Iron Roots

Iron Roots

Primal and Prison: commonalities and significance

Featured Equipment: barbells, dumbbells

In 1961 I commenced formal weight training with barbells and dumbbells at age 11. The accepted practice of the day was to weight train the entire body three times a week. Three times a week my training partners and I gathered to perform the clean and press, snatch, clean and jerk, bench press, squat, curls and weighted dips – all in a single session. In every session we’d augment the “core” menu of exercises with one of the following: row, power clean, power snatch or deadlift. Sessions took forever, two hours minimum, often more. But we didn’t care; we had nowhere better to go and nothing better to do. In between sessions we purposefully took in lots of calories.

The thrice weekly training frequency was based on the flawed premise that “unless a muscle is trained every 36-hours, that muscle will degrade; lose muscle size and lose muscle strength.” This completely moronic contention was considered Gospel up until the 1980s. Arnold, Franco, Robbie and Zane, all the super star bodybuilders of the Pumping Iron era would weight train six days a week, hitting each muscle three times a week. Using the infamous “double-split” routine, Arnold was performing 700 (!) sets per week and spending upwards of 25 hours per week lifting weights.

I was introduced to serious weight training during this era and dutifully trained my entire body thrice weekly. I was a baby Alpha male lifting in front of older Alpha males. Ergo, I continually sought to exceed my previous best efforts, either in sheer poundage handled or by adding additional reps; my standing in the Alpha wolf pack was largely determined by the outcome of my gym efforts. In training I learned to effortlessly give 100%. I trained in this combative way from age 11 until age 19, at which point I cut back on the frequency. I never looked back – until recently.

Imagine my delighted amazement when I discovered that convicts nationwide were using methodologies I had used in my youth to construct “prison muscle.” Deep training memories were stirred as I saw TV shows documenting prison weight training. The Monster Convicts were using my earliest methods and making spectacular gains. The commonalities between my ancient strategies and modern prison strategies was striking: the modern prisoner is forced to use the same primal, barebones equipment and engage in the same ultra-basic exercises we used; training was and is done often and done with all out, ball-busting intensity.

We trained the way we did because that was all we knew. Modern Prisoners train the way they do because that is all they have. Prisoners training under the worst of conditions are making the most amazing gains in muscle and pure power. Men restricted to the most primitive of tools and training in the worst of conditions, (compounded by awful nutrition) are making gains seemingly unobtainable by elite personal trainers coaxing modest gains out of high paying clients, this in the free world training under the most ideal of conditions. How pathetically ironic is that? The prisoners perceived disadvantages turn out to be factual advantages.

Perhaps a smart trainee could expropriate this same crude system that served the ancients and now serves the incarcerated so well; why not use this brutal approach for your own physiological purposes? If you’re mired in stagnation, plateaued out – perhaps a dose of high volume/high frequency/high intensity primal weight training might provide the dynamite needed to blow apart your physiological logjam. A short 4-6 week period of thrice-weekly whole-body training surely deserves a place in the rotational arsenal of uber-elite trainees.

Sessions are long, hard and often and need be “under-pinned” with copious amounts of nutrient-dense, restorative, regenerative food. If you try and diet hard or lean out while using this high volume/high frequency approach, you will crash and burn. So eat the good stuff and don’t mince. What would a modern day, high-volume, three-times weekly whole-body training template look like in 2016?

Sunday low-bar back squat, bench press, chin, power clean, clean & barbell press, cheat curl, nose-breakers
Wednesday front squat, wide-grip pause bench, pull-ups, seated dumbbell press, deadlift, drag curls, overhead French press
Friday high-bar back squat, incline press, weighted chins, row, seated lateral raises, dumbbell curls, weighted dips

The strategy is simple: in each exercise work up to all the weight you can handle for a single, all out set in the 3 to 12 rep range. The Lion’s share of the “top sets” should be in the 5 to 8 rep range. You do not have to fail on the final rep of every top set, just know you are incapable of another. Work up to a 100% set, then move on to the next exercise as you have a lot of exercises to work through.

Over time you toughen up and adapt to the brutal nature of going all out in long sessions three times weekly. Generally speaking, it either breaks you – or you break through.

The high volume/high-intensity/high-frequency/primal exercise template deserves to be in the training quiver of every hardcore trainee. Bust it out periodically to blow the crud out of your clogged innards. A short dose of this approach will electro-shock you out of the muck. It worked for us in the 60s and it works for muscled-up modern inmates. It can work for you: simplify things; don’t fancy this up or update it or make it more “user-friendly” as that dilutes results. This approach is hellacious and you need to deal with that fact. Lift often and lift like you were lifting in front of your best friends and your worst enemies.


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.