Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Walter Thomas - Powerlifting Strategies for the Master Lifter - Marty Gallagher


At the 1994 U.S.P.F. National Masters Championships, the immortal Walter Thomas (five time world, nine time national champion) posted one of the top 181 pound totals made by any lifter in 1994 regardless of age. In a stunning show of technical prowess, power, and lack of ego, Walter made his reentry into the U.S.P.F. the organization in which he started powerlifting 22 years prior, a sensational one. 

It was a hell of a homecoming. 

48 years young, the 181 pound Thomas, casually squatted 672 on a second attempt -- passing this third -- bench pressed 413 -- a world masters record (again, passing his third attempt), and deadlifted 672 pounds (also on a second attempt). 

"I didn't want to overextend myself," he replied in his typically understated fashion, when quizzed on why he didn't take any third attempts.

Incredibly, Walter Thomas never squatted over 400 pounds, benched over 350, or deadlifted in excess of 500 during his training cycle.

The old adage, "necessity is the mother of invention" was never truer than in Mr. Thomas' case. Walter wanted to powerlift in the worst way, but was plagued by a chronic sacroiliac and some nagging shoulder problems. Ingeniously, he devised a system of power training that allowed him to train light (relatively) and still pound the massive iron come meet day.

"My back cannot take the pounding that comes with lifting 700 pound squats and deadlifts. I needed a new approach. After a few years of trial and error I came up with a system that seems to work. By that, I mean A SYSTEM THAT ALLOWS ME TO GET STRONGER AND YET STAY RELATIVELY LIGHT IN MY TRAINING." 

SQUATS: Rack Squats - 

"Set the support pins 12 inches below lockout and push the weight from a dead stop. I do multiple sets of 4 reps and try to work up to 300 pounds over my projected contest target weight. My target for the national masters was 700. My best rack squat for 4 reps was 1,000. I usually take 4 or 5 sets to reach my top set; say, 255, 455, 700, 1000, all for 4 reps.

Rack squats don't hurt my back and allow me to feel the heavy weight. By doing rack squats with 900-1000, 650-700 feels like a feather at the competition." 

These are done on Monday. On Friday Walter will perform regular squats. After a good warmup he will perform 3 x 10 reps with a static weight. These are done with no equipment and are taken 4-6 inches below parallel.

"I squat rock bottom; going way below parallel with a controlled descent and an explosive ascent. I work up 10 pounds a week using several five-week cycles with a week off between cycles. I do 3 top sets. My maximum poundage for 3 sets of 10, prior to the masters, was 400. It didn't sound like a lot, but if you go way below parallel with no equipment and do 3 sets, you get a heckuva workout." 

Three weeks prior to the National Masters, Walter put on a suit, lifting wraps and a lifting belt . . . "To see where I was at . . ." He squatted an easy 650 single and felt he had the strength to do 700. At the contest he opened with 622, jumped 672 and passed on a shot at his projected 700. "The 672 was medium hard, so I left it there." 


Sumo style, done on Wednesday. Walter works up to 1 set of 10 reps. His best set of 10 reps prior to the Nationals was 500. This is a long way from 700 but try to hand on to 500 for 10 gut busting reps and you'll begin to understand the 200 pound rep versus single spread. The high rep deadlifts develop crisp technical skill and a massive back. The reps also spare his back the muscle crushing reps that a 700 pound puller would normally endure. 670-680 for a double, two weeks prior to a competition, would constitute a "normal" last workout for a 700 pound deadlifter. A typical Walter workout might consist of: 135 x 10, 225 x 3-4, 300 x 3-4, 400 x 3-4, 500 x 10.

Assistance work is light and quick; a few sets of stiff legged deadlifts off a 6 inch block, some good mornings and perhaps some long pulley rows. Again, perhaps and hour and a half for the workout. 


In addition to his back problem, Walter has developed a nagging shoulder problem that, you guessed it, prevents him from going heavy in the bench press. He compensates for submaximal workout weight with multi-set volume. It works wonderfully for him, allowing him to get stronger without stressing his weary shoulder. 

Walter utilizes 6 sets of 4 reps with a static top set. Prior to the Nationals he performed 6 x 4 reps with 360 (no shirt) allowing about 5 minutes between sets. This worked out to approximately 80% of the 440 pound bench he had targeted for the contest. Unfortunately, the shoulder injury flared up during the contest and he passed his shot at the 200 kilo mark. He wears no shirt in training and wore it only on his 413 second attempt at the meet.

Assistance work is, once more, light and quick. Some curls, a few presses behind the neck, a little triceps work. He is out of the gym in one/two hours.

So there you have it; a viable alternative approach to powerlifting that allows you to get stronger without going anywhere near the big weights until the meet. Or is Walter Thomas a unique case? We don't know the answer to that one -- I suspect upon reading this article quite a few lifters who have chronic injuries (or who have grown stale) might want to give this offbeat training style a try. 

Enjoy Your Lifting!      

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