Once-A-Week Strength Training (Part 1)
Experts keep telling us it doesn’t work
Judging by the reactions I get from other fitness professionals (when we share philosophies) the single most controversial aspect of our Purposefully Primitive approach is a flat statement of proven fact: if done right, truly outstanding strength and muscle size gains can be obtained by anyone at any level engaging in just one strength training session per week. Further, the lone result producing strength training session should never exceed 45-minutes in duration.
This statement usually elicits incredulous bemusement or outright laughter. In polite company it falls on deaf ears or disbelieving ears or is greeted with yawning distain. As in, “Well Marty, that is a physiological impossibility. How could someone even maintain strength, restricted to one training session per week? At best, this is feeble maintenance. How could any actual progress be possible with one weekly strength training session?”
When I relate that – no, to the contrary – you are mistaken – once-a-week strength training is not just some lame maintenance routine, national and world champions have successfully used a once-a-week strength training template – and won national and world titles and set national and world records. I have trained a group of local athletes for years and they train once a week. Every single one has experienced dramatic improvements in both performance and physique. So please don’t tell us this cannot or will not work.
When I expound on once-a-week strength training in public I get looks and reactions similar to if I had told the audience that I am from Krypton and that they should all kneel before Zod. I could not get a cooler response than if I said the earth was flat and I see dead people. I inform folks that there is a long history of elite powerlifters winning national and world titles and setting world records training but once a week. Born out of necessity and circumstance, once-a-week training proved to be a viable alternative and another valid arrow in the strength training quiver.
I long ago learned that iron minimalism was not just doable, but preferable. My world champion mentors, my world champion training partners and my world champion students all were (and remain) minimalist. In 1989 I won the Connecticut state powerlifting championships training once-a-week for twelve weeks. Weighing a skinny 218, I squatted 660 and deadlifted 685. I was ramrodding a steel warehouse and working 12-hour days, six days a week. This herding a crew of roughnecks and on-the-job drunks.
I was off on Sunday and lifted with all the hardcore boys at Kenny Fantano’s Muscle Factory in West Haven. Ken would shut the gym to the public and invited a crew of 10-12 elite weightlifters to participate. Barbell squat, bench, deadlift and arm work, all in one long-ass session. Ken would come in on Wednesday and do heavy incline presses. Most of the other guys were unable.
I had zero time during the week. And zero energy. Yet, I had a fabulous three-month training phase; I didn’t miss a single preplanned training lift and had a good competition. A lot of really good lifters have been forced, by work constraints, family commitments, whatever, to not have time to train. What circumstance and reality taught these power athletes was that excellent and consistent strength gains can be had, even if you could only train once a week.
The question then becomes: how does the athlete strength train in this one weekly session? What are the contents of this magical session? The “core four” are compound multi-joint exercises: squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press. The core four are allotted whatever training time is available. The genius of the core four approach is that, between them, they stimulate every muscle on the body.
Each of the core four exercises have five sequential variations, five iterations. Each iteration builds on the lessons and techniques of its predecessor and lays the groundwork for the subsequent iteration. We concentrate on doing fewer things better and seek to make light weights heavy. We insist on using full range of motion in all the core four exercises and their variations. We put the resistance back into progressive resistance.
Full ROM ensures maximum muscle fiber stimulation. In order to dig the deepest possible muscular inroad, given our limited time to train, we make liberal use of “intensity-amplifiers.” These include pauses at the rep turnaround, slowed or accelerated rep speeds, assisted or resisted reps, drop set protocols, etc. Intensity amplifiers are used to further enhance the degree of difficulty associated with effective progressive resistance training.
Minimum volume only works by exerting maximum intensity. Classic power training trains each of the core four lifts one time per week. The greatest powerlifters in history, hall-of-fame guys, all-time greats, men like Ed Coan, Doug Furnas, Kirk Karwoski, Dan Austin and Dave Jacoby, would squat, bench press and deadlift one time a week. Not all on the same day. A typical elite powerlifting training split would be: squat and bench on Sunday, deadlift and overhead press on Wednesday.
The most widely used strength training split was a three-day split: day 1, squats & leg assistance work; day 2, bench press & arms work; Day 3 deadlift & overhead pressing. There would be two or three days of rest between each of these three weekly training sessions. Note that no exercise was hit more than once a week. Sometimes time and energy are in short supply.
Elite powerlifters that worked real jobs tended to be in blue collar jobs, physically demanding and often grueling day jobs. A lot of guys would work their asses off during the week at the construction site or on a assembly line and have no gas after work to wrestle with 700-pound deadlifts. With no time or energy to train during the week, these men would eat up and rest up on Saturday and rested and revitalized, kick ass in a Sunday power session with other alpha training partners in the same lack-of-time-and-energy boat.
To this day the once-a-week strength training template is being used successfully by regular people working regular jobs. We have a training group that meets every Sunday at Don B's country gym (Fitness from Big Pink.) A group of 12-15 weightlifters gather to train. Everyone is a local. These are regular men working all types of jobs. Many have families and children and lives crammed full of commitment and responsibility. They break away for a few hours on Sunday and fight their way through squats, bench presses and deadlifts. Their actual time under tension is probably 30-minutes.
The modern version of the Muscle Factory training template is working as fabulously in 2019 as it did in 1989. Those that show up and put in the work never fail to obtain mind-blowing results. The template is so simplistic as to be laughable: each man works up to a single “top set” in the squat, bench press and deadlift. The top set is predetermined by a periodized training cycle, a written plan wherein each week has a predetermined poundage and rep goal. Every week the trainee stairsteps slightly upward.
Small incremental gains, 5 to10 pounds a week in the core four, compound over the months and reap huge cumulative increases in strength and muscle. Men are getting stronger using highly specific technique and exerting maximally: strength increases beget lean muscle mass increases and all our Barn Boys are undergoing radical physical transformations one week at a time. So can you, so can anyone that follows our protocols and procedures which we insist on.
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.