Lessons from the Greats

I recently visited the Stark Museum in Austin, Texas. If you love fitness and strength, this would be our shrine. Jan and Terry Todd had the tools used by the greats of our past, archival photos and practically every book, magazine and scrap of paper ever written on the subject.


After visiting the museum, I walked down to my own library and started pulling out books. One thing continued to leap off the page to me: the greats tended to natural flow between two kinds of workouts: Hypertrophy (bodybuilding) and Strength Training (preparing for a contest whether powerlifting, Olympic lifting or a strongman show).


It’s still great advice today. For eight weeks, focus on the Push (both horizontal and vertical), the Pull (both horizontal and vertical) and get those squats done. Keep the reps in that 8 to 12 range and try to fill out all of your short sleeve shirts. You can curl all you want after your squats.


Then, shift gears. There are two families of movements that tend to support increased performance in most sports: the hinge and the loaded carries.


When I first turned off my ego and tried Farmer Walks, my vote for the King of the Loaded Carries, I frankly didn’t notice much at first. But, my friends in both the Highland Games and the discus throw began asking questions. My performances were really improving and I was getting that “nod and wink” from competitors when they think you are juicing more than just kale.


“I swear to you…it’s the walks!”


Gray Cook, noted therapist and movement specialist, notes that the loaded carry family not only develop work capacity, the lifeline of performance improvement, but they also are brilliant at measuring work capacity. I use a Trap Bar for testing and the following weights:


Under 135 pounds, 135 total on the bar.

136-185 pounds, 185

186-205, 205

Over 205, 225.


Every so often, we load the bar up and walk away. Measure the distance and note if it is improving. If not, why not? High rep squat programs improve the test, Olympic lifting improves the test and traditional hard training improves the test.


I also use the Standing Long Jump, a hinge with acceleration, to test the athlete or client. If both the SLJ and the FW go up, good things are happening!


Training the hinge can be done with the deadlift and the snatch and clean family with heavy loads. On the other extreme, the hinge can be trained with lots of explosive Kettlebell swings. Strangely, either approach improves the SLJ. Both the heavy, blood vessel bursting deadlift and the snappy, sweat inducing swing help the jump.


Many of my sports performance cycles focus JUST on the hinge and loaded carry. We keep a touch of push, pull and squat in these programs to hold on to the muscle gains and give an opportunity to stay symmetrical throughout the body.


Try a six week program of just the Olympic lifts and Farmer Walks for a challenge and change up even if you don’t keep. Try what we do at the Hercules Barbell Club:


Snatch: 8 sets of 2

Clean and Jerk: 8 sets of 1

Farmer Walks


The Farmer Walks are done in what we call the “Great Eight.” Pick a load (you can vary this on every move) and go “down and back” four times. That is eight lengths and it works out just about right. Train like this three days a week for a while and get your lifts up to some respectable numbers. Compete, if you can.


Then, get back to hypertrophy.


This is what the greats of our past have always done and it still works wonders today.

Minimalism in the Gym

Minimalism is one of the fastest growing concepts in fitness. Although the concept has been around a long time, Tim Ferris made it a buzzword with his book “The Four Hour Body.” Like poison, good training is all in the dose. A little poison might actually cure you for one thing, but a little too much will cure all your problems for good.


We see minimalism in shoes (minimalist shoes have little support, no heel, and tend to allow you to know where the rocks and pebbles are on the ground) and minimalism in diet. I think the popularity of Paleodieting comes, in part, from the simplicity of stating: “I only eat foods that were available 10,000 years ago.” My mastodon was excellent today, by the way.


In training, it’s hard to hold to minimalism. I use a simple method in the weightroom. In lifting, the tradition has been simple: about 15-25 reps is generally the universal number for a strength, power and hypertrophy workout. The classic programs hit these numbers.


Reg Park, the great bodybuilding who inspired Arnold, used five by five in everything. The early researcher found that three sets of eight (and variations) were just about perfect for gaining size. Generally, you find programs that live around these numbers; the total reps are between 15-25.


The problem with any rep scheme is getting the sets to line up perfectly. Some lifters simply can’t count on getting exactly eight reps or five reps with a load. Sometimes three sets of eight finds the first set too easy and perhaps the middle set too hard.


To counter this, I recommend the Goldilock’s method. Concerning the load is it too heavy, too light or just right? The method is simple: pick a load and do 25 reps with it. This exercise can be anything from presses to squats to rows, but do a total of 25 reps. Then, there is just one question: how many sets did it take to get there?


If it took one or two sets, for example a set of 18 and a set of 7, the load was too light. If it takes eight sets, then the load is too heavy. Generally, if the total number of sets is three to five or six, the load is just right.


If six or seven sets are needed to get to 25, this might be a judgment call. If you tend to handle this load usually, you might be burning the candle at both ends or maybe need to back off a few days.


The reps might look like this:

7, 6, 7, 5. For many of us, our reps naturally wave up and down. I would ask you to never miss reps nor have some helpful spotter make your bench press his deadlift workout. Get clean reps.


Try something like this:

Military Press

Pull Up (or appropriate machine)

Bench Press



Trap Bar Deadlift


Try this three days a week for three weeks and let the sets dictate the load. If you see your total sets dropping, add more load next time. If you really have to do a lot of sets (25 sets of one would be probably an issue), reduce the load the next workout in this movement.


Increasing load leads to not only greater strength but also improvements in hypertrophy, your lean body mass. And, that makes you look good.

Heating up Rest Periods

Adding some heat to rest periods.


Phil Maffetone is an underappreciated resource in the fitness community. He has a great insight on heart rate during training. Don’t let your HR get over 180 minus your age and get back to work when you see 160 minus your age. It’s a simple formula:


Age 20: 160-140

Age 30: 150-130

Age 40: 140-120

Age 50: 130-110

Age 60: 120-100


Maffetone’s numbers allow training to be in that “conversation zone.” You will be able to keep a conversation going when appropriate and stay focused on training. The other great boon is that you will be able to come back day after day and continue to train without falling apart or burning up.


Use a heart rate monitor while you do a few normal training days. When I first used one, the device cost almost $400. Today, a superior device is twenty dollars. What is fascinating is to watch the HR rise and fall when you least expect it. Experience has shown some interesting things about keeping the HR up and working strength, mobility and cardio work all at once.


Programs that have a lot of “getting up and down” seem to really make the HR spike. So, mixing swings with push ups or goblets squats with planks will make the veins pump. Try something this simple:


Swings for 15

One Push Up

Repeat this until you drive the HR up to the top number then rest until it comes to the lower number (160 minus age). Then, begin again. Work up to twenty circuits of this.


Rotary stability exercises like Bird Dogs and Single Side Bird Dogs tend to elevate the HR without any movement. It is an odd feeling at first to see the HR rise up while trying to remain still. So, mixing Bird Dogs with a standing press or machine strength movement will raise the HR without a lot of pounding on the body.


Finally, consider something as simple as Marching in Place to not only raise the HR but provide some postural work by greasing and addressing the pelvic tilt. Try holding a load suitcase style (dumbbell in one hand for example) while you pump the knees up and down. This is great for the core, the cardio system and posture all at once. Again, it oddly raises the HR without pounding the concrete.


Start trying to have rest periods become more active by adding some ground work or push ups, rotary stability exercises or marching in place. This will cut time off of your total training time, add some appropriate calorie burning and make you a more efficient trainee.

Tension and Training

The most underappreciated part of strength training is understanding tension. Let’s imagine that you have a tension/relaxation dial that goes from one to ten. (“To eleven…that’s one more” to quote my inner Spinal Tap). One is a sloppy mess on the floor after a sauna, massage, sex and martinis. This is total relaxation. A ten is when you stick your finger in an electric outlet. You are shocked stiff.


Neither extreme has value in training, but understanding them will do more for your strength than a bunch of extra sets. Most people live in four, five or six. And, I mean this: they are always “middle.” Never too high and never too low might be a way to ignore drama in life, but it doesn’t make for good lifting.


We must actively train tension. Oddly, I noticed an odd thing years ago when young ladies would finally break barriers in the deadlift. With 275 or 300 pounds, they would make the lift, then begin sobbing.


“Are you hurt?”


No. I’m just crying. I don’t know why.


I think this: by spending so much time around five on our tension dial, getting to nine (the top of the deadlift) then dropping back to two or three instantly by letting go of the bar causes an emotional response. Frankly, it is akin to an orgasm and if this doesn’t convince you to up your lift maxs, I don’t know what will!


I use two movements to teach tension: the PUPP and the Bird Dog. The PUPP is the Push Up Position Plank. Simply, get in the “up” Push Up position. Now, grasp the ground as hard as you can. Squeeze the triceps. Try to squash a grapefruit that is inside your armpits. Practice “Utah Birth Control” and squeeze your knees (and heels) together. Brace your ab wall.


To test this tension have a friend push you side to side. Resist. Don’t get pushed. It is hard to hold this position!


Next, try this with the standard Bird Dog. I with the left knee on the ground, drive the right heel hard straight back. Clench the butt and squeeze the quads. Now, drive that left hand straight forward. Squeeze the juice out of the grapefruit in your right armpit. Squeeze everything harder.


Shake things out a bit after each attempt and relax a bit. Next try this with weight lifting. Make anything that doesn’t have to move tighter and tighter. For overhead pressing, for example, tighten the quads and squeeze the butt cheeks. Squeeze them even harder. It takes a bit of practice and you might not get a lot of reps in at first.


But, tension teaches strength. Tension turns you into a machine. Stop the leaking of energy away from the task at hand and you will soon be adding plates to your training. And, more weight is the answer to most questions in the weightroom!

Loads for Loaded Carries

When assessing a strength program, there are generally two gaps in the training. Almost universally, trainees fail to do appropriate depth in squatting. And simply adding Goblet Squats can do wonders and miracles for every trainee from elite performer to home gym enthusiast to big box gym rat.


The other gap is Loaded Carries. Pushing Prowlers, pulling sleds and Farmer Walks can be the answer to issues from getting leaner to adding work capacity. They are game changers for most athletes!


By themselves, Farmer Walks can train the grip, core and gait as well as anything else you can do. But there is an issue: load.



Load has been the topic of a lot of serious discussion in our gym. Sophomore girls in high school can use eighty-five pounds per hand, yet this is well over bodyweight total. Some have argued for bodyweight in each hand, others half of bodyweight per hand. That’s a big difference. Going too heavy makes the exercise a stumble and fumble. But going too light is not the answer either. Like Goldilocks, we want “just right.”


The downside of going too lights is that people can go a long way…a loooong way. Most people using this test have discovered that erring on weights being too heavy seems to work better.


Mike Warren Brown pointed out that so many people have issues trying to get a handle on loads in the farmer walk. We came up with a reasonable answer: Use the standards from the squat numbers in my book Mass Made Simple for individual people, and the trap bar numbers for gym members or large groups or teams.


Trap Bar Farmer Walk (Mass Made Simple Squat Standards)

Bodyweight on the left, load on the right


  • Under 135 pounds: 135 pounds
  • 136–185 pounds: 185 pounds
  • 186–205 pounds: 205 pounds
  • Over 206 pounds: 225 pounds


We experimented with half of bodyweight per hand using actual farmer bars, and it worked well, but we realized it’s not universally repeatable since many people don’t have the specialty bars.


Kettlebells work well, too, and more people have those. Strive for bodyweight (half in each hand), but be aware that many places don’t have enough bells at that weight.


Kettlebells (One in Each Hand)

Bodyweight on the left, load on the right


  • Under 135 pounds: Double 24s
  • 136–185 pounds: Double 32s
  • 186–216 pounds: Double 40s
  • Over 216 pounds: Double 48s


Load up and walk away. And, yes, it is that simple.