Desperately Seeking Struggle: An Ode to Old School

Desperately Seeking Struggle: An Ode to Old School

A picture is worth a thousand words.  This picture of Franco Columbu training by himself, shirtless, outside in the sun, casually repping a 405 lb. barbell with no spotters, weighing a ripped 185-pounds, caused me to grow nostalgic for those ancient days of yore, what I call the era of iron purity. Back in the day, it was a man and a barbell. The barest of equipment. With the requisite grit, gumption, tenacity and bullheadedness, a man with a barbell would morph himself from man into Superman.  Just like Franco did.

The resistance machine revolution occurred in the early 1970s.  Universal introduced their 12-station device that began appearing in YMCA weight rooms nationwide. The resistance machine floodgates opened with the bogus “Nautilus Revolution.” Machine training, we were told, was every bit as good, if not better, than those clumsy, dangerous, antiquated barbells.

It turns out that the results derived from resistance training machines were (and are) decidedly inferior to results derived from the awkward barbell movements the machines mimicked. By eliminating the 3rd dimension of tension, the need to control side-to-side movement, machines allow muscle stabilizers to stay (relatively) inert while pushing or pulling. This lack of muscle stabilizer activation reduces results.

In our day and age, resistance machines are everywhere and dominate the scene. If you don’t have a flock of expensive, complex, glitzy resistance machines, to match an armada of ornate cardio devices, don’t bother opening a fitness facility. No one will come. Civilians want to be able to sit down, or better yet, lie down while “training.” If results were equal, who wouldn’t prefer to use a plush machine as opposed to some gruesome barbell exercise? The dirty little secret of fitness is results are not equal. Not even close. Barbell results blow machine results into the weeds.

A lot of people take jabs at CrossFit, yet the CrossFit barebones concept has revitalized barbell training making it hip to do back squats, front squats, cleans, overhead squats, power cleans – all are practiced on a regularly reoccurring basis within the CrossFit methodology. All praise to CrossFit for singlehandedly revitalizing and popularizing Old School barbell training.

Pure barbell training is also successfully practiced in prisons. The lack of strength equipment in a prison turns out to be an actual advantage as prisoners nationwide are obtaining incredible gains in muscle size and power, this a direct result of being forced to do fewer things better: barebones equipment, a barbell, some mismatched weight plates, a weight bench, squat racks, a pull up bar and maybe a dip bar. More often than not, regardless the weather, the training is done outside in the elements. Prisoners make incredible gains in size and strength because of, not despite, their lack of gym equipment.

Barbell training, done right, is raw and primal, brutal stuff. And it is that very brutality that is responsible for its effectiveness. Deprived prisoners routinely outstrip the gains obtained by elite personal trainers plying their trade on high paying clients. Prison gains in muscle and strength are even more miraculous when you factor in that prisoners have the worst possible nutrition. Which gives rise to the notation that perhaps our emphasis on sophisticated nutrition might be an overemphasis.

Franco’s photo exemplifies the best of Old School barbell minimalism; a philosophy of strength that says “let us strive to do fewer things better, let us execute a limited number of core exercises, low to moderate rep sets, using super strict techniques, no supportive gear, full range of motion movements, hardcore barbell exercises used to near exclusion. Over time, let’s get super strong in these pristine exercises. Do so and become bull strong – become bull strong and build massive muscles. Strength begets size.

Note that despite the Olympic bar being loaded to 405-pounds, Franco is truly casual about the whole thing. He wears no shirt, he has had no one to lift off or spot him; he is not even dug in, he is perched high on his toes, lightly balanced. His upper torso is arched, his spine bowed back. His grip width is wide, and his torso bridged. He uses a motor-pathway that focuses all the muscular effort on the pectorals. In about this same time, Franco bench pressed 525-pounds, using this same up-on-the-toes, ultra-strict technique. He exceeded the world record in the 181-pound class at the time.

What are the lessons to be learned by the modern trainee? Master the Old School barbell exercises. Bench presses need be paused, squats taken deep, deadlifts done right, rows strict, power cleans explosive, overhead presses locked out hard. Poundage is always secondary to technique. Franco casually reps 405 because when your max is 525, 405 is “only” 77% of your max. A man with a 250-pound bench press would need only rep 190-pounds to replicate Franco’s 77%.

We live in an era where everyone knows everything. This is a blessing and a curse. Knowledge is wonderful thing, however too much of a good thing is a bad thing that leads to paralysis through over-analysis. Beware the curse of too many choices. In the end, success in progressive resistance training, is not so much what you do as it is how hard you do it. The key to actualizing results, insofar as building new muscle and dramatically increasing strength and power lies in your ability to attain training intensities sufficient to trigger hypertrophy.

In the end, successful progressive resistance training requires struggle. Real struggle, intense, prolonged and protracted struggle. If a man repeatedly struggles, over time he remakes and remolds the body. Truly herculean struggle is profoundly transformative. Seek out struggle. Gurus and devices try and take the struggle out of resistance training. How ironic, let’s take the resistance out of resistance training, let’s make resistance training less resistant, we’ll make it easier. Barbell training, done Old School style, is all about making resistance training harder, not easier.

The iron elite find ways to amplify the struggle and ergo, amplify the results. There is an irrefutable relationship between the degree of effort generated and depth and degree of hypertrophy induced. Don’t slip or slide through sticking points, seek out sticking points like a heat seeking missile, embrace sticking points. This is the way of the champion.

We forge the human body, forcibly morphing it, we repeatedly “traumatize” the body in capacity-equaling or capacity-exceeding workouts. The athlete stresses the body to such a degree that new muscle is created as a defense mechanism. Strength increases are concurrent with muscle size increases. The body is biologically forged – and as J.P. Brice would be quick to add – the forging must be done with passion – i.e. real enthusiasm for the process. Enthusiasm is born out of factual, actual, measurable results. We seek improvement in physique or performance for our sustained and diligent efforts.

Simplify your strength training: train like a convict; purposefully limit yourself to the core barbell exercises. There majority of barbell exercise are done standing on your feet: squats, deadlifts, curls, cleans, overhead presses, standing overhead triceps, front raises…throw in some bench presses, chins and dips. Strength train twice a week. Here would be a two-day power split.

Day 1  Squat, bench press, lying tricep extensions super-setted with standing barbell curls

Day 2 Deadlift, power clean, overhead barbell press, post curls, overhead tricep extensions

  • Work up to a single top set in each lift: 5-rep sets; 8-10 reps on curls and triceps
  • Each week seek to add poundage or reps

This is a classical, minimalistic hardcore barbell strength training program. Each successive week limits and capacities are equaled or exceeded in some way. These workouts should be completed in less than one hour. Simplify your training while amplifying your intensity. There are many ways in which to equal or exceed capacity. Our ode to Old School suggests that less can be more if less is way more intense.

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 numerous 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.