Nothing new under the sun - Weight training
Weight training in 2021 the same way I trained as a 14-year-old in 1964
A few months ago, I received a well-thought-out and detailed communique from a young man named Andrew. He asked my advice on a wide variety of transformational topics. He described his physical self (tall, thin) and expressed a desire to add muscle. He related some of the weight training he had done and shared the research he had done. I was impressed by the clarity of the correspondence.
It would have taken me 800 words to answer his questions, so I suggested he call so that we could talk it all through, point-by-point. He called and it was only then that I figured out just how young he was. I was a bit taken aback when it came out that he was 15. I had suspected he was a sharp first-year college youngster. As we talked, I flashed back to myself at his age. There were some strange parallels.
Both of us were tall, thin boys. Both of us were/are highly motivated: ready, willing, and able to do what it took to add muscle and power. I burned for radical physical transformation. At age 15, I scoured the three muscle magazines: Iron Man, Strength & Health, and Muscle Builder every month for the latest weight training routines of the champion Olympic weightlifters and bodybuilders of the era. I then rushed to the basement to test drive the routines of champions. Some routines were excellent, most didn’t work.
This was the start of what, in year 2021, is now a vast storehouse of empirical iron knowledge, all lodged in the grey matter of my brain. I knew I was the guy to save young Andrew a lot of time and frustration sorting through the strength and muscle haystack trying to find the golden needle of true progress: I would give him that impossible-to-find golden needle of transformative weight training – but what would he do with it?
I sensed in Andrew that same sort of hunger, though in its infancy, that I once had - and have to this day, though, like single malt scotch, it has mellowed with age. As we talked, it was apparent he had given the subject, muscle, and power a lot of thought. Whereas my burden as a 15-year-old was a lack of information, (though most of my sparce information was extremely good) Andrew’s problem was he was drinking from a firehose of information; he was being overwhelmed, deluged with possibilities, it was the curse of too many choices.
Apparently, I dropped into his life to provide some clarity. I set him on a path of ultra-minimalism that, factually, was a streamlined version of the training I was doing at his age in 1964 - with a physique similar to his. It was déjà vu all over again.
I got him to describe his goals and his current situation. After listening, I gave him my weight training prescription. We discussed his training schedule and I told him that to grow he would have to eat amply and eat the right foods. At the end of our conversation, I offered to video conference with him each week for 12-weeks. Assuming it was okay with his folks: I don’t charge sincere motivated 15-year-olds for my services. Within a few weeks we were up and running.
His goal was simple, my prescription was simple: he wanted to add size, power, and muscle. Like me at age 15, he was extremely limited insofar as gym equipment: he had a barbell, a flat weight bench and a power rack that enabled him to do benches and squats. Which is exactly what I had as a kid: a barbell, a bench, and a set of York squat racks. Our weightlifting platform was a piece of plywood sheeting on the basement floor. Later, we jerry-rigged a dip bar.
I had him do six exercises, each done once a week, working up to a lone top set: squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, standing barbell curl and close-grip bench press for triceps. His total training time for all six lifts (combined) was around 75-minutes. Mercifully, he had terrific flexibility and was able to squat super deep while staying upright. His deadlift technique was solid: he adapted quickly and seemingly without difficulty to our highly specific and demanding techniques.
I found it interesting that the program I outlined for him was essentially a streamlined, yet identical approach, to what I used 57 years ago to transform my 15-year-old self. I wanted to morph myself from what I was, an average boy, into what I wanted to be, a muscled-up sport dominator. I was already three years into my iron journey by the time I was 15. My mentors were muscle mag scribes John McCallum, Tommy Suggs, and Bill Starr. I obtained first-rate advice from afar from these iron icons via the magazines. There are some interesting commonalities and differences between the way I trained in 1964 and how I am having Andrew train in 2021…
- Barbell only: No machines, no dumbbells, a barbell, a flat bench, and a power rack. Barbell-only training is paired with a high-intensity, low-frequency training split.
- Each lift done once a week one top set, move on: self-explanatory. No multiple sets, no 5x5 with a static poundage after warm-up. You get one crack at making your number for the week.
- Fewer things better: the lack of strength equipment forced both of us to do fewer exercises and do them better. By limiting the exercise tools used, it limited the exercise menu: forced specificity was a blessing in disguise.
- Technique stressed: an eternal avenue of progress lies in ever refining exercise techniques. Our resistance training techniques were handed down to us by our world champion mentors.
- Periodized: preplanning, periodization, seeks to nudge weight training intensities upward, in some manner or fashion on a weekly basis. Both Andrew and I use ‘periodized cycles,’ 12-week training ‘roadmaps.’
- Psyching: on the top set of each exercise an aggressive mindset improves performance. Andrew is learning how to “psyche up” and equally important, how to decompress immediately afterwards.
- Make your number for the week: Andrew has preordained weekly poundage and rep targets in the Core Four lifts. Each week he knows ahead of time what is expected of him.
- Synchronized with nutrition: when a thin young man seeks to add muscle size, power training needs to be supported by a surplus of calories. If the caloric surplus is derived from trash foods, results will be subpar.
- More advanced than Andrew: by age 15, I had a few years head start on Andrew. I had a lot of lifting hours under my belt. I was competing in Olympic lifting at age 14.
- Trained more often: the conventional wisdom of the 1960s was to train often. My crew and I would train 2-3 times a week, every week, doing the same whole-body workouts in each session.
- Used more exercises: As an Olympic weightlifter, I practiced the power clean, snatch, clean and jerk, jerk out of the racks, overhead squats, etc., lifts Andrew knows nothing about.
- Less sophisticated: It was a less sophisticated era without the access to information. Nowadays I tell Andrew to YouTube up Kirk Karwoski to study for squat technique or Dan Austin for sumo deadlift.
- Competed: I was competing in Olympic weightlifting. When a boy has an upcoming competition against and in front of peers, it elevates the quality of the workouts leading up to the competition.
- More athletic: I was playing organized sports all year round. Football, baseball, softball, track and field, plus my competitive ventures as a lifter.
- Trained with training partners: my basement became a magnet for all the alpha males in the neighborhood that wanted to muscle-up. Training partners take an athlete’s game to the next level.
Is Andrew missing out by not performing the sheer number of exercises and the volume I used coming up? Andrew does not know how to do a snatch or a clean and jerk. I don’t think they are important for his limited purposes. He is not a competitive Olympic weightlifter. Down the road I will introduce him to the power clean, a fabulous trap and erector builder and the easiest lift to teach explosive strength. I trained a muscle twice to three times a week and in hindsight I feel this was, generally, a waste of time. I could have gotten further doing less.
What the future holds for Andrew? No one knows. Presently, he is 10-weeks into the program and has gained 10-pounds. His lifts have all steadily climbed and when comparing his present-day workout performance to 70 days ago, his lifts and strength have skyrocketed. He already has a fantastic technical base in all four core lifts. This is not to say that he has perfected his lifting techniques – however he is 90% of the way there and his current techniques in squat, front squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press are evolved enough that going forward only subtle technical corrections are needed. Our technical tweaks at this point are minor, not major.
Because we don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time correcting major technical flaws, he and I can concentrate of building muscle. This quest for muscle is augmented by a weekly weight gain: ideally, he nudges the scale up one pound a week, no more, no less. Adding more than a pound a week risks adding an unacceptable amount of body fat. Any less weight gain than a pound a week is treading water and hard to measure. Obviously, I urge him to eat and “clean” and healthy as possible. For weight gain to be lean and fat-free, the calories need by derived from potent proteins and natural carbohydrates. His first 12-week cycle is over in a few weeks. In week 13 we will have a ‘report card day’ where he will establish new single-rep maxes in the Core Four. We shall keep you posted.
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 multiple 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.