openness in Japanese architecture and flower arranging is considered the highest form of the art. What is the irreducible artistic core essence? How much can be removed without losing effectiveness? What is the nucleus of the artistic atom? Artistic minimalism in the hands of a true master is nothing short of profound.
There are parallels in hardcore power training. Elite strength athletes, IPF world powerlifting champions, have their own version of closing in the possibilities, their own way of narrowing the choices, they too do fewer things better. Strength minimalism in the hands of a true master is nothing short of profound.
Our particular arena of strength expertise is absolute strength, which includes isometric and isotonic strength. Strength has three generalized types: absolute strength, explosive strength, and sustained strength. Our forte is the acquisition of absolute strength, i.e., raw brute power, size, lean muscle mass, low-end torque and power.
In the beginning, it was all about progressive resistance maximalism. Up until and through the 1950s, hardcore strength athletes trained with free weights three times weekly in the mistaken belief that unless a weight trained muscle was retrained every 36-hours that muscle would regress, gains would slip through your fingers. This was the settled science of the era and no other viewpoint was considered or allowed. Any dissent was viewed as heretical and “flying in the face of (faux) science.”
Blood on the gym floor: Hugh "Huge" Cassidy (above) did not suffer fools lightly. I apprenticed under him for five years. Cassidy bench-pressed 570 raw, done with a 2-second pause on the chest. Hugh was the 5th man in history to squat 800 (done raw, no belt or wraps.)
This changed when powerlifting became a competitive sport in 1964. My mentor, my Miles Davis, Hugh “Huge” Cassidy was one of the early power pioneers. Hugh was the first superheavyweight powerlifting world champion. Hugh took the heretical step of reducing his thrice weekly power-training sessions to twice a week.
Reality forced change. Hugh followed where progress led. He was a biological scientist that used his own body as his laboratory. When these early power pioneers began barbell bench pressing 450-500-pounds for reps, squatting and deadlifting 700-pounds for reps, they were unable to recover in time for the next session. While a man squatting 200-pounds for reps might be able to squat thrice weekly, ask the man repping 600.
These men discovered that by cutting back, by training twice weekly, progress skyrocketed. Even so, blasting away, balls out, twice weekly, still pushed the limits of human tolerance: that which does not kill me makes me stronger.
For five years I engaged in twice weekly slaughter-fests in the Vulcan forge that was Cassidy’s dank basement gym. To cope, we slammed calories, this to create food-induced anabolism. After a Cassidy workout, our bodies were shattered, traumatized and without copious calories recovery was impossible. Rest was the final piece to the muscle and power equation.
We were young men seeking to forcibly morph ourselves from human into inhuman, from good into great, from large into gargantuan. Cassidy did not mess around, he trained national and world champions. In each session we did squats, bench press, deadlift, overhead press and arms work. You got your facts learned and if you could survive you grew massive and doubled your strength.
To accelerate recovery, we ate like ravenous wolves or sumo wrestlers. We loved sleep and slept like hibernating bears. After a Cassidy training session, we would hit a buffet en masse, like a plague of locust, consume 7,000 calories and fall into a catatonic sleep stupor. We grew while we slept in that blissful state of suspended animation. Even so, we could barely cope with trauma of twice-a-week power training.
The second wave of power champions arrived in the 1980s. These men slashed twice-a-week power training to once a week for each lift. The new breed was squatting and deadlifting 800 + for reps and bench pressing 550 + raw. They found there was no way that they could handle that level of poundage twice a week, no matter how much food the ate and regardless of how much sleep they got.
The squat and deadlift use many of the same muscles: erectors, abs, upper thighs, glutes, hamstrings, et. al. Twice weekly power training, i.e., training the squat twice a week and training the deadlift twice a week meant pounding the same muscles four times weekly, i.e., two squat sessions per week, two deadlift sessions per week. If a man was repping 600 to 800 pounds in his squats and deadlifts, blasting the same muscles four times a week proved impossible. It was counterproductive, potentially injurious and totally unnecessary.
World champion and world record holder Doug Furnas explained the evolution (Furnas squatted 900 for 5 reps at his awesome peak.) “In high school and college, we weight trained three time a week. We were smaller and weaker. When we began training under world champion Dennis Wright, he had us squatting twice a week, heavy. We got too strong and were not recovering session to session.”
“The breakthrough occurred when we dialed it back: at first we tried to compromise. Instead of two heavy squat days, now we would now have a heavy day and light day. After a while, we figured out that the light day wasn’t doing a damned thing, other than cutting into our recuperation. We said to hell with the light day. That’s when our progress exploded.”
The uber-elite power men of that era, Furnas, Coan, Karwoski, Cash, began training each lift one time a week and setting world records that stand to this day. It was the birth of strength uber-minimalism. These men believed in the rested effort and in doing fewer things better and doing them less often.
The power giants narrowed their possibilities; they began doing fewer things better, lifting heavier, more precisely and less often. They allowed for space between sessions. They pared back and reduced until they were left with the core essence of a system, the greatest system of absolute strength ever devised, the most credentialed and battle-tested strength strategy in history.
Consider purposefully narrowing your training possibilities. In our age of the Delphic oracle called Google, humanity is afflicted with curse of too many choices. We have become a species of surface skimmers, flittering from one fragrant flower to the next, deluded hobby-est. Are you a mile wide and an inch deep? Marcus, Miles, Jaco, Cassidy and Furnas are an inch wide and a mile deep. If you are a serious resistance trainer, rip a page from Jaco’s book and purposefully narrow your scope of training possibilities. Do less more intensely.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.