Occam's razor applied to primal strength training
"Less equals more if less is more intense..."
William of Occam lived in the 14th century and was a Franciscan friar from Ockham, a village in Surrey, England. William created a common sense theorem that became known as "Occam's Razor." To pithily paraphrase his postulation, "When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions and produce identical results, choose the one that is simpler, the one with fewer moving parts." Or, as applied to competing strength strategies (and assuming all methods produced equal results,) choose to use the strength strategy that is less complex and takes less time to practice. Lex parsimoniae champions economy and succinctness. Occam stratagem is used in logic and problem-solving and favors the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions.
Occam's Razor can be applied with great ease to strength training and strength strategies. How could an Occam acolyte not favor a system that was simpler, shorter, contained fewer exercises and was done less frequently? Based on his love of tactical economy, I can say without fear of intelligent contradiction that William of Occam would be an enthused proponent of our purposefully primitive, sophisticated yet simplistic, strength strategem. Our tactics, strategies and protocols are battle-proven and have a competitive pedigree without rival. In the world of big league competitive powerlifting, the most successful sttength system of all time was an ultra-minimalistic approach that personifies the ideal of lex parsimoniae. The hallmarks of this barebones system epitomize the ideal of less is more…
- Purposefully limited menu of exercises
- Archetype techniques and a reverance for precise execution
- Short, extremely intense training sessions
- Infrequent training sessions
- Rest and food are intergral to success
- Long-term preplanning a prerequisite: a goal without a plan is a wish
From 1965 until 1995, virtually every world record set were by men that hit each major lift once a week, working up to a single top set of squats or deadlifts. How much less could a strength trainer do? What strength strategy could be simpler? Power protocols had men lifting 2-3 times weekly in short and to the point training sessions. As long as they hit their predetermined training poundage and rep targets each succesive week, all was right with the world. An amazing number of all time world records set using this most primitive of power protocols still stand to this day: in seven out of eleven weight classes, all time best marks were sets decades ago.
Lex parsimoniae extremis!
The elegance and effectiveness of extreme simplicity
Mark Chaillet deadlifts 800 weighing 219 in 1980. His barebones intensity-based strength system was minimalism personified; he set world records, barely training at all.
How simple can a system be made before it loses effectiveness?
In resistance training we put a finer point on this eternal question: how simplistic and sparse can a strength system be made before it fails to deliver tangible results? How little can we do and still get optimal results? When we say " how little" we refer to duration and frequency. How short can the strength training sessions be before they become ineffective? How infrequently can we train and still obtain maximum results? We don't want or seek anything less than optimal results - this is key - we don't want minimalism at the expense of results. Once a mimimalistic sytem begins to deliver less than optimal results, it morphs and degrades into a maintainace regimen. We want maximum results for minimum time investment.
A half century of hardcore iron empirical experience shows that the amount of time weight training can be radically reduced if the training intensity is amped up into the stratosphere…
In the early 1980s, I had the great fortune of becoming a training partner and competition coach for a unique strength athlete named Mark Chaillet. World champion and world record holder, Mark was the most consistent and steadfast trainer I have ever known. He was also the most simplistic trainer I have ever known. Had I not seen with my own eyes his progress in the six years I trained with him, I would not have believed it possible for a man to get so good doing so little. I am eternally grateful for him opening my eyes to the glory and rightness and pure possibilities of exercise intensity…
Imagine a world champion powerlifter, a man that squats 1,000 pounds below parallel, a man that deadlifts 880 pounds; all this done by a man standing 5 foot 9 inches and weighing a ripped 275 pounds. Chaillet's shoulders were (easily) the widest I have ever seen on a man his height. His hands were huge and he was extermely athletic.
He ran the hardest of hardcore gyms: I recounted in my book, the Purposeful Primitive, where on one typical Thursday (nothing special, just another Thursday) I counted 13 men, myself included, that had deadlifted 700 pounds or more, all gathered together for our weekly Thursday deadlift day. For the six straight years I trained wiith him, Mark used an unvarying template…
Squat work up to a single, all out rep
Bench press work up to a single, all out rep
Deadlift work up to a single, all out rep
That is it: no nothing else. I repeat, nothing! He did not perform a single other exercise, nor did he perform additional sets of squats, bench presses or deadlifts.
If the schedule called for him to squat say, 820 x 1, His squat warmups would go 255 for 5 reps (place two 100-pound Olympic plates on an Olympic bar with collars and it weighs 255.) He'd rest fove mimutes between sets and the hit 455 foe 3 reps (add another 100 per side) then 655 for one rep. His final warmup would be with 745 x 1 (a 45-pound plate atop six 100s.) He would then tackle the his 820 top set for the day. In the bench press, 135 for 8, 255 for 2, 345 for 1, 405 x 1 and then his top set, 450 x1. In the deadlift, his forte, 255x1, 455x1, 655x1, 735x1 then 800x1. His deadlift workout was five reps! And he was the best deadlifter in the world in his weight class: ten competition pulls in excess of 850.
Like all elite powerlifters of that era that lifted at the national or international level, Mark used "straight line linear" periodization because that was all there was. Periodization was new and none of the exotic variations that have sprung up in the interceding thirty years existed back then. Mark lifted twice a week and used two 12-week cycles. This equated to 24 weeks a year preparing for competition leaving 28 weeks a year for the "off season." If he did no make the world championship squad (only the national champions in the weight division were selected) he would lift in a local competion.
Straight-line periodization was an elemental strategy that was universally used back in the 80s and 90s that is universally ignored today. The idea was think sequentially in order to create a lifting game plan to peak strength. In order to create a periodized cycle, the lifter would follow these guidelines…
- Create a realistic goal for the squat, bench press and deadlift
- Set the three numeric goals into a 12-week timeframe
- Work backwards from the target lifts to the starting point
- Jump 20-pounds per week in the squat
- Jump 10-pounds per week in the bench press
- Jump 15-pounds per week in the deadlift
If Challiet's competition goal for the national championships was to squat 900 pounds, bench press 500 and deadlift 860, he would work backwards in 20, 15 and 10 pound jumps: ergo his 12 week cycle would look like this…all weights are for a single rep.
|Week 13||10 days off||7 days off||14 days off||drop 5 pounds in 14 days|
Mark would start off the cyle likely weighing around 255 and not in the best of shape. He basically did nothing in the "off season," defined as any period other then the 24 weeks preceding his two annual competitions. When it was time to get serious, Mark would use the first four weeks of the 12-week cyle to round himself into shape.
Integral to his approach toward strength training was his eating. Mark was actually a moderate eater, hardly the prototypical powerlifting glutton. Mark was not a big eater and ate what he wanted in the off-season. When the competition cycle commenced, he would get serious about his eating. This meant consistently eating his meals (he was prone to skip them in the off-season,) cutting out junk, mainly pizza and fast food, and upping his protein intake.
Once the competition cycle commenced, he systematically pushed his bodyweight up each week two pounds. What the lifters of the day stumbled onto was pretty profound: by being "out of bounds" in their eating in the off-season (hot dogs, cheese, pie, food from cans, sweets) when they tightened up and "switched out dirty calories for clean ones" they would eat more yet get leaner.
Imagine Chaillet starting off his 12-week cycle weighing 255 with a 13% body fat percentile and after twelve weeks, three months of concentrated effort he is weighing 280 with a 9% body fat percentile. This approach was expropriated in later years by elite bodybuilders. And trust me, even in the weeks leading up to the competition he was no food-Nazi. He literally ate more to get leaner.
The real work started in week five; now that he was rounding into shape, we started piling on the plates. Each siccessive week, come hell or high water, Chaillet would make his target single: the rep had to be strict as he was lifting is International Powerlifting Federation (IPF), the strictest judging on the face of the earth. The powerlifting approach flies in the face of every sacred cow of conventional resistance training. Mainstream experts universally favor volume over intensity whereas the classical Old School purposefully primitive ultra-minimalistic powerlifting strength training system is unappolegetically an intensity-based resistance training approach. In resistance training, less equals more if less is more intense.
The best lifters in history squatted, bench pressed and deadlifted one time a week, per lift, working up to a single, all out set. That was it. Think about this for a minute, think how quickly a person could get through a workout when only working up to a lone top set. This was the strategy used in the "core four" exercises, the squat, bench press, deadlift and usually some form of overhead press. The key to making this system productive and effective was meticulously adhering to the periodized game plan. The "Cycle" created a customized, individualized, preplanned, periodized training matrix wherein every poundage, every set, every rep, was forcast months ahead of time; the content of every workout for 12-weeks in advance preplanned.
At the highest levels, world champion strength athletes would never miss a single predetermined weight for an entire 12-week training cycle - imagine the degree of realistic self assessment a man must have to pull off such a feat? Amazing, yet men like Kirk Karwoski and Ed Coan did just that on a routine basis. The classic Old School periodized training phase would typically cycle the core four lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift, some form of overhead pressing) starting each lift off 10% below capacity and attmepting to end the cycle 5-10% above capacity.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: the ultimate Volume Trainer
It took 660 sets of weight training per week to build this body
In the strength world we have a multitude of possibilities, a veritable army of competing strength theories and postulations. All promise to give you that which you seek from your resistance training efforts: a radical increase in power, strength and muscle. Even if they all systems worked and delivered equal results (and they don't!) by applying Occam's Razor to the strength world, our Purposefully Primitive training approach, based on the idea of doing fewer things better, would be the Ultimate Occam.
Ours is a strength strategy stripped and shorn of everything extraneous, with nothing left to pare, reduce or trim. Our approach is as sparse as a system can be made without losing its effectiveness. The system was originated by world and Olympic champion strength athletes and is a pure expression of restrained elegance; it is a testament to the effectiveness of extreme simplicity.
The vast majority of strength systems champion volume, i.e., more exercises done more often, more variety, more of everything. The inconvenient truth is intensity trumps volume when it comes to results; in progressive resistance training, results are defined as acquisition of strength and muscle. Our Purposefully Primitive strength system is a pure expression of Occam's Razor. How do we make it work? What is the secret to making less better than more? What enables extreme minimalism to work? The answer is intensity - the amount of training effort generated.
Arnold's exact training routine during his peak years...
|Morning session, done Monday, Wednesday, Friday|
|Bench press||5 sets, 8-10 reps|
|Dumbbell flyes||5 sets, 8-reps|
|Inclline barbell pres||6 sets, 8-10 reps|
|Dips||5 sets to failure|
|Cable crossover||6 sets, 12-reps|
|Dumbbell pullover||5 sets, 10 reps|
|Wide-grip chins to the front||6 sets to failure|
|T-bar row||5 sets, 8-reps|
|Seated cable row||6 sets, 8-reps|
|Deadlifts off a bo||6 sets, 15-reps|
|One-arm dumbbell row||5 sets, 8-reps|
|Squats||6 sets, 10-12 reps|
|Leg extensions||6 sets, 15-reps|
|Leg press||6 sets, 8-10 reps|
|Leg curl||6 sets,12-reps|
|Lunges||5 sets, 15-reps|
|Standing calf raises||10 sets, 10-reps|
|Seated calf raises||8 sets, 15-reps|
|Donkey calf raises||6 sets, 12-reps|
|Wrist roller||4 sets to failure|
|Reverse barbell curl||4 sets, 8-reps|
|Wrist curls off bench||4 sets, 10-reps|
|Morning session, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday|
|Barbell cheat curls||6 sets, 8-reps|
|Seated dumbbell curls||6 sets, 6-reps|
|Concentration curls||6 sets, 10-reps|
|Close grip bench press||6 sets, 8-reps|
|Triceps pushdown||6 sets, 10-reps|
|Lying dumbbell tricep press||6 sets, 8-reps|
|Overhead tricep press||6 sets, 10-reps|
|Seated barbell front press||6 sets, 8-10 reps|
|Standing lateral raises||6 sets, 10-reps|
|Standing dumbbell press||6 sets, 8-reps|
|Bent-over lateral raises||5 sets, 10-reps|
|Cable lateral raises||5 sets, 12-reps|
|Standing calf raises||10 sets, 10-reps|
|Seated calf raises||8 sets, 15-reps|
|Donkey calf raises||6 sets, 12-reps|
- The identical morning routime, chest, back, legs, was done thrice weekly
- The identical morning routine, biceps, triceps, shoulders, was done thrice weekly
- The identical evening routine, calves, forearms, was done six times per week
- M/W/F morning and evening total number of sets 381
- T/T/S morning and evening total number of sets 282
- Total number of weight training sets per week 663
- Estimated total hours spent weight training weekly 20 hours
This type of approach, massive volume, was universally practiced by all the bodybuilding imortals of that era: Robbie Roberston, Frank Zane, Franco and Sergio. Jeff Everson recounted having seen Sergio Oliva at his awesome peak perform 10 sets of 10 reps with 315, alternated with sets to failure in the wide-grip chin.
"A goal without a plan is a wish."
"Do not doubt its possibilities because of the simplicity of the method!"
"The world's greatest squatter: he stood 5'7 and weighs 275 in this photo
Occam's exercise menu: the ‘core four' and nothing more!
In our Occam-expressive strength system, the athlete concentrates on doing fewer things better. Four core lifts are each trained one time per week.
2. Bench press
4. Overhead press
Work up to a single top set using a proscribed poundage for a predetermined number of reps. Each exercise is done once a week. We work up to one top set. It sounds simple to the point of being retarded - yet this very strategy, one all out set in each lift once a week, was used by scores of powerlifting legends, including Kirk Karwoski. Here is a Kirk's 16-week squat cycle he used prior to breaking his own world record in the squat. At the 1995 National Powerlifting Championships, Kirk squatted 1,003 pounds, a world record that still stands 18 years later...I was his longtime coach and he and I devised this 16-week training template. I would draw attention to the fact that at this stage of his incredible career (six straight IPF world titles, seven straight national titles, 20 world records) Kirk was so accutely aware of his own capabilities and capacities that he could execute an entire 20 week training cycle without missing a single training rep; this cycle was so heavy that he was repping poundage no one else in the world could handle once!
Karwoski's 20 week world record squat training template
|20||8th||600 x 8 reps||no suit, wraps or belt|
|19||13th||620 x 8|
|18||20th||640 x 8|
|16||3rd||680 x 5 reps||no suit, wraps or belt|
|15||10th||710 x 5||Kirk puts on his lifting belt|
|14||17th||730 x 5||belt|
|13||24th||750 x 5||belt|
|12||1st||775 x 5||belt only|
|11||8th||800 x 5||belt only|
|10||15th||830 x 5||belt and knee wraps|
|9||22nd||850 x 5||belt, squat suit, knee wraps|
|8||29th||870 x 3||belt, suit, wraps|
|7||5th||900 x 3 reps||belt, suit, wraps|
|6||12th||cramping forced an end to squat session|
|5||19th||940 x 3||belt, suit, wraps|
|4||26th||960 x 2||belt, suit, wraps|
|3||3rd||980 x 2||suit, wraps, belt|
|2||10th||1,000 x 2||suit, wraps, belt|
Competition: 943 1st attempt, 1,003 world record 2nd and 3rd attempt miss with 1,023
I served as Kirk's coach for a decade; this was the greatest squat cycle by the greatest squatter in history. Kirk set astronomical marks right from the very start.
Effective power training, Occam style, purposefully practiced a few select movements to near exclusion. The technical execution of these core lifts was approached with a reverance bordering on religious zealotry. Pristine technique was combined with full range-of-motion using compound multijoint exercises done using maximum poundage with reps rarely exceeding 5, and with lots of maximum triples and doubles. This style of training was so rugged, so body-shocking and traumatic that the individual lifts were only done one time per week; it would take 5-7 days for the shattered muscles to recover enough to train them again.
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.