by John McKean
“You look like a 3 pound duck ,trying to lay a 5 pound egg !” was my comment to a buddy’s pressing form. Bill Irish had asked me to critique his admittedly powerful overhead lift as he trained for a USAWA record. Now Bill had always specialized in the press, did quite well in this lift for local Olympic style meets (when the press was still part of it), but never mastered the modern form where superstars such as March, Knipp, and Kono thrust hips forward with a lean back to use the body’s musculature to maximum advantage. Rather, Bill always trained like the real oldtimers of he 20s, trying to remain ramrod straight while powering up the barbell with mostly arm& delt strength. The result was, he acquired an inward curve in his lower back, while his tensed butt prominently pointed staight backwards like, well, a duck’s tail ! And though always of a fairly sturdy frame (198-230 pounds), yet trim, he acquired a rather massive set of unwanted glutes. Since he never put much time or effort into squatting,I’m sure his pants splitting size was mostly derived from the ISOMETRIC flexing & tension created by max poundages while using his strange pressing technique over the years.
My favorite quote from the great Norbert Schemansky came when he was asked if he ever did isometrics. “Sure,” laughed mighty Norb, “everytime I miss a lift!” For ,like most of the prominent American lifters of the 40s ,50s, and 60s, every lifting session was essentially like a contest -they’d single up to limit weights,then try one or two more beyond that. In fact, our guys were at the top of the world olympic lifting heap -UNTIL they switched from these all-out programs to the rumored Soviet cycling & percentage programs! But their big weights, and more central to this story, the TOTAL BODY TENSION, built some terrifically rugged physiques. IMO, the training lifts themselves were secondary here, it was the ISO effect that built tremendous size and strength!! I was fortunate enough to watch Schemansky, Knipp, Lowe, Alexeev, Reding, and Rigert go through their programs and onto huge lifts on the platform -all had the muscle density of an above average granite slab! When lifting you could see every rock-like fiber in their bodies flexed to the max ,under the isometric support needed for record weights.In fact, during my teens while watching Mr Schemansky warm up and then proceed to a near world record snatch at a local club, it became such an epiphany as to just what had built those 20″ arms (iso tension from the pulls) that I never bothered with curls or tricep extensions again!
Recently a crossfitter wrote me as to how best to get his max single deadlift up 12 weeks from now, for one of their contests. He admitted he’d been suffering an upper body injury (a recent Sports Illustrated story gave documentation that 73% of these high reppers suffer injury, some requiring surgery) from a previous meet, caused by some form of high rep,light weight maneuver that was used. I informed him that the one universal “secret” of reaching big weights was just to single up, every workout, to a top weight and one beyond that for an iso hold. A strong hint was given that it’s not the high rep ,pumping format that creates strength or true,lasting muscle development, but instead the body tension in struggling with really big weights!
If one would carefully research the methods from the early 1900s to about 1930, all the heralded old time strongmen singled up ,sometimes daily as did Goernor and Saxon, achieving that mind blowing development from the constant total tension throughout their bodies. I really don’t think a heavy singles, max effort program has ever failed anybody (that stuck with it!) since the beginning of organized weightlifting! Though I did have a British guy, Mick, who constantly hounded me for new updates to his routine, report a lack of success -until I found out that he changed “limit singles” down to 80% of maxes, always added many sets of rep curls into any program to delete energy, did all deadlift types WELL OFF the floor in a rack, and would take long layoffs every 3 weeks or so ! In other words, he wouldn’t allow the “glorious pain” of body tension isos, from really pushing limits, to ever cause him discomfort!
Now ,we in all-round training already treat every LIFT, as just that ;not a mere “exercise”! I propose that there is never a need to add high rep” body toning movements” to pump up the ole physique; just go for broke on any of our 150+ maneuvers to let the holds, supports, struggles, and overloads do the building for us! I’ll bet you’ll never see old, “caveman-body” Art Montini running to a modern health spa!!