My Training Philosophy
by Jon Smoker
My basic philosophy concerning the iron game is that it should be used as an adjunct to help slow the aging process and prolong one’s life. After all, the main cause of accelerated aging and a shortening of one’s life span is an improper lifestyle. Any weightlifting devotee can tell you that his favorite hobby and a destructive lifestyle do not mix.
If one is to succeed at lifting weights as opposed to just piddling with them now and then, one must first of all not train heavy all the time. It taxes the joints too much and does not train the cardiovascular system. A well-rounded weight program should always include some phases (if not all the time) where the trainee is using lighter weights, higher repetitions and non-stop workouts, so that the body gets a rest from heavy lifting and receives life supporting cardiovascular work. Running, too, is a good addition to this type of training. In fact, for the person who merely lifts weight to improve their health, this type of training would not be bad year round, as long as some variety in the exercises and workouts was used.
Of course, exercising with weights is not an end in itself for improving one’s health. When someone constantly tears muscle tissue down from weightlifting, the proper nutrients must be taken in or the rebuilding process will not be complete. The kind of diet which seems to fulfill this requirement best is one comprised of natural, unprocessed foods (fruits and vegetables, preferably raw), rich in fiber, free from salt. sugar, caffeine and other irritants, containing a minimum amount of fat, including that found in red meat, and plenty of water.
One must include plenty of rest. The body cannot be torn down constantly from lifting and then not given time to recuperate without it eventually breaking down in some capacity.
All of the above require discipline, or the effort to arrange one’s priorities in such a way as to maximize the possibility of achieving whatever goal it is that the individual has set for himself. And this bringing to order of one’s lift should also include the effort to minimize stress. One cannot be successful at lifting weights when there is too much stress in their personal of business life. And there are many methods available now to minimize stress, whether it be through meditation, self-hypnosis, yoga or something else.
Minimizing stress is integrally related to the other four items. If one has an ordered lifestyle, gets plenty of rest, eats properly and does cardiovascular exercising regularly, the management of stress becomes much easier. In fact, the five items combined represent a basic formula that most health experts would recommend to avoid heart disease, minimize the chance of contracting cancer and promote the longevity of one’s life.
Enter the competitive lifter. I there any place in this little scenario for him? Naturally, it depends on what branch of the iron game one is talking about. I think there can be no question that natural bodybuilding does have a place; and notice that I used the word natural. If one’s stated goal is to increase the possibility of longevity, it would seem that any drug, foreign agent, irritant – whatever you want to call it – would be counterproductive to such an end. And I am sure we are all familiar with pictures of natural bodybuilders, particularly those in age group competitions who appear to be glowing examples of good health. And it is no illusion. If they are eating properly, and they almost have to be, then they must fell as great as they look. One need look no further than John Grimek for a perfect example. Although chronologically he is at an advanced age (1984), he still works out and has enough physical conditioning and vitality to put men half his age to shame. The editor of this magazine is another good example. After a lifetime spent in the iron game, he is still vigorous enough to be editing this magazine full-time, although he is at an age when most people have retired. Personally, I find such examples very inspiring. They certainly take some of the chill from the thoughts we have of growing old, thoughts we are taught to dread by popular culture. They are living proof that old age does not have to be dreadful at all. It need not be feared because it can be just as productive as any other period in our lives.
Now, what about powerlifting? I certainly have a vested interest here, being a competitive powerlifter myself, and I think the answer is a qualified yes; it can be an aid in the quest for longevity, depending on how the sport is approached. If the athlete is totally obsessed with winning and throws all caution to the wind, then, unless he comes from an incredibly strong hereditary background, I think it is safe to assume that he will not be lifting much past thirty, let alone into middle age. But, it the athlete sets modest foals for himself and is patient with minor injuries, choosing to work around them instead of through them until something breaks or snaps; then, I believe powerlifting is compatible with the stated goal of this article.
You see, I have believed for a long time that up to a certain point, which varies for each individual, the body gets stronger as one gets older, well past 40. In fact, I can remember when Gordie Howe came out of retirement to play hockey again around 45, he remarked that his reflexes and timing had slowed, but he felt stronger than when he was younger. I think it has something to do with accumulated life stresses. If one has encountered a normal amount of stress in one’s life, and has been able to overcome it, then the accumulated effect is that one gets stronger. Thus, the task of the powerlifter who wants to prolong his career is not so much to push and push, but to not set up obstacles in the way of this natural force coming though his body which continues to get stronger.
Whenever one has a nagging injury, one should work around it. If, for example, one has a shoulder injury that bench pressing aggravates, one should cut way down in the amount of weight used or eliminate bench presses altogether for awhile. Then, experiment with various shoulder exercises from different angles, use the ones that do not irritate it and work toward rehabilitation. This is what it means to work around an injury. You will be amazed at how much of your strength will be maintained in the meantime. I have used a program like this and found that I could go to a competition and still press 95% of my best. It does not take that much to maintain that kind of percentage. It is getting that last 5% and more that requires a lot of hard, heavy lifting. Eventually the injury will work itself out and you can begin heavy training again. It just takes thought and patience.
Now, is this not preferable to working it to the point where the rotator cuff is damaged and requires surgery? Apparently not if one is only concerned with winning. This is what lifters mean when they say listen to your body. It will tell you when it wants to move forward and when certain parts need a rest. And, if you listen to it carefully enough, you will find an inexorable movement toward greater strength. Powerlifting is dotted with examples of what I am talking about. Ernie Frantz comes immediately to mind. I have heard him say more than once that he pays attention to the stiffness of his joints and that will indicate when he can train really hard. And so his career has been checkered with ups and downs, but inevitably, when his body is ready, he still hits personal bests sometimes, even though he is now approaching 50.
I think it is also quite important for the powerlifter to take time off for “working-rest” periods, as I like to call them. This would be a time when the athlete takes a few months off from heavy lifting. While the younger lifter can get away with doing nothing and pull it back together, I think it is a mistake for the older lifter to become inactive during these phases. He needs to get out and engage in other sports that he likes and engage in some light bodybuilding. That way, his body has a chance to heal up from heavy lifting, but the muscles do not atrophy form lack of use.
No matter how many precautions one takes or how sensibly they might train, there will come a time when progress stops and Father Time catches up. What then?
At that point the lifer must make a decision to retire and lift weights for the fun of it, or compete in age group competitions. Thank goodness there are such tournaments for those who don’t want to quit! And those who choose to go on lifting must begin to look at things in a relative fashion, rather than in terms of progress: “How am I doing in comparison to other lifters my age?” Or for a real ego boost, in comparison to the average person their age. Or, in a particularly good year they might be able to compare how they are doing compared to last year, rather than twenty years ago. After all, isn’t that what competitive lifting is always ultimately about anyway – setting realistic goals for oneself and then striving to achieve them?
When a person hits the point of “no return” surely varies each individual, depending on their genetic background. And so we witness a person like Jim Lem, who is still making progress in his mid-50’s. In fact, I think that theoretically a person might come along who will be able to make progress right on into old age. If their genetic background were strong enough I do not see any laws of physiology that would prohibit this from happening in some rare individual. It is a law of nature that if enough stress is applied to a muscle and it is given sufficient rest and nutrition, it will respond by getting stronger. Thus we see a few powerlifters over 60 who got into the game late who progress. Whether of not they could be stronger than they were when they were younger had they gotten into lifting when they were younger is for now a moot point, until further evidence comes in.
All I know is that I have been in the game long enough to see some amazing things – people crippled from polio or paraplegics lifting impressive weights – to come to an unshakable faith in the indomitability of some human spirits. They have overcome physical defects, loss of limbs – why not old age? Consider Curd Edmonds, who made a lifetime (and world) record of 117 chins at age 67, and Roy Mason, who made a 529 deadlift at 148 when 64 years of age.
What about longevity and the third branch of the iron game, Olympic lifting? Here we have a horse of a different color as success in Olympic lifting certainly depends on many athletic qualities that seem to diminish as middle age approaches, such as flexibility, speed, timing, reflexes, etc. It is also a sport notoriously hard on the joints, especially the knees. It is no wonder that in communist countries they have the expression, “You die for the Olympics.” It is not meant to be a sport of longevity. It is meant to be a one or two shot deal, and that is usually just what their athletes are once their careers are over – shot. But, basically, the Olympic lifter will have to make the same decision that the powerlifter of bodybuilder has to make; what to do when progress stops. Once again, thank goodness for the age group competitions which allow Olympic lifters to go on competing.
In conclusion, I have to admit that I have a secret admiration for the “garage” weightlifter, the guy who is content with not to project his ego onto a weightlifting platform or posing dais, a guy who merely lifts weights because he enjoys it and knows it is contributing to his overall health, I guess, here we are in the area of quality of one’s life. Competitive powerlifting enriches my life in a way that nothing else quite does. Those brief moments on the platform seem to allow me to transcend all the grief and misery and stresses that life can sometimes throw at a person, and maybe lifting even gives me a vision of a Higher Power. To me, it is a little bit of heaven this side of earth. Yes, it is always a bit of a religious experience for me as I am always praying that I will not get hurt and that through God’s grace I might be able to impart a little inspiration into the lives of the few people who follow my career.
In the end it is a calculated risk. It is always in the back of my mind that sometimes I might experience a debilitating injury, that for health reasons I would be better off not competing and pushing myself. Yet, some of us have egos that force us to dare to be different, to strive to do things that the average person cannot and maybe in doing this inspire someone, or uplift them to do greater things in their personal lives. But, does this quest necessarily have to be mutually exclusive of a long and healthy lifespan? If one puts enough planning, patience and common sense into their lifting career, hopefully not. And I am glad this desk is made of wood because I am knocking on it, for a little bit of luck is the final ingredient that never hurt anyone, regardless of their goals in life.