Back in the Saddle

Back in the Saddle

By 1977 I needed to leap off the runaway party train. After years of nonstop rabid overindulgence in every way everyday, I got a real job and adopted a healthy(er) lifestyle. I started off with the big check squares: like no booze before noon and not passing out at night. I recommenced weight training, light, easy and unambitious. After six months of normalcy and sanity I began a very cool period in my life where I simultaneously mentored under two amazing men in two completely opposite physical art forms: powerlifting and the Chinese "internal" martial arts. One man was a national and world champion powerlifter, a true master of all things hard and yang; the other was Americas leading expert on the internal martial arts, a true master of all things yin and soft.

Two days a week, Sunday and Wednesday, I lifted in world champion Hugh "Huge" Cassidy's basement gym at his farmette in Bowie, Maryland. Twice a week, on Saturday and Thursday, I took Pa Kua, Hsing I and Tai Chi lessons from Robert Smith. In addition to being a world authority on the internal martial arts, he was a judo champion and the finest writer in the martial arts. Ironically and serendipitously (for me as a writer) Hugh Cassidy was considered the best writer in in the lifting world. Only Bill Starr and John McCallum had writing chops that compared to Cassidy.

Right from the start, I began "squaring the circle," searching for commonalities between these two extremes. What, if any, were the intersections in the diverse instruction? Both men talked endlessly about refining technique: they took technical subtly to levels way past my level of comprehension. Each man talked about many of the same things using different phrases. Smith talked endlessly about the "core principles" of "root" and "sinking." This extreme emphasis on relationship of the foot to the surface tied right into Cassidy's squat technique.

Instead of root and sinking, Hugh talked of "pulling yourself downward in the bottommost position" (as opposed to lowering) and pushing off the heels when eccentric became concentric at the squat turnaround. Hugh played with stance width and foot placement combinations in the squat and deadlift, much as the tai chi master would experiment when sinking into a posture. Both had similar thoughts on power: Smith knew true punching power originated in the legs; Hugh called "leg power" the "key" to human power.

They both agreed on a wide variety of things not to do. Both men believed in what I would call "disadvantaged" training, i.e. they sought ways in which to make the training more difficult - as opposed to the popular trend of diluting and making the training easier and thus, more palatable and ergo, more user friendly and sellable. Both men didn't give a good goddamn about sell-ability; they were uncompromising purists, Zen monks or Taoist priests.

Both Smith and Hugh had been serious and superior students. Now, decades later, they were the monks, the high priests. They knew the knowledge they possessed deserved preserving and sought worthies to pass along the legacy they were entrusted with. Both men continually stressed history and related a tradition. Each man beat me down, broke me down, then rebuilt my body and rewired my body and brain for optimal performance. Which is exactly what I wanted going in.

Hugh's regimen was the most brutal training I have ever experienced. We gathered to lift at Hugh's place twice a week. I would travel around the beltway, for 50 minutes and use the travel time to psyche up for the session. I would jump off at 450 and head outward until I crossed High Bridge. I took the unmarked road to the house in the woods.

At Hugh's place I trained with other national level powerlifters including Marshall Peck (525 raw bench, 750 squat, 220 bodyweight) and Joe Ferry (700 squat and deadlift, 195 pounds.) There were often other high level lifters dropping by and Hugh would watch and comment, both in real time and between sets. We followed his routine and learned his techniques. It took 2 to 2.5 hours to get through the twice-weekly iron slaughter-fest. Afterwards we were so exhausted it was hard walking up the basement stairs.

We would sit on our cars post-workout and drink half-gallons of whole milk, just to help us get it together for the ride home. I routinely had to grab my right wrist with my left hand to steady it enough to insert the key into the ignition. We were expected to eat copious calories to survive: we would gather to train with Hugh twice a week for twelve straight weeks leading up to a competition. Everyone that could hang got bigger and stronger - way bigger and way stronger. Hugh was absolutely riveting when he spoke of his philosophy of lifting and strength; his conclusions were counterintuitive and profound. He'd beat the dog crap out of us while talking to us like a muscled-up William F. Buckley.

Smith was a first-rate scholar that took pride in being a bruiser: Bob was a judo man and at age 16 had been an infantry rifleman in the Marine Corps in the pacific during WWII. He became a CIA agent stationed in "Formosa" in the 60s. He was fluent in many languages and retired to Bethesda, Maryland, where he taught the Chinese internal martial arts to lucky locals. Like me. I would do tai chi every Saturday morning for an hour and again on Thursday we would meet: this time to drill the circular pa kua and explosive hsing I. We were expected to work on our own for an hour each day.

Smith would check out what we'd been working on; if he were satisfied, he'd show us something new. In addition to the 36-posture tai chi short form, we ‘walked the circle' for pa kua and he would introduce us to ‘palm changes' that were quite complex and intricate. The hsing I fists were linked and the power drive off the rear foot was when I finally grocked Smith's rooted concept.

These men shaped me. Twice a week Hugh beat me down in his Vulcan forge basement gym; we reconfigured our bodies exemplifying Nietzsche's most famous axiom: "That which does not kill me makes me stronger" (and more muscular.) Smith showed us how to glide and flow, yet also stay rooted and centered. Eventually I developed an amalgamation of ideas that form the core of my teachings to this day. I have taken aspects of each man's approach looking to create the optimal hybrid. Both men taught me that honing technique was a lifetime battle that never ended. There is always room for technical improvement and therefore a pathway to progress always exists.

Cassidy two-day a week power split

Squat: work up to a top set, then two more squat sets, lighter weight, higher reps
Bench press: work up to a top set, then two more sets, lighter weight, higher reps
Deadlift: work up to a top set, then two more sets, lighter weight, higher reps
Biceps and triceps: three to five sets, super-setted
Auxiliary exercise: one "wild card" exercise, 2-3 sets

Saturday - repeat same workout; increase poundage or squeeze out more reps

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.