Training by Trial and Error
From an early age I accepted that I would never make a name for myself at sport. I entered my teen years with a congenital back condition, a light frame and problems with coordination. I was also a late developer. As you can probably tell, I really didn’t rate myself very highly.
I should like to indicate in this article that resistance training, even training which falls short of the highest scientific standards, can not only improve the physique and modify body type, but also significantly enhance coordination, speed, reaction time, balance, precision and steadiness.
I started training with weights when I was eighteen at 5’11” and 155 pounds, concentrating chiefly on the clean & press together with a few other movements. I didn’t bother with good form at all, just did everything and anything it took to get the bar moving. The injuries I inflicted on myself lasted for years.
In 1949, after training on these lines for about a year, I wrote to Joseph Hise, who was working in
Hise was giving the same advice to G.W. Kelling (with whom I was also corresponding). We were both told never to run when we could walk; never to stand when we could sit; never to sit when we could lie down. G.W. was playing the drums in an amateur combo at that time. Joe Hise disapproved of such unnecessary activity – he even disapproved of tapping your foot when you heard music on the radio!
Hise would repeatedly say this state of inaction is not the product of laziness; physical and mental stillness can come only from intelligence and will.
Joe’s second precondition of growth entailed eating heroic quantities of food – not the salads, pastas and dairy products of our day, but steaks, lard, all kinds of meat dishes, stews, sausages, dumplings and puddings. Both Hise and John Grimek could eat seven pounds of steak at a sitting.
These prior conditions were difficult for me to fulfill. I slept badly, I could not relax and I had a very poor appetite. I remember a kindly aunt who used to put fry-ups in front of me that would overflow the plate. They would have made a normal boy drool; all they did for me was make my mouth go dry. I kept trying to eat more but did it as a joyless chore.
The Hise Regime
Joe put me on what’s now the classical Hise regime for the underweight: “dinky squats” followed by round-bench pullovers, shrugs, hopper deadlifts neck exercises. He added the one-arm dumbbell press and barbell curl. He would absolutely not allow any abdominal exercises which, he believed, brought all growth to an end. Hise held that the constant effort of the postural muscles involved in keeping the body perfectly erect would provide optimal exercise for the abdominals.
Erect posture was, for Hise, the essential prerequisite for growth. He often praised the physique and posture of John Grimek. I was struck, when I first met Grimek, by the remarkable erectness of his body. In fact, sitting or standing, he was so erect he seemed to be leaning backwards. I once sat near him in a restaurant and not once during the meal did he relax from this perfect uprightness of spine.
Joe constantly stressed the importance of rationing the intensity and volume of exercise for hard gainers. The extreme hard gainer – classified by William Sheldon and his associates as the ectomorph, characterized by a thin peaked face, high forehead, narrow chest and abdomen, thin arms and legs and a little subcutaneous fat – should be restricted to one or two sets of “dinky” squats of 50–70 pounds, the round-bench pullovers, the hopper deadlift, and one set of shrugs, as core exercises. No more than four other exercises were to accompany these core movements.
In about five weeks I’d jumped from the minimalist squats to bodyweight squats, and then a few weeks later to squats with 200 pounds for 2 sets of 10. Though 200 felt very heavy, I discovered that if I descended fairly quickly and bounced back up from the bottom position the whole movement became much easier. Bad mistake. This was the start of years of knee problems.
The hopper deadlift was performed with 200 pounds. I stood with my knees on either side of a strong kitchen chair and lowered the bar so it made contact with the chair seat and rebounded upwards. I got away with this because I wasn’t using a very heavy weight – otherwise the chair would have collapsed. I should have done this the classic Hise way using tires mounted on the bar, or used a form of his “hopper” platform. Even the “proper” way can be harmful, so I’d caution you against it unless you have a “Hisean” type person who really knows what he’s doing and is willing to supervise you. Hise felt this was a useful developmental exercise for the hard gainer. In later years I worked quite intensively on the regular deadlift as an all around strength and growth exercise.
Joe emphasized that the pullovers were to be performed on a round bench while still breathing heavily from the squats or deadlifts.
The workouts were finished by performing Hise’s “towel exercise” for the neck. A towel is placed on the back of the head (not the neck); the ends of the towel are held in each hand and the head is tilted back against the resistance supplied by the hands.
He told me to perform another exercise throughout the day whenever I had the opportunity, an exercise to stretch out and enlarge my rib cage. One should stand about two feet away from an open door; the hands should be placed on each vertical of the door frame at about head height (or even higher, on the lintel). Next the body should be pushed forward until a strong sensation of stretching is felt in the region of the sternum. Deep breathing should accompany the stretching.
For certain body types this exercise can actually be too effective and eventually make the ribcage look grotesque. It’s a sort of “super Rader chest pull.” Some individual fine-tuning is necessary, for foot and hand positioning, angle of lean, extent of bending the arms, etc., as these factors are influenced by limb and torso length, height and their relative proportions.
I was, during this period, getting attracted to vegetarianism, which was a further hindrance to my following Hise’s instructions on diet. I didn’t dare inform Joe that, far from eating steak, chops, sausages and hash three times a day, I had difficulty in drinking a pint of milk in one go. Three quarters of a pint plus a banana was not a bad accomplishment for me at that point. For a long time I would sit over a meal, eating slowly and without pleasure, feeling uncomfortably full. It took a while before I could manage what the average person would regard as a substantial meal. I noticed all kinds of changes taking place as I progressed with Hise’s training routine. I ate better. I slept better, I relaxed better. Interestingly, I seemed to acquire an intolerance to alcohol (G.W. Kelling noticed this as well). A couple of beers would leave me faintly nauseous.
After two or three months of the basic Hise regime I changed from 2 x 10 x 200 in the squat to 1 x 20 x 200. At the end of about six months I’d progressed to 1 x 20 x 240 in the regular squat and 1 x 10 x 200 in the front squat. I would take several deep breaths before each rep, shrugging the bar high as I inhaled. I feel that front squats performed in this manner are even more productive than regular squats. For many years, front squats were the only squats I did. While I was still breathing deeply from the squats I would follow up with round-bench pullovers. I later added pullovers from a wrestler’s bridge. The wrestler’s bridge is not a good exercise, and doctors frown on it. Some American college wrestling coaches proscribe this exercise.
If I remember correctly, I gained around 15 pounds during six months of Hise training. I was soon to discover, however, that this was not a stable, permanent weight gain. Either the muscle I’d acquired was not of the highest quality, or my body simply didn’t wish to operate at a higher bodyweight.
Off To Sea
I made this disappointing discovery when I went to sea, shortly after this time, to work as a trimmer on a coal-burning ship. Firemen and trimmers worked for four hours on and eight hours off, around the clock. Apart from his other duties, the trimmer has to shovel about six tons of coal from the bunkers to provide the firemen with the coal for the furnaces. When he’s in the bunkers the trimmer is breathing coal dust. When he’s cleaning out the ash-pits of the fires, or damping down the burning clinker, he’s breathing steam smoke. In a couple of months I’d lost much of my bodyweight increase. I couldn’t understand this. There were some remarkable muscular specimens working in that stokehold who seemed to maintain their bodyweight. Did they possess a different sort of muscle, or was their bodily homeostatic system set differently?
Back On Shore
I decided, when I was back on shore, to experiment with mixing Hise training with strength training and endurance training. I hoped to discover, by trial and error, what proportions of these three different training methods would combine to produce the most lasting muscular gains. I didn’t abandon my faith in Hise training as an effective method of stimulating growth (I still attach importance to his teachings). I wanted to determine, however, if it would be possible, simultaneously, to build size, strength and endurance, and at the same time obtain the sort of muscle that doesn’t take flight once the going gets tough.
In the following two or three years my training was patchy, but I never gave up my ambition to build a physique that would have overall competence, i.e., a balance between endurance and strength whereby there would be minimal trade off of one in order to build the other. However, I was no longer aiming for the greatest possible size. If I could gain 20 or 30 pounds of functional tissue above my starting weight I would be satisfied. This was still the limit of what I could sustain and still maintain a high level of endurance. Anything above this level of development would seriously mar my endurance abilities. Hise disapproved of this lowering of my sights, which he construed as a kind of capitulation. He was convinced that a teenager of average height shoud aim for 280–300 pounds as an ultimate goal.
I started to train just twice a week on a pure Hise workout. I added to this one workout when I concentrated on the squat, aiming to keep increasing the weight; I kept to the Hise breathing as I squatted. In this workout I would do some standing presses, repetition power cleans, upright rowing and pullovers from the wrestler’s bridge. Once a week I had a 5x20 deadlift workout – fourth weights session of the week – also working for the highest possible poundage. I was using the high two hundreds for these squat and deadlift workouts. (In later years I went up to 20 pounds less than double bodyweight for 5x20 in the deadlift and 20 pounds plus double bodyweight for 2x10 in the squat.)
The deadlift workouts would have me feeling unwell, and I used to dread the approach of the deadlift day.
I fitted into this some extra exercises which I’d heard were performed by Indian wrestlers. They would perform thousands of repetitions of free squats and a special kind of floor dip. I seem to recall that the squats were called “batticks” and the dips were called “dunds.” Whereas when performing the regular dip your body moves up and down in a vertical line, with the dunds you push yourself forward as you descend so that if you had made a mark on your deltoid the mark would describe an ellipse with the long axis being parallel to the floor. I didn’t manage thousands of reps in the movement, but I used to perform 6–12 sets of 20. People used to remark how my upper body, especially the shoulder girdle, was growing thicker when I was concentrating on this variation of the floor dip.
In order to complete this routine I added to my diet a drink which I heard the Indian wrestlers used to drink in large quantities. This was mild mixed with ghee (kind of liquid butter clarified by boiling). I was also experimenting with other drinks; most contained brewer’s yeast, soy flour, eggs and black molasses; I don’t know whether they helped or not.
At first sight this schedule, which involved working out with the weights four days a week, to say nothing of the supplementary exercises I was doing, might seem excessive. However, it was only the squat and deadlift sessions I found demanding. The Hise workouts left me fresh and on a high. I can offer no explanation of the science that underpins Hise training. In a way that’s hard to specify it gives an impetus, a boost to the effect that any accompanying exercise has on the body.
I ought to add that on the day I performed the squat workout and its additional movements I would sometimes practice the Olympic lifts. This would bring the workout to over two hours.
So each week I was performing a long, hard workout, a shorter hard workout, two easy workouts, and the dips and other exercises were fitted in at odd moments.
I must have hit on the right combination of exercises at just the right intensity at the right age, because this was a period of change in size, general appearance and also perceptual-motor skills. I don’t know why this particular mixture of resistance exercises should improve sensori-motor skills not only involving the big muscle groups, but also the finer movements of the limbs. I’ll mention one example.
At school I’d been bad at catching and throwing. In later life I took part in an experiment designed to analyze the complex skill of catching a tennis ball. This experiment, however, was carried out in a completely darkened laboratory. The ball was projected by a machine towards the subject. As the ball began to move it was illuminated for a fraction of a second. The subject, on the basis of this brief glimpse, had to get his hand (one-handed catching) to where he estimated the ball would be, although now he couldn’t see it. I managed to catch some of the tennis balls that were coming at me in the dark, but I missed more that I caught. When it was all over I apologized to the psychologist, Dr. John Whiting, who was running the experiment, for having performed so badly. Whiting told me that some subjects failed to catch even one ball. He told that I had in fact achieved a high score that equaled that of a
My reaction time, coordination and balance were improving right across the board. My bodyweight was in the one hundred and nineties. My exercise poundages were increasing almost week by week. Everything about my appearance, even my face, was changing.
Hise continued to send me long letters containing his novel ideas on training together with remarks on a wide variety of other, always interesting and individual topics. Unfortunately, after three years our correspondence came to an end. This was my fault. I was now spending more time wrestling than lifting weights. Hise, generous with his time as always, had sent me a few letters suggesting how weight training could be of benefit to wrestlers. It became clear to me, however, that Joe believed I had taken a wrong turn. He sent me a densely-written two-page letter explaining why combat sports disconcerted him. Weight training, as he saw it, was an expression of human creativity; it was, in fact, an art form. One should never develop strength in order to serve self-assertiveness. Anything which fostered belligerence, even in sport, he construed as “a reversal of the trajectory of evolution.” I must confess that in those days I would skim over such reflections, and was foolishly only interested in the nuggets of training information he offered freely.
The period between the ages of 21 and 22 was a time of significant growth and strength increase, accompanied by a sense of smooth, in fact, effortless progress. But by the age of 24 discomfort in my back and knees began to foreshadow more serious problems. I’d hurt myself through my poor lifting style. It seemed if there was a harmful way of lifting a weight, that would be the way I would choose to lift it. I deadlifted and squatted with a round back; I performed the standing press with extreme back-bend; I preferred the dive to the get-set style in the clean and the snatch. Both wrestling and bouncing squats give the knees a hard time. What made things worse was the advice that was current in those days: “Work through the pain.”
When I was 24 I met a professional boxer, a welterweight named Roy Clarkson who persuaded me to start boxing, a sport which I’d not seriously considered up to that time. One outcome of my switching to boxing was that my back and knees were given a degree of respite.
A Fresh Start
I didn’t return to wrestling and weight training until I was over 30. I now developed a routine which combined running and weight training. I ran two or three times a week and lifted two or three times a week as well. On some days I would run two to three miles at a moderate pace and follow straight on with a weights workout. At least once a week I would have a higher quality running session where, for instance, I would run between three and six fairly hard half-miles with a two or three minute recovery jog between each fast run. There were periods when I would take longer training runs of between 13 and 15 miles. Gradually, as the years passed, I reduced the weights I was lifting and would incorporate more and more cardiovascular exercise into the weight lifting sessions.
A typical training day of this period might consist of eight to ten quite fast half-miles or three or four one-mile repetitions at a reasonably hard pace, followed by a weight lifting session which included squats (regular and front), seated behind the neck presses, upright rowing, hyperextensions, abdominal work, pulldowns and few other conventional exercises. The novelty of this routine consisted of performing sets of squat thrusts or shuttle runs holding two 50-pound dumbbells between the regular weight movements.
As the effects of my knee injuries started to kick in again I experienced difficulty in running at all. I started to experiment with strength-training regimes where the subject moves from one exercise to the other without pause. When lactic acid reaches a critical level in one muscle group, temporarily preventing movement, the subject switches to an exercise which effects another muscle group. With this training not only are the muscles strengthened but the stroke volume of the heart is increased, the hemoglobin content of the blood is enhanced and the capillarization of the muscle is rapidly improved. I still think that this is one of the best ways to train.
I found out then what the slimming industry found out years later: dieting on its own is an ineffective method of weight control. In order to make weight for wrestling I would simply increase the volume of my training (on some occasions training three times a day) while continuing to eat voraciously. I had a good appetite by this time, and when I got home from work I would eat continuously until bedtime.
I also tried a more severe version of uninterrupted strength training, which involves moving without pause from one exercise to another but in a randomized manner. This means each exercise is assigned a number and the numbers are put in a random sequence (using, for example, random number tables for statisticians). The subject doesn’t know which exercise is coming up next and, importantly, may be hit by the same number occurring two or even three times. If the number that happens to be thrown up two or three times is that assigned to 20 front squats, for example, the subject will find himself in unknown territory, not only in terms of physiology but in terms of character. I’m not recommending randomized continuous training as I think it may be dangerous for anyone other than the young and the very fit.
These routines are only some of the training methods I experimented with. Joe Hise used to complain that “there’s so much good stuff to try and so little available time to try it.”