A Perfect Storm of Spartan Maleness
I came up in an era when our transformational tools were crude, primitive, ultra-basic and limited. The lack of choices worked to our benefit. In hindsight, even though our choices were limited, they were damned excellent—to this day we use and recommend subtle variations of those ancient modes. The exercises, systems and techniques I first used in the 1960s are the same ones we use and recommend today. We had to kiss a lot of fitness frogs in the interim to grok that those first tools, techniques and tactics were better than any others offered up since.
During the past half century, I have examined and test-driven every significant resistance training system designed to enhance strength, power, human performance and body composition. The fundamental truth of resistance training is that nothing trumps the muscle-building, strength-infusing benefits gained from prolonged and expert use of barbells and dumbbells.
When I began training in 1961, resistance machines hadn’t been invented. Other than barbells, dumbbells, and flat and incline benches, the only “machines” we had were a chin/pull-up bar and a homemade set of dip bars. The lat pull-down/push-down device could only be found at the few commercial gyms in existence. Being children of the space age, we assumed that crude barbells and dumbbells would be swept away by a wave of high-tech resistance machines that would allow Joe Average to transform himself into Arnold with one or two machine workouts per week. We were sure this was just around the corner.
In the 1970s, the great egotist Arthur Jones actually played into the idea that high-tech would inevitably sweep aside the low-tech, in a fitness version of the industrial revolution. Jones mocked us, portraying barbell and dumbbell users as idiotic modern versions of Ned Luddite throwing sand into the gears of the machines eliminating his job.
As it turns out, resistance machines are inferior at producing muscle strength and size. We weren’t tempted and that worked to our advantage. Without the sweet seduction of effortless/ineffectual resistance machines, we brutalized ourselves in long sessions exerting savage intensity with our crude tools. When it comes to building power, the cruder—and more difficult—the better. We were forced to use an unwieldy barbell in a time when elaborate overhead lifting was in vogue. I was a baby boomer and we were legion. When the like-minded neighborhood alpha males decided to establish a training lair, my basement was selected.
It was perfect. My father was a widower who worked long hours. He kicked out our Nazi Nanny the day I turned 12—a tale in itself— from that point, it was just two young brothers and a father alone in the big house. Most importantly, the basement had an outside entrance so guys could come and go without disturbing life upstairs. On Monday through Friday, Pop was gone from 6 AM to 6 PM. He’d be around all day Saturday and Sunday. He encouraged our basement lifting scene as long as it was quiet. He never came down—ever. Though he might poke his head down to call on me. Yet, he was friendly and I’d often come home to find my training partners watching TV with my old man. He was brilliant and conversationally engaging, but remote and detached on many levels.
We lifted three times a week in my large, open, dry, well-lit basement. Our five-foot exercise bars were on plywood platforms with plates strewn everywhere. We reinforced a picnic bench for bench pressing and created a set of homemade wooden squat racks, set to one height. We made a dipping station using a basement stair-step and a stepladder. That was our gym. We hit every exercise we could think of in a long straight row…bang! bang! bang!
When a competitive alpha male lifts in front of his peers— superiors and inferiors—it’s easy to generate extraordinary physical effort. In continual show-off mode, a boy learns how to rise to the occasion. Every set of every exercise in every session was a competition. We always tried to best each other, in every lift. We eventually had to set up second and third lifting platforms on weekends to handle the sheer number of teen and pre-teen lifters.
You would think a bunch of prepubescent boys would get bored out of their minds hoisting a stupid barbell in various exercises and quit within a few weeks. One gigantic factor kept that from happening: real, tangible physical results; a stronger, more muscular, leaner, superior athlete. The fantastic thing about weight training is that progress is totally objective— if you overhead press a 155lb barbell for 8 reps on Monday, then make 9 reps on Wednesday, that is tangible progress. When a man adds 100 pounds to his squat in six weeks, that is tangible progress, or when a boy adds ten pounds of lean muscle and girls start noticing. These results fire up an alpha and cause him to redouble his efforts.
I was living in a perfect storm of Spartan maleness: I could dedicate my whole life to muscle and strength building. I was self-motivated—this was my trip, not a case of being pushed by a parent into a sport I hated—I wanted to transform myself into comic book hero proportions. Now I had a large cluster of equally “into the muscle trip” alpha boys who were also digging the results. Plus we were all experiencing a sudden and dramatic raging infusion of testosterone. We ate like pigs, drank milk by the gallon, and stayed lean by playing team sports and running and biking everywhere. We lifted hard, heavy and often before the runaway gusher of male hormones were dumped into our bloodstreams.
We exploded with growth, muscle, and power. Weighing 195 at age 17, I pressed 205 for 10 reps, squatted 405 for 10 reps, and 500 for one raw. My number one training partner, Red Ruggles, benched 350 raw weighing 170. We were hardcore a decade before the term came into existence. I was the group strategist took my cues from 1960s Strength & Health magazines. I wanted to become a lifter, not a bodybuilder and I’ve been grateful I decided to favor function over form ever since. Bodybuilding training concepts are divorced from the reality of poundage or performance. We sought usable athletic power—the kind that could be taken onto the ball field to run people over, or into the ring to knock opponents unconscious.
The earliest strength strategies we embraced as a group were copied from the training templates of elite lifters and power bodybuilders of the day, men like Olympic champion Tommy Kono, Reg Park, and Marvin Eder. The routines could best described as high-volume/high-intensity weight training. The entire body was worked in a single session using a list of exercises as long as your arm. These herculean workouts were done three times per week and some form of improvement was expected in every exercise, every session.
Our training was all barbell (except for dips and chins) and mostly used exercises that allowed us to stand. We would only lie down for bench presses. Starting in 1962, I’d read S&H cover-to-cover and absorbed a lot of solid training information. In retrospect, I feel like the early training tactics I provided our group were dead-on. I was the cruise director for our training group—I provided the exercises and their prescribed order. We did so damn many exercises that everyone’s favorite was included. I took my cues from the lifting and power bodybuilding routines I found in the magazines. As I came across new and exciting stuff in S&H, I would rotate the new exercises in and pull out exercises we were bored with.
- Practiced a wide variety of lifts
- Trained the entire body three times a week
- Limited to barbell training with technical and tactical inventiveness
- 90% of all exercises were compound multi-joint movements
- Strove for technical perfection
- Sought to get stronger
- Sought to add muscle size
- Reps rarely exceeded 10, and were usually in the range of 3-5 reps with many maximum attempts
- Ate big to support intense training
- Created an alpha-male training group
- Began competing at age 12
- Fell in with grown-man lifters by age 15
If you were looking to create a positive environment for an aggressive, athletic, super-intense young teen or preteen which would set them on an effective, intelligent, result-producing strength pathway, you would be hard pressed to come up with a better scenario of circumstance than I had when I first took up the barbell.
Within the wolf pack alpha males initially seek recognition, respect and acceptance. Eventually the true alpha seeks dominance. One surefire way to up your status within the alpha pack is to morph yourself into a physical giant: large, muscular, bull strong and scary. Big and strong always ups a man’s game. I unlocked the secret to big and strong early on…
- Savage weight training
- Continual athletic participation in baseball, football, track, and wrestling
- A blast-furnace metabolism
- Early exposure to harsh natural elements
- Eating ample amounts of recuperative/regenerating calories
My early iron efforts were all directed towards increasing my single rep max in the overhead press, snatch, clean and jerk, squat, deadlift, bench press and chin-ups. Naturally, when the testosterone spigot was suddenly turned on, young master Gallagher gained 20 pounds of muscle every year for four straight years! I began competing and won regional titles almost immediately. I captured my first national Olympic weightlifting title at age 17 and set my first national records: a 260 press and 225 snatch. I power-clean and jerked 330, only to have the lift turned down for press-out. Pete Miller, the longtime president of the District of Columbia Amateur Athletic Union was my first coach. These early experiences and influences molded me physically and psychologically.
I watched in horror as the “fitness revolution” occurred. Suddenly there was money to be made in fitness and dieting and the plain-vanilla old school barbell and dumbbell training was labeled antiquated by a new breed of resistance machine manufacturers. The space age machine people and burgeoning supplement and diet book “experts” seized the fitness soapbox and declared barbell training as nothing more than injurious garbage to be thrown into history’s trash-bin.
The alpha male barbell boys from the basement survived. All the “revolutionary” Nautilus Machines are now piled high in history’s garbage dump, deservedly forgotten. My kind and I have been in self-imposed exile from mainstream fitness for longer than Moses wandered in the desert. Only now do we feel inclined to emerge from our rural and subterranean hideouts and share our collective wisdom with those truly intent on physical transformation. We know exactly how to do it.
The single most important element in the overarching transformational matrix is the art and science of hardcore resistance training. Over the years our tactics and techniques have evolved while staying true to the tools. A barbell, some dumbbells, enough basic equipment to perform our “core four” exercises. That is all we ever wanted or needed.
We understood very early that the panacea promised by resistance machines was a false god, a magnificent golden calf meant to sway us from the true path of progress. Cleaning up the core movements by creating false precision machines that mimicked these movements never fulfilled the promise. Sanitizing resistance training, making it easier and more user friendly, only emasculated it, making it ineffective. Machine devotees are exercise eunuchs who not too long ago lectured and admonished us, driving us into basements, unheated outdoor garages and run down buildings. After the hardcore exodus from mainstream fitness, we went into self-imposed exile. While in exile we continued our eternal quest for improvement. We found ways to survive, thrive, and up our game—mightily.
And now we are back…
In 2008, the mainstream fitness industry underwent a financial Armageddon. The ranks were thinned and it was no accident that the rise of the no-frills CrossFit empire announced the dawn of a new “frugal fitness” era. In the old days—before 2008 and the fall of Fitness Rome—the template for a successful fitness facility was to purchase a franchise, sign a five-year lease, then have enough money and room for twenty high-tech resistance machines and twenty high-tech cardio/aerobic devices. Don’t forget childcare, protein shakes, personal training and tanning. You will also need the services of an on-call techno-dude to keep the expensive gear rolling when it breaks. This business model requires big bank and lots of clients.
While this business model was pure gold in the 80s thorough the 00s, the glitz and lavishness, the excess and hipness crested in 2008. Suddenly the public stopped showing up and the whole house of cards collapsed. In tight times, folks were done paying $120 per month for individuals or $200 for a couple—especially for an activity that delivered negligible results. Honestly, in flush times they loved to go the health club for fun 30-minute workouts on the push/pull machines. They could watch the news on the built-in TV while walking on the stair-stepper. Afterwards club members could take a soak in the steam room, grab a shower, towel off in the sauna, then get a pitcher of beer and a burger at the club grill. As entertainment and fun, it was fabulous—as a result-producing fitness formula, it sucked.
Club members found more important uses—like making a car payment—for the money that had been allotted for dues. The pendulum began a definitive counter-stroke towards a primal revival of old school hardcore progressive resistance training tactics. Like the Sex Pistols destroying the vapid corporate rock of their era, or Nirvana’s angst decimating the soulless hair bands of the 80s, the time is right for primordial training to reemerge into the sunlight. Let us crack our knuckles and share with you all that we’ve learned during our time in deep contemplation and reexamination of the transformational arts.
Time to share what we’ve learned.
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.