Instantaneous muscular strength, roll-out-of-bed strength, how to benchmark it, how to improve it

George Hechter weighed 360-pounds when he won the national title and became the 4th man in history to total 2,400-pounds. George squatted 960, bench pressed 600 and deadlifted 840. He disappeared from the scene only to return two years later weighing a herculean 240-pounds. He squatted 880, bench pressed 550 and deadlifted 845, more than as a super. As Marshall Peck noted about George’s incredible transformation, “Even his head shrunk!” Note George’s perfect “Maryland Style” deadlift technique in photo above on the right: narrow foot stance toed out, vertical shins, vertical torso, shoulders over the bar and in perfect position to push the hips forward to finish the pull. Muscular strength personified! BTW, I wrote the cover article ‘The amazing transformation of George Hechter’ for PLUSA magazine in 1987.

I hit on a concept a decade or two ago that I labeled, ‘roll-out-of-bed muscular strength.’ The idea was this: if you were a military conscript and a drill instructor flipped on the lights in the barracks at 4 am and you were forced to roll out of bed and do as much as you could, a max set, in the barbell squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press or power clean, no warm-ups, what could you lift? What percentage of your 100% regular max could you do without hurting yourself and without any warmup?

A lot less than if allowed to warm-up, no doubt. And that’s okay. No one can equal their best without adequate warmup attempts. No one is asking you to injure yourself, no one is expecting you to come anywhere near your best. Having said all that, what % of your max do you have available instantaneously? No doubt you have no idea: you should.

For example, right now, as I am writing this, without warmup I could squat 300, deadlift 400, bench 250 and overhead press 170-pounds at my current bodyweight of 200.  Not that those numbers are supposed to impress, simply a realistic indicator of what I would be capable of “cold.”

Since I am an experienced Iron Man, I retain a higher percentage of my 100% muscular strength than a beginning or intermediate trainee. I probably have access to 75% of my all-out strength available without warmup whereas a beginner would be hard pressed to equal 50% of their max. Think of this expression of muscular strength as ‘instantaneous strength.’ How much maximum power can you generate at the drop of a hat?

Instantaneous muscular strength can also be expressed using reps. I have a collection of dumbbells arranged neatly on my outdoor redwood deck: from 20's to 100's, and everything in between. One strategy I use continually is every time I go out on the deck, I rep out on something. One single set, as many as you can. Push or pull until you cannot squeeze out another rep. I keep my reps to 10 or less.

It is easy to rep out with dumbbells. Pick an exercise, regardless the poundage, push or pull whatever dumbbells you’ve selected in whatever exercise you’ve selected until you cannot push or pull another rep: you are done, you’ve done your iron duty – you’ve given all you have in that instant in time. What else can you do? You’ve given 100% (or more.) Now get on with the rest of your life.

My favorite “one-and-done” no-warmup exercise is the dumbbell clean and press. I pick a poundage and stay with it for a while, i.e. I “jumped in” with a pair of 60's and for weeks on end, every time I happen by the dumbbells, I stopped, cleaned the 60's, and pressed them until I could not complete another rep. I note what I did, I mentally log it and move on. I might stay with 60's for a month, steadily seeking to push the cold reps up.

I use the same one-and-done procedure with standing dumbbell curls, overhead tricep extensions (lone dumbbell,) single and double dumbbell row, power cleans with dumbbells and the fearsome goblet squat. I often take a break from my daily morning writing session to wander out onto the deck and rep out on something to clear my clogged brain.

This is particularly bracing on a February morning, 12-degrees with a wind stiff enough to bring our collection of windchimes to life.  Periodically I must break the bells free from being frozen to the deck before cleaning them. I kick at the ice from the deck to create a non-slip surface. Trust me, after a one-and-done set, my clogged brain has forgotten what it was clogged over.

Over time you become tuned in to your “cold” strength levels. I believe it took me four or five weeks to move my no-warmup dumbbell press from my jump-in weight of 60's for five to 60's for 10. Then onto 65's for 5. It took two months push 65's to 10. Then onto 70's for 6 and eventually 70's for 10.

This type of muscular strength, this measure of strength has tremendous appeal for the active duty Spec Ops fighters we work with on a regularly reoccurring basis. These men love the idea of instant strength and further, how to raise their instantaneous strength levels. As a senior commando squadron leader once told me, “We don’t have the luxury of warming-up or stretching-out when we get into a run-and-gun shoot-out.”

I was introduced to this concept of instant muscular strength 30 years ago. I was coaching at a powerlifting competition and during a break in the competition (after the completion of the squats) I was walking behind the superheavyweight national powerlifting champion, George Hechter. Neither of us were lifting. We were at the competition helping lifters that were our friends and training partners.

George was weighing 360-pounds standing 5-11. He was capable of a 1,000-pound squat. I had seen him squat 960 at the Potomac Open a few weeks earlier. The weight was ridiculously easy, as if the barbell was filled with helium. I was following in his 360-pound wake as we made our way towards the exit doors. Our path took us next to the weightlifting platforms set up backstage for warming up.

The squat phase of the competition had just ended and on each weightlifting platform the barbells were still loaded to the final warm-up weights. One power bar was still loaded to 505 for squats. George was dressed in jeans, he had on gym sneakers and a shirt with a collar. He suddenly veered to the right and walked onto one of the weightlifting platforms.

He stepped under a barbell loaded to 505 and without any prelim took it out of the racks, stepped back, set up and did five quick deep reps. He manhandled the 505 the way I treated 135. I stopped to watch. He replaced the barbell and resumed his walk to the parking lot. He wasn’t fazed in the slightest; he was no more gassed than I would be after a 135 x 5 set of squats.

“George – we could have spotted you! That was kinda dangerous.”

He looked at me and laughed derisively, “God Lord Marty, it was only 500!” And off he went. I got to thinking about this: at the time, 500-pounds was 50% of his 100% max poundage of 1000-pounds. To put this in perspective, 50% for a man capable of a 300-pound max squat would be 150-pounds. Remember how I noted that George’s 500 no more winded him or extended him then me handling 135? If I am a 300-pound cold squatter 135 is 45% of 300!

150 is hardly a scary weight to a 300-pound squatter. A man capable of 400 in the deadlift need only handle 200 to equate to George’s 50% effort. Ditto the other key lifts: a 250-pound power clean is a fantastic strength feat – and 50% of that is a pathetic 125!

When pondering how best to improve roll-out-of-bed muscular strength, the first logical step is to improve 100% strength. Get a bigger 100% maximum lifts and instant strength automatically goes up. If a 400-pound deadlifter finds a way to push his current 400 up to 450, his 50% strength jumps from 200 to 225. All percentages of 100% automatically jump upward when 100% jumps upward.

Another way to improve instant muscular strength is to practice it: engage in some sport specificity. Safely, non-injuriously, learn to perform safely without warming up. No, you don’t have to jump out of bed at 4am. Start by trying to handle 30-40% of your 100% max. Regardless the lift, all reps need be crisp, technically perfect.

Most good athletes will have very little problem with a 60% weight. Over time and with practice, move this percent of 100% ever upward. How might one go about improving their roll-out-of-bed instantaneous strength levels? First, establish some benchmarks.

No Warmup Goals

Beginner               intermediate                advanced

50%                       65%                             75% (or more)

A great way to get introduced to this concept is to perform exercises that are not dangerous and done standing on your feet. Dumbbells are great because it is easy to bail if you need to curtail the set for any reason. Going all out for a cold single or going to failure using reps is safer using dumbbells.

I would test my cold leg muscular strength using the safe-as-milk goblet squat or the barbell front squat before attempting any back squatting – if goblet squats and front squats give your legs all they can handle – why drape a heavy barbell behind your neck? Advanced lifters are different.

Consider this new strength benchmark: instantaneous strength. Please don’t assume you have it - because you don’t. If you assume you retain a high percentage of 100% without practicing you are in for a bad surprise. Over time, practicing one-and-done style teaches the central nervous system how to come fully awake, quickly, instantaneously. This is no great feat, and anyone can acquire it – with practice.

If your nervous system is never called upon to come awake quickly, immediately, within seconds – why would it have this ability? Standard practice is to bring the CNS awake gradually, the athlete becomes more “woke” as the warmup sets progress. Just because you have excellent post-warmup strength doesn’t mean you have anywhere near that muscular strength level available instantaneously. You don’t magically attain an athletic attribute without practicing that attribute. Don’t assume you have an ability you never practice.

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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.