How the Greats Built Strength
Lifters from the early 1900s up to the '70s were more imaginative. Maybe it's because they weren't affected by many of the beliefs that taint today's training ideology. They got amazing results and, for the most part, didn't have the ability to depend on performance-enhancing drugs.
These guys were thinkers. Lifting was a fringe activity so they had to learn and see for themselves what worked and what didn't. They experimented to find more effective ways of getting bigger and stronger. The result is a wealth of amazing resources – ones that most lifters fail to use.
With science we now understand why certain methods work. The most effective training methods were developed decades ago. Sadly, in an era of wanting to have everything with as little effort as possible, these discoveries have gotten lost in the sea of easy cosmetic pump work. But if you're really interested in results and willing to put in the work, look to the pioneers of strength and muscle.
Here are three training strategies that'll get you results. They're unconventional, but be honest, is conventional really working for you?
Grip strength is always important, especially if you value snatches, cleans, deadlifts and pulls. One method I really like to build a strong grip fast is the Goerner continuous ramp.
Who He Was: Hermann Goerner was a strongman from the early 1900s. Among other things, he deadlifted 730 pounds... with one hand. He also deadlifted 600 pounds with a two-finger grip. Can you imagine the grip strength?
What He Did: To improve grip strength he used a continuous ramp that went like this:
- Start by deadlifting using only the index finger of each hand. Do sets of 3 reps adding weight on each set. Work up until you reach the maximum you can handle for 3 reps using one finger per hand.
- Continue to add weight, but switch to a two fingers (per hand) grip. Using that grip, again continue ramping to your 3RM.
- When you hit your max with a two-finger grip, switch to using three fingers per hand and ramp toward a 3RM again.
- Then switch to a regular full grip: double overhand (not a mixed grip) working up to a 3RM. From there you could continue to ramp either using a hook grip or a mixed grip.
This approach will significantly increase grip strength in a very short period of time. You'll see dramatic results in about 4-6 workouts. Use it twice a week for the fastest results.
Who He Was: Sipes won the Mr. America (1959) and Mr. Universe (1960) titles. He competed several times at the Mr. Olympia. He was also one of the strongest lifters of his era, especially in the bench press and curls. He bench pressed 570 pounds at a bodyweight just under 220, and that was without a bench shirt. Chuck was a bodybuilder who trained heavy.
What He Did: One of his favorite methods to boost his bench press was heavy overloads – using a lot more weight than he could in the full bench press and doing either partial reps (going down about halfway or a bit higher) or by holding an even heavier barbell with the arms extended but elbows unlocked.
I've done my heaviest bench pressing when using such techniques. The overloads can strengthen the muscles (they're still contracting even though it's not a full range movement). They can desensitize your protective mechanisms allowing you to use more of your potential strength over time, amp up the nervous system for subsequent sets, and they'll make even a maximal weight feel light by comparison.
How to Use It
- Gradually ramp up toward your first heavy work set. This means doing 3-4 gradually heavier warm-up sets in the bench press until you're ready to do your first heavy set.
- Use about 50-75 pounds more than your first heavy set on the bar. Get set up, unrack the bar and lower it about half an inch, just enough to unlock the elbows, then hold it there for ten seconds. Do three of these sets. If the weight feels fairly easy for ten seconds, use a bit more weight for your last set or two.
- Do your heavy sets. Since this method is used to build strength, 1-3 reps are ideal. I like the 3/2/1 wave system but a more linear progression like 2 x 3, 2 x 2, 2-3 x 1 also works well. Bottom line: do about 6-7 heavy sets in the 1-3 rep range.
- Add around 30-40 pounds over your heaviest set and perform partial reps going down between one-third and two-thirds of the range of motion. Go as low as you can while maintaining control of the bar. Do 3 sets of 2-3 reps like this.
This is a lot of work. But that's how Chuck Sipes did things – accumulating a lot of heavy volume. When he trained like this he didn't use any assistance exercise for the chest or triceps in that workout.
This set-up is brutal, but it leads to rapid gains in strength. If your goal is to jack up your bench press fast, do it twice a week. Don't wince, when Sipes was focusing on his bench press he'd train it up to five times a week, though some of the sessions were lighter.
Who He Was: Paul Anderson may have been the strongest man who ever lived. He had a military press (from racks) of 435 pounds, a squat of 1,200 pounds, a deadlift of 820 pounds and 1,000 pounds with hooks to help hold the bar. He bench pressed 628 pounds and push pressed 560 pounds. All of this was done raw (without supportive lifting gear) and without using performance-enhancing drugs.
What He Did: One method of Anderson's that always had a strong impact on my own training was his progressive range of motion method. He'd start training a movement with a partial range of motion. For example, he'd start the deadlift from pins at mid-thighs. Every week or two he'd lower the pin to increase the range of motion of the lift, until after 8-10 weeks he was doing the full range of motion movement.
Deadlift From Pins
He'd use the same weight on the bar for all the training weeks. That weight was his target weight on the full range of motion for the lift at the end of the training cycle, which normally was about 10% higher than his pre-cycle max (less advanced lifters could probably shoot for 15%). Every week Anderson would do as many reps per set as possible with that weight. In the first few weeks the reps might be fairly high, 15-20, since the range of motion was really short. Reps would drop down as the range of motion increased over time.
The Science: This method works by desensitizing the Golgi tendon organs (GTO) to the new training max. So much work can be done with the supra-maximal weight that your protective mechanisms (which limit how much force you can produce) will accept that new maximum as something manageable. Over time your body will allow you to lift it over the full range of motion. You also get a strengthening and hypertrophy effect because of the high amount of maximal tension work.
This method works great for some lifts, but not others. When doing lifts from pins you focus less on the eccentric phase. You don't lower the barbell with the same precision and control as you would in the full lift. For example, at one point I did all my bench pressing from pins. Starting directly at chest level I was able to reach a 425 pounds bench press from pins. When I decided to test my regular bench press I failed with 365 simply because I couldn't lower the barbell properly. There is such a thing as reversal strength: the strength required to switch from eccentric/lowering to concentric/lifting. If you don't train that turnaround you won't strengthen it.
How to Use It: In the deadlift and military press you can start from pins because in the regular deadlift you start from a dead position on the floor and on the military press you start from a dead position on your shoulders.
When you don't use pins the problem becomes that you need to lower the barbell exactly the correct depth to be able to use the system. How do you do that if you don't use pins? The first option is to use pins but stop the downward movement and initiate the lift when you're about half an inch from the pins. If you don't make it easy on yourself by stopping short it will work. The second solution is to use a resistance band set-up much like the safety pins would be. You lower the bar down until it touches the band then you start to go up. This takes all the guesswork out of it.
How much should you increase the range of motion? No more than two inches per week on average. If your power rack has holes that are four inches apart, it means changing the range of motion every two weeks. This is also why using bands as a depth marker is a good idea. You can easily increase the range of motion one inch or even half an inch per week. Remember, the smoother the progression the better the results.
Tips: First, find the height of the barbell at the start of the lifting/concentric portion (the lowest position) and then the height of the bar in the finish position (highest point). Calculate the distance. Use two-thirds of that distance since there's no point in doing less than one-third of the range of motion. Then sort out how long you want to work on it. Take that number and divide it into eight or ten weeks (the number of weeks you want to use to progress).
Let's say that your range of motion in a squat is 24 inches. Then two-thirds of that is 16 inches. If you want to do eight-week cycles it would give you a progression of two inches per week (which is the limit) and if you want to do a ten-week progression it would give you about one and a half inches per week.
Ideally this method should be done for only one or two lifts at a time. If you pick two they should be one lower and one upper body lift. Then train each lift twice a week (so only increase the range of motion after two session at the same depth). Then do three to four sets of maximum reps at the selected range of motion per session using 10-15% above your current max.
Keep at least one assistance exercise performed over the full range of motion (but not the actual lift) for every lift trained that way. For example, it could be an incline press if you're using the progressive range of motion method with the bench press.
Charles Poliquin once said, "Christian, if you want to learn something new about training, read a book that's 100 years old." That ignited my passion for what the pioneers of strength training did to get bigger and stronger. If you apply their ideas to your training and put in the work, you'll progress at a rate you couldn't have imagined before.