Understanding the politically incorrect relationship between calories, strength and muscle
In the history of strength and muscle building, no other group of athletes has come close to developing the power, strength and gigantic muscle size that elite American powerlifters regularly attained from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s. The massive—but functional and athletic—physiques these men routinely built on a widespread basis have not been matched before or since. Using an elegantly simplistic method, these athletes obtained results and world records which remain unsurpassed to this day.
Their system was the unarticulated consensus of the power elite. Instead of having a single author, the system was the distilled essence of the training experience shared by hundreds of elite strength athletes obtained over 20 years. It was the power and strength equivalent of the Manhattan Project—the athletes conducted their own scientific strength research but shared the same allegiance to the truth. This truth about training and obtaining factual results had to be untainted by commercial interests. In commercial fitness, miraculous results are first proclaimed for a fitness tool, product or system. Next, flawed, faux “science” and outright lies are spun to sell the miracle product.
The power and strength system based on the unspoken consensus was universally used by the uber-elite. It is pure and completely untainted by commercial interests. The system is devoted to tangible, measurable, finite, real-not-imagined results. The power elite of that time followed the truth of real results wherever it led them. They were strength monks hammering out their Iron Bible. The eventual truths led these power monks to a strange final destination, a destination so odd and so unexpected that its lessons and methods—despite being unbelievably effective—have been purged from the annals of resistance training.
On rare occasions you will see an article about a great lifter of yesteryear, but his methods and their universal effectiveness are forgotten and ignored. Why? It’s because the truth about power and strength has fallen afoul of our politically correct times. Some truths are too hard to swallow and too harsh to be accepted—or even allowed.
The finalized strength system that eventually evolved was a true consensus of the power elite. The system’s widespread usage was due to its success on the lifting platform. Its proponents were the athletes who kicked sand in the faces of all the other powerlifters nationally and internationally. No spin machines were behind this system, it was popular for one simple reason—the incredible results it obtained on a widespread basis.
The system worked for average men and elite athletes. No matter how high or low the physiological starting point, a diligent user of this system always obtained real results. Executed correctly, it was physiologically impossible not to add strength and size. This uniquely American strength system was initially conceptualized in the mid-1960s by pioneering power men like my iron mentor, Hugh “Huge” Cassidy, the first superheavyweight world powerlifting champion. Huge and other early power pioneers—superstar lifter/athlete John Cole, John Kuc and Larry Pacifico—were feeling their way along while creating a never-before-seen system with a progress-inducing strength template specific to this strange new sport of powerlifting.
The questions they asked were: What is the best way to maximize our three-lift performance? What is the best way to increase our single-repetition maximum in each of the three powerlifts?
Formal powerlifting began in 1964. Early powerlifters constructed training templates drawn from the premier strength sport at the time, Olympic weightlifting. Other primordial power men constructed their training templates using the power bodybuilding tactics of men like Reg Park and Marvin Eder.
While it seemed logical and appropriate to use these existing strength and muscle-building systems as a starting point for creating pure power templates, both Olympic weightlifting and bodybuilding were ultimately a bad fit. Weightlifting and bodybuilding are primarily volume-based training strategies.
The new sport of powerlifting had characteristics which led pioneers to conclude that the body-shattering poundage they routinely handled needed an intensity-based approach. Elite weightlifters and bodybuilders trained a lot. There’s nothing wrong with volume, Reg Park, Marvin, Bill Pearl, Ray Hiligren, Pat Casey, and a slew of other 1950s greats built incredible bodies and awesome power with marathon lifting sessions. But, power pioneers reasoned that for their own purposes, less volume would be better.
The proponents of high volume training were working with the flawed science of the times. This faux science dictated that lifters and bodybuilders had to train the same muscle every 48 hours, or risk losing physiological gains. At the time, they falsely believed a muscle began to rapidly atrophy and weaken 48 hours after training. Trainees were told that their strength and power would start disintegrating within a few days of a session.
Muscles were described as balloons with slow leaks requiring a refill every 48-hours or they would deflate completely.
Men were told to train the same muscle three times weekly to preserve it and progress. Training three times a week wasn’t a big deal to John Q.
Average bench pressing 100 pounds for 8 reps and back deadlifting 185 for 5 reps. But, power men discovered that benching 440 raw for 5 reps, squatting 600 for 5 reps, and deadlifting 635 for 5 reps—all in the same week, three times per week—was physiological suicide. Woody Allen was once asked if sex was dirty. “If it’s done right!” he responded. It’s the same with hardcore do-it-right power training. If it’s done right, power training sessions are savage, brutal, and body-shocking in the extreme.
While the orthodox experts of the time issued dire warnings to the opposite opinion, early power pioneers found out the hard way that too much powerlifting in any one week was counterproductive. Tangible results led the pioneer powerlifters in a very different direction. The truth—manifested as tangible results—led the power elite to consider far more radical methods.
— Olympic weightlifting consisted of the clean and press, snatch (floor to arms length in one motion) and clean and jerk (floor to arms length in two movements). The classical Olympic lifting template of the 1960s trained the press, power snatch, full-squat snatch (or split snatch), power clean, clean and jerk, and front and back squat twice a week in two long “whole body” sessions. On Saturday, the lifter would “total out” by turning the weekend training session into a 3-lift mini-competition, working up to a single rep in the clean and press, snatch, and clean and jerk. Then the lifter would finish the workout with 1-5 rep sets of heavy squats.
— Power bodybuilding in the 1960s was primal and excruciating. The orthodox training template trained the entire body three times a week. Exercises for body parts could be substituted session to session. Sessions were incredibly long—bodybuilders would routinely perform 3-4 exercises per body part and 3-5 sets per exercise. Imagine endless hours spent performing upwards of seventy sets per session! Reps were high, in the 8-15 range.
Powerlifters discovered they were not recuperating between sessions when they attempted a three-times-per-week training template. A top powerlifter could handle 600 to 700 pounds in the raw squat—imagine trying to squat 600 x 5 reps on Monday, 610 x 5 on Wednesday, and 620 x 5 on Friday? What a horrendous strain on thighs, hips, lower back, hamstrings and spinal column—not to mention the central nervous system! Then add some more trauma to this squat horror show by simultaneously (in the same week) deadlifting 615 x 5 on Monday, 625 x 5 on Wednesday and 635 x 5 on Friday. The squat/deadlift duo doubled the damage because limit deadlifts and limit squats work many of the same muscles—hips, upper thighs, lower back and hamstrings.
For any man handling 500+ pounds, squatting three times a week was proving impossible even before adding three 500+ deadlift sessions! Too much heavy training created massive negative effects which couldn’t be ignored or overcome. Frequent training with truly heavy weight was impossible. So, for pure power purposes, too much powerlifting was proving counterproductive.
Power sessions were slashed from three times a week to twice a week. This was a huge break from orthodox conventional thinking. Next, any and all exercises that didn’t contribute to the lone power goal of building a bigger squat, bench press and deadlift were removed from the workouts. Snatches, cleans, jerks, and non-essential bodybuilding exercises were all jettisoned. The misty outlines of the system began to emerge. Each month the best American lifters’ training was outlined in our bible, Powerlifting USA Magazine. We developed a primitive communication network, and for the first time strength information was shared and pondered on a widespread basis. By the 1980s one system had emerged and was being used almost exclusively.
Virtually every elite lifter and world record holder used this particular approach, despite the fact there was no reason to use it other than wanting to obtain results. Its lack of commercial value ensured its purity and contributed to its demise. The system’s broad outlines and protocols can be summed up in a few sentences:
— Devote 85% of available training time to the squat, bench press and deadlift
— Above all else, try to increase single rep max strength in the three lifts
— Compliment the three power lifts with a select few “assistance” exercises
— Perform each core exercise once per week
— Goals are set in a classic “straight-line 12-week periodization cycle”
— Each week for 12 weeks, training poundage is raised and reps are lowered
— “Signature” techniques should be developed, honed and refined
— For 10-12 straight weeks, the lifter seeks to purposefully increase his body weight
The last point, purposefully adding body weight, is—and forever shall remain—the deal breaker for the modern trainee. It’s why this amazing system became extinct. The idea of trying to purposefully gain body weight is counter to everything modern fitness believes. With the entire fitness world geared towards dieting, eating less, leaning out and becoming “healthy and fit,” adding body weight sounds insane. People are starving in Botswana and here you are stuffing your face. Besides, you are going to blur the delineation of your beach muscles. Are you really willing to outgrow those $300 size 32 Tommy Hilfiger custom jeans?
Consuming substantial amounts of the demonic dietary nutrient, saturated fat intensifies the nutritional immorality. Purposefully eating excess calories was bad enough, now this system purposefully sanctions consuming saturated fat? This is nutritional water boarding for the modern metro sexual.
Old time adherents like Huge Cassidy would routinely guzzle four quarts of whole milk each and every day—in addition to eating regular meals—for the necessary supplemental calories to recover, heal and grow after his bi-weekly slaughter-fest power sessions.
Old timers will tell you, fat at 9 calories per gram, is fabulous for accelerating muscle-healing, inducing muscle growth, and increasing power after a crushing workout. The idea of high intensity power training combined with high calorie eating—including saturated fat—was just too much for the sensible modern man.
Modern man might want additional muscle, but he certainly doesn’t want it bad enough to engage in sanctioned gluttony. One can see why the most effective muscle-building progressive resistance system was destined to die a slow and tortured death. Despite its continued and unrivalled effectiveness, it was—and is—too politically incorrect to exist. This system is a public health menace on par with smoking. To recklessly recommend this lift-and-stuff system—even to eager young American alpha males seeking size and power—is evil, akin to handing out packs of cigarettes to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. Those who recommend it should be attacked by packs of wild lawsuit lawyers seeking damages for youth whose lives were wrecked as a result of following this system.
The system was driven into exile and died in direct proportion to the new “fitness revolution” of the 1980s. This “revolution” ushered in the low-fat and no-fat era, soy products, aerobics, Nautilus, and the old Jane Fonda aerobic dance craze.
I am here to resurrect and defend the most politically incorrect of all strength systems. Power training combined with unapologetic calorie slamming is far too effective a muscle and strength system to be allowed to die for PC reasons. Damn the preconceptions of the imperious fitness elite. I hope there still remains a sizable number of reckless, crazed, alpha-male types, MEN in the relentless pursuit of power and functional athletic muscle—MEN unafraid to try radical methods for radical results. This is a call to arms for the thin and pathetically weak. System practitioners routinely add 10-30 pounds of muscle while increasing raw strength and power from 5% to 25% in the same 90 days. That’s the reason the system was so popular: rapid and radical results.
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.