Powerlifting Training Mentors: Hugh Cassidy - Part 1
Powerlifting training mentors: similarities and contrasts
Hugh Cassidy: Power Avatar
Powerlifting Training: The introductions to the crowd at the inaugural world powerlifting championships in 1971: (left to right above) Don Cundy was the first man in history to deadlift 800-pounds. John Kuc is 22 years old and weighs 320. He is one year away from posting a 2,300 raw total. Kuc later reduced his bodyweight to 240-pounds and deadlifted 876, a mark that stood for 13 years. Next is Big Jim Williams, the greatest bench presser in history. Jim benched 700 raw in 1972. He weighed 365. Williams also set world records in the squat. Cassidy stands next to Big Jim. Hugh wore no squat suit, no knee wraps, and no lifting belt. Cassidy came from 90-pounds back to beat Big Jim by pulling an 800-pound deadlift. Kuc then tried an 850 deadlift to beat Hugh. He barely failed. Cassidy 1st, Williams 2nd, Kuc 3rd.
As a young boy alone in my pursuit of radical physical transformation, I was dependent on the muscle magazines for my transformative powerlifting training information. I was nobody from nowhere, a preteen boy with a 110-pound barbell set and a burning desire to forge myself into a superhero. I had the desire; I needed the tool and a method.
I was introduced to the superhero concept through WWII war movies and comic books. I was highly imaginative and could get completely lost in a movie or in a Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Flash or Aqua Man comic book. My father encouraged my comic book reading, a sly method that made me a facile reader. I discovered a newer and more sophisticated treasure trove of epic hero tales when I was introduced to classical mythology in elementary school. I burned through Greek, Roman, and my favored Norse mythological tales. Mythology is complex and nuanced, it captivated me. Myths further fueled my physical ambitions. I yearned to transform.
There was no way I was going to be a superhero with my skinny body. All superheroes had incredible physiques and I needed one. Once again, comic books provided me my first transformative clues. Charles Atlas and Clancy Ross ran muscle-building ads in every comic of the era. “The end of the skinny body!” was Atlas’ pitch. Charles Atlas looked old and flabby in his leopard skin speedo. His Dynamic Tension ads didn’t inspire me one bit. Clancy Ross, on the other hand, was a genuine Mr. America and had muscles that held my attention: he looked like a superhero.
I formulated a question that would change the course of my life. “What did Clancy Ross do to look that way? Whatever he did, I will do. Some boys are born alpha. I remember snatching my grandmother’s cloth tape measure from atop her sewing machine and creating an 18-inch tape circle to replicate an 18-inch arm size. As an eleven year old, I gazed at the massive circle the 18-inch tape loop made and thought, “That’s impossible – no one could have an arm that big – he must mean his arm bone is 18-inches long.”
The muscle magazines were carried at the same newsstand where we bought comic books. I stopped reading comic books and began reading the muscle magazines when I was 12. I was gifted a 110-pound barbell on Christmas of 1962. I wore it out. My new superheroes were Norbert Schemansky, Yuri Vlasov, Bill March and Bill Pearl. The muscle mags became my source for powerlifting training information and photographic inspiration. I now knew exactly how the champions trained. I began to mimic the powerlifting training routines of the champions. I ate massively and continually, I and ran or biked everywhere, I progressed very rapidly.
I was naturally athletic (in the sports that I cared about) and early on was instinctively and intuitively drawn towards the dynamism, strength, and athleticism that characterized Olympic weightlifting. I preferred the functional physiques of Olympic lifters to the not-so-impressive physiques of that era. The bodybuilders of the mid-1960s (other than Bill Pearl, Reg Park, Roy Hilligren and Marvin Eder) were small, elfish-looking creatures with effete physiques, very little back or leg development, strange hair, weird tans, skimpy trunks and a creepy vibe. The bodybuilder’s goal was to become statuesque and immobile, something to be gazed at. That was nothing I aspired to. I wanted to beat the hell out of my opponents, I wanted power, speed, and massive muscles. I wanted it all.
I combined continual forced eating with continual weight training and continual cardio. I grew muscle mass at the rate of 15-pounds a year for five straight years. The athletics kept me lean. I dropped a promising wrestling career when the coaches wanted me wrestle at some ridiculously light bodyweight. I was already beat up and tore down after four weeks of summer football practice followed by a 10-game football season. Now the wrestling coaches were telling me they wanted me smaller and weaker. Wresting practices were held in 110-degree heat wearing rubber suits coupled with starvation eating. No thanks.
I met Hugh Cassidy, the first superheavyweight powerlifting champion, when I was a junior in high school. Glenn Middleton brought us together. Glenn was a DCAAU weightlifting official and tireless sport promoter. Powerlifting had just been formalized as a sport and the first-ever power competitions were being held locally. In 1966 I entered the DCAAU senior men’s powerlifting championships. As I was warming up, Hugh Cassidy came over to me and said, “Hey Kid! I dig your squat style!” I was an Olympic lifter that squatted deep and stayed upright. I was too awed to speak. He looked me over, nodded, wheeled, and left.
A year later Glenn Middleton took me and my training partner, an Iranian Olympic weightlifter (and a Bechtel engineer – as was Middleton) named Artishan Bagapour to Hugh’s home in the next county over. After introductions, Cassidy led us to his home gym set-up. We were collectively flabbergasted to see a brand new, never-seen-before device called the Smith Machine. It was chrome and loaded up with weight plates: Cassidy had been doing some overhead pressing with 315.
We approached the Smith Machine like it was a spaceship. We were the monkey’s approaching the giant black rectangle in 2001 A Space Odyssey. The Smith Machine was chrome and perfect: ball-bearing smooth, architecturally perfect. It forced you to squat, bench, deadlift or press straight up – the shortest distance between two points. I tried the Smith Machine and loved it. Hugh pretty much ignored me, other than when I squatted 405 for 10 on his machine. He cocked an eyebrow and said, “Not bad Junior!” To me, the Smith Machine was so logical. Beautiful and functional. Seeing it in Hugh’s home gym was like visiting a buddy, walking into a broken-down garage, and being shown a 1964 Ferrari Berlinetta Lusso, perfect in every way and worth 1.7 million dollars.
Glenn asked how much it cost and I inadvertently gasped when Hugh said $450, the equivalent of $3,000 in 2020. He sighed and related what I suspected was a well-rehearsed and often used justification, “Better spend the money on this device than spending it on booze and cigarettes!” Hugh was a non-smoker and a tea-toddler. The three adults talked powerlifting training for a bit, and we left. Hugh was not particularly friendly or outgoing. Not hostile. Just neutral. Years later I was invited to train with Cassidy and his acolytes in his Fred Munster-like basement gym on Highbridge road in rural Bowie, Maryland.
Hugh’s powerlifting training template was easily the most brutal weight training I have ever done in my life. Twice a week we would gather and over a 2 to 3-hour period (depending on how many lifters were working in) we would work our way through…
Squat work up to the periodized top set drop the poundage/increase reps, 2 “back-off” sets
Bench press work up to the periodized top set drop the poundage/increase reps, 2 “back-off” sets
Deadlift work up to the periodized top set drop the poundage/increase reps, 2 “back-off” sets
Overhead press 5-6 sets, work up to a top set
Heaves 2-3 sets, work up to a top set “halfway between a deadlift and power clean”
Arms 5-6 sets of biceps and triceps, super-setted to save time
Day 2 (3-4 days later)
Repeat day 1 slight periodized increases on an across-the-board basis: all the top sets and back-offs move up
A typical 12-week Cassidy cycle for squat and bench press might go as follows…
Weeks 1-4: work up to a top set of 8-reps reduce weight by 20% - 2 sets of 10
Weeks 5-8: work up to a top set of 5-reps, reduce weight by 20% - 2 sets of 8
Weeks 9-10: work up to a triple, reduce weight by 20% - 2 sets of 5
Weeks 11-12: work up to a double, reduce weight by 20% - 2 sets of 3
Cassidy called the back-off sets the “hallmark” of the powerlifting training program. Depending how many training partners might be working in (we liked to limit it to five men per platform) determined how long it took to work through the workout. I could not imagine being able to survive this brutal regimen without taking in massive amounts of restorative calories on a continual and ongoing basis. An athlete attempting to adhere to the Cassidy protocol will need ample sleep, optimally with daily power naps.
Cassidy’s basement was Vulcan’s Forge. After each powerlifting training session, the lifters would haul themselves up the narrow staircase and head outside to drink quarts of whole milk while leaning against our cars, talking, laughing, trying to stop the post-workout shaking and body tremors. We would drive in masse to the Horn & Horn buffet six miles away. After stuffing our famished faces, we would part company. I would head home for a power nap. We gained like crazy. Everyone was young and seeking to get massive. The Cassidy power bootcamp came along at absolutely the perfect time in my life. Ironically, I went from the power volume training of Cassidy to the power minimalism of Mark Chaillet. The contrast could not have been greater.
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.