Old School Lessons


by Chris Colucci T-Nation

It’s unfortunate that many lifters today might, at best, vaguely recognize names like Saxon, Hackenschmidt, or Hoffman. Sandow, however, is one old school name that should ring a bell with even the most casual bodybuilder, even if it’s just as “that Olympia statue dude.”

These were all guys who built crazy-strong, impressively muscled physiques at a time when plate-loaded barbells were cutting-edge technology and a perfect post-workout meal was a big plate of mutton stew with a hearty lager.

It’s a shame that these innovators go unnoticed when you consider that even today’s top coaches who deliver cutting-edge training advice have stood on the shoulders of these legends of the lifting game.

Believe it or not, many of the theories and practices circulating today are actually modern interpretations of classic training methods. They may be backed up with new research or tweaked for greater efficiency but, on the whole, it’s downright surprising how many parallels there are between “new” ideas and old school concepts.

Let’s take a look at five of the biggest training practices that’ve been used for years – some of them for over a century – and see if we can’t figure out why these ideas still haven’t sunk into the minds of each new generation of lifters.

A quick heads-up, though: Reading some of this old-timey grammar might give you flashbacks of trudging through Ethan Frome in Junior High. Just deal with it and try to get the main idea. There won’t be an essay afterwards.

1. Weak Points No More
George Hackenschmidt in 1941: “Every human being has a certain part of his body more developed by nature than other parts; say, for instance, that the legs of one or the arms of another are naturally strong. Now, the former will be able to perform the leg exercises with perfect ease and comfort, whereas, all his arm exercises require more exertion.

It would be foolish if this particular individual were to devote more time and attention to his leg exercises because they are easier to him, and neglect his arm exercises, which to him are harder and more difficult. Nevertheless, this is a bad habit into which many people fall during training.”

Dr. Clay Hyght in 2009: “… once you’ve reached a certain level of development, it becomes a must to approach training – especially back training – with a muscle-oriented approach. For most, it’s the only way to build a big back that’s visually appealing and symmetrical from top to bottom and from left to right.

Sure, some genetically gifted individuals can basically just lift heavy stuff and develop a balanced, symmetrical back (those bastards!). But the vast majority of us need a far more finely tuned approach – one that addresses each individual region of the back, not just the back as a whole.”

The Lesson: Whether we’re talking about balanced development of all those muscles of the back or basic overall symmetry, it’s always important to keep your growth and progress in perspective.

Now, I can’t say for sure that Hackenschmidt was trying to tell Tom Platz to do fewer squats and more triceps work, but he might as well have been. The Golden Eagle is the prototypical example of overemphasizing your strongest attribute to the detriment of your overall physique.

As truly epic as his quads were, there’s no doubt they overshadowed the rest of his body. Unfortunately for Platz, he wasn’t competing as part of the International Federation of Quad-Builders.

This strategy doesn’t necessarily apply to beginners, who tend not to have any overpowering strong points early in their lifting career, but it’s still a good mindset to adopt from the start. Like the saying goes, whatever exercise or bodypart you hate training the most is probably the one you need to train the most.

Keeping an eye on building as well-balanced a physique as possible will pay off big time, creating aesthetic, impressive development as well as maintaining long-term health. Don’t think so? Just check out the shoulder health of that dude who benches four hours a week and only does 15 minutes of back work.

2. The Brain: Your Strongest Muscle

Eugen Sandow in 1904: “You may go through the list of exercises with dumb-bells [sic] a hundred times a day, but unless you fix your mind upon those muscles to which the work is applied, such exercise will bring but little, if any, benefit. If, upon the other hand, you concentrate your mind upon the muscles in use, then immediately development begins.”

Chad Waterbury in 2007: “… the key to getting stronger, bigger, faster, or any combination of the three depends on your understanding of how to recruit more motor units. In fact, if I had to sum up the intent and purpose of any effective size and strength training plan in one sentence, it would read like this:

Recruit as many motor units as possible with each muscle contraction.”

The Lesson: Sandow called it “concentrating the mind;” modern bodybuilders call it the mind-muscle connection; Waterbury and numerous other coaches call it an activated nervous system.

You can choose your terminology, but the take-home point is the same: When you lift, you need to be 100% focused and do everything possible to get the most of each individual repetition. Simply going through the motions is a wasted session.

One example often suggested by elite powerlifters is to treat your lighter warm-up sets exactly like you’d treat a max attempt, with serious intent and technical precision, to make sure you’re fully focused on the task at hand and not losing an ounce of effort. It goes back to prioritizing quality (of reps and effort) over quantity. Just because a weight isn’t a near-max attempt is no excuse to mindlessly pump out reps.

For bodybuilders, this could also mean incorporating activation techniques or pre-exhaust work in order to better target certain muscles during their primary workouts. Any strategy that improves your focus on the immediate exercise, one rep at a time, will benefit both your long-term and short-term progress.

3. Mirror Muscles for Size and Strength

Alan Calvert in 1924: “Here is one thing that you, who read this book, must get firmly fixed in your mind; and that is, when a man is standing on his feet he positively cannot exert the full strength of his arms unless the strength of his back and legs is in proportion to the strength of his arms.

I do not mean that the back must be just as strong as the arms, but that it must be many times stronger.”

Eric Cressey in 2009: “I see around 70 athletes per day, many of them at the elite level. And because of their weaknesses, even the ones who think they’re strong aren’t gaining nearly as much muscle as they could.

“And if you hammer the muscles of the upper, middle and lower back, as well as the glutes and hamstrings, you’ll not only see muscle growth there, you’ll see it virtually everywhere in your body…”

The Lesson: Ask any 10 big men how to build major size in a short amount of time, and odds are that at least eight of them will say, “Squats and milk,” while one will tell you to “Just grip and rip with some heavy deads,” and the other guy will say, “P90X!” Take a step away from that last dude and try to lift with any of the others.

One of the main reasons that squats and deadlifts have always been prioritized is that they let you work a bunch of muscles with a bunch of weight in one shot, and that’s always a recipe for fast results.

Any exercise that emphasizes the back and/or posterior chain (the glutes, hamstrings, and low back) is also going to be an exercise that “accidentally” stresses a ton of smaller muscles throughout the body. Can you think of a single chest, shoulder, or arm exercise that stresses as many different muscles with as heavy a load as most back or leg exercises allow? No, sir. No you cannot.

Another thing to consider is that, if you’re only as strong as your weakest link, then you damn well better make sure that your weakest link isn’t any of the muscles that make up some of the largest real estate on your physique.

4. The Antique Gun Show

Bob Hoffman in 1939: “Big arms are generally the result of all around training. A moderate amount of specializing in arm development should be sufficient to bring them to outstanding size, strength, and proportions.

You could not expect to use a Mack truck tire on a Ford or other light car. Neither could you expect to build a 17-inch arm upon a 120-pound body. It’s essential that a bigger body be built, so that bigger arms may be obtained.”

Charles Poliquin in 2000: “A good rule of thumb is that for every inch you want to gain on your arms, you need to gain roughly 15 pounds of equally distributed body mass. In other words, to make significant improvements in your arms, you have to gain mass all over your entire body.

The human body is a finely-tuned machine that will only allow for a certain amount of asymmetry. Therefore, if you devote your training energies solely to building big arms, you’d eventually reach a point of total stagnation because you weren’t training your legs.”

The Lesson: First of all, if some part of you doesn’t think it’s awesome when a cute girl hangs onto your muscular arm as you walk into a room together, you’re a low-down filthy liar. The trouble is that some guys want the arms without “big, bulky thighs” or “wide lats that don’t fit comfortably into Affliction T-shirts.”

I hate to break the news to you boy-men, but with big arms comes a big body. Anything else will leave you looking like a shaved chimpanzee, with a likely training-IQ to match.

Secondly, in the “incredibly unlikely” event that somebody thinks they just read “don’t train arms to get big arms,” you can put your head down and take a nap. The grown-ups are talking.

What I’m saying, and what Hoffman, Poliquin, and plenty of other coaches are saying, is that in order to get your arm size into the high teens (or upwards of 45cm for my Euro brothers), you’ve got to be doing specific biceps and triceps work in addition to putting plenty of time and energy into squats, deadlifts, and other big exercises.

That might seem like common sense for more experienced lifters, but common sense is a rare commodity in the 15-to-22 year old gym member demographic. These are kids whose idea of lifting heavy involves quarter-rep shrugs with 30 pounds less than their bodyweight, but they’re exactly the guys who need to be deadlifting, rowing, and pressing more often than they hit the incline hammer curls and overhead one-arm cable extensions.

Hoffman couldn’t have said it more plainly: You can’t build a 17-inch arm on a 120-pound body. To build significantly bigger arms than you’ve got right now, you need to build a larger complete body, and the fastest path there requires a training plan that gives plenty of attention to the big lifts while also giving some attention to direct arm work, not the other way around.

5. Train, Don’t Strain

Arthur Saxon in 1905: “To try to work like a machine, knowing that ever at one’s side stands the bugbear of training, ready to weaken one’s resources through over-work, and bring about a breakdown, is the height of folly.

Nature has given one an instinct which will make heard, with warning notes, the danger signal when over-fatigue threatens, and this signal should never be allowed to pass unnoticed.”

Christian Thibaudeau in 2009: “The goal of a workout isn’t getting through a specific number of exercises. It’s not like having a list of chores that you must go through and check off. Training is only about stimulating that physiological response. To get there you need to auto-regulate and know what your body needs and requires to grow and recover.

What we’re trying to do is come up with processes built in the training programs to teach them how to auto-regulate. Once they know how to do it then they can apply it to every single program they do and make it work – as long as it’s not idiotic, of course.”

The Lesson: There’s something to be said for walking into the gym with a pretty solid idea of what you’re going to do for the next hour, but any experienced lifter will tell you that you’ve got to actually listen to your body throughout that workout if you really want to progress.

Elbow acting up? Guess you’re not doing that next set of extensions even though you were “supposed to.” Feeling unstoppable after that set of leg presses? Today just became a high volume day, even though you wanted to try some new exercises later. There’s a Scarlett Johansson look-alike teaching cardio? I guess you’re learning Zumba.

It’s a combination of knowing what you want to get out of any given session, or training plan, and also knowing how to interpret the inevitable detours that pop up along the way. It’s a skill that not all lifters are born with, but the longest-lasting ones and the ones that get the greatest results usually develop it sooner, rather than later.

If you understand how, and why, you need to adapt a routine on-the-fly, you can account for changes in energy levels, unexpected gym crowds, muscular recovery, and even catch potential injuries before they have a chance to cause any major damage and slow your progress down.

It turns out that the newest info isn’t always the best – the best is best – and the best information is always going to find its way to the forefront to make itself relevant and useful, time after time.

Here’s a quick review of these points that have been floating around since your great-granddaddy was trying to get to second base with Miss Abigail LaRue behind the Ol’ Saloon:

  • If your physique has one bodypart that gets compliments four times a day, you must also have a weak point. If you think you don’t, you’re wrong.
  • Anytime you lift, train with a level of focus that makes the gym manager think you dosed your workout shake with Ritalin.
  • If you make your back and legs stronger, you’ll see improvements in pretty much every other lift.
  • The quickest way to build bigger arms is to build a bigger total body. It’s a ridiculously simple idea, but too many young bucks still don’t understand it.
  • With every set, every workout, and every program you do, don’t underestimate your body’s feedback and cues to guide you closer to your goal.
Hackenschmidt, G. (1943) The Way to Live. Pp. 43.

Sandow, E. (1904) Body Building. Pp 21.

Calvert, A. (1924) Super Strength. Pp. 12.

Hoffman, B. (1939) Big Arms. Pp. 11.

Saxon, A. (1905) The Development of Physical Power. Pp. 54.

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