Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mike MacDonald - Terry Todd

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Mike MacDonald
by Terry Todd

Throughout my many years of training for, competing in, and reporting on powerlifting, I’ve seen many feats of strength which were extraordinary, even unbelievable. I remember one hot afternoon down at the Texas Athletic Club in Austin when a friend of mine, Jack Fritsch, tightened the jaws of the hard-to-shock troops who were training there when he placed a pair of the old-time, thick York 45-pound plates up on their rims with the smooth sides out and then reached down with one hand and pinch-gripped them up to his knees. Unbelievable.

And how could I forget the first time I saw Paul Anderson in the more-than-adequate flesh? It was at an exhibition in Dallas following a contest, and since I’d been competing, I’d been able to watch him warm up backstage. Thus my first view of him was as he rounded the corner from backstage, stopped to chalk his hands, then walked purposefully to the 400-pound barbell. The world record in the press at that time was around 420, and though I knew Paul had done more, I still expected that he would have to hump a little to handle so awesome a weight. I was simply not prepared to see even the legendary Paul Anderson clean & press 400 pounds like it was made of papier-mâché instead of pig iron. It was unbelievable.

But of all the things I’ve ever seen which were hard to believe, perhaps none strains the limits of the mind quite like Mike MacDonald’s bench pressing. I have seen men who were stronger on the bench, such as Big Jim Williams, who came within about one RCH of locking out 700 one year the World Championships; and I have seen stricter benchers, such as Ronnie Ray, the former 181- and 198-pound record holder who used to train for the bench by holding the bar on his chest for 30 seconds (often with over 400 pounds) before pressing it. But never have I come even close to seeing a man who was so strong, so strict, and yet so small in the arms and shoulders as Mike MacDonald.

The one thing that really separates powerlifters from Olympic lifters in terms of how their bodies look is the huge arm-shoulder-chest development of the powerlifter. The top guns in the bench – with virtually no exceptions – are extremely heavy and muscular in the deltoids, triceps, biceps, pectorals and lats; and almost always their upper arms and forearms are very thick, giving the impression of a massive tree limb from wrist to shoulder.

Whether these men are able to bench press such colossal weights because of their enormous upper-body musculature or whether they develop the musculature as a result of pressing the weights is a question that Mike MacDonald doesn’t even try to answer. Mike doesn’t particularly worry about arms size; he just keeps on using those frail wrists and relatively slender arms to create world record after world record to the utter astonishment of lifting fans everywhere.

When Big Jim Williams got ready to bench you EXPECTED the weights to obey. After all, what choice did they have when faced by an upper body that looked like a brown nylon sack full of bowling balls? Likewise, when Doug Young walks out to bench, the judges take one look a him and begin to signal “good lift” before he even touches the bar. Not so with Mike MacDonald. Only death or coma could erase from the mind the memory of the first time I saw him lift. It was in late 1973 at the World Powerlifting Championships in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He had reduced his weight to the lightheavyweight (181.75 pound) class in an attempt to break the world record, and I was very anxious to see him lift as I had heard so much a bout him.

I remember thinking as he came out for his world record attempt at 470 pounds that there was simply NO WAY for someone with arms and shoulders like his to bench press almost 300 pounds over his own bodyweight. I remember watching as he walked quietly out, eased back down onto the bench, unracked the 470, lowered it slowly and deliberately to his chest and then, WONDER OF WONDERS, drove it to arms’ length with the power of a hydraulic carjack. You have to keep in mind that the photos accompanying this article were taken very recently; they show Mike weighing around 230 pounds, so simply deduct 50 pounds with your mind’s eye and you’ll see what I saw that night in Harrisburg when I got my first look at the man who was then, is now, and will perhaps always be the greatest pound-for-pound bench presser in the world today.

Mike got his start at the age of 17 when he began training with friends. Always naturally strong, he bench pressed 320 pounds at a bodyweight of 170 in the state meet after only four months on the weights. At that time Mike’s small-boned frame was 5-feet 9-inches tall and it included a pair of 14.5 inch arms, so you can imagine the amazement he caused at that first contest. Bitten hard by the iron bug, he continued to train and compete and within two years he made an official 405 pound bench press at a 178-pound weight.

Then, in 1968, facing the draft, he joined the Navy and many of his gains were drained away through what seemed to Mike like endless hours of group calisthenics. He recalls a mixture of distaste and pride one hot afternoon in basic training when his 6-feet 4-inch, 225-pound drill instructor decided to show the recruits how to do pushups. Mike says that the big DI seemed to always be looking for ways to make the young men feel weak and stupid, and that the pushup exhibition was obviously set up for the same reason.

And sure enough, after a long talk about what sissified wimps they were, the DI knocked out 60 or 70 pushups and then ordered his men, one by one, to see how close they could come to matching him. As first one and then another failed, a plan began to form in Mike’s mind and so when his turn came he had one of his buddies climb onto his back and then he proceeded to knock out 20 pushups, after which he turned to the DI and said, “Now try that.” Of course he caught, as he says, “a good deal of hell” for it, but he admits to feeling it was worth it.

Shortly after finishing his basic training, he was sent for a year to Vietnam, and he says he passed the long nights in the bush by dreaming that one day he would follow the lead of Ronnie Ray and create world records in the bench press when his life returned to normal. Happily, it wasn’t too long in coming, and he spent his final year in the service stationed in Minneapolis, where he had good training facilities and such workout partners as Ken Patera, the giant American Olympic lifter and all-around strongman.

Under these conditions his bench press and his bodyweight both shot up, and within a year he had brought his bench up from a post-Vietnam 230 to an official 480, weighing 215. The next year he entered the Junior National Powerlifting Championships (open to anyone who has won neither the Seniors or the Juniors) and not only made a new bench press record with 539, but also squatted 655, and deadlifted 640 to total 1,835 and win the Best Lifter trophy. These lifts demonstrate what Mike can do in the squat and deadlift if he trains on them, which he rarely does, preferring instead to specialize in the bench.

In 1973, he trained down to the light-heavyweight class again and set an American record (world records not yet being official) of 487.75. Following the 484.75, he made a 470 official world record (which I described earlier) at the 1973 World Championships, a record which still stands as this is being written. The following year Mike went up to the middle-heavyweight (198.75 pound) class, and at the state meet in Minnesota he shattered the world bench press record twice by lifting 535 and 540 back to back, yet these two great lifts were never official because there were no high-ranking cardholders present to “pass” the lifts.

Mike then moved up into the newly formed 220.5-pound class and broke his friendly archrival Larry Pacifico’s world record in the bench my making 555. 75. Later that year he and Larry met head to head in he 1974 World Championships in York, Pennsylvania, and when the chalk dust settled, Larry had driven Mike to another world record in the 220’s, this time with 573.25, which as of June 1977 was still the record. The 573.25 is not, however, Mike’s best official effort in this class because early in 1975 he hoisted 585 in a contest in North Dakota only to lose the lift as a world record because of the aforementioned problem of cardholders.

In 1975, Mike made a judgmental error by driving 1,300 miles almost straight through on the day of the National Championships. He was so fatigued that he did far less than his best and was outbenched by the powerful Pacifico. Stung by the defeat, Mike dropped again into the 198.75-pound class and added another bodyweight class to his list of world records with a bench of 523.5. Pacifico, however, had ideas of his own about records, and he upped the mark to 529.5 and then published a challenge to Mike saying in effect, “You won in 1974, I won in 1975, so let’s have it out for the title in 1976 in the 198-pound class at the National Championships.”

And at the Nationals they met, along with a powerfully built Californian, Bud Ravenscroft, and the three of them provided the greatest display of bench pressing ever seen in the middle-heavyweight class. Even though Larry “only” reached 505 for a second attempt, and Bud made “only” his opener with 500, it was still the only time that three men in so light a bodyweight class had all made 500 pounds. As for our boy Mike, he really smoked them, ending up with an easy, solid 540 for another world record (actual weight: 539.75). From that day in August of 1976 until now, Mike has held the world record in four different bodyweight classes: 181.75, (470 pounds); 198.25, (539.75 pounds); 220.5 (573.25 pounds); and 242.5 (577 pounds), surely one of the most amazing records in the history of sport.

Perhaps now would be as good a time as any to examine the techniques and the routines this phenomenon has used to reach and dominate the bench press records. I should start by making a point which ought to be obvious, which is that ONLY BY SPECIALIZING IN THE BENCH PRESS has Mike been able to be so successful in raising and lowering his bodyweight while maintaining world-class strength. Don’t misunderstand me. Mike would be a threat to the world record in several classes in the bench even if he were to train as hard on the squat and deadlift as he does on his beloved press, but he would not be quite as good as he is now in jumping from class to class and creating records in four or five bodyweight divisions. I say “four or five” because it is Mike’s intention to one day soon hold the world mark in the superheavyweight (unlimited) class, and as the official world record in that class stands at 610 as this is being written (Jim Williams’ 675 having been made prior to the time when world records became “official”, Mike should be able to do it, as he gave an exhibition a few weeks ago at which he benched an incredible 620 while weighing 232.

These days, when Mike is specializing in the bench, which is most of the time, he uses the following routine. He goes heavy each time he trains, using the same workout each training session. Recently, he made a training bench of 625 pounds, and the figures you see below are based on a top bench of 625.


Bench Press –
135 x 5 x 2 sets, to get the feel of the bar.
325 x 1
325 x 1
325 x 1
425 x 1
525 x 1
625 x 1, all sets concentrating on technique and form.

On all of the above competition-style bench presses, Mike uses a 32-inch grip, which is the widest the rules allow. Following the heavy work, he moves his grip in to shoulder width and does 2 sets of 3 reps in movements which could be called sticking point lockouts. He lowers the weight halfway down to approximately where the triceps take over from the chest and shoulders, and then drives it back overhead. It would be written as follows:

Sticking Point Lockout –
475 x 3
475 x 3

Next, Mike uses the specially bent bar. He tells me that he used to do pushups between boxes with extra weight on his shoulders until he became too strong for the movement to be practical, at which time he had the bent bar made to server the same purpose. His reason for doing this exercise is that he believes it is far easier to develop a truly heavy bench press if you can find a shortcut to what he calls “blast-off power.” He feels that the best way to encourage the chest muscles to build this sort of power is to stretch them more than they are stretched by a regular bench press. This bar allows his hands to drop well below the level of the chest, thus placing a tremendous stretch on the pectoral muscles. He says that a 300-pound bencher should be able to handle around 225 on the special bar. When Mike does this exercise, he pauses for 5 seconds on the chest before each press, and says that when he finishes his chest is really burning from the work and the stretching. He uses the following weights:

Bent-Bar Benches –
435 x 3
435 x 3, using a 5-second pause on each rep
435 x 3

That’s it. No high repetition “pump set,” no triceps presses, no arm work of any sort – only the tremendously heavy benches, the lockouts, and those chest stretchers, all done three times a week. Mike has of course experimented with all sorts of routines and exercises over the years, but he figures that the routine he’s on now is the suits him the best. There is one crucial point that I now need to make because Mike feels it is extremely important. The point is that although he USUALLY trains three times each week on the bench, sometimes he will vary this depending on how well he feels the muscles of the arms, shoulders, and chest have recovered. If he feels they are completely recovered, he trains; if he feels they need another day’s rest, they get another day’s rest.

He has a method of determining whether or not the muscles have recovered enough, and he recommends this method to everyone. He simply takes a broomstick on the morning of his scheduled workout, holds it out front of his chest, then brings it slowly toward the chest, until it is touching. If he feels any soreness in the pectoral or front deltoid muscles, he will do no benches that day because he believes that the soreness indicates his readiness to train again. Mike feels this simple idea has saved him from injury several times.

In the past, he has made good use of the standing triceps press. His method of performance is to lower the bar behind, and a few inches below the top of his head, and then triceps press it to arms’ length. When he uses this exercise he handles the following poundages:

Triceps Press –
135 x 10
205 x 6
255 x 6
305 x 6
255 x 6

Another exercise he claims has been very beneficial to him is done by lowering the bar to a position one or two inches below the sticking point (the point of poorest leverage), then holding it there for about 5 seconds before forcing it through the sticking point and on up to arms’ length.

Amazingly, HE NEVER WORKS HIS LATS OR BICEPS, two of the areas most big benchers really hit hard. Most top men train the lats and biceps on what seems to me to be the theory that thicker arms at the elbow, and more latissimus mass under the triceps provide better leverage, a sort of launching pad from which the bar is driven overhead. Even without this work, however, Mike’s launching pad seems to be in fairly good order.

Since most of you who are reading this will not want to concentrate only on the bench but will want to increase your other lifts as well, I’ve asked Mike to provide you with the schedule he uses when training all three lifts. The schedule goes as follows:


Bench Press Workout –
as already given.


Squat –
135 x 5
225 x 5
315 x 3
405 x 3
475 x 3
545 x 3
615 x 3
525 x 5


Bench Press Workout –
same as Monday, if the muscles have recovered.


Bench Press Workout –
same as Monday and Wednesday, if the muscles have recovered.

Squat –
same as Tuesday

Deadlift –
135 x 5
315 x 1
405 x 1
475 x 1
545 x 1
615 x 1
655 x 1
525 x 5

When Mike is on this program (as he is as this is being written), you can see that he trains as hard as before on th bench press; he simply lowers his expectations a bit since he is sensible enough to realize that his supply of energy is not unlimited and that some of the work and energy he lavished on the upper body when he was bench-specializing will be soaked up by the large muscles of the thighs, hips and lower back as he trains his squat and deadlift. He hopes to hold his bench press above 600 at a bodyweight of 220.5 for the 1977 National Championships, which he feels he has a good chance to win.

Even though Mike has decided to work hard on all the lifts for a while, those of us who know him well expect him to return after the Nationals to a program of specialization in the bench press. He really loves the lift, and his goals are to continue training and breaking records for at least another ten years. He expects to bench 650 as a 242-pounder before too long, and then he feels he’d like to creep up to the mind-numbing figure of 700 pounds as a light superheavyweight, weighing 250 to 265. When I asked Mike about retirement, he said, “You will find that I am not a lifter who comes and goes quickly like most of them do. I’m only 28 years old, and I plan on setting new world records for many, many years.”

When we last talked, he stressed the point again that beginners and intermediates should always remember that a person doesn’t have to be naturally huge to hold records in powerlifting. As an example of this, he says that had he never trained with weights he’d weigh around 165 pounds at a height of 5-feet 5 inches, and with his tiny 6¾” wrists, he seems to be walking proof of his own argument. In Mike’s view, the most important thing for a beginner to do is to train the lifts with ABSOLUTE STRICTNESS and to be extremely careful not to sustain an injury. It’s that week after week, month after month steady training, uninterrupted by injuries, that makes for championship lifting. Mike has only been hurt once, a leg injury at last year’s National Championships.

As far as grip width is concerned, Mike favors a 32-inch grip, because he feels that the wider hand spacing allows the huge and powerful pectoral muscles of the chest to function most efficiently. He realizes, however, that this is an individual matter that each lifter will have to determine for himself. In general, he feels that beginners should use as wide a grip as is comfortable for them, for he believes it will pay off in the long run.

Mike keeps his feet close together when he benches, and when his bodyweight is in the 180- to 200-pound range he is able to arch his back for better leverage. In the 220- and 242-pound classes, however, his thicker body doesn’t seem to want to arch and so he lies almost flat on the bench. This doesn’t worry him. As he told me, “The power I gain from the extra bodyweight more than makes up for the loss of leverage.” He attempts to keep his upper arms at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to his upper body as he lowers the weight, allowing them to swing quickly out to almost 90 degrees when he bar gets halfway up. As he lowers the weight, he is very careful to touch the bar down on exactly the right spot for him, which is high on the chest, allowing the big pectoral muscles to provide maximum blast-off power.

Mike has other places to get this power besides his pectorals, as he is similar to most other top powerlifters in his belief that diet is a large part of successful lifting. And being the owner and operator of a natural foods store, he’s in an ideal position to get what he feels his body needs. Each day he takes a super-strength multiple vitamin tablet, 1,000 mg. of vitamin C, 30 desiccated liver tablets, and 400 international units of vitamin E. He also drinks a lot of fruit juice, nutriment, and liquid protein, and he eats meat, lots of tuna fish, nuts, fruits, and some raw vegetables. Being in the store all day, he snacks constantly, so much so that he told me with a laugh that he ate up most of his profits. When he wants to gain or lose weight, he either adds or cuts down on his carbohydrates.

How much Mike will eventually bench press is difficult to say, but set up the way he is now with a thriving though not physically demanding job, I see no reason why he won’t make good on his promise to continue breaking records for the next 10 or 15 years. I’ve seen him hoist those big, big weights on those slender arms enough times now that he’s made a believer out of me. Doug Young and Larry Pacifico, both of whom are among the top five benchers in the world, are awed by Mike’s progress, and those of us who have seen him lift have come to respect what he says an to respect his predictions.

He is, after all, the greatest pound-for-pound bench presser in the history of powerlifting.

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