McAfee Secure sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams
Share Print

You have not viewed any products recently.




Talking Training with Old-Time Strongmen

July 22, 2004 08:07 AM

Let us take a little time out of our busy schedules to just relax. Let us put aside for a moment all of our hard work and harder training and enjoy a few minutes to ourselves. Let us daydream. Imagine, if you will, that H.G. Wells has loaned us his favorite Time Machine, and with it we can travel back in time to the early 20th century -say 1925. Imagine also that many of the greatest strongmen of the time had gathered at Henry Higgins' gym in Boston, Massachusetts to compare and discuss their various training methods. Imagine that they chose you?being from the future and all?to conduct an interview with them, so that you might learn all that you could about effective strength training techniques, and then take this treasured information back to the confused masses of the early 21st century and set them on the proper path to success in Physical Culture. (Hey, it could happen; work with me here.)

As you stare goggle-eyed around the gym at the men seated about you on the floor (after all, the bench press was a thing of the future, so there weren't many benches to sit on), you see some of the most well-known personalities of the Iron Game who had ever lived: Arthur Saxon, George Hackenschmidt, Alan Calvert, and W.A. Pullum. Unfortunately, Hermann Goerner was off giving some sort of strength demonstration elsewhere, so his most trusted friend and confidant, Edgar Mueller, was sitting in for him. Of course, the owner of the gym himself was there as well, Henry Higgins. With shaking hands, you turn on your 'new-fangled' tape recorder and begin.

You (coughing, nervous in the presence of such greatness): Uh, thank you, gentlemen, for taking the time to sit down with me. It is very generous. (Mumbled acknowledgment from the strongmen.) There are a great many issues that the people of my time are always arguing about, but I'll try and stick to the biggest ones. First is a concept that we have developed known as "training to failure". What do you, gentlemen, think about training to failure, to the point of utter collapse and exhaustion?

Henry Higgins: "... I always made it a point not to lift to the limit of my powers. By lifting well within himself in practice, a man will do much better in training... It is always safe to lift less than your full strength will permit." (6)

Edgar Mueller: "... I have always had the impression that Hermann, in performing the great majority of his many amazing feats, very rarely exerted himself to anywhere near the limits of his astounding power ...
"Whenever he wished to surpass a particular feat of his ... Hermann would recall the lift and when he made it -he would then proceed to better that particular feat, but he would never try his limit. He was always most 'economical' with his enormous strength and, due to this, very many of his lifts were nowhere near his maximum ability..." (8)

George Hackenschmidt: "Never on any account continue the exercise until exhaustion sets in...
"Do not perform any exercise to excess, so as to tire yourself out. If you feel tired and exhausted, give yourself the necessary rest, and, as in everything else, use moderation and common sense.
"REMEMBER that excessive and rapid exercising is harmful." (3)

W.A. Pullum: "The work must ... always be graded with due regard to existing abilities...
"Learn to distinguish between that degree of work which merely insists that you strenuously exert yourself and that which really taxes you to perform it. The former is the limit beyond which it is never beneficial to proceed." (7)

Alan Calvert: "When a man is exercising with a heavy bell there is no rule that compels him to continue his exertions after he feels with rubber exercisers does not develop the right kind of muscles for weight-lifting ... [I]t will be gathered that, in my opinion, when a man has got a good development and takes to weight-lifting, he will be wise to drop all his light exercises, and reserve the energy and nervous power such exercises would eat up, for weight-lifting.
"To such as have in view the improvement of health or development of muscle only, I have nothing to say, as any system of light training will improve such, and for health no doubt light dumb-bell work and any rubber appliance is good ... I admit that in the case of a man who has the least suspicion of internal weakness or a weak constitution, it is absolutely essential that a preliminary course of light exercise be gone through with the object of strengthening the body and preparing all round for the harder work involved in weight-lifting ... But at the same time I would say that the man who knows himself to be already constitutionally sound and internally perfect, with good physical development, should not waste time in light exercises of any description, but go right on to weight-lifting, of course practising at first with such weights as could be lifted with ease and comfort.
"Club swinging is a form of light exercise which is of no use to the would-be strong man, as it stretches and makes supple the muscles rather than develops them with increased contractile power." (1)
"Numberless professors of physical culture are continually propounding systems of exercise to the public, which they specially recommend on account of there being no necessity for any weights or other apparatus in their system.
"I have nothing to say against these methods, as I have never tried them; but am perfectly satisfied, without troubling to investigate them, that only by exercising with weights can a thoroughly all-round development be obtained." (2)

Henry Higgins: "Often you will hear people say that it is possible to become very strong and to get good development by practicing light exercises...
"Now I have taught straight gymnasium work for about 15 years and I never knew of a man who built himself up except by very heavy work. Light dumbbell drills never made anyone strong or muscular. I taught drills of this sort to people who wanted to get the ordinary hygienic benefit from exercise, and I knew that my pupils did derive that benefit. But they never got strength or development from the light drills ... On the other hand all my pupils who went in for strength and development were successful when I put them at heavy training.
"Any man who says that he can build a person up and make him very strong by the use of light exercises is deceiving himself. He can certainly improve the health of the pupil by giving him exercise of this character. But that is the extent of the usefulness of this sort of exercise." (6)

George Hackenschmidt: "[I]t is only by exercising with heavy weights that any man can hope to develop really great strength ...
"[A man] may secure and maintain a condition of fair physical fitness by means of exercising without weights ... but he cannot hope to become really strong unless he exercises with weights ...
"Some trainers recommend to their pupils for the training of all muscle groups one and the same (light) weight and believe they are able to obtain the same effect by frequent repetitions.
"My experience has taught me that this is wrong ... One must consider that, although it is quite possible to enlarge muscles by certain light, prolonged exercises, at the same time the development of the sinews may be neglected, and it is the sinews which transport the action of the muscles to the bone frame. The sinews can only be exercised and strengthened by correspondingly heavy muscle work. Besides, to take a paradoxical example, it is quite impossible to improve strong muscle groups, as for instance, the hip muscles, with light-weight exercises.
"A further illustration of the fallacy of attempting to develop the muscles by frequent repetitions with the same light exercises may be found in a comparison with any and every other form of athletics, in which a man would never think of merely repeating his training programme. In order to improve himself either in pace or distance, he must set himself a steady progression of arduous effort." (3)

Edgar Mueller: "it should be stressed that Hermann favoured low repetitions -usually 3 and very rarely 4 -with the weight being increased by 5 kilos (10 lb.) after each set. He trained for quality of muscle as opposed to quantity ... He was interested in training for strength; first and foremost in his mind was the ability to do things with his muscles, not just to have large muscles which were pretty to look upon, but when put to the test fell down. The training that Hermann did saw to it that, his muscles, whilst being developed, were also developed with the highest-quality tissue -- they were not blown up by endless repetitions with light weights. In that fashion, Hermann avers a man can never become strong -really strong -he must lift heavy weights, and the weights must be increased as his strength grows: this is the only way to become a strong man ...
"He also frowned on 'expander' exercises, believing that such forms of exercise destroyed the explosive force needed in performing quick lifts." (8)

Alan Calvert: "... I have never known any man to make even respectable records at weight-lifting if he wasted his time with 5- and 10-lb. dumbbells." (4)

You: I see. Okay, that makes sense. Now, what about exercise selection? In the future, a great many lifters tend to specialize on just one or two lifts. They focus all of their efforts on putting up huge weights in these 'pet' lifts while they virtually ignore the rest of the body. The lift most often practiced is the bench press; I believe you call it the floor press or supine press. (The gathered strongmen look a little perplexed by the idea of such an exercise being so popular.) Then we have the guys who only concentrate on the 'showy' muscles -the chest, the biceps and triceps, like that -and consequently walk around with puffed-up upper bodies but stick-figure legs. Worst of all, I think, are those who train on machines, trying to work each and every muscle individually, in isolation from the rest of the muscles around it. (Arthur Saxon gasps in horror at the mere mention of such a preposterous notion.)

Arthur Saxon: "Practice everything -single and double-handed press in dumb-bells and bar-bells, single and double-handed lifts, all the way in dumb-bells and bar-bells, snatching and swinging, jerking and pressing, lying down with weights, supporting weights, lifting weights whilst laid on the back, ring weights, human weights, and, if possible, double-handed lifts to the knee, and harness lifts, also holding the bell aloft and bringing a weight after with the disengaged hand, and raising bells aloft by what is known as the Continental style of lifting ... Also anything else that may suggest itself to your mind, such as heavy weights at arm's length, raising bells overhead stood on end on the hand, juggling with weights by throwing them from hand to hand overhead, catching in the hollow of the arms, etc. A method of practice such as the above would not only bring into play every band and strap of muscle you possess, but also give you a far better knowledge of all-round weight-lifting, than you could possibly obtain if you practised three or four lifts only to the exclusion of all others." (1)
"I have already stated that the surest method is to essay all-round lifting, and I would, therefore, recommend every aspiring weight-lifter to try and improve himself at every different feat.
"Supposing him to possess a specialty however, with a fair chance of making a world's record thereat, ambition will, I have no doubt, overcome his good intentions in this respect, and will, consequently, impel him to devote more attention to his pet feat than it should properly receive.
"Now, it is no manner of use preaching to deaf ears, so I will refrain from saying what I think of these would-be world's record makers ..." (2)

Edgar Mueller: "'Variety is the spice of life', declared Hermann. He was an all-round strong man and had no love for the monotonous 'Olympic Three' as the be-all and end-all of a lifter. Goerner practised all lifts ... Hermann regarded Dead Lifting and carrying of heavy weights as fundamental tests of bodily strength." (8)

George Hackenschmidt: "It is advisable to vary the exercises constantly ... to develop all muscles harmoniously.
"... It is, therefore, most necessary to train systematically.
"Every human being possesses about five hundred separate muscles ...
"For the purposes of development ... it will be quite sufficient to classify them in groups, such as Neck muscles, Shoulder muscles, Arm muscles, Chest muscles, Muscles of the Abdomen, Back, Legs, etc.
"No one can afford to neglect any of these groups. All, in fact, should be equally developed, those which are naturally weaker to a greater extent than the others, until all are equally strong, when the object in view, should be that of equal all-round improvement.
"[A man] should of course combine these exercises with skipping, running, jumping and gymnastics of every description in order to similarly develop his activity and agility ..." (3)

Alan Calvert: "The reader should be very careful not to confuse 'weight-lifting' and heavy dumbbell exercises. Weight-lifting proper is the lifting of heavy dumbbells in the standard feats ... Heavy dumbbell exercises are practiced with moderately heavy dumbbells, or bar-bells, and are intended to prepare the muscles for the more arduous work of weight-lifting.
"... The best amateur weight-lifter I ever knew never took any light exercise or any heavy dumbbell exercise. Three or four times a week he would practice the standard lifts and the 'bent press', and after a year or two of this kind of work he developed a wonderful figure and tremendous strength ...
"On the other hand, I have known many athletes who got very good results by practicing heavy dumbbell exercises two or three times a week, and practicing weight-lifting once or twice a week..." (4)

You: Okay, I got it. But that leads us into the next issue, which is always the subject of a heated debate. It involves how much actual lifting should be done. By that I mean, how often should you train, and for how long? There are those who say only once or twice a week is best; on the other hand, some get excellent results training as often as every day. In fact, there was an exceptional article written on this very subject by a real swell guy; it was called 'In Defense of Frequent Training'. I wish I had it to show you!

Alan Calvert: "The average weight-lifter trains from 15 to 30 minutes every day ...
"Most professional lifters train only for a short time every day. Some lifters only train three or four times a week. A total of two hours' time each week is enough to keep a man in the highest possible condition, and it is also enough to develop a novice from a totally undeveloped condition into a perfect Hercules." (4)
"Experience has taught us that the best results from heavy bar-bell exercise is obtained by the pupil exercising every other day; that is, seven times in two weeks." (5)

W.A. Pullum: "Relative to the question of how often a man should practise, there is no hard and fast rule, some finding a regular daily programme produce the best results, others discovering they do better by missing a practice now and then. Generally speaking, a rest from training once a week invigorates a man. And later, as the work becomes more exacting, it may pay to observe this rest interval even more frequently." (7)

Edgar Mueller: "The number of training sessions per week varied during Goerner's career. Between the years 1905 and 1913 he trained usually five times per week, with two days of complete rest ... During this same period (1905 to 1913) there were also periods when Hermann trained daily. After the end of World War I, from 1919 to 1921, Goerner trained on an average four times per week ...
"During Hermann Goerner's professional career -- from 1921 onwards -- he practiced daily with the weights. After the age of 40, when not professionally engaged, he trained three times weekly ... usually Tuesdays and Fridays in the evening and on Sunday mornings.
"Each training session averaged two hours when performed [inside the gym], and when training in the open air it would vary between three and four hours -- sometimes even longer." (8)

George Hackenschmidt: "As a principal rule I should stipulate for regularity of training ... Hence it is advisable to exercise as nearly as possible at the same hour every day...
"The exercises should not exceed one quarter of an hour at the commencement, and should only be increased by five minutes in a few months. Afterwards, about thirty minutes are fully sufficient to the acquisition and preservation of strength and endurance.
"... I recommend my readers to map out a certain plan, according to which they exercise all the muscle groups twice on three or four days every week, or on six days if time allows.
"... If it is intended to further increase [strength], one should begin to train once or twice per week ... with heavier weights ... [A]nd on such days avoid part, if not all, ordinary exercises." (3)

Arthur Saxon: "It is really impossible for me to prescribe special exercises with fixed time limits for same, and fixed days for each individual ... as we are all possessed of different constitutions and staminal power, but roughly speaking it will be found correct in most instances to practice twice per week ...
"On the days when you do not practise with heavy weights you might try a few movements with a heavy pair of dumb-bells from 10 to 30lbs. in weight, according to your strength and development. Add to this your favourite sports, such as cycling, wrestling, swimming, or what not, and the weight-lifting practices, and you should be doing quite sufficient work to not only keep you fit but to bring you to the top of the tree ...
"The advanced lifter would make his two practices per week suffice, he need not do even the heavy dumb-bell exercises I have referred to." (1)
"If a man seriously proposes to go in for lifting heavy weights, he should make a point of practising certain lifts every day. This daily practice is absolutely essential to the achievement of any real success." (2)

Henry Higgins: "Daily practice in lifting dumbbells and weights is all that is necessary in order to become a very great strong man ...
"The secret of great strength, then, is seen to be a matter of daily training with heavy weights and dumbbells ...
"These exercises are to be taken each day without fail. The importance of regularity must be realized at the out-set, for it is one of the most valuable features of training. Two minutes exercise taken each day with the greatest regularity is far better than an hour a day taken twice a week ...
"Unless you are sick or weakened and fatigued by your daily work, it is a good plan never to fail to at least do a little practice each day ... Try not to have any gaps in your training.
"The best pupils I ever had worked some part of every day, some of them even including Sundays and holidays. In regard to Sunday, however, I have always felt that a rest and lay-off was good for everybody.
"It will in fact be found advisable to thus divide the training time each day into two distinct spells. Fifteen or twenty minutes in the morning and the same amount of time in the evening, if the pupil finds it convenient, is an excellent division of time." (6)

You (smiling): Yeah, that's pretty much what the article said you would say. Now for the last subject. In the time I come from, we have developed a great many different -and frequently very unusual -dietary strategies. Some of these diets involve eating several times a day, as often as every two hours; some go to the other extreme and suggest only one meal a day. There is also a lot of hype surrounding what we call 'supplements'; in other words, protein powders and amino acid pills, so-called metabolic optimizers, performance enhancers, weight gainer drinks, things of that nature. For a lot of lifters and athletes, these 'supplements' comprise a large part of their food and nutrient intake. Any comments on any of these issues of diet and nutrition?

Edgar Mueller: "Goerner is firmly convinced that a mixed diet is the best for a strong man, with emphasis laid on eating good meals with the accent on meat! He is particularly partial to pork and beef and also wurst -German sausage meat. Vegetables also, together with potatoes, but not overdoing the latter. He is very fond of nuts -particularly walnuts -and all fruits: apples especially, which he thinks every strong man should eat, as well as oranges and other citrus fruits. Cheese and eggs also figure in his diet, but he does not care for rich pastries nor does he drink milk in any quantity. As regards drinking, he drinks beer, but only moderately -- seldom touches spirits..." (8)

Arthur Saxon: "Compared with his less fortunate brothers who box and run, the lifter has no restrictions as to diet. The man who boxes requires good wind and staying power, he therefore has to ... exercise great care in his selection of food stuffs, avoiding pastry, all starchy and sugary foods which would be dangerous to his wind. The weight-lifter can eat and drink almost anything, but, of course, if a little care be exercised in selecting the articles of diet it should be possible to replace the broken down tissue with less strain on the digestive organs ... provided you get the right food stuffs, then you need not eat so much as if badly selected ... Milk is a perfect food, and a splendid drink after practising, is an egg beaten up in milk, or a glass of hot milk. As a rule, the claims of patent or concentrated foods for the would-be strong should be taken cum grano salis ... Oatmeal and milk, too, is splendid for building up the muscular system, as well as cheese, beans and peas of all kinds, which contain the necessary elements for renewing tissue. I am not a vegetarian, and therefore advise the use of beef, mutton, etc., etc. ... With regard to alcoholic liquors ... I am aware of the dangers of drinking to excess, and would strongly urge on everyone the importance of moderation in drinking. Spirits I have proved to be disadvantageous to the would-be athlete, and my favourite drink is lager beer..." (1)

Alan Calvert: "Very few lifters whom I know, pay any attention to diet. They eat what they like and when they like. I do not know any 'strong men' who are vegetarians. Meat seems to be an essential part of the diet; beef and pork being the favorite meats. Any man who performs feats of strength needs the kind of food that will produce a great deal of energy and the lifter seems naturally to incline to meat, eggs, cheese, etc." (4)

"A pupil who is ordinarily healthy can build up on the ordinary diet..." (5)
George Hackenschmidt: "I believe I am right in asserting that our Creator has provided food and nutriment for every being for its own advantage. Man is born without frying-pan or stewpot. The purest natural food for human beings would, therefore, be fresh, uncooked food and nuts ... My experience has taught me, that foodstuffs are of secondary importance. There are very strong people who are strict vegetarians, whilst others eat a good deal of meat. A fare which consists of three-quarters of vegetable food and one-quarter meat would appear to be the most satisfactory...
"I would shun altogether all highly seasoned and sour dishes. Much has been said lately in praise of sugar as food, but as artificial sugar is an acid-forming substance, I should not recommend it. Natural sugar, such as is contained in dates, figs, and other fruit, is certainly preferable...
"I maintain that it is absolutely a mistake to eat a great deal...
"The disadvantages of meat foods are ...that nowadays it is most difficult to obtain meat from absolutely healthy animals (I count those artificially fed in stables and pens among the unhealthy ones), and ... that far too much flesh food is taken.
"In the case of pure vegetable food, excess is less dangerous ... [P]ure vegetables ... certainly form the ideal human food ..." (3)

You: Wow! Well, I think that ought to do it. I can't thank you, gentlemen, enough for taking the time to talk with me. You have really given me a lot of very valuable information, and I just hope the people in the future are smart enough to recognize the significance of it and heed it.

Kurt J. Wilkens is the owner of Integrated Conditioning, Inc., a company that specializes in combining Old-Time Physical Culture with Modern Sports Science for the optimal development of Functionality and Wellness. Through the ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association), Kurt is a Certified Fitness Trainer and a Specialist in Martial Arts Conditioning; he is also a Russian Kettlebell Challenge Certified Instructor. Integrated Conditioning, Inc. offers health and fitness consultations and personalized training programs -- presently available online only, but soon in person at a new South Florida facility. Kurt can be reached via his website.


All of the following books are available from Bill Hinbern at; some may also be found for free online. They should be required reading for all lifters.

1- The Development of Physical Power, by Arthur Saxon (1906)
2- The Textbook of Weight-Lifting, by Arthur Saxon (1910)
3- The Way to Live, by George Hackenschmidt (1908)
4- The Truth About Weight Lifting, by Alan Calvert (1911)
5- The Milo Bar-Bell Company's First Course in Body-Building and Muscle-Developing Exercises, by Alan Calvert (1924)
6- The Henry Higgins Strength and Muscle Course, by Henry Higgins (1915)
7- How to Use a Barbell, by W.A. Pullum (1925)
8- Goerner the Mighty, by Edgar Mueller (1951)