The Eternal Wisdom of John McCallum

The Eternal Wisdom of John McCallum

Keys to Progress, the gift that keeps on giving

My wife thinks I have a screw loose because I read certain books over and over. This past year I reread Tolstoy’s Haji Murid and The Cossacks, plus Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Faulkner’s The Bear and LeCarre’s Smiley’s People.  I also watch movies repeatedly. “How can you stand to do that? You know the plots, the punchlines, the jokes – how can you stand to re-read books and re-watch movies? It seems like such a waste of time.” I thought I had a well thought out defense. “I pick up on things in books and see things in movies that I missed the first time.” She was unimpressed. “That’s lame…maybe you should have paid better attention the first time around.”

She might have a point.  A few days ago, on a complete whim, I happened to pick up my well-worn copy of John “Mac” McCallum’s book Key’s to Progress. A copy sits next to my Yamaha studio piano and has sat, untouched, for years. For some reason on this day the yellow cover caught my eye. I picked it up and fanned the pages. The book is a compilation of 100 + monthly articles written between 1965 and 1972.  I happened to open the book to a chapter entitled, The Definition Diet.  Despite having access to this article for 50 years, I had never read it.

I didn’t read Mac for trimming down advice, I read Mac for his “Bulk and Power” advice.  I had skipped every article Mac had ever written related to refining and reducing. Reading these never-read Mac articles for the first time, was, for me, like discovering a new Leonardo da Vinci painting or an undiscovered Hemingway hunting novel.

I had unearthed a mini-treasure trove of unread articles: Hardening up, Pros and cons of definition, the case for running, Trimming down, the Definition Diet, Running Part II., P.H.A. for definition, more on PHA, Supplements, the fountain of youth parts I, II and III, Smoking – its time you quit, Vitamin D muscle muffins, and the Causes of failure…I had a goldmine of unread Mac. Topics I had no interest in as a boy, interested me greatly now.

I began reading McCallum as a skinny, athletic, driven 15-year old.  I could not have picked a better mentor. McCallum had a column that ran every month in Strength and Health magazine. His articles shaped me. They offered effective, result-producing advice on (mostly) weight training. His advice has proven timeless.

He sat me straight on so many things. He taught me the ultra-basics insofar as what exercises to practice, which ones to stress and which ones to ignore. He outlined intensity, volume, frequency, techniques, tactics, psyche and willpower. He had articles way ahead of the times on (then) off-beat topics such as sleep, nerves, concentration, desire, hard work, health, endurance and – definition – the ancient phrase denoting low body fat, as in shredded, ripped, buff.

Mac was the first to stress the 5-rep set and why it offered the best compromise between the pure power derived from super low rep (1-3 reps) training and differing attributes of high rep (10-15 reps) sets. Mac placed squats above all other exercises. He felt all men should work towards barbell squatting 500. He recommended high volume (lots of exercises) full body workouts. This was high frequency stuff; he worked the same muscle 2-3 times weekly. Coming up, I never read his definition articles or trimming down articles. I was a lean boy fighting to be rid of “the skinny body.”

John McCallum weightlifter and writer.

I enthusiastically ate everything in sight while reading classic Mac articles such as Bulking the Upper Body, The Get Big Drink, Desire, The Secrets to Success and Neck Specialization. Who could forget The Super Bulk and Power Thing and Gain weight to build your Arms?  I memorized those articles and put into actual practice the lessons he shared. For a teenage boy without a care in the world, could there be a more resonant message than frequent, low rep barbell training, done with my buddies and paired with sanctioned gluttony. The results were astounding. I added 80-pounds of muscle in five teen years and won a national teen lifting title.

In 2018, on a whim, I fanned the pages of Keys to Progress and fate stopped me on The Definition Diet, a 2,000-word treatise of how best to shed a muscular body of excess body fat. For the first time, I read the article. It was prophetic. Here is the premise of the article, written in 1965, decades before the Atkins Diet or Paleo diet.

“The Definition Diet, like most good things, is simple. It’s tasty, nutritious, easy to figure, easy to follow and the ideal adjunct for the hardcore weight trainee. The secret of the diet is this – eliminate carbohydrates. Not reduce them. Eliminate them. Eliminate them completely. You don’t cut calories. You don’t count them. You don’t restrict the amount of food you eat at all. You simply don’t eat any carbohydrates at all.”

As Emeril would say, “BAM!” Is this not the primordial rationale behind all the low-carb/no-carb diet strategies? How did Mac know this back in 1965? How did he know that CARBS were the enemy? What gave him that insight? Please keep in mind that in 1965 there were no nutrient breakdown labels on foods and dieting and nutrition were in the stone age.  Yet John McCallum was recommending the best-selling Atkins Diet twenty years before it was invented. His food recommendations from back in the day would line up well with Weston A. Price and the Paleo people.  In the year 2018, what we know about dieting and shedding body fat is this…

  • Any food or foodstuff eaten that is not protein, fibrous carb or fat is undigested sugar
  • Natural carbs and refined carbs spikes insulin
  • No body fat can be burned if insulin is in the bloodstream

When carbs are eliminated, insulin subsides, body fat can be oxidized. No carbs, no more insulin problems: simple as that. Now add to an insulin-free body some hardcore training and the body is maneuvered into using body fat as fuel. In a no-carb environment, insulin receptor sites unclog and come back online, now fully functioning.  The human body is designed to routinely clear reasonable amounts of insulin, without problem.

Mac was also a big advocate of running and felt that weightlifters and bodybuilders and strongmen should run. “Exercise of a rhythmic nature, carried on uninterrupted for at least a half an hour, provides the cardiovascular stimulation necessary for really outstanding heart health.” Again, prophetic and twenty years ahead of the rise of aerobics. For leaning out, Mac stressed a three-way combination: hardcore weight training paired with running and underpinned with a no-carb diet.

Variations on this ultra-basic ketogenic approach is still used to this day by pro bodybuilders looking to get maximally shredded prior to a major competition. Mac was unaware that fibrous carbohydrates (green beans, salad greens, onions, spinach, broccoli, etc.) could be consumed without spiking insulin.

Mac was the Godfather. He combined serious weight training with serious cardio and used primal nutritional periodization. He would urge his followers to “pendulum swing” back and forth between bulk and power “cycles” and lean-out cycles. “Grow bigger and stronger - then get leaner and fitter. This way we start off a bit higher with each successive successful cycle.” He stressed that small incremental gains compounded over long periods of time; this resulted in the truly sensational gains, the kind and type of gains we expect from our training efforts.

All systems are ultimately judged by the results – or lack thereof. For building muscle size and strength, Mac’s high volume, bar-bending weight training approach, “supported” by a high protein/high calorie, nutrient-dense nutritional approach was without peer. Caloric-induced anabolism was combined with limit-exceeding training resulting in maximum strength and maximum increases in muscle size.

The Mac pendulum swing would be towards a PHA-style of weight training (circuit training) program “supported” by a no-carb ketogenic diet. Add some serious running. Max size and strength cycles juxtaposed with leaner, lighter, better stamina cycles. The man was light years ahead of his time. This compilation book can be purchased online and is called The Complete Keys to Progress by John McCallum. This is the iron version of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Buy it. Learn its eternal wisdom.

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.