Experiments in Strength Training Minimalism Part 2
How little can a man do and still obtain optimal results?
Here is a profound athletic statement you have likely never heard: dramatic muscle and strength gains can be realized by strength training once a week. Better still, not only can fabulous results be had training once a week, for average athletes the total length of time for their once-a-week strength session will be less than one hour. Once a week, one-hour, incredible strength and muscle gains: sound too good to be true?
The flip side of this profundity is that this ultimate in strength minimalism can only succeed by exerting maximally. To make strength minimalism work requires herculean effort. The spark that ignites hypertrophy gains and performance gains are limit-equaling or limit-exceeding exertions. Nothing less is sufficient.
There is a long and successful history of elite athletes that have used this once-weekly template to set world records and win championships. Most have trained this way out of necessity, due to circumstance and a lack of available training time. Those that were forced to cut back, pare down and reduce the number of exercises done, the number of sets done, the duration and frequency made a startling discovery: they improved.
The first order of business is to radically reduce the size of the exercise menu. Whereas an elite bodybuilder will typically perform four exercises per body part, the minimalistic power trainer spends 95% of available training time training the three lifts; working up to one top set, once a week. The total number of sets per workout is dependent on the strength (or weakness) of the trainee. Strong men need more warm-up sets to get to their “all out top set” whereas normal people might only require a preliminary set or two or three.
Between them, the three powerlifts, the barbell squat, bench press and deadlift, work every muscle on the human body. Isolation exercises purposefully zero in on a lone muscle, excluding its muscular neighbor. In contrast, the squat, bench press and deadlift, work many muscles at the same time.
- The bench press activates pectorals, deltoids, triceps and lats (activated by the lowering)
- Squats stimulate all four heads of the quadricep, plus glutes, hams, erectors, abs and calves
- Deadlifts hit erectors, upper and lower lats, abs, upper thighs, rhomboids, teres and traps
To dig the deepest possible muscular inroad, the trainee need exert maximally while performing these three compound multi-joint prime movers. The depth and degree of the inroad can be amplified by using a full and complete range of motion. Elite lifters couple a full ROM with pristine exercise techniques.
The time-pressed power trainer can train all three powerlifts on a single day, in a single session, then rest the traumatized muscles for the next six days. Go and live you harried lives. See you next week when your shattered body is fully recovered. How can a man train just once a week and make gains? Each successive week for ten to twelve consecutive weeks, the athlete attains preprogrammed top sets in each of the three exercises. Small incremental increases attained on a weekly basis create physiologic momentum.
The trainee commences the “power cycle” 10% below capacity and stairstep upwards so that at the end of the cycle they are 2-5% above current capacities. This approach creates “slingshot” momentum. Elite lifters are so realistic in their self-assessments that they routinely make every targeted top set each successive week for three straight months.
In 1987 circumstance forced me to train once a week or not train at all. I was ramrodding a steel warehouse in Milford, Connecticut and had to work from dawn to dark, six days a week. I had Sunday to train. That was it. I was a national level lifter and dubious about the benefits of training once a week. At best, I felt once weekly training would retain or maintain what I already had.
I had a chance encounter at a local bar with a local superheavyweight powerlifter. I was new to the area and Dino put me in touch with power grand master Kenny Fantano. For various reasons, Ken and his boys did all three lifts on Sunday. The invitees were elite weightlifters and had blue collar manual labor jobs Monday through Friday. They’d rest up Saturday and lift fresh on Sunday. On Sunday Ken closed the gym to the public. That’s when Kenny trained. He did not want to be distracted by gym members when training.
Sunday was on an invite-only basis. A half-dozen national level lifters, including three international level guys. Ken, 420-pound Gene Donat, and the talented, mercurial Danny D’Arrico. All three men were 600-pound raw benchers and 900 + below parallel squatters. The only time the crew could all gather was on Sunday so that’s when all three powerlifts were done. I was thrilled to fall in with this group of pros. We did all three barbell lifts in one marathon session and everybody got better.
After we had worked through barbell squats, benches and deadlifts, they’d do another hour of “assistance work,” mostly arms. That was all the training I did for the entire week. After twelve weeks of training once per week I won the Connecticut State championships squatting 660 and deadlifting 680 weighing 220. I was beyond thrilled. I hadn’t lifted in a year and a half and hadn’t lifted competitively since my leg injury in 1983.
Fast forward to 2018 and a bunch of regular dudes gather together at Don “Bubbles’ Berry’s country gym at the base of the Catoctin Mountains every Sunday to replicate those result-producing marathon squat/bench press/deadlift sessions done at Ken’s decades ago. Only these aren’t elite athletes, these are regular guys expropriating elite tactics. How is it working? Completely successful on every level.
At a power competition this past weekend seven of our lifters entered. Out of 58 total attempts, 55 were completed. Because we are forced to train as we do, actual power competitions for our crew are easy. Most powerlifter’s performance in the gym routinely exceeds what they do in competition – and for good reason – our lifters always do better in actual competitions – for equally good reasons.
The classical strength training template has the lifter place squats and deadlifts at opposite ends of the training week. The two lifts work many of the same muscles, i.e. upper thighs, erectors, abs and hamstrings. To maximize training session performance, these two lifts are done on different days with rest days in between. Those that are forced to squat and deadlift in the same session understand that the deadlift, always done second, always suffers. The second position deadlift is prefatigued.
Meanwhile, the deprived, men that can only lift once weekly are forced to deadlift after squatting. The way they train is ideal for competing. True, deads done after squats will always suffer; but our guys deadlifts don’t suffer at all in competition, they improve! Remember that the regular squat/bench/deadlift marathon is done in roughly 60-90-minutes. A power competition takes five hours.
When the deadlifts in a competition roll around, those that squat and dead on different days are dying. Their backs are fried from their bend-forward squat styles and now they must deadlift maximally on cooked back and leg muscles. Our guys, on the other hand, are fresh and electrified. We make our guys squat so deep in training that when they come to a competition and “only” have to squat down to 1-inch below parallel, the squats seem “easy” by comparison.
Our lifters routinely must deadlift (in training) within 40-minutes of squatting. Here at the competition they have hours between squats and deadlifts. Our guys have time to rest and recover and they thrive, everybody else wilts. While those that train the lifts on different days were losing 10% off their best session deadlifts, our guys were improving their best training deadlifts by 10%. “Marty’s robots” as Chuck described them, all had identical techniques and made attempt after attempt. Personal records fell right and left.
Muscle, power and strength are being added on a regular and routine basis using this most elemental of templates. If you are a harried American with no time to train, give once-a-week power training a test-run. Pristine techniques and full ROM will keep you safe. Use creeping incrementalism to sneak up on the goal: think tactically, a 12-week periodization cycle is a process, not an event. We make haste slowly – yet inexorably. Effort makes minimalism work.
Make sure to check out Marty Gallagher's latest books, Strong Medicine and The Purposeful Primitive, that are packed with a rich history of the sport of powerlifting and its founding fathers including proven, no-nonsense methods and "old school" knowledge for gaining strength, muscle and becoming leaner.
*Cover image credit: Six time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates @thedorianyates
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.