Saturday, May 30, 2009

John McKean - Part Two

Ronnie Ray, Gene Devers

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Marvin Eder

Record Day
by John McKean

“He’s strong enough to uproot full-grown trees with his bare hands,” claimed members of the Soviet weightlifting team, “and he’s the most powerfully built athlete we’ve ever seen!” So went the Russians’ awe-inspired appraisal of Bill March the famous U.S. lifter during the sixties, as related to me by renowned American official, Morris Weissbrot. March, many will recall, was one of the original isometric and power rack devotees – a big time success story for truly brief routines. Yeah, I know March was no typical drug-free hard gainer but, believe me, his training had a ton of relevance for us.

In addition to, and perhaps because of his world record ability on the clean and press, March developed a phenomenally rugged physique capped with basketball-sized deltoids, ski-sloped traps, and immensely thick, power-packed arms. His extremely concentrated, heavy weightlifting routine – devoid of any standard bodybuilding exercises – did it all for Bill, enabling him even to win the FIHC Mr. Universe. He despised light weights and was often heard to proclaim that any lift which could be done for more than three reps was a waste of time.

There’s little doubt that the zeal with which Bill March attacked his Monday-through-Thursday 20-minute power rack workouts was a big factor in his success. Isometric holds really produced for him because he was one of the very few who pushed to the max every time. And many of the brutally intense, short-range movements he pioneered also proved exceptional for those of us who followed his lead.

However, I’d like to focus on an at-the-time unheralded aspect of Bill March’s training – in my opinion, the real key to his stellar results in strength and physique. It seems every Saturday, without fail, Bill would bound into the gym, prepared to smash all previous records on the three Olympic lifts. He worked like a madman on the press, snatch, and clean & jerk, singling up on each until a big weight forced him to miss. Although the poundages on the “record day” couldn’t compare to the big numbers of his short-range power rack maneuvers, it’s a safe bet that the weekend workout was the one that “did him in”. In effect, March trained “for real” just once per week, using a select few exercises, and absolute limit singles.

“Record day” is also a familiar experience for many of today’s all-round (IAWA) competitors. Every so often, one of our member clubs will announce a semi-formal gathering for the express purpose of encouraging lifters to break bodyweight/age group national or world records in any of the association’s various 150+ listed lifts. Each lifter comes prepared to tackle from one to three favorite moves (sometimes more for the particularly hardy – or foolhardy souls!), as opposed to direct competition within a particular bodyweight division. Everyone is completely free to concentrate totally on his own specialties under the inspirational stimulus of a contest setting. Having participated in many of these meets, it’s always interesting to note how much more “horsepower” is applied by all the guys – when contrasted to normal training – as they attempt to break our listed records.

Many of us began to notice after each record day that despite performing just a very few attempts and little if any warmup, afterwards we always felt like a truck had run us over. Muscles ached for days thereafter from the extra effort we expended on a mere handful of lifts. The quantity of work proves unimportant, we’ve discovered, just so long as a sincere max single is moved.

A few of us all-rounders began to experiment with, and eventually refined, normal workout procedures based on the extreme mental and physical intensity of record day. We reasoned that very brief routines aimed directly toward personal bests, or even beyond, on particularly favored lifts would create a special sense of excitement for increased power output. In essence, we discovered that with proper training conditions every single training session could capture the same enthusiastic climate of a contest.

Getting Started

As a specialty routine, if you opt to brave this intense approach, psyche yourself to give your all to just a very few key lifts. Many will feel other exercises are being neglected, but actually strength gains will distribute across the board, positively effecting even those lifts which seem to be temporarily ignored. Plan on working just one main lift per training session, but changing from workout to workout so that three different exercises are stressed in this cycle. Of course, the movements utilized should be major ones, working big muscle groups. But, the key factor to success is to select three lifts which you absolutely love to do. You simply can’t “go to the wall” each workout if you don’t have this passion and devotion to lifts in which you are completely confident of success. To insure total commitment, stick with your big guns.

Schedule your attempts – all singles – for the lift of the day based on 95% of your current top poundage. As all focus should dwell on this peak set, anyway, simply establish its number first, then merely back track approximately 10% for each of three lead-up sets. To keep this simple, I use increments of 40 pounds between sets if my top lift is anywhere near 400 pounds, 30 pounds if the key set is around 300 pounds, and 20 pounds if 200 pounds is the goal, etc.

Suppose, for example, that the scheduled lift is the deadlift and your current best is 420 pounds. Quick calculation shows that 400 pounds is 95%, and 10% of that is 40 pounds. So, after a thorough total-body aerobic warmup, singles should progress from 280 pounds to 320, 360 and 400 pounds. And, for good measure, take a whack at 440.

Iso Holds

Couldn’t sneak that last set by you, huh? Let me address your immediate panic with this little riddle: “What do you call an attempt which proves beyond your present capability?” Answer – an isometric contraction, or, at most, a short-range hold. Nothing really to fear, considering its time-tested strength producing ability. And when you think about it, this poundage is not that much beyond your current ability – you should be able to move it a little. The “groove” has already been established from previous singles, so approach the bar with confidence and maintain perfect form while merely hefting it for a moment or two. Some days it’ll travel further than on others. Just give it your best each time and go with the flow. Really careful spotters may be required for some lifts, but you’ll soon discover this beyond 100-percenter to be a great confidence builder, eventually eliminating any fear of approaching higher and higher weights.

I really believe that 5% over one’s best, especially for real heavy lifts, is important. This actually has proven to inspire big gains because it ups one’s immediate expectations. Plus, it should stay “unliftable” for quite a while to force proper form. (If one knows it’s “unliftable” he won’t contort and strain to get it all the way up – just use proper form and be content to hold on at the sticking point.) But after a while, the trainee gains strength, finds better positioning and leverage, and mostly just gets so fed up that he rams it up all the way. This is a real high and teaches that anything is possible.

I realize that some will get antsy at first with the seeming futility of eventually doing a full-length movement with the iso-hold. But watch for the surge. This is the almost-magical mental gain you obtain when you finally lift a much-sought-after goal. Something inside then tells you that poundages way beyond that are also in quite easy reach and you’ll soon discover you achieve them amazingly quickly. It’s like kicking at a locked door. It’s tough to open at first, but with continued effort it finally caves in – then you can keep going through that space unobstructed. Years ago as a middleweight powerlifter I found my deadlift stuck at 460. But in contests I always tried 480 for a third attempt. When I finally did the 480, in ensuing meets I surged to 500, 515 and 530.

Exercises most conducive to the isometric hold portion of the program seem to be those which start off the floor, or, at least, begin from a dead stop. If lifts such as the squat or bench press are employed, be sure to start them from their bottom positions off power rack pins. Incidentally, startling power gains can be achieved with this procedure on moves which normally rely on a rebound or recoil. Aside from these lifts, wonderful full-body exercises are the deadlift, straddle lift, hack lift (with a barbell, not a hack machine), clean and press, bentover row, snatches, high pulls, and similar heavy dumbell lifts.

Cycling and Progression

Cycling and progression are a cinch with this system. Simply stick with the initial poundages until a full-range lift is achieved with the (now former) isometric hold. After that, add 5% to all sets. That is, when the above mentioned 440 deadlift is successful, the sets change to 300x1, 340x1, 380x1, 420x1, and 460 for a hold. If, in the distant future, mental and subsequent physical burnout is perceived on the lifts, it’s time to recycle – start out fresh with three different exercises.

Occasionally, you’ll hit a bad day and may stall out on the 95% single. Not to worry – that becomes the day’s isometric (but hopefully only for one workout). You’ll still acquire benefits from this submaximal hold. It’s like I tell my rapidly gaining son, Robbie, when I bomb on a lift he’s just done easily (hey, he’s younger and 50 pounds heavier!) – “I just wanted to hold it in the halfway position, I never meant to lock it out!” And, no, he never believes me either. Or, as famed Olympian Norb Schemansky once replied when I asked him if he ever used isometrics, “Sure, every time I miss a lift!” so don’t ever be discouraged when an honest effort doesn’t go – a partial attempt (don’t ever say “failure”) is a great strength and character builder.

On the other hand, on those rare days when mood and power seem unlimited and a new personal all-time record is practically a certainty – well, go for it, man! The nature of this routine is such that the psyche to hit a big one is constantly instilled and nurtured. Learn to be aggressive. I’m always dismayed to hear a trainee say, “Wow, my lifts are so easy today, wish it was in my book to go for something heavier . . .” What a crock! Never be a slave to some numbers written in a training log when your mind and body whisper “Attack!”

Years ago, I experienced an unexpected training session where a 600-pound squat beckoned me. If I had ignored that instinct for the sake of my pre-written routine, the opportunity where mind and body coordinated to get up with that lofty goal, I discovered, would never present itself again.

Speed Singles

Another strength building dimension of this routine is something I call “speed singles.” This is the back-down portion of the program, following the heavy isometric hold. Reduce the bar to around 75% of your iso and perform three rest-pause singles with the lift of the day. However, don’t just go through the motions. Instead, get fired up – start in good form to maintain the groove, then accelerate to lockout. After the heavy sets, these weights will feel pathetically light anyway, and coordination is already instilled so you have a wonderful opportunity to build speed into the movement. Remember, speed is a most important component of strength, yet its development is largely ignored in most powerlifting schemes. Rip those babies up allowing only 20 seconds between attempts. In short order, this added snap will magnify your input on top weights.

Sample Program

Always allow two full days of rest before every workout. (This means you don’t train on the same days every week.) On paper, one major exercise per day probably doesn’t seem like much. Remember though, this lift will be pushed its absolute maximum, work which can be especially brutal on both muscle and mind. The entire body will be stressed more than you may think, or even feel, but overall gains in size and strength will border on fantastic if care is given to ample recuperation. For added incentive, think back to how Paul Anderson focused solely on squats for long periods of time – one lift specialization created some the most powerful bulk of all time.

Following are sample exercises, weights and training poundages to summarize this routine. Please keep in mind to select exercises which you enjoy best, if you’re to derive utmost benefit. However, the three lifts I’m offering are from our all-round competition and just might give you something completely new for a totally fresh start and added excitement. I’ll describe each, but first here’s the weekly schedule:

Hack Lift – current best: 380 lbs.
95% peak set: 360 lbs.
10% = approx. 40 lbs.


Set 1: 360 - 120 = 240 x 1.
Set 2: 360 - 80 = 280 x 1.
Set 3: 360 - 40 = 320 x 1.
Set 4: peak set = 360 x 1.
Set 5: iso set = 400 hold.

Drop the weight to 75% of the iso for
Set 6: 300 x 1
Set 7: 300 x 1
Set 8: 300 x 1
these are speed singles, take 20 seconds rest between them.


Push Press Off Rack – current best: 170 lbs.
95% peak set: 160 lbs.
10% = approx. 20 lbs.

Set 1: 160 - 60 = 100 x 1.
Set 2: 160 - 40 = 120 x 1.
Set 3: 160 - 20 = 140 x 1.
Set 4: Peak set = 160 x 1.
Set 5: iso set = 180 hold.

Drop the weight to 75% of the iso for
Set 6: 135 x 1
Set 7: 135 x 1
Set 8: 135 x 1
take 20 seconds rest between these sets.


Zercher Lift – current best: 295 lbs.
95% peak set: 280 lbs.
10% = approx. 30 lbs.

Set 1: 280 - 90 = 190 x 1.
Set 2: 280 - 60 = 220 x 1.
Set 3: 280 - 30 = 250 x 1.
Set 4: peak set = 280 x 1.
Set 5: iso set – 310 hold

Drop the weight to 75% of the iso for
Set 6: 230 x 1
Set 7: 230 x 1
Set 8: 230 x 1
take 20 seconds rest between these sets.

Always remember to take two full days rest in between workouts. This means that after the Sunday workout your next few sessions will be on Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday, Friday, Monday, etc.

Performance Pointers

The push press involves the entire body, especially when legs coordinate with the arms to move a weight overhead. Take the bar off a rack, give a quick leg dip, and ram the bar overhead. Even in lockout position, virtually every muscle from head to toe is tensed to support a big weight.

Our first exercise, though it is fairly standard to some weight training programs, is the hack squat/deadlift. Do a deadlift with the weight held behind your legs instead of in front. Unfortunately, most do this ass a high-rep pumper, yet done heavy it’s a superb power builder. Do not even consider using a hack-squat machine. Load a barbell with enough plates to break your own balls.

The Zercher lift is unique to our all-round competition. Invented by still active 84-year old Ed Zercher, it is sort of a combination deadlift and squat. Most of our lifters start with a sumo-style deadlift to the knees, catch the bar across the thighs in a half-squat stance, cradle the bar in the crook of the elbows (securing this grip one arm at a time), then squat the rest of the way up. As well as working the legs and lower back, this maneuver stresses the traps and even the biceps. Very little, in fact, of one’s body doesn’t get sore from the Zercher, notwithstanding the initial bruises on the thighs and forearms. Talk about total body work.

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