Author Archives: John McKean

All-ROUND Grip Strength

by John McKean

Rob McKean showing total body work (and enjoyment!) from squeezing the life out of dear old Dad!

My neighbor once shouldered a 604 pound wrestler and body-slammed him.  A gym full of iron game devotees also witnessed him doing a strict bench press of 330 pounds for 38 consecutive reps – no wraps, no suit, no drugs! Except for a busy work schedule, my old buddy would have challenged Paul Anderson for a berth on the ’56 Olympic weightlifting team.   Art Montini knew him as a fellow “Odd-lift” competitor (curl, bench press, press-behind-neck, squat, deadlift – like a version of All-Rounds, before official powerlifting!). You may know him as Bruno Sammartino! Yes, THAT Bruno – pro wrestling’s “Living Legend,” the athlete responsible for selling more tickets than any wrestler in history!

Before breaking in to the pro ranks, Bruno set all Pittsburgh heavyweight lifting records and even won a physique contest or two. During very intense workouts, however, his most unusual exercise, always thinking toward wrestling, was to grip a long, heavy boxing bag and squeeze for all he was worth. We would call this a “bear hug,” and the young lion eventually acquired the power to EXPLODE these rugged combinations of thick canvas and sand! In his first crack at the heavyweight wrestling title (in what was later revealed to be much more of a serious grudge match than “entertainment”), Bruno applied his very brutal gripping hold onto longtime champion Buddy Rogers, acquiring a submission within 47 seconds of the match!

The total body Iso-Hug on a sparring mannequin, for all-round grip strength

Naturally, we young teens were anxious to emulate our hero’s training procedures. I found the heavy bag squeeze to be superb grip strength training, not only pumping the forearms, but also going full circle to yield arm, delt, and pec strength. Heck, the hips, legs, and back were intensely involved too – truly an all-round gripping exercise!! Since the material always “gave” a bit when hugged with intent, what started as an “isometric exercise” of sorts ended up more as a short range type movement, as in subsequent power rack lifts.

The old sand bags are still around, but few of our weightlifting gyms have them. I suppose you could sneak up and try this on a lifting partner – though I did this once with Art, and he BIT me (of course, I found out the hard way that Art was actually an undefeated collegiant wrestler in his early years!). These days, however, there are lifelike mannequins that provide a realistic type body gripping (see photos) and supply a rugged “moving isometric” form of work. Or you could build a bag – fill it with stones, sand, or straw.

John exploding the top of a small sparring bag with his killer headlock !

One old time wrestler, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, a generation before Bruno, built himself a special skull sized bag to religiously train his deadly headlock. It was said no other wrestler, back in the 1920s when the professional sport was entirely legitimate, could ever defeat him. In fact, his crushing arm grip was so intense that even willing sparring partners were hard for ole Ed to come by! I can personally attest to the gripping STAMINA that a headlock squeeze will yield; if one holds on, giving his all, for a minute or more to a small bag, then the forearms and biceps feel swollen to Mr. Universe proportions!

WE in the USAWA pride ourselves on lifts that work the total body! Throw away those wimpy little hand grippers or soft tennis balls, and grab onto something that’ll cause all-round crunching effort!

Art’s Big Hook

by John McKean

John McKean demonstrates a band hookup for the 2-Bar Deadlift using a big S hook that attaches to his belt.

“SPROOOONG! SPLAT!!”  Those two sounds had Art Montini and the rest of the gym in stitches -complete howling laughter throughout the Ambridge VFW Barbell cavern!  The object of their mirth was this ever experimental author proving once again that some flex band set ups don’t adapt too well to certain all-round lifts!

You see, I’d looped each end of a band around the bar (braced from around my upper back) and attempted to do a pullover and push with the set up.  Overestimating the combined resistance, the push went halfway up then ROCKETED back down, the barbell being vigorously propelled by the stretched flex band!  Looking back, I think it must have appeared pretty darn funny, but at the time I felt like one of Al’s shotgunned ducks!

A close-up view of Art's Big Hook.

After that awkward episode, I became a bit more cautious toward THINKING how to best apply the advantages of bands to the individual mechanics of lifts!  And I determined that some moves can be done with a SECTIONED approach (not actually involving a wrap around the bar) to applying extra resistance.  For instance, in certain balanced moves such as one arm deadlifts, Zerchers, and two bar deadlifts the regular grips and positions can be taken, but the band pressure -sometimes considerable extra band pressure- can be simultaneously applied to just the thighs and hips. All that is necessary is a BIG “S” hook to attach the middle of a band to one’s lifting belt, leaving both ends of the band to wrap securely around the feet.  So, in a constant vigil to keep me from killing myself on our gym platform, good ole Art ,the man of steel, made one for me!

Recently I’ve been using this approach toward training the two bar deadlift.  As the above photo shows, I am free to grab the bars in a normal manner, with the bars’ delicate balance unimpeded by extra forces.  The band pressure goes just to the thighs and hips, not adding a lot of extra work, but certainly adding to the chore without necessity of hitting max poundage or leading to burn out.  Really , it’s like doing two exercises at once.  All the usual band advantages are there -this set up thwarts acceleration,yet encourages speed & finishing strong; concentration on the extra stress actually TEACHES proper form and channels power for two bar deadlifts.

OK, get yourself a big hook and add this” harnessed leg lift” into some of your pulling movements & deadlift types! Remember, you don’t want to ever shoot for an overburdening extra resistance, just enough to make the combined exercise “interesting”!

All-Round Approach – Part 2

by John McKean

Positioning for a band/bar deadlift. Notice the stepping on bands to yield initial tautness. Also note the thick bar for increased grip strength development.

Recently, a friend from England named Eddie Quinn used his long years in martial arts to develop an amazing, condensed self defense system that he calls THE APPROACH (  Eddie has asked me to create a strength routine that would benefit his many students around the world. Of course, I’d like to share it with our all-rounders as well!  I can think of nothing better than a few key all- round lifts using my minimum equipment oriented, energy conserving band/bar moving isos.  I’ve included some photos to show how I place the bands over a barbell and how to anchor these strands of stretch rubber by merely stepping on them.  Originally Mr. Quinn requested I make a DVD of the actual lifts, but my grubby face and strained expression would probably scare off any and all future students – we have much better looking all rounders demo-ing these mechanics in our ever growing library of You-Tube videos here on site!

Midway into the pull. Note that band tension will increase resistance toward lift completion. Fight this - try to ACCELERATE!

So, Eddie, here are the lifts to search, off to the right of this main page: JEFFERSON (for all important thigh and hip drive, to thrust in with authority on an opponent), BENT OVER ROW (immense straight in pulling power development to rip an attacker right off his feet), CLEAN AND PUSH PRESS (explosive arm thrusting via leg drive, for major league hammerfists and elbows), and 2” THICK VERTICAL BAR LIFTS (absolute best for gripping strength, when you need to hold-on, to literally tear a limb off!).  For each lift, place a medium strength rubber band (I suggest “mini monster bands”) over the bar and perform a set of three reps, adding a bit of weight to go to a second set of two. Do this every other day, starting with relatively “easy” weight at first – you won’t FEEL fatigued, but it sure takes a toll on the musculature and requires 48 hours recuperation.  Be dynamic for each rep (which should be done as singles with slight pauses between each attempt) by starting with control and power then accelerating throughout the movement (try to “beat the bands”).  When the weight becomes too easy, be progressive and add just a bit more – over time this builds way up, with genuine functional strength developing that sticks with you for a lifetime!

Bands doubled and affixed to a Jump Stretch base stand.

Oh, by the way, this routine is not limited to martial artists.  Every wrestler, football player, track man/woman, and all rounder can experience huge gains with this 15 minute workout! And a quick, intensive strength workout leaves plenty of time for an athlete’s main skill development training. Just as Eddie Quinn preaches economy of movement for optimum personal protection, gym time should also hammer directly to the core of your power base.

All-Round Approach – Part 1

by John McKean

Bill March pressing 390# in strict style.

During the 60s renowned York Barbell Club weightlifter Bill March set national and world press records, won major Olympic lifting championships, took a Mr. Universe title, and was even invited to pro football tryouts.  At his most efficient, Bill completed his actual daily power rack lifting in 24 SECONDS!  His York teammate, Lou Riecke, did similar isometric routines, total training time of less than a minute, to break a world snatch record.  Later, Lou took his methods to the NFL as one of the first pro strength coaches – he helped a then mediocre little team known as – AHEM – the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl rings!  In this same time period, a rather large teenage track & field star named Gary Gubner used short range rack moves to build such phenomenal strength that he established world indoor records in the shot put AND earned himself a spot on the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Team.

Unfortunately power rack routines didn’t quite stick.  Sessions seemed over before they began, movement range was too short, lifts were way too intense when done correctly, and, for the vain, no “pump” created.  Well, they did work very well for me, but even I got bored (and you guys know what a slug I am!).  So, some years ago (long after my original heavy weight power rack experiments) I started placing rubber flex bands over the barbell, did full range all round lifts thus “handicapped,” and termed them “moving isometrics.”  Like Bill March’s short range isos, momentum and acceleration were thwarted to yield solid, pure push through every inch of an exercise.  Yet the bands encouraged more SPEED and finish (actually, “pushing through” the top rather than “braking,” which somewhat discourages total effort).  Best of all, maximum results came from band/bar lifts that were NOT total, all out, explode-your-arteries, max weight killers.  In fact, from my findings, these work best with a comfortable barbell weight of 60-70% of one’s best single.  Even now, as “early middle age” (65!!!) approaches, these moving isos are giving me substantial gains on most lifts.

Coming Tomorrow

Part 2 of the All-Round Approach of properly using band resistance in your training.

All-Round Lifting, Jungle Style

by John McKean

John McKean "places his best foot forward" in setting up for a dumbbell deadlift using the modified T-Stance.

Big bellied and bubbly, the kindly, bespeckled old timer reminded me of a favorite uncle. Indeed, he chattered on endlessly and always treated me as a long lost, cherished relative. But, as a large man, he always stood kinda funny — his rear foot constantly at a 45 degree outward angle with the front foot’s heel jammed at its center, toes pointing directly at you. Seemed narrow and uncomfortable, oddly insufficient to balance a 280 pound person. Yet, I learned later that if he ever moved that front foot toward anyone while angered, that individual would become an instant corpse! You see, this absolute MASTER of the Indonesian martial art of Silat was once written up in a major magazine series entitled “The Deadliest Man on the Planet.” And, as I was informed from his senior students, during his covert assignment by our government during WW2 many U.S. enemies, as their final sight on earth, witnessed the lightning like speed and deadly power behind that stance!

The proper foot placement for the T-Stance. It may be used for any lift that requires the heels to be together.

So, years back, from training this art and experiencing firsthand the balance and channeled strength afforded by its modified “T -stance,” I adjusted it to experiment on certain all-round lifts. Surprisingly, the unusual footwork gave superior performance in the heels together press, and as the beginning stage (before slight foot opening for position) of the Jefferson and one arm Hack, among others.

Recently I played around with the one arm dumbbell deadlift in preparation for the Boston Gold Cup meet, and found my Indonesian stance was IDEAL for that awkward lift. The problem with the big plated dumbbell pull is that the DB handle is too far out from your body, thus thwarting initial power, and twisting uncontrollably as it ascends up the thighs. So I began with my right foot jammed in between the plates, shin almost touching the bar. The foot was at the best angle I could achieve, tho not quite 45 degrees. My left foot would begin at the outward plate, a few inches from the approximate center of my inner-DB foot, then I would advance it a bit to allow room for the pull. I discovered that my arm was afforded an absolute straight down position for a perfect initial deadlift pull, and that it rested within my right thigh so as not disturb the direct path of the big dumbbell (the weight, not me!). Just a bend of my legs yielded all power from hips and thighs, rather than stress and twisting of the lower back – really, more of a squat than a deadlift.

The tribesmen living within the highland jungles of West Java, where my Silat mentor was raised and taught, knew a thing or two about pinpoint balance and exacting body positioning for exerting maximum power. In their dangerous environment they HAD to! We in all-rounds can also certainly experiment and adapt our own individual structures as a means to stand solidly and “kick butt” on the record book!

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