Strength Through Variety
Competition can certainly bring out the beast in you. An almost fanatical drive to excel, improve, and outdo the other guy always yields an unmatched training intensity. Yet even the most diehard lifter occasionally finds himself bored stiff with the same old squat, bench press, snatch or jerk, workout after workout. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find the incentive to add this competitive fire to shoot for maximum poundages on a lot of movements rather than just a few? How would you like the challenge offered by a huge variety of exercises which can instill tremendous total body power?
Well . . . welcome to the wonderful world of all-round weightlifting.
Simply put, all-round weightlifting consists of almost anything but the powerlifts or two Olympic lifts. In our IAWA (International All-Round Weightlifting Association) meets we perform many recognizable events such as dumbell and barbell presses, strict and cheat curls, hack lifts, leg presses, pullovers, weighted situps, etc. Also contested are forerunners of modern weightlifting which include one-arm snatches, one-arm clean and jerks, push presses, continental cleans and snatches, and jerks behind the neck. Early powerlifting forms are represented by the straddle lift, lying pullover and push, front squat, stiff-legged deadlift, and Steinborn maneuver. And a few ultra-heavy harness events, favored by old-time professional strongmen, are employed via the hip lift, hand and thigh, and back lift.
Lest any potential all-round trainee be intimidated by this awesome variety, let me be quick to explain that never are our listed 150-plus lifts all included in one contest. Generally, for a major contest, 8-10 of the more popular lifts are done over two days. For instance, the 1992 US National meet held in Boston, Massachusetts, featured the neck lift, Jefferson, continental snatch, press behind neck, pullover and push, Zercher, Steinborn, hip lift, hand and thigh, and one-hand deadlift. Local meets usually offer 3-5 movements or are “record days” where a competitor can select his own choice of lifts for record purposes. A few times, however, zealous promoters have posted lists of 15-20 lifts for grueling two-day affairs – believe me, a total body-numbing experience.
A brief look at weightlifting’s history will quickly show that many of the above-mentioned lifts were the basis of meets during the 1900-1930 era. Rare was it when an early contest didn’t feature a one-arm snatch, dumbell swing, or the amazing bent-press (yes, it’s once again being given its due – number 48 on our all-round list). Extensive record lists on about 50 events were kept in the
When serious interest once again picked up, officials from the two lands met in 1987 to write a constitution and promote the new-to-many concept of all-round competition. When these modern day founding fathers established the up to date rules and regulations, they insisted on pure body dynamics to do the lifting – no super suits or supportive gear, no wraps, and absolutely no drugs.
About now, I’m certain many will question the feasibility of training limit poundages on 10-20 big lifts at a time. Doesn’t this go against the grain of current advice to avoid long routines? No. In fact, the real beauty of our all-round sessions is that we’re actually forced to restrict quality training time on each individual lift to an absolute minimum. The necessity of these ultra-abbreviated strength routines has taught us how to reach maximum intensity for handling true top weights more often than ever before.
Although there’s a wide range of effective schedules used by our present crop of all-rounders, and highly specialized methods for handling some of our more unique lifts, here’s a sample training procedure used by 12 of us at the Ambridge VFW Barbell Club, near
Sure, this is heavy stuff. Yet in all our collective time with all-round training, none of us has ever felt even slightly burned out, suffered serious injury, or even felt overly tired from a workout (contests are something else, however). It seems when gains keep coming as rapidly as they have, lifts are always being rotated, and workouts are over before we have a chance of even getting mentally fatigued, our sport always stays fresh, exciting, and ever challenging. After all, how hard can it be to perform a workout of only 18 reps? (Better wait to answer till you actually experience this unique form of intensity and variety).
Most all-round movements are complex by nature and work the entire body at once. Each exercise serves as a supplement to the others, so there’s absolutely no need to waste extra time on assistance exercises. This is also a big reason why we get away with training any particular lift but once a week; all muscle groups are pushed totally each training day, no matter what combination of exercises is employed. After all, why should we bother with, say, the highly overrated and widely overused bench press – very one dimensional when compared to the whole-body functioning of all-round’s dynamic pullover and push.
How well does all-round training serve the average person? Let me offer two rather extreme examples. On a novice level would be my 13-year old son Robbie. Beginning when he was 10, Robbie found immediate pleasure over his rapid strength gains. Thanks to the wide variety of moves and abbreviated training (yes, I put him on heavy singles immediately, despite dire warnings I’ve read by “experts”), he never experienced much muscle soreness nor ever any boredom with his quick workouts. In three years he has gained fifty pounds of muscle (puberty helped), tripled his strength, and has established fifty world records in the pre-teen division.
Recently, while on the way to winning his third consecutive title at 1992’s national championship in
On the other end of the spectrum is longtime powerlifting and weightlifting competitor, 65-year old Art Montini. As is the case with all of us master lifters, Art discovered that no form of training or competition is as much fun as all-round lifting. Montini never misses one of these exciting workouts and seems to heft new personal bests each time he sets foot in a gym. Who says you stop gaining beyond 35? Art’s name is all over the current record book and he’s never failed to win the outstanding master award at any of our national meets. Seeing the agile oldster deftly upend a 300-pound barbell, twist and stoop to shoulder it then easily squat in the complicated Steinborn lift, or perform his mind-boggling 1,800-pound hip lift would convince anyone that Art drinks gallons daily from the fountain of youth.
Just Do One!
“All you need in life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure!” stated beloved storyteller Mark Twain. In his famous tongue-in-cheek manner, Twain may have unwittingly provided one of the biggest truths in strength training. For if, as lifters, we envision great success with a highly personalized, unique training pattern, and let our enthusiasm run rampant in its employment, we usually achieve stellar results. Yet, often such a self-styled program is never attempted if those ever-present “experts” are consulted.
Looking back, I suppose my own powerlifting career, which peaked about twenty years ago, could definitely be described as “ignorant yet confident”. Due to a particular fondness for squatting, I naively assumed that some serious specialization on this lift, sustained drive to excel, and very concentrated effort in the gym would allow me to outdo most competitors. Emphasizing mostly brutal, ever-heavier single attempts in training, I actually did manage to establish many local and state records, topping out at 530- and 550-pound bests in the lightweight and middleweight divisions. Heck, it was no real surprise to discover from magazine polls back then that my lifts were even listed among the top ten in the nation for several years. Only later did the shocking truth reveal itself – with my light bone structure (6” wrists), overly long thigh bones, use of neither drugs or supportive gear, and unsophisticated training methods, there was “no possibility” of becoming even mediocre in this event. Man, was I fortunate that nobody told me until it was too late.
My history has provided firsthand education of the absolute value of using a limited program of extremely heavy singles in order to approach one’s maximum power potential. When constantly knocking heads with tiptop poundages, many physical disadvantages can be placed on the back burner. Yet in modern strength literature, noted “authorities” constantly belittle the value of “ones”. Where, I’ve often wondered, did these hardheads come up with the ridiculous “testing strength vs. training for strength” theory which is used so frequently to knock the use of near-limit singles? In actual application, I’ve never seen just such a short, intelligent program fail anybody.
Perhaps many of us master competitors lucked out by starting our training in an age when strength was king – all major bodybuilding and weightlifting moves were keyed toward low-rep, heavy poundages. In the “good old days” we maxed out on everything all the time – and loved it. Our Iron Game heroes, now legends in the sport, regularly utilized short, basic programs which always culminated in several heavy singles. Interestingly, when the renowned Bulgarian national weightlifting team was asked how they developed their “revolutionary” training concept of singling out on all lifts every session, they replied, “from studying the old system of the Americans which we read about in the magazines of the fifties and sixties.”
So, with the advent of modern all-round competition, many of us enthusiastic older trainees already had a tried and true system which easily enabled as many as twenty lifts per week to be worked. Yep, those blessed singles allowed us to spread our energy around while still training with super intensity. Only now, with all-round’s vast array of maneuvers (over 150 lifts which can be contested), we find ourselves using fewer singles per move but making better gains in total body power than ever before, despite our ages being in the forties, fifties and sixties.
A real mental key to deploying a “singles” training schedule is simply to eliminate that word in favor of “a lift”. A near-max lift is certainly about as intense as effort as can be done, yet that low, low number still bothers some. Too many strength trainees today have been constantly brainwashed to the “more is better” concept, even within the context of a set. But, after all, what is a set of, say, eight reps? Simply seven warmups finalized by one tough rep (though with a sub-par poundage compared to a truly heavy single). Why not conserve time and energy by doing a lift with perhaps 40% more weight in the first place?
A Training Program
Can I entice you to try a short, intense, very stimulating all-round training schedule which capitalizes on these dynamic singular efforts? My training partner, Art Montini, has devised a unique circuit-like routine that is as exciting as it is challenging. Art schedules four or five exercises per session, each done for but 4 singles. Ordering the various lifts from lightest to heaviest, he does a first round of one exercise after the other with all of them at approximately 77% (based on their heaviest poundage for that day, not all-time bests – we still cycle the intensity to an upcoming contest). Art then does a second round with 85% for each lift, then a round with 92½ %, and a final rotation with 100% efforts. Montini claims a special mental “freshness” while powerfully bouncing from lift to lift and says the recuperation between rounds yields superior readiness for maximum attempts.
Following is a sample strength rotation schedule based on my current training for upcoming all-round competitions. I begin with a highly specialized, “heavy hands” total-body aerobic warmup (15-20 minutes) which thoroughly prepares my body to hit big poundages immediately. Note that the movements are ordered from lightest to heaviest.
Round 1: one lift/rep with 77½ % of that day’s maximum.
Round 2: “ “ “ “ 85% “ “ “ “
Round 3: 92½ %
Round 4: 100%
Pullover & Push
Hand & Thigh
Pullover & Press
Each day’s session works every inch of the body, but any particular lift is only done once per week. One can freely substitute any power, Olympic or major bodybuilding movement, as long as attention is devoted toward involving the total musculature. Of course, workouts can be reduced if desired to two per week and with fewer exercises.
Train In Cycles
Be careful not to start a singles program too heavy, leading to an early burnout. But, hey, singles are meant to be fairly intense so don’t pamper yourself too much either. Don’t fret over any break-in period before beginning a singles program, nor waste any time on such needless preparation. Though eventually reaching unmatched intensity, a series of singles starts light and easy, just like any other good barbell routine, and develops quite naturally through continuous progression. Although obviously beginning with poundages heavier than possible with higher-rep schemes, if a trainee starts with a relatively low 80% of his best for the peak set (100% for that day) he will feel neither strain nor a sense of tiredness. In fact, by the time poundages reach any sort of “critical level” concentration on doing just one lift at a time will have taught pinpoint focus toward absolutely perfect exercise form, along with an innate body sense of exactly how to push during every inch of a really heavy movement. Reps, on the other hand, can never provide this unique form of self-awareness; a trainee simply gets too obsessed with counting.
Usually when preparing for a contest I set up a twelve-week cycle, basing my initial top single (week one) on 80-85% of my all-time best. Then I just add five pounds per week to all sets, ending up with 95-105% of my previous mark. Generally, if I can achieve anything over 955 in the twelfth week, it’s relatively easy, with the adrenalin flowing during a competition.
Too Little Work?
Now, I know even some diehard exponents of brief routines won’t feel quite comfortable limiting themselves to just four singles per lift per week. Remember, though, despite the one rep count, you are still doing four sets – just more intense sets than would be otherwise possible (in my opinion even many “rest-pause programs utilize far too many “sets”). But if you simply can’t go without reps or a slight pump, merely perform a fifth round with less weight and whatever rep count you prefer. You will delight to discover that exercise form, amount or weight, and even reps in this “back-off set” will be substantially more than ever done previously – the singles rev up the musculature to such a degree that any subsequent work is a cake walk.
Don’t expect a big pump with this routine, just an amazing exhilaration coursing throughout your body, along with a real sense of power. Neither should you fear for injuries – teaching the body to go progressively heavier in any max lift by necessity dictates strict vigilance to almost perfect form. It’s been my observation that most training mishaps usually aren’t caused by big weights but come to those who tire and break form while trying to force out too many reps. Conversely, those who claim to tear muscle when attempting limit lifts simply have not trained for this concentrated discipline – their non-specific higher-rep work never really prepares them for a sincere maximum exertion.
Power And Bodyweight
An interesting outcome of this high-level training intensity is the huge power gain one can achieve without necessarily increasing bodyweight. Many competitors simply want to get as strong as possible while dwelling in a favored weight division. Others eventually reach a particular size they feel is ideally comfortable for them and desire to make that muscular mass as efficient as they can through more precise strength training. Progressively heavy singles will force even the most well-trained muscle groups into untapped, peak strength levels.
Actually, as I entered middle age, I purposefully decreased my bodyweight for health and better overall conditioning by means of daily aerobic training, yet easily managed to increase my max poundages on competitive lifts, thanks to the limited, no-energy-wasting singles system. As my aerobic “guru”, Dr. Leonard Schwartz (author of the aerobic training masterpiece “Heavyhands” always maintains, there’s a lot to be said for the efficiency of the leanest physique which simultaneously combines the highest conceivable levels of both strength and conditioning.
Increasing Muscular Bulk
For trainees who specifically desire to increase muscular bulk along with peak strength, I recommend four little extras:
a.) Eat more.
b.) Cut down slightly on the weekly number of exercises to perhaps 6-8.
c.) Allow at least two days rest between workouts.
d.) Always include the back-off set for extra muscle stimulation.
Honestly, just extra nutrition alone in conjunction with an intense singles program can yield pronounced bodyweight increases.