Thursday, July 3, 2008

Learning By Asking - Louie Simmons

Bill Kazmaier - 1978

Learning By Asking
by Louie Simmons

I talk to many people and give them my advice for what it’s worth. Sooner or later, someone calls and tells me how they stopped doing our training, only to stop making progress, and now want to return. Does this bother me? No. I was guilty of the same thing years ago.

I was never afraid to ask the top lifters how they became so good at their particular lifts. I recall watching Larry Pacifico bench in the early 1970s. At the Cincinnati Open he benched 530 at 198 and totaled 1900. In Dayton eight weeks later I saw him do 590 weighing 228 (there was no 220 class).

With my huge 320 at 181 I thought maybe I should ask Larry why his bench was so good and mine was so bad. Larry looked at me and said, “You don’t have any triceps.” Compared to his guns I had peashooters. So after the meet I started to train my triceps and got weaker. What the hell? Was Larry pulling a bad joke?

I went back to primitive methods and through pure determination got a five-pound PR. Larry was at the meet and said, “Did you work your triceps like I told you?”

“Yes, for a short while,” I said, “until I went backward.” He said that one’s bench press is 75% triceps and that I was out of shape for bench pressing.

Even though Larry was a tremendous presser, it took a couple of years for his advice to sink in. A meet that I had planned to compete in was cancelled, so I too a chance and did the triceps work. Lo and behold, my bench started to get better. I was slow to catch on, but Larry was right, and I learned a lot from watching him too. Thanks, Larry. Well, my bench was still not setting the world on fire. I saw a massive man named Bill Seno. I recognized him from pictures in Muscular Development and Muscle Builder/Power. He was a great bencher and was also a Mr. America threat. Back then, bodybuilding had subdivisions and I think Bill had won best chest six times. I got up my courage and asked him if he would give me a pointer or two about his best lift, which was my worst lift. I recall that he just stared at me for a minute and then, with his most intense stare, he grabbed my arm, then my shoulder and said, “Try doing 6 reps for a couple weeks, then go up to 8s, and finally 10s. After you burn out on the 10s go back to 6s.”

But what surprised me was the he told me to use an illegal grip, an inch or two outside the rings. He said that with my thin (then) build, that grip would be the best for me. I also recall watching him bench press with a close grip and thought, what gives? He’s either playing me of he’s a genius. But which was it?

By taking his advice my bench went from 340 to 480 (before bench shirts). Looking back, I now know the answer to my question. He was a genius who took the time to help a moron.

That was nearly 25 year ago, and on our max effort day his advice still proves valuable. Just ask Todd Brock. Todd and I say Thanks, Bill. You and Larry laid the foundation for much of our success.

It was men like Larry Pacifico, Bill Seno, Mike MacDonald, Jesse Kellum and the innovations of the Culver City Westside Barbell Club that have helped us greatly. I merely pass on what I have learned through the years.

I was not the greatest deadlifter either. I was stuck at 525 for a year and a half. It was 191 and I was going nowhere. While attending a meet in Cleveland I saw Vince Anello lift, and what a deadlifter – 750 at 181 and 821 at 198. He had ideal leverage to deadlift. So I asked him what made his deadlift so good. His reply was, “Anything I do will make it go up.’ I thought, what kind of answer is that? Why couldn’t he give me a decent reply? Was that some kind of smartass or what?

Well, Vince was no smartass, but rather highly intelligent about training. What he was saying was that he did a lot of things for his deadlift and they all helped, something I was about to learn. Vince did all types of training, even eccentric work, although he said that it didn’t work too well for him. It was obvious that he had spent a lot of time on his lats because Vince was as wide as he was tall. His squat form had a long way to go: he used a good-morning style. Maybe that had some positive influence on his back strength.

One thing that made Vince such a phenomenal deadlifter was his pride in the lift. He believed he was the best and he was. The greatest illustration of love and conviction for the deadlift occurred not while he was lifting but while judging. When a young lifter was turned down for an infraction of the rules, the fellow said, “Hey, Vince, that’s what you do.” Vince replied, “You can insult me, but don’t ever insult my deadlift.”

Vince had a special mental approach to the deadlift that allowed him to do what no other man could duplicate. I will never forget his lifting exploits, and more importantly, the man. To be good in the deadlift you must be able to detach yourself from mere mortals as did Vince.

I never met Bill Starr, but thanks to him and his articles in IronMan I was able to put 145 pounds on my deadlift in a year and a half. I pulled 670 at 181 in 1973 because of his advice on the deadlift. His advice was not to deadlift, a formula I use today. His Olympic lifting background called for high pulls, power cleans, and one of my favorites, good mornings. With Vince’s advice and that in Bill Starr’s articles, I made top 10 deadlifts without a deadlifter’s body.

I hope to some day meet Mr. Starr and thank him for guiding my early training. I should have been a natural in the squat, but I wasn’t. At 14 years of age I made 410, not bad for a 140-pounder in 1961. The problem was, at 19 years of age I was still squatting 410. My squat would not go up. I tried every routine there was, plus all kinds of supplements. Nothing worked.

One day I was looking through a Muscle Builder/Power and saw an article by George Frenn and Bill “Peanuts” West. They were the nucleus of the Culver City Westside Barbell Club. I found them to be very innovative. This particular article was about box squats. I said to myself, “Why not, nothing else has worked.” So for the next three months I only box squatted. Then I tried a full squat, and, I’ll be damned, I did 450. It was back to box squatting for three more months. Again I tried a max and did my first 500.

One-and-a-half years after starting box squats I made a 630 in the 181’s. This was in 1973. No suits, wraps or power belts existed. What helped my squat was the box squats.

I will always be indebted to the Culver City geniuses, and for them we continue to search the world for new ideas to help any and all who will listen.

The Westside boys got my squat going up fast, but like every beginner my form needed work. My first power meet was November, 1966 in Dayton. I was very impressed by the other lifters, but four men stood out: Milt McKinney, Larry Pacifico, Vince Anello and George Crawford. All were to become world champs, but George Crawford stuck in my mind because he tried a U.S. record at 165. I left for the Army two weeks later. In 1970, I ran into George at the Cincinnati open. I asked if he would help me with technique. The most important thing he told me was, “However you start a lift – that is how you will finish it. So, Louie, if you start out bent over you will stay that way.” I listened to him. After all, George was doing 650 when 500 was strong at 165. I occasionally still see George and he still looks like he can do reps with 600.

Through the years one thing is certain. I have asked for, read about, or stolen every piece of information that would make me or my boys at Westside stronger, no matter how stupid it sounded at the time. I found that to succeed at exercise, science must play a role. Twenty-five years ago great sources of information were Larry Pacifico and other great minds of the early 1970s. The articles came from Muscle Builder/Power and the old IronMan. Good sources of information today are Jesse Kellum, V. Zatsiorsky, and Bud Charniga, who has translated a series of Russian books on strength training. As you can see, I use some of the oldest methods and some of the newest.

I urge all of you to find out why you train a certain way. Hopefully, it will not be because the strongest man told you to, but rather, because the smartest man did.

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