Mark Chaillet: Many roads lead to strength

Mark Chaillet: Many roads lead to strength

Featured Equipment: barbells, free weight, knee wraps, weight belt, Olympic bar, dipping belt, dumbbell, barbell plate

I always saw a Bizzaro world connection between Hugh Cassidy and Mark Chaillet. They were simultaneously similar and dissimilar. Mark championed minimal training volume with maximum training intensity while Cassidy combined intensity and volume. Hugh's sessions were a never-ending pain-train compared to Chaillet's "barely train at all" philosophy. Both stressed signature weightlifting techniques and both stressed ball-busting intensity. The prescription for transformation was the same, i.e. super intense progressive resistance training with barbells: what differed were the dose and the frequency.

In the early 1980s a powerlifting youth movement emerged and the depth of talent was incredible: Mike Bridges, Jay Rosiglione, Gene Bell, Willie Bell, George Hecter, John Black, Dan Wohleber, Dave Waddington, John Gamble, Jim Cash, Doug Furnas, Bob Dempsey, Joe Ladiner - and Mark Chaillet. These men would win national and world titles and set world records that still stand to this day. The consensus among these young guns was that twice a week squatting and deadlifting was too much they cut back on the sheer volume of work. The young lifters discovered that there was an inverse ratio between free weight poundage and recovery time.

The first generation power mentors, Hugh Cassidy in the mid-Atlantic, Larry Pacifico and Erie Frantz in the Midwest, Kaz down south, Dennis Wright and Doug Young in the southwest, Terry McCormick and Larry Kidney on the west coast - all were using a (relatively) high volume of barbell training. Interestingly, the first generation powerlifters had also cut back on the volume; the original mid-sixties power pioneers expropriated training templates from bodybuilding and Olympic weightlifting and applied them to powerlifting. Cassidy had been a pitchfork wielding revolutionary that cut back on his squat-bench-deadlift sessions back by 33% when he took the radical step and shifted from training thrice weekly to twice weekly.

At the time Hugh reduced his squatting / benching / deadlifting from training a muscle three times weekly to twice a week, it was orthodox training gospel that unless a muscle was trained thrice weekly it would degrade and devolve. Keep in mind that formalized powerlifting was born in 1965 and before that there was no powerlifting consensus. Those early pioneer powerlifters took their training ques from elite Olympic lifters and bodybuilders. Men like Arnold, Franco and Sergio Oliva were training each muscle three times a week, using moderate intensity and a high volume that necessitated endless weight training sessions. At his awesome peak in 1975 Schwarzenegger was weight training twice a day, six days a week performing 700 (!) sets per week.

The "power bodybuilding" approach was handled quite adroitly by a few of the early elite: Doug Young, Larry Pacifico and Kaz all thrived on high volume training, lifting heavy virtually every day. Their motto was "lift hard, lift heavy and lift often." The young guns were finding that powerlifting wasn't bodybuilding or Olympic weightlifting: the sheer poundage used in powerlifting necessitated a reexamination. The first wave of mentor powerlifters slashed the volume from thrice to twice and the second wave slashed the volume in the 1980s. As 1,000 pound squatter and world champion Doug Furnas plainly explained, "We found we were never fully recovering, session to session; squats and deadlifts use a lot of the same muscles (lower back, abs, upper thighs and erectors) and trying to train squats and deadlifts four times (two squat sessions, two deadlift sessions) per week was leaving us exhausted all the time. This became particularly apparent when we got strong enough to handle 700-800 pounds for reps."

It takes a lot longer for a 240-pound powerlifter to recover from a maximal set of squats with 735 for 5 reps then for a 180-pound guy at the YMCA handling 185 for 5. Keep in mind that later that same week that same man had to handle 750 x 3 in the deadlift. The Young Turk consensus was, "Squat and deadlift once a week and then to perform an appropriate and select number of assistance exercises and back-off sets." Here is an Ed Coan-inspired classic example of a 2nd generation training template…

Day 1 - poundage and reps preplanned depending on 12-week periodized schedule
Squat - work up to a top set of 8, 5, 3 or 2 reps wearing knee wraps and a weight belt
Back-off squats - reduce poundage, two sets of 5-8 reps, no wraps or belt - precision squatting
Leg curls - 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps, super-set with calves
Calf raises - 3-4 sets of 12-20 reps, superset with leg curls

Day 2
Bench press - competition grip width on Olympic bar - work up to one all out set of 8, 5, 3 or 2 reps
Bench press - wide-grip, paused, one or two sets of 5-8 reps
Bench press - narrow-grip, touch-and-go, one or two sets of 5-8 reps
Triceps - pick one: nose-breakers, weighted dips with dipping belt, pushdowns, 4-6 sets, 5-10 rep sets
Biceps - various curls, 4-6 sets, 5-10 reps, super-setted with triceps

Day 3
Deadlift - work up to one all out set of 5, 3 or 2 reps
Assistance deadlift - pick one: rack pulls, dead off plate, Romanian dead, two sets of 5 reps
Row, chin or pull-downs - pick one, 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps
Seated barbell or dumbbell press - heavy and strict, 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps
Front raise - 25-100 pound barbell plate, with straight arms, raise overhead, rep out

How simple can a system be made before it loses its effectiveness?
Reducto ad absurdum

Mark Chaillet became an enthusiastic proponent and leading exponent of the reduced volume theory. Mark reduced the volume and the number of exercises and reps down to an absolute minimum: squat, bench press and deadlift one time a week; work up to a lone predetermined single rep in each of the three lifts. Purposefully do no other training.

This man set world records using this ultra-minimalistic strategy. He also built an incredible, muscled-up Norse God physique; at his awesome peak he looked like a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a silverback gorilla - and despite being gargantuan, he was athletic as hell. Whereas Arnold needed 700 sets a week to build his physique Chaillet built his herculean body and ungodly strength performing a grand total of 20 sets per week (!) and a grand total of 45 reps per week (!) Those are not typos. Talk about training extremes - yet each of these extreme systems proved undeniably effective.

After five years of immersion in the Cassidy School of strength and with Hugh's blessings, we (my training partners and me) relocated and began training at Mark Chaillet's brand new power gym in Temple Hills, PG County. Mark's gym was about ten minutes from Hugh's Yoda cottage. My commute was now 45 minutes - which I did twice a week for the next six years. Mark and I hit it off immediately. I had the reputation for being "weirdly smart" and within weeks he asked me to coach him - with certain provisos.

He and I would sit down and work up a 12-week periodization chart leading up to a national or world championship. I would travel with him to the competitions and coach him, act as his pit crew chief. I would be present at his training sessions and he would solicit my opinion on the lift immediately after the lift. Insofar as the actual training, he trained one way - period. He did not want or solicit my advice or opinion on the content of the sessions.

On Monday Mark would work up to a single predetermined repetition in the squat and the bench press. On Thursday he would work up to a single repetition in the deadlift. The poundage used for the single rep was determined by the periodization chart. That was it. No assistance exercises, no other exercises at all. The only way he could do less was to not train at all. Yet he and his students and acolytes all made excellent progress, particularly in Mark's specialty: the deadlift and to a lesser but significant degree, the squat. Mark held many world records in the deadlift: he could consistently pull 850-pounds in competition and his best deadlift was a world-record exceeding 880 pound effort, made when he weighed a ripped 270 pounds. Mark was 5-9 carrying a 9% body fat percentile.

When we arrived at Chaillet's gorgeous facility after years of toil training in Cassidy's basement gym, we were muscled-up highly conditioned lifters. Schooled in the "straight-no-chaser" Cassidy approach, we trained twice weekly using a volume of work that broke most men. Those that were able to cope with the pounding underwent radical and dramatic physical transformations. That which does not kill me makes me stronger - and way more muscular and way more physically capable.

Things were way different at Mark's and as the saying goes, "when in Rome, do as the Roman's." I threw in with Mark and adopted his training strategy. I was his training partner and coach and decided to immerse myself in his method. It was illuminating, eye-opening and shattered a lot of my "smelly little orthodoxies", as George Orwell called our precious preconceptions. The Chaillet training session was a study in contrast to the Cassidy training session. You could not have fewer parts than Chaillet's strength strategy.

The larger message was this: there is no single weight training strategy that trumps all other systems. There is no ultimate strength training system that can be used ad infinitum, world without end. The thinking man's strength athlete has a collection of proven-effective strength strategies, like suits in a closet. Every system, no matter how effective or sophisticated, has a finite shelf life, a finite period of results; the better the training program the deeper the results and the longer it lingers. Still, at some point, the results dry up.

The elite amateur recognizes stagnation when it appears; the iron pro anticipates the onset of stagnation in advance. Have a prescription: rotate a wide selection of battle-tested training strategies. I had experienced and immersed myself in the extremes of strength training. When I decided to forge an amalgamation, I turned to Ed "King" Coan, the greatest powerlifter of all time. We split the difference with incredible results.

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.