THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF “THE HISTORY”
In 1982, I received my Masters degree in history. There has certainly been a lot of history since that day, but the discipline of the study of history has served me well. I remember one of Profs warning us all that the name “research” is perfect. “You will find something the very first time you begin a project. Then, you will lose it. It will take you months, maybe years to find it again. That’s why we call it RE-search.” I laughed politely, left the classroom and found a few letters that would be the bulk of my Thesis. I then couldn’t find them again for nine months.
Not only was this true for my studies, but it is true in fitness and sports. My greatest insights have come when I discovered that what I learned the first weeks of lifting and discus throwing continue to be the greatest lessons of my career. My academic career didn’t end in 1982, I went on to study religious education in depth for the next thirty plus years. There are lessons there, too. The threads that bind my approach to fitness, health and strength emerge as a tapestry that dates backwards centuries and involves dozens of insights from others.
One of the basic lectures I give in my Religious Studies classes involves an important concept about community. Everyone seems to appreciate what I call the “Horizontal Community.” That would be the friends, family, church, group, team, society, brotherhood, sisterhood or whatever you belong to today. It can be as personal as blood relatives or simply bytes in an internet forum. What most people miss is the “Vertical Community.” Most often, the vertical community involves a story and, sadly, most of us forget ours. The vertical community are those people, those events and those tiny connections that knit together at some point and make the sublime to one generations seem obvious to another. To truly understand the concept of strength and conditioning, one needs to go back a long ways.
We can all blame Milo, I guess. Milo was a wrestler and multi-time Olympic champion in the original Games. His good friend was Pythagoras, who made life easier with his idea that “The sum of the areas of the two squares on the legs (a and b) equals the area of the square on the hypotenuse.” Milo also consumed, we are told, a daily amount of twenty pounds of meat, twenty pounds of bread and eighteen pints of wine. But, that is not why we remember Milo. It was his idea to pick up a bull.
The story goes that each day he would walk out to the pasture and pick up a certain calf. The next day, he would repeat this until the bull was full grown. Milo is the father of Progressive Resistance Exercise and it’s his fault that many people think that success in strength training is a straight line. I have joked many times with new lifters that if you bench 100 pounds today and only add ten pounds a week, about a year from now you will bench over 600 pounds. It sure works on paper.
Strongmen have had an interesting role in the development of Western Civilization. We certainly love to see a Beowulf show up when we have an issue with the various Grendels in our basements, but we also know that Little John will be spending more time at the buffet rather than sharpening his shooting skills like Robin Hood. Sampson is going to kill a lot of Philistines, but his understanding of women is going to be dim, at best.
A century ago, the concept of strongman and weightlifting had congealed into the saucy mustached leopard print wearing circus side-show attraction. With the relatively small Harry Houdini breaking handcuffs, the strongman shows evolved into lifting members of the audience, being pulled or driven over by cars and carts and the various one-arm lifts that seemed to dominate thought. But, how can you figure out who was the true strongest?
With the reawakening of the Olympics in 1896, the “Olympic lifts” were contested. These would be unrecognizable by today’s standards with the Clean and Press, which was in eliminated in 1972 by the way, having the longest tenure in the Games. The one arm dumbbell lift, lowering the dumbbells, dumbbell curls, and one arm press were all once part of the Games.
At the same time, George Hackenschmidt, a Russian wrestler and earlier proponent of strength training for sports and general health, began codifying the threads of lifting knowledge into a book, “The Way to Live.”
Hack’s influence on the modern world of lifting comes to us in a strange direction. Down in the South Seas in Australia, a man, Percy Cerutty, was changing his life of illness and weakness and adapting his new insights into coaching Track and Field athletes. Cerutty asked Hack for advice and the interactions between these two knitted together the links from the Old “Old School” to the modern approach of what I refer to as Easy Strength. Hack outlined weight training into two parts: Extensive, which would be a volume (and hypertrophy) approach to training, and Intensive, a more load (and, therefore, strength) focused method.
Cerutty adapted and adopted Hack’s ideas. I once summed his work:
- Run up hills.
- Lift weights.
Before I was born, he insisted that all athletes do the big five lifts:
- 1. A deadlift.
- 2. A form of pressing. Cerutty liked the bench press.
- 3. An explosive full body move. He liked the heavy dumbbell swing.
- 4. A form of pulling. Cerutty liked pull-ups and cheat curls. Cheat curls are like a power clean with a curl grip (power curls) or that bouncing heavy bar curl you see very many trainees do.
- 5. An ab exercise. If deadlifts make you go one way, the ab exercise should strengthen you in the other.
After going heavy on these lifts with two to five sets of two to five (save for swings and abs where the reps go fairly high), you hang from a pull-up bar and stretch for a few minutes.
At the same time Hack was corresponding with Cerutty, Dr. Thomas DeLorme and Dr. Arthur Watkins were working with both polio patients and the injured soldiers of WWII. In 1945, DeLorme wrote a paper, “Restoration of muscle power by heavy-resistance exercises,” published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery.
In 300 cases, he found “splendid response in muscle hypertrophy and power, together with symptomatic relief,” by following this method of 7–10 sets of 10 reps per set for a total of 70–100 repetitions each workout. The weight would start off light for the first set and then get progressively heavier until a 10RM load was achieved. Over time, things changed in terms of volume. By 1948 and 1951, the authors noted:
“Further experience has shown this figure to be too high and that in most cases a total of 20 to 30 repetitions is far more satisfactory. Fewer repetitions permit exercise with heavier muscle loads, thereby yielding greater and more rapid muscle hypertrophy.”
A series of articles and books followed where they recommend 3 sets of 10 reps using a progressively heavier weight in the following manner:
Set #1–50% of 10 repetition maximum
Set #2–75% of 10 repetition maximum
Set #3–100% of 10 repetition maximum
In this scheme, only the last set is performed to the limit. The first two sets can be considered warm-ups. In their 1951 book, Progressive Resistance Exercise, DeLorme & Watkins state:
“By advocating three sets of exercise of 10 repetitions per set, the likelihood that other combinations might be just as effective is not overlooked… Incredible as it may seem, many athletes have developed great power and yet have never employed more than five repetitions in a single exercise.”
I love that last line.
It’s easy to miss their audience: injured vets and polio victims. My mother of Blessed Memory, Aileen Barbara McCloskey John, feared little in her life. She grew up very poor and then things got worse with the depression. Nearly every male in her life fought in various wars and, admittedly, I did see her cry every day where her sons were in Vietnam. But, nothing frightened her except polio. Polio was the scourge of youth and destroyer of lives to generations. The causes were thought to be swimming pools, ice cream and open windows. And, literally overnight, with a series of vaccines, the curse ended. Modern weightlifting’s ability to help victims of this disease regain the use of limbs allowed the barbell to become more mainstream in the eyes of many people.
While deLorme and Watkins were rehabbing vets, Otis Chandler, a young Stanford shot putter and, later, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, began lifting weights to throw the shot farther. He did. He broke one of the longest standing world records and history and drew a line in the sand: if you want to keep up in shot putting, you HAVE to lift. Soon, to compete in any event in Track and Field, you had no option: you had to lift.
Yet, even twenty plus years later, when I first began to lift, I would hear two things:
“This stuff will make you muscle bound.”
“This stuff will turn you homo.”
Neither statement withstands the evidence of science or human dignity.
Yet, with polio victims regaining use of their limbs, it was obvious to many that to play in sport, you had to lift. Furthermore, the great Vladimir Janda, the physician and physical therapist, began his great insights into Tonic and Phasic muscles and his various “crossed syndromes.” It is also important to note is that he, too, was a victim of that terrible disease of the last century, polio. Janda’s understanding that stretching (loosening) one muscle and strengthening its opposite would promote better structural integrity than just attacking one side of the equation.
One final thread: in Russia since the 1700s, local men had been testing their mettle against one another by lifting the traditional measure, the one or two pood (36 to 72 pound) kettlebell against one another. This oddly shaped device stayed on the fringe of Russian (and later, Soviet) sport through the modern age. I can remember clearly the small black and white pictures of Soviet athletes tossing, tugging, jumping and juggling these odd cannonballs with handles. In the west, they were used along side globe barbells until these are basically disappeared with the advance of the standardized revolving barbell. I have magazines from the 1950s that remind readers not to ignore these important training items. Then, like Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeanie,” they vanished in a blink.
Until Pavel Tsatsouline emerged on the scene. Pavel began his coaching in American in an abandoned bank safe. He offered inexpensive community education programs and trained future Navy Special Operators with minimal equipment and lots of knowledge. When John DuCane heard him speak, the two met later for coffee and began publishing books and making Kettlebells for America.
Pavel was asked to speak at Charles Staley’s bootcamp in 2004. Another speaker cancelled the last week and Charles scrambled to fill the one-hour hole. Mike Pockowski famously told Staley:
“Dan John can fill an hour.”
That next Saturday, I met Pavel and he famously told me “how to get stronger:”
“For the next 40 workouts, pick five lifts. Do them every workout. Never miss a rep, in fact, never even get close to struggling. Go as light as you need to go and don’t go over 10 reps in a workout for any of the movements. It’s going to seem easy. When the weights feel light, add more weight.”
It was that simple. It was that easy. I followed the directions exactly and made the best strength gains of my life.
And, for whatever reason, few people have been able to follow those few simple sentences.
Easy Strength and its twin Even Easier Strength are the sum of the threads from Hack, Cerutty, deLorme, Watkins, Janda and the Gireveks (the kettlebell enthusiasts).
The reason it seems so contrarian today is another thread of the history of lifting: the bodybuilding and physique world. With Arnold and Jane Fonda pushing volume and the “burn” and rewarding those who want to spend time isolating every muscle, the classic methods of getting stronger with basic movements seemed to be laughable in its simplicity.
Success, honestly, is almost always the simple route. It might not be sexy to follow this approach, it might not have the gonzo, warrior, Spartan, or tactical title and tribal tats, but it works. It’s hard to sell boring, but it works.
So, in my mind, the tradition of strength training supports the vision of reasonableness that I train in the Easy Strength fashion.
What’s hard to understand is this: It is a system, not just an interesting history lesson.
Dan John has spent his life with one foot in the world of lifting and throwing, and the other foot in academia. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has also competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.