Experiments in Strength Training Minimalism Part 3
Doing fewer things better…How little can a man do and still obtain optimal results?
Our Sunday morning Iron Church training group has swollen to a dozen lifters, all at different levels. How can lifters at different levels train together? We create a collective game plan, a training template that all can follow. What varies, lifter to lifter, is the payload. While we all do the same barbell exercise at the same time in the same way, one after another, what varies is the poundage.
What is the session template? Barbell squat, barbell bench press, barbell deadlift, in that order once a week. Then some arm training. Done. We use the “group collective” power format: training partners gather together and train together, all working towards the same goal, the same competition, using the identical workout template. One after another, each man strides to the weightlifting platform and performs while his brother weightlifters watch and critique.
Every man had a game plan customized to the specifics of his situation. They all have current “personal best efforts” in the three competitive lifts. And not just single rep best efforts, each man can tell you his current best effort in the 5-rep set, the triple, their best 8 and 10 rep set; they can tell you their current best effort in the bench press and squat, done with a pause and without a pause…there are many different types and kinds of currentpersonal best efforts. It is critical to establish concrete benchmarks; then continually seek to better those benchmarks. We don’t care about what you did six years ago, the present goal is to improve on your current best efforts.
The collective session starts at 9 am when the Olympic barbell is loaded to 95-pounds for squats. Anyone wanting 95-pounds as their first warmup goes. The barbell is increased to 135-pounds…then 165…195…225…255…285…315…345…385…415…445…495…555... Barbell squats are now officially over: repeat on the bench press and then repeat on the deadlift. When everyone is done all three lifts the session is officially over. Most hang around and do arm work for a bit.
I was recently asked to speak to a group of powerlifters that trained at a very nice suburban fitness establishment. The group was an earnest bunch, mixed genders and ages, perhaps twenty in attendance, none appeared elite and a quite a few looked like beginners. After the talk, the group broke up to train. All twenty began training individually, by themselves.
I asked what was going on and it was explained that, “Each individual starts from a different place and has a different destination; ergo they all have totally different exercise prescriptions.” Wow, that was well thought out and well stated and logical and sensible. “So, how’s that working out?” I asked. Apparently not to good.
As I studied the lifters, I noted that no two squatted, bench pressed or deadlifted alike. None of them came close to replicating our pristine power techniques, passed down from world champion lifters. One lifter explained to me, “We all have different programs because we’re all different.” I loved that. It was like a bumper sticker for PETA.
I looked at the training schedule for one of the participants, it would kill a rhino if done with the requisite gusto. The athlete, a 45-year old overweight housewife entering her first powerlift competition, would be performing seven different exercises for a total of 30 sets. She trained this way three times a week, each session with similar volume. She was weak as a kitten with terrible technique and was doing reverse hyperextensions and power cleans to prepare for her first powerlifting competition.
None of the menfolk were capable of a 400-pound deadlift and their pull techniques were spinal injuries waiting to happen. The training session was a study of frantic energy, a visual mad house. The good-natured coach wandered around offering good natured advice and tips. I winced at the really bad squat and deadlift techniques that no one noticed or cared about.
As an athletic young girl attempted to triple 220 in the barbell back squat, I leapt up and hustled to back spot her. She barely locked out the 3rdrep. She was so unused to being spotted that after the set she looked at me quizzically, as if I were a sex weirdo. I had taken two of my boys with me and they looked at me and grinned maniacally: they knew these horrific techniques were causing my head to explode. The way in which this “power-training session” was conducted was the exact opposite of everything we believe and practice.
By way of comparison, our Sunday sessions are experiments in the collective. We are tribal and perform in front of one another and hold each other accountable. Everyone in our training orbit is physically transforming as a direct result of improving their performance in the three powerlifts. What lifters have discovered is that by getting really, really good at squatting, bench pressing and deadlifting they coincidentally and unintentionally grow huge, powerful muscles. This is an unintended consequence, a side benefit, that come naturally when you significantly improve your poundage handling ability in the three lifts.
A rising strength tide lifts all boats. Minimalism is alive and well and thriving; power training done right sweeps away all the confusion and dissolves the curse of too many choices. What makes the minimalism work is the sheer physical effort required. This is serious freaking business so don’t show up and jump into the power lineup unless you are ready to push or pull your guts out – and we’ll know.
And if you are pushing and pulling your guts out and using our template and using our techniques (that will keep you safe,) you can participate, be you elite or be you average. If you hang, you gain, simple as that. That’s why they’re beating down the doors. This approach works. How little can you do and still obtain optimal results? In a world where time is at a premium, a man can train once a week and make unbelievable gains. We know this for a fact.
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.