Vern Weaver, Part 2
by Jan Dellinger
Like most trainees focused on attaining peak muscular mass, Vern was an avid squatter. However, due to the poundages he became capable of handling he frequently suffered lower back problems from rock-bottom squats. The remedy to this catch-22 cycle of having to squat heavy for developmental purposes, while simultaneously having to somehow avoid injury for the sake of workout consistency proved to be an innovation. of sorts, in the weight training field circa the early 1960s. At the urging of Dr. John Ziegler the York Barbell Company began promoting a system of strength training generally known as isometric contraction, and one necessary ingredient for its proper practice was a power rack.
While Vern never indicated that he experimented with isometric contraction per se, he clearly made liberal usage of the power rack, seeing it as an avenue to unprecedented overloading of the body’s musculature with increased poundages and achieving this objective with a measure of relative safety. Hence, this particular training tool allowed him to squat from a preset parallel position without any real need for spotters and with the heaviest possible weights for him. And perhaps even more heartening from his viewpoint, minus any more back miseries.
Ultimately, Vern became able to sets and reps with 585 while squatting from a dead stop in the power rack. Anyone who has ever squatted from a dead stop this way knows this style greatly inhibits one’s squatting performance in contrast to starting from a standing position and then dipping. However, it’s terrific for encouraging hip/thigh development. In fact, Vern’s piston-like lower body grew to such proportions from this severe leg training that he had to abandon power rack squatting for the sake of preserving overall symmetry and revert to hack squatting.
And the high pull? It should be obvious from his philosophy of training that Vern brought a “lifter’s mentality” to his bodybuilding craft. This shouldn’t be surprising for as I mentioned early on, Vern was as much of a lifter as he was a bodybuilder throughout most of his training career. In fact, he trained for both endeavors concurrently, doing one or two of the Olympic lifts first during his three weekly workouts and then finishing up with conventional bodybuilding exercises.
While vastly higher standards in both areas prohibit contemporary athletes from “splitting their vision” as Vern and his contemporaries did, pursuing this athletic duality was the norm back then largely because it paid dividends. Among those who practiced both it was widely held that one augmented the other. For starters, greater variety could be injected into one’s workouts. Secondly, the practice of Olympic-oriented movements seemed to add a distinctive ruggedness to the human form. Beyond that, it was expected that a muscleman’s physique would exude function as well as form. Possessing both in quality was the definition of “the total package.”
Coming back to Vern – being a product of his time he included at least one or two Olympic movements in virtually all of his bodybuilding routines. Here again, he tended to gravitate toward the movement(s) which allowed him to utilize the most weight, which in the lifter’s repertoire would be the clean-grip high pull. Ultimately performing sets and reps with as much as 440 lbs. in this movement gave him extraordinary back development from erectors to trapezius.
It goes without saying that the extreme cultivation of these attributes served him well on the dais as his twisting sort of became his signature pose. And Vern’s back double biceps pose, which also displayed incredible thickness in all sectors of his back, really wowed audiences back in the 1960s. And just for the record, Vern officially snatched 300 and power cleaned and push pressed 375 as a 198 pounder. While he was certainly no slouch as a competitive lifter bodybuilding eventually captured his full attention.
As to technique for the high pull, we really didn’t get precise on form. Essentially, we assumed a good bent-knee, back flat lifting position and tried to elevate the barbell quickly with as much snap as possible. From a pure technique standpoint, the only real rule was to keep the bar as close to the body as possible. During my training time with Vern we typically performed high pulls from knee height in the power rack, to focus on the muscles of the upper and lower back, removing the leg boost from the initial part of the pull. We pulled to the chest-shoulder area on the warmup sets while the heavier work sets were brought to the upper-lower rib area, with the pulling height diminishing over the 6 work sets due to fatigue.
As previously mentioned in Part 1, Vern’s overwhelming choice of set/rep pattern on heavy exercises designed to cultivate maximum muscle mass was 6 sets of 6 reps. But on rare occasions he felt the need to go even heavier and still get in a decent workload. In such instances, he more or less specialized on a single movement with 10 sets of 3 reps with a constant poundage. Obviously, he could only do this with a very limited number of exercises at any one time. In other words, if he wanted to give his upper body pushing muscles an extra blast, he would do 10 sets of 3 reps on the decline bench press.
While he cautioned to do this extensive workout with only one exercise at a time, the one movement he suggested that I never try it with was the deadlift. But because this was the one lift I felt I had at least some natural ability at, I tried a spree of deadlift specialization with 10 sets of 3, training the deadlift just once a week for most of the cycle. This was when I was no longer training with Vern. In retrospect, I hung in with it much better than expected, and did manage to make some gains with this “set-feast.” But things came to a halt after about six weeks and for some strange reason I never desired to try 10x3 on the deadlift ever again . . .
Even though I’ve expended considerable ink on Vern’s little four-exercise routine we followed, I’m sure more than a few readers still have trouble “swallowing” a musclebuilding routine devoid of direct arm work. Among the things my 16 weeks of lifting with Weaver taught e was that one can add greatly to arm size without ever doing curls or isolation triceps work. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if there is an exercise which is vastly overrated, it’s the curl.
Of course, Vern did include some various barbell and dumbbell curling movements in his routines over the years, but he was quick to point out that one didn’t need to curl in order to be strong at curling, provided one was training properly otherwise. Once, during a lengthy when he was concentrating on weighted chins (and decided to drop all curling exercises from his routine), someone in the gym apparently bet him he couldn’t do a strict curl with 215 pounds, which would have been a tad over his bodyweight, incidentally. Despite the lack of direct biceps work he nevertheless managed a strict curl with this very credible weight.
The lesson was that if a trainee worked his arms with heavy chins, rows or similar pulling movements – and, of course, did likewise with demanding pressing movements – his biceps and triceps would respond as much as inherited genetics allowed. Furthermore, Vern also pointed out that he had witnessed Olympic lifters out-curl advanced musclemen who had put plenty of time in on heavy curls. Ostensibly, the heavy Olympic pulls can also tax the biceps strenuously.
Thus far, this article has spotlighted Vern Weaver’s opinions on the building up process. But as I alluded to at the outset, Vern did get around to sharing his wisdom on other aspects of physique training. I only bring this up to illustrate just how much practices and techniques change over time, even among the physically gifted.
Today’s competitive bodybuilders have their off-season (for acquiring mass, ostensibly) and their in-season (to, in the vernacular, hone this mass into “polished granite!”). Whereas in Vern’s day, as I understand it, a trainee was pretty much on a build-up schedule of some description until he felt he had enough size in order to compete effectively. In other words, your degree of readiness dictated whether or not you competed, not the calendar.
Ironically, 30 years ago this refining process was commonly referred to as “training down,” the antithesis of everything the trainee sought to achieve up to that point. During this phase, which typically lasted from 8-12 weeks, the bodybuilder set out to intentionally overtrain his body for the purpose of metabolizing any adipose tissue covering the muscles.
And how did one go about whittling off the excess? Basically, by training the entire body with generous amounts of sets, higher reps and more exercises than normal. Of course, as one’s conditioning got better, more of the aforementioned was required. Prior to his last shot at the Mr. Universe title in London, Vern was performing five, more or less, full-body workouts weekly, each of which lasted up to five hours in duration.
This may explain why he tended to train in spasms. After several weeks of this kind of volume binge, even the elite needed to take a break to recover from the near-daily torture. But Vern also acknowledged that occasional layoffs from regular heavy bodybuilding training were necessary. In fact, he felt layoffs of considerable length (3-6 weeks away from all weight training) tended to help the serious trainee in the long run. In his experience and observation, anyone who applied himself 100% both mentally and physically, and maintained extreme focus for several weeks of steady workouts absolutely required time away from the gym in order to recharge fully, and usually more time than he thought. Otherwise, without training breaks he would stagnate faster and experience prolonged physical plateaus.
But returning to the matter of the phenomenal abuse of one’s training volume when preparing for a bodybuilding contest – when Vern eventually was training 5 hours per day and 5 days per week to tune up for a contest, he was by no means “living in the gym” in comparison to the standards of some others. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, in particular, legions of name bodybuilders came to
Prior to the 1959 Mr.
Apparently the Ganios formula called for 10 sets of 10 reps per movement, and it was anyone’s guess as to how many exercises he performed per muscle group. While all of this sounds like a game plan for failure – and for 99 out of every 100 people it is – Pete survived these rigors to place third in the Mr. America contest that year. And, by the way, a young muscleman named Weaver placed fifth.
However, if you ask Vern for his recollections about Pete Ganios, one thing he always recalls in addition to the marathon sessions is seeing Ganios squat 405 for 10 sets of 12 at least three times weekly, week in and week out.
Very few barbell enthusiasts can rightfully claim to have worked out in the same gym with a major bodybuilding title winner, much less say they have actually trained with such an accomplished individual. Hence, on this score I consider myself to have been exceedingly fortunate. However, my intent with this article was not to “blow my own horn.” Rather, in spotlighting Vern Weaver’s training methodologies and exploits my desired mission was to recognize a man who imparted to me invaluable knowledge and insight via an unforgettable opportunity. Beyond that, I hoped to provide readers with a trip down memory lane that was both a little entertaining and informative.
After all, the trends that today’s trainees embrace surely evolved from the trends of those who went before them.