A Lifter Must Think
by Peary Rader (1976)
I get so many calls from men who ask me how to train. For either power or Olympic lifting. Then they tell me about the routines of some lifters they have read about.
They tell me how a man will start the squat in his training with 350 for 5 reps, then 375 for 5, the 400x5, then to 425x5, then 450x3, and then 475 for a single.
Sounds great, doesn't it? but even though some of these men may have made records and some of them are champions who use these routines, this doesn't prove that it is the best routine.
I just finished talking to a fellow who is training on power lifting and this conversation prompted this outburst. He wanted help with his training routines, as most men do. I asked him why he was doing all those sets of 5 reps with the lighter poundages and he said he didn't know - that someone had told him this was the way to train and that a lot of others used this routine.
I asked him why he didn't analyze what he was doing and why he was doing it. He didn't know.
You may hear of someone who does 500 in the squat in your bodyweight class and you're only able to do 400. Immediately you decide to find out what he is doing so that you can use the same system to bring your squat up to 500. You have assumed without question that what this man is doing must of necessity be the best system for the power you seek.
Great men in history have been the men who thought for themselves - who did their own experiments and analyzed the results and then reworked their future plans accordingly, and this applies to any field. Follow the Leader type people always remain followers.
You are an individual. You have certain potentials; you have certain problems and you alone can solve these problems and thereby realize your potentials.
This applies to lifting or to business. Only you can determine your potential and only you can develop the right program for you alone. You must, of course, start out at the bottom and here you can only use what others before you have discovered, but soon you will find that what works for one man may not work as well for you. You must think for yourself and if you can't think for yourself or refuse to learn to think for yourself then you have a very limited potential in any direction. It takes raw, driving courage to think for yourself because you will often be lonely when you don't simply follow the prescribed path of effort. Okay, now if you're willing to think for yourself a little let's get on with the power lesson. You have been following the path trod by others and for some unfathomable reason you have been doing what others did, without question.
You want to squat with 500 pounds. You may have to admit that some others find strength gains rather easy up to a certain point due to certain natural potential they have, and by this I mean they have inherited the type of metabolism, the physical functions that are way above what the average person such as you and I have. They 'have it made' so to speak, because it seems that everything they do causes them to gain strength and bulk. They have the potential of being champions, not because they know any secrets but because they have a head start on you and their potential speed of progress is unusual and their upper limit of strength is much higher than yours. They will gain on almost any program. They have an almost unlimited source of energy for long, hard programs, without going stale. All this does not mean that they will not have to work hard if they want to reach their maximum potential but it does mean that they can reach that 500 squat much quicker, easier and with a much less sophisticated program than you will have to use because you see, this 500 squat may only a fraction of their maximum potential, while it may be near to the limits of your fulfilled maximum potential.
So, you are a hard, slow gainer and your top potential is not as great, so this mean that you will have to have a much more sophisticated, carefully planned program than your friend who has so much more potential.
Now I know this has been a long circle, but we are now coming back to that squat that you wanted to develop to 500 which your friend found so easy to attain with a certain program. You use this same program but you do not reach the 500. You're still stuck at a 400 pound squat.
Now, let's just do a little bit of thinking. No more blind following. I emphasize "blind" because we must observe and analyze the programs of others and that is what we are trying to do here. This is where it gets a bit difficult because our educational system has taught us, to some degree, to be followers - unquestioning followers - in our learning process. Someone else has done such and such a thing in the past and it seemed successful so it must be right, and so our minds build up a series of "thinking blocks" over a period of time and then it becomes increasingly difficult to do any amount of free thinking on our own.
Now, if you are still with me, let's get back to that squat you're trying to improve, and we use this endeavor only as an example.
Don't you know that someone will do a 1500 squat one of these days in the future? If this is possible, why are there no 1500-pound squats now? There are none now because present training systems are in their infancy in power lifting, so to speak. We are just beginning and we are still making mistakes. We are making progress but could make it faster if we would expand our thinking and reach out and try new things that the present lifting field cannot visualize or thinks will not work.
Now I want to give you one example and I will cut this article off.
Go back the the second paragraph where we listed poundages and reps for 6 sets. Why did you do these sets and reps like this? Either you don't know or you're misinformed. More than likely the only reason is that everyone else is doing it.
We know that any exercise is better than none, and any exercise will give some progress if you have the potential, but you're going to have to do something different than is being done if someone in the future is going to ever reach that 1500 pound squat. YOU MUST THINK AND ACT.
In the layout in that paragraph you did 6 sets but only the last 2 or possible 3 had any benefit whatever in improving your squat, and even these may not have been of much benefit. Why? Because you did not work hard. You did not drive yourself and without forcing yourself to an effort beyond what you are accustomed to you do not make the demands required for improvement.
Your body will only respond with improvement and greater strength when you FORCE it to, with what may seem to be impossible demands on it. We are not talking about health or conditioning here, we are talking of building greater strength.
In the program listed in that paragraph you have wasted at least 50% and probably more of your energy and training time. Those lighter poundages with 5 reps did absolutely nothing for your strength and development. You made no demands on your body to improve because you did not let it know that you expected the impossible from it. These light, easy sets act only as warmups and you don't need that much of a warmup. Men vary in their need for a warmup but no one needs excessive warmups and we have seen men taking a real workout in the warmup room backstage before going out to lift - not because their muscles needed a warmup but because they lacked the confidence in themselves and they needed this mentally. A champion lifter has such control of his mental function that he can prepare himself for almost instant all-out effort without all that exhausting warmup to "prove to yourself again" that you can lift the poundage. I've seen men finish their warmup with a poundage almost identical to their work weight.
Mental control can eliminate most of the need for excessive warmups. Concentration is not all there is to control but it is a major part of control.
Wastes of time and energy in training is of course not confined to lifters but afflicts bodybuilders also; however, in bodybuilding it is quite a different situation and we would have to discuss it separately in order to do it justice.
Always remember that muscles have to be forced to grow stronger, there is no other way, but this forcing has to be done intelligently if greatest progress is to be realized.
In contrast to the example used above where the lifter used up his energy in the warmup, let me cite another example of a man who was one of the greatest lifters who ever lived. I've seen him go out and snatch 350 or 360 in perfect form and I have watched him previous to these efforts in the warmup room. Do you know what he warmed up with? A few snatches with 150 pounds, and some with just the bar. He did not need a long warmup. His mental control was great. When he approached the bar there was no hesitation or pacing around. He had full confidence in his strength and technique. He walked up to the bar and lifted it.
Now it may be in bad taste to use oneself as an example but I will do so here to help illustrate what I'm talking about. I was never a world champion or world record holder, but did hold the heavyweight lifting title of our district for several years. When I lifted in a contest the only warmup I did was some lifting with a broom handle or an empty bar in my hands. I never lifted a poundage for a warmup. My warmup with an empty bar was only to prepare myself mentally and to develop a pattern of movement so that my style would automatically at its best and my concentration was an explosive power. I always visualized the weight overhead in perfect and vicious style. The was my warmup. When I walked to the bar I was tingling with suppressed energy - not worn out from a large warmup. I had very few failures in my lifts and I know today's lifters will not be able to believe this, but I don't recall a single injury or pulled muscle from lifting competition. I did have some pulled muscles from training but never anything serious and very seldom did I ever suffer anything at all.
Now, in your training for power, why waste energy on low poundages and reps which do not demand anything. They will do nothing to increase your power.
Do a warmup set, then go to the heaviest poundage you can use for the number of repetitions you want to do. Then do that number of reps but force yourself to do more than you expected to. You can do it if you think you can and will force yourself.
Back to the program in the paragraph above. You would take 8 or so reps with 200, but stop before you get at all tired, then jump to 425 and do all you can, which might likely be 6 or 7 or 8 since you did not tire yourself with lower-poundage sets. Then go to 450 and can probably "force" yourself to do more reps with this weight as well, then on to 475 and finally 500.
This is only an illustration and the poundages and reps will vary for each lifter, but it will serve to show you what I am talking about. Waste no more mental and physical energy than absolutely necessary with your warmups. Don't taper down with lighter poundages. Again, this will waste energy. You are not forcing the muscles with all these extra sets and reps added to your workout load, so why do you do it?
Instead, walk around for a while after completing the squats, or whatever main lift you have done. This stimulates a mild continued circulation and will help eliminate fatigue poisons and lessen soreness. Whatever you do - don't go off and sit down after a hard, heavy workout. This allows stagnation and hinders recuperation. An easy bit of walking is all the cool down you need.
I am not trying to downgrade anyone's program or anyone's instruction. Our prime intent is to show you that there is room for improvement and experimentation in the programs being used and that you should not accept the reasoning that any one person has the ultimate in training methods - we are just beginning. Don't be afraid to study the training methods of the past and use them to improve the methods of the future. Don't depend on someone else for your future - make your own future by a little thinking, experimentation, and hard work. Hard work it takes, but intelligent hard work. You must have both brain and brawn to reach your potential.
You have heard, of course, about training or doing an exercise to the point of failure. This idea is going in the right direction, but it was out of date 40 years ago. We will discuss this in a future issue.