The House of Pain: Part II

The House of Pain: Part II

“How simple can a system be made, before it losses it’s effectiveness?”

Featured Equipment: dumbbell, barbell

Mark Chaillet developed the most minimalistic approach to strength training I have ever encountered, before or since; yet it worked – and I think he uncovered something profound: he staked out the far left flank of the strength graph and exemplified and epitomized minimalism in its purest form and at its most radical extreme: no one could get to the left of Mark Chaillet, insofar as fewer exercises, insofar as reducing training volume or training less frequently. Yet he set world records. I was Mark’s training partner and “coach” for six years. I helped devise his periodized competition game plans. I always accommodated Mark’s peculiar training.

Strength Bar Graph

absolute strength sustained strength strength/endurance
Extreme left of graph middle of graph extreme right of graph
Low rep powerlifting bodybuilding Kettlebells; MMA training
Low volume/max intensity moderate volume/moderate intensity high volume/lower intensity

In terms of volume and frequency, in terms of exercise or planning simplicity, Mark’s approach was irreducible. He would train twice a week…

  • On Monday: work up to a single rep in the squat and a single rep bench press.
  • On Thursday: work up to single rep in the deadlift.

That was it: Mark did nothing else. As in NOTHING. No other exercises whatsoever ever. No dumbbell curls, no barbell rows…..zilch! Yet he built an 880 deadlift and a legal 1,000-pound squat; he also built an incredible body; at his peak he weighed a rock-hard 275 pounds, all of it pure athletic muscle. Mark liked to use a classic 12-week pre-competition training cycle. Mark would typically enter into the competitive cycle out of shape. He might start the twelve weeks weighing a soft and doughy 250. We would cycle his lifts and his bodyweight. He would end the cycle weighing a rock hard 275 to 280 pounds.

Week squat bench press deadlift bodyweight
1 705 405 745 255
2 725 415 755 258
3 745 425 765 260
4 765 435 775 262
5 785 445 785 264
6 805 455 795 266
7 825 465 805 268
8 845 475 815 270
9 865 485 825 272
10 885 495 835 274
11 900 505 845 276
12 ___ ___ ___ 278
meet 900 500 850 275

The columned numbers represent the poundage used on the top sets in each exercise: all top sets were done for a single repetition. If, by way of example, it was week 8, Mark would be weighing a hard 270 pounds and heading into the home stretch before the national championships…

  • His Monday squat workout in week 8 would go as follows: 255 for 5 reps, 455x3, 655x1, 745x1, 795x1 and finally 845x1. His bench press would follow: 135x5, 225x3, 315x1, 405x1, 445x1 and 475x1.
  • On Thursday he would deadlift: 255x3, 455x1, 655x1, 745x1 then 815x1
  • Reps for the week: squat, 12 reps; bench, 12 reps; dead, 7 reps; total: 27 reps

How much less could you do? 27 total reps for the entire week!?

The result amplifier was intensity. His approach was self-justifying in that his approach worked – much to the consternation of all the experts that insisted the path to strength was “power bodybuilding,” an approach wherein the powerlifter performed multiple sets of the three lifts. The power bodybuilder placed as much emphasis on the auxiliary or “assistance” exercises as they did the three lifts. The power bodybuilder never did singles in training, “saving” them for the competition.

Mark Chaillet made a religion out of the single rep sets. He was a plain speaker. “Powerlifting is single reps done in a competition – why would you purposefully avoid doing what you have to do in competition? It makes no sense. Does a world class marathon runner only run 22 miles in training because they want to save 26 miles for the race?” When he got rolling he echoed Bluto in Animal House. “Did America back down when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?? “F” no! Who’s with me!”

When in week 1 Mark jumped in with a 705 squat, a 405 bench press and a 745 pound deadlift, keep in mind those were effortlessly easy– even on his worst day, even totally out of shape and not having trained in months, those first weeks were well below his capacity. Those “jump in” weights were 60-70% of his max capacity. His strength was always ahead of the numbers we needed to hit each week. That is a subtle and important differentiation: Mark would literally grow bigger each successive week; he would also grow leaner by cleaning up his food selections. Each successive week he literally grew bigger, stronger, leaner, meaner and more focused. He never struggled with a rep for the first 9-10 weeks, all his singles were snappy, clean, explosive – that’s the kind of single Mark performed and spoke of.

Here stood Chaillet apart from the crowd, championing a program that maximized intensity while minimizing volume: he reduced training to where the only thing less he could do would be to not train at all. I loved Mark for his intuitive gut and trust in that gut. I loved his stubbornness and his staking out a radical extreme. This man was the champion of intensity. This was pure empiricism: the guy squatted a legal 1,000 pounds weighing 285. I know it was legal because I gave him the “UP!” call on the attempt. Add numerous world record deadlifts of 850 + and it was hard to argue with the man with the single-track mind.

I feel that Mark’s approach is a valid arrow in the strength-training quiver. I will periodically pull out his “singles only/minimum training” routine and use it to blow the carbon and gunk out of my clogged pipes; I get too thoughtful and subtle and over think and a dose of Gump-ian Chaillet training is the antidote for complexity.

Those that dismiss single reps (conventional strength orthodoxy says never do singles in training) ought check their roll: as Chaillet would say, “It all depends what kind of single you do.”

If you want to give this alpha male routine a try, you need a realistic assessment of your capacities and lack of ego when you “jump in” on week 1. If you are a big time volume advocate that has been stuck or stagnant, a short 6-10 week burst of Chaillet-style low volume/high intensity training, using a radically reduced exercise menu, might be just the thing needed to bitch slap yourself back to reality. Rip a page from Chaillet’s iron playbook and try some purposeful minimalism.

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.