Marty photographs Karwoski in 1993 just prior to his winning the world championship in the 242-pound class; Kirk squatted 904 to shatter the 110 kilo class world squat record by forty pounds. Kirk deadlifted 770 to eclipse John Kuc’s immortal 2,204 world record total, only to have the barbell pop out of his hands as the head referee was giving Kirk the “Down!” command to signify a good lift.
Note how his thumbs are purposely not wrapped around the bar. This makes shrugging much harder and places all the stress on keeping his fingers wrapped around the barbell. This is a grip exercise and not a back exercise. Kirk would perform one set of thumbless shrugs to failure at the conclusion of his once-a-week deadlift/back training routine. After working up to 750 + for reps in the deadlift, Kirk would hit some biceps and shrugs.
He would usually load the shrug barbell to 405 and repped to utter and complete failure. The barbell literally unbent his fighting fingers until it came loose from his grip and fell on the pins. He would get up to about 25 reps before failure. Ed Coan gave us this savage grip exercise. Note the degree of pure physical effort displayed in his face. I saw this look a lot while watching him—year after year—in weekly training sessions. When Kirk trained it was not casual or friendly—it was the holy sacred training session where 105% was given. We sought ways to demand this level of effort from ourselves, and didn’t reserve this degree of effort for competition. We tried to exert this degree of pure physical effort in every training session.
We sought ways to make progressive resistance training harder. This countered prevailing strength trends towards ideas, tools and devices to make strength training easier. Kirk’s face shows his degree of effort. We forcibly morphed our bodies with intense, all out effort.
Defining Resistance Training Possibilities and Impossibilities
At the highest levels of progressive resistance training, we seek to skillfully stress muscles or a group of muscles enough to trigger muscle hypertrophy. Hypertrophy creates muscle growth. We want to induce the adaptive response, the self-inflicted physiological stress required for reactions within the body on a cellular level. Elite physical trainers seek two fundamental benefits from their training efforts—a dramatic increase in raw power and strength, with an increase in lean muscle mass. Both benefits invariably result in improved athletic performance. Here are ten guidelines to help define our approach:
- Purposefully limit the exercise menu. Devote 80% of the total training time to the Core Four lifts—variations of squats, bench presses, deadlifts and overhead presses.
- Compound multi-joint exercises receive priority, Isolation exercises are used 20% of the time to “fill in the gaps” for muscles such as hamstrings, biceps and triceps.
- Limit the number of training sessions to 2-3 per week. Session length should range from 15 to 60 minutes, depending on the trainee’s strength.
- Use a full range-of-motion on all exercises. Experiment with pauses, slow reps, explosive reps, drop sets, and intensity-amping techniques.
- Always give goals timeframes. Reverse-engineer results and establish weekly mini-goals. Small weekly gains will compound over 10-12 weeks.
- We train each lift once a week—we have one opportunity per week to hit our periodized goal.
- Continually refer back to the core goals of adding power, strength and size. To create hypertrophy, we train powerfully and establish anabolism with nutrition and rest.
- If all the preconditions for muscle growth have been met, all that’s needed for anabolism is a savage, limit-exceeding workout.
- To trigger hypertrophy, resistance efforts must happen in an anabolic environment.
- Capacity is a shifting target. The only way to trigger the adaptive response—hypertrophy—is to exceed capacity.
This is everything to know about our particular progressive resistance training system. Lifetimes of accumulated experience, knowledge and wisdom are contained in these ten points of power.
The Subtle Concept of “Failure Minus One.”
“To fail or not to fail, that is the question…”
Having trained under and alongside some of the greatest lifters in the world, it’s often difficult to describe how hard they train. How do you communicate a degree of effort? You could say an 855lb squat was so heavy that on the 3rd rep of 5, Karwoski’s right nostril shot a spray of blood all down his white t-shirt. The nasal explosion occurred as he was maximally exerting himself, pushing his guts—and apparently his nasal membranes—out. He went on to make all five reps, turning a realistic triple into a five rep set through the strength of his iron will. He did this week in, week out—calling upon his warrior-Samurai psyche to consistently exceed realistic capacity.
Just looking at the numbers on paper does not tell the intensity story. When I tell people that men like Karwoski, Furnas, Kaz and Coan could go through an entire 12-16 week training cycle without missing a single planned training poundage or rep target, people assume that powerlifters train sub-maximally. How could they be training maximally and not miss a rep? Brother, all I can say is you had to be there. Anyone who’s trained with a national or world champion strength athlete will attest to their sheer amount of physical effort. The hardcore strength elite are not training sub-maximally or leaving ‘reps in the tank.’ They are consistently calling on higher mental powers to up their efforts. Kirk Karwoski felt a proper competitive training mentality added a full 5% to his performance.
Most of the willpower generated for high-level resistance training is used to increase the pain tolerance threshold of the athlete. It’s actually not pain, but intense discomfort. Continuing to push or pull past physical discomfort is a learn skill. Pain tolerance increases with experience. At the highest levels, the brain improves performance within the workout, taking the training session to the next level.
In 1970, Hugh “Huge” Cassidy was three reps into a five rep limit squat set with 685 pounds when his legs felt like jelly and he sensed real danger of collapse. His coping strategy was to stand erect with 685 pounds on his shoulders while locking his knees and taking huff breaths. He took five giant breaths between reps 3 & 4 and seven between reps 4 & 5. The forced breathing allowed his legs and back to recover from the first three reps, somewhat revitalized, he barely made rep four. After standing erect once again and chugging breaths, he finally dunked with rep 5 and made it. How do you convey that level of effort in a workout?
One time before the national championships, during a critical top set of squats in a critical workout, Huge announced in his stentorian voice that everyone needed to leave the room. The boys were incredulous and asked him why. Hugh replied, “Because I want to die or get seriously injured if I miss this.” Leaving the room was not up for debate, it was a command. They left the room and Huge made the required reps, emerging uninjured and unscathed. On paper, only the date, poundage, and reps would have been recorded—the psychological depths he plumbed wouldn’t have been noted. Cassidy employed a ritualistic mindset—he sucked in three rapid “cooling breaths” and the hairs on the back of his arms stood erect as his pores opened. He was a Zen psych master demonstrating the physical manifestations of an aroused and elevated mental state.
My friend of forty years, Kirk Karwoski, was a psych master of the first order. He routinely morphed himself into an insane maniac before a big lift. It was a grand sight to see this Viking mound of muscle psych himself up before storming onstage to shatter yet another world record. Karwoski psyched himself up to increase his ability in both training and competition, not for show. Why would men like Karwoski need the ability to psych up to high degrees if they never attempted to exceed their capacity? Do we ever need to get psyched up over a sub-maximal attempt? Yes, for the following reasons:
- To learn how to focus in training
- Focused training leads to concentration, resulting in more reps
- Focus and concentration are necessary to hone technique
- The little man inside our head falls silent as we are absorbed by the training
- At the highest level, the entire workout is performed with a concentrated focus
- We psych up to increase the quality and productivity of the workout
- Alternate intensity-based training with volume-based training is useful for the required contrasting effects
The amount of sheer physical effort required to trigger hypertrophy—and acquire new levels of strength and power—is a hotly debated topic. Many believe that low volume/moderate intensity will get the job done as well or better than a classical “hardcore power” approach (high intensity/low volume). The safe and sane orthodox approach to resistance training advises to ‘always leave a rep or two in reserve.’ With a high volume/moderate intensity approach, the trainee would work up to 5 sets of 5 reps, and if the trainee was capable of performing 6-8 reps, he’ll squat 5×5 with power in reserve.
I came up in the world of hardcore low volume/high intensity strength training. Our approach was decidedly different—we trained together only once or twice a week. The classical pre-competition power session workouts were:
Saturday: squat and bench press
Wednesday: deadlift and overhead press
“They did not build that muscle with sub-maximal effort.”
The giants of yesteryear displayed incredible muscle mass that made it easy to see why and how they could achieve world records. They bore the weight, not the equipment. They didn’t build their incredible muscle mass with sub-maximal effort. They built thick, functional muscle by exerting incredible physical effort in every training session. This effort was of such magnitude and intensity that it threw the hypertrophic switch. When a muscle is taxed up to or past its capacity, the muscle is forced to adapt. With self-inflicted stress of a certain magnitude, adaptation and growth must occur. We strategically utilized only a few exercises to repeatedly stress specific muscles or muscle groups.
During the workout, something sufficiently stressful—the cellular equivalent of a nuclear detonation—must occur to trigger hypertrophy. This will not happen with casual, contained, sensible effort. Something as profound as the creation of new muscle fiber only occurs with a great magnitude of effort. The resulting cellular fission and creation brings concurrent increases in power and strength. Dramatic increases in power, strength and muscle size can only occur as a result of profound, self-inflicted muscular stress. How else could it happen?
Muscular stress must occur in the fertile fields of anabolism. The eternal prescription for building power is to satisfy the anabolic prerequisites, then engage in a hardcore power training session. The anabolic prerequisites include consuming plenty of potent, nutrient-dense food, while staying rested and stress-free. This kind of training and lifestyle, followed diligently will forcibly transform a man. One crucial secret is the ability to approach or exceed limits without injury. The old pros knew how to miss a rep safely and they also know that 90% of resistance training injuries occur when a lifter strays outside the technical boundaries of a lift. We never contort, twist, bend, or jerk during a lift.
Marty Gallagher, author of The Purposeful Primitive, is an underground legend. Mentored by a Hall-of-Fame strength athlete as a teenager, Marty set his first national record in 1967 as a 17-year old Olympic weightlifter; he set his most recent national record in 2013 as a 63-year old powerlifter. He is a former world powerlifting champion who turned his attention to coaching athletes and devising individualized training templates for the finest strength athletes in the world. Read more about Marty here.