The Iron Bible: Failure Minus One

The Iron Bible: Failure Minus One

Marty photographs Karwoski in 1993 just prior to his winning the world championship in the 242-pound class; Kirk squatted 904 to shatter the 110 kilo class world squat record by forty pounds. Kirk deadlifted 770 to eclipse John Kuc's immortal 2,204 world record total, only to have the barbell pop out of his hands as the head referee was giving Kirk the "Down!" command, signifying a good lift.

Note how his thumbs are purposefully not wrapped around the bar. This makes shrugging much harder and places all the stress on keeping his fingers wrapped around the barbell. This is a grip exercise and not a back exercise. Kirk would perform one set of thumb-less shrugs to failure at the conclusion of his once-a-week deadlift/back training routine. After working up to 750 + for reps in the deadlift, Kirk would hit some biceps and shrugs.

He would usually load the shrug barbell to 405 and rep to utter and complete failure. The heavy Olympic barbell literally unbends his fighting fingers until it comes loose from his grip and falls down onto the pins. He would get up to 25 or so reps before failure. Ed Coan gave us this savage grip exercise. Note the degree of pure physical effort displayed in his face. I saw this look a lot watching him, year after year, in weekly training sessions. When Kirk trained it was not casual or friendly - it was the holy sacred training session where we would give 105%, in some manner or fashion. We sought ways in which to demand this level of effort from ourselves - we did not reserve this degree of effort for competition; we sought ways in which to exert this degree of pure physical effort in every training session.

We sought ways in which to make progressive resistance training harder - this counter to prevailing strength trends towards ideas, tools and devices that make strength training easier. His face mirrors the degree of effort he is putting forth. We forcibly morph our bodies with intense, all out effort.

Defining Resistance Training possibilities and impossibilities

At the highest levels of progressive resistance training, we seek to skillfully stress muscles or group of muscles to the degree necessary to trigger muscle hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the successful act of creating muscle growth. We seek to invoke the adaptive response, another phrase used to describe using self-inflicted physiological stress needed to cause a reaction within the human body on a cellular level. Elite physical trainers seek two fundamental benefits from their overall physical training efforts: a dramatic increase in raw power and strength, a concurrent increase in lean muscle mass that invariably results in improved athletic performance, no matter the format. Here are ten benchmarks that help define our approach...

  • Purposefully limit the exercise menu: devote 80% of total training time to four lifts, the Core Four, variations of squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press
  • Compound multi-joint exercises receive priority; isolation exercises are used 20% of the time to "fill in gaps," ie., hamstrings, biceps and triceps.
  • Limit the number of weekly training sessions: 2-3 sessions per week. Session length ranges from 15 to 60 minutes, depends on the trainee's strength level.
  • Use full and complete range-of-motion on all exercise: experiment with pauses, slowed and explosive rep speeds, drop sets and intensity-amping techniques.
  • Tactically, always set goals into timeframes: Reverse-engineer results; establish weekly mini-goals. Small weekly gains compound over a 10-12 week timeframe.
  • We train each lift one time a week: no more no less, we have one opportunity per week to hit our periodized goal; make the target and all it right with the world.
  • Continually refer back to the core goals: adding power, strength and size. To create hypertrophy we power train and establish anabolism with nutrition and rest.
  • Anabolism is a fertile field (of growth) all the precondition for muscle growth have been meet, all that now need happen is a savage, limit-exceeding workout.
  • To trigger hypertrophy, resistance efforts need take place in an anabolic environment: establish anabolism and engage in limit-exceeding exercise.
  • Capacity is a shifting target: the only way to trigger hypertrophy, aka the adaptive response, is to exceed capacity in some manner or fashion.

So there you have it: everything of value there is to know about our particular progressive resistance training system. Lifetimes of accumulated experience, knowledge and wisdom went into and are contained in these ten points of power.

The subtle concept of "Failure minus One."
"To fail or not to fail, that is the question..."

Having trained under and alongside some of the greatest lifters in the world, I often become verbally flummoxed trying to describe how hard international level lifters train. Now do you verbally communicate a degree of effort? You can say the squat poundage was so heavy that on the 3rd of 5 reps with 855, Karwoski's nose exploded as his right nostril shot a spray of blood all down his white t-shirt. The nasal explosion occurred as he was maximally exerting, pushing his guts (and apparently his nasal membranes) out. He went on to make all five reps. Purely through the strength of his iron will, Kirk turned a realistic triple into a five rep set. He was able to do this week in, week out: call upon his warrior-Samuari psyche to consistently exceed realistic capacity.

Just looking at the dry numbers on a piece of paper does not tell the intensity story: when I tell people that men like Karwosk, Furnas, Kaz and Coan could go through an entire 12-16 training cycle and never miss a single preordained training poundage or rep target, many are led to the erroneous conclusion that powerlifters train sub-maximally - how could they be training maximally and not miss a rep? All I can say is, brother, you really needed to be there. Anyone who's ever trained with a national or world champion strength athlete, regardless the medium, will attest to the sheer amount of physical effort generated. The hardcore strength elite are not training sub-maximally or leaving ‘reps in the bank,' to the contrary they are consistently calling on higher mental powers, psyche, to up their efforts. Kirk Karwoski felt a proper competitive training psyche added a full 5% to his performance.

Much of the willpower generated for high level resistance training is apportioned into increasing the pain tolerance threshold of the athlete. Factually it is not ‘pain' it is intense discomfort. The ability to continue to push or pull when physical discomfort takes hold, is a learn skill; pain tolerance increases with experience. At the highest levels, the brain is used to improve performance within the workout. A proper psyche takes the training session to the next level.

In 1970 Huge Cassidy was three reps into a five rep limit squat set with 685 pounds; his legs felt like jelly and he sensed real danger of collapse. His coping strategy was to stand erect with 685 pounds on his shoulders and locked knees and huff breaths. He took five giant breaths between reps 3 & 4 and seven between reps 4 & 5. This forced breathing allowed his legs and back to recover from reps one thru three, and now, somewhat revitalized, it was onto rep four - which he barely makes. He stands erect once again and chug breaths between reps. He finally dunks with rep 5 and makes it. How do you convey that notating a workout?

One time before the national championships, in a critical workout and on his critical top set of squats, Huge announced in his stentorian voice that, "Everyone needed to leave the room." The boys were incredulous - why? "Because I want to die or get seriously injured if I miss this." It was not a debate, it was a command and indeed they left the room and indeed Huge made the requisite reps emerging uninjured and unscathed. On paper it would have noted dryly that, indeed on this day Mr. Cassidy made the appointed poundage for the appropriate number of reps - but it does not tell you the psychological depths he had to plumb to get there. Cassidy employed a ritualistic psyche: he would suck in three, rapid "cooling breathes" and the hairs on the back of his arms would stand erect as his pores opened. He was a Zen psyche master was demonstrating the physical manifestations of an aroused and elevated internal psychological state.

My friend for forty years Kirk Karwoski was a psyche master of the first order. He routinely morphed himself into an insane maniac before a big lift. It was a grand sight to see this mound of muscle Viking-psyche himself into a lather, then storm onstage a shatter yet another world record. His psyche was not for show or for entertainment; Karwoski used psyche to increase his ability in both training and competition. Now why would these men need this ability to psyche to high degrees if they never attempt to exceed capacity? Do we really need to get psyched up over a sub-maximal attempt?

  • Learn how to become focused in training
  • Focus leads to concentration resulting in more reps
  • We focus and concentration to hone techniques
  • The little man inside our head falls silent as we become absorptive
  • At the highest level, the entire workout is conducted in concentrative focus
  • We use psyche to up the quality and productivity of the workout
  • Alternate intensity-based training with volume-based for requisite contrast

How much sheer physical effort is needed in order to trigger hypertrophy (and urn acquire new levels of strength and power) is a hotly debated topic. Many hold to the supposition that a lot of low volume/moderate intensity will get the job done as well or better than a classical "hardcore power" approach which would be classified as high intensity/low volume. The orthodox approach, the safe and sane approach to resistance training preaches to ‘always leave a rep or two in reserve.' In other words, if you are scheduled to use a high volume/moderate intensity approach, the trainee would work up to say 5 sets of 5 reps, and on any set, the trainee was capable of perform 6-8 reps, he performs his 5x5 squats with power in reserve.

I came up in the world of low volume/high intensity hardcore strength training and that approach was decidedly different: we gathered together and trained together once or twice a week. The classical power session per-competition walign="center">orkout would be...

  • Saturday squat and bench press
  • Wednesday deadlift and overhead press

"They did not build that muscle with sub-maximal effort."

To a man, the giants of yesteryear displayed incredible muscle mass that made it easy to see why and how they could lift the world records they lifted. They bore the weight, not the equipment; they did not build their incredible muscle mass with sub-maximal effort. They built thick, functional muscle mass by exerting incredible physical effort in every training session; effort of such magnitude and intensity that the hypertrophic switch was tripped. When a muscle is taxed up to or passed capacity the muscle is forced to adapt. If we self-inflict stress of a certain magnitude, adaptation and growth must occur. Strategically, we utilize a limited number of exercises to repeatedly stress specific muscles or group of muscles.

Something of significance must occur during the workout that is sufficiently stressful to trigger hypertrophy - the cellular equivalent of a nuclear detonation. Something of this consequence does not occur as a result of casual, contained, sensible effort; something this profound, literally creation, the creation of new muscle fiber, only occurs when something of great magnitude occurs: with cellular fission, creation, comes concurrent increases in power and strength. Dramatic increases in power and strength and muscle size can only occur as a result of self-inflicting profound muscle stress. How could it be otherwise?

Muscle stress needs to be inflicted on the fertile fields of anabolism. The eternal prescription for building power is to satisfy the anabolic prerequisites, then engage in a hardcore power training session. So what are these anabolic prerequisites? Be sure and include potent, plentiful nutrient-dense food, stay rested and stress-free. This kind of training forcibly done diligently morphs a man. One secret is being able to approach or exceed limits without incurring injury. The old pros know how to miss a rep safely and the old pros know that 90% of resistance training injuries occurs when the lifter strays outside the technical boundaries of a lift. We never contort, twist, bend, jerk or rip at a poundage.

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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 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.