Lessons from the Past

Your author, Dan John, snatching 259 as a mere youth of 19. If he would have only listened to the advice he is giving here! This was originally some advice for new lifters that just couldn’t stop going. I hope you enjoy it.

I thought a lot about this and I put together some training ideas from various sources. Basically, IGNORE the last thirty years would be my advice. Every day, I discover the great wisdom of the 1950’s and 1960’s lifters and throwers.

So, I submit:

The American Olympians of the 1960’s had to sacrifice to compete. Dealing with either full-time jobs or full-time school commitments, as well as family life, took its toll in comparison to today’s “Professional Amateurs.” Yet, when you study the meet results form Olympic lifting or Track and Field, one soon discovers that the Matsons, Bednarskis, and Oerters of that era would still be competitive thirty years later. Actually, they would still be winning.

In the past few years, I have made a serious study of the training methods of the American athletes of this era. I continue to ask one question: why did any abandon these methods? From aerobics and jogging, to tennis and high carbohydrate diets, the 1970’s brought a myriad of fads and failures. So, if I may, here is a little of what I learned:

Don’t want to read all this?

Do this:

1. Use a great variety of exercises in training and strive to be competitive (perhaps just with yourself) in every variation.

2. Spend only a short amount of time focusing on specific competitions.

3. Cut out white sugar and white flour. Eat protein “a lot.” Have a great breakfast.

4. Do either one lift a day then total once a week or lift three days a week but seriously recover the other four.

5. Gather around people who are very good and train/compete with them.

Off- Peak Conditioning

Historically, most American training programs don’t recognize those long 13 week (one quarter of a year) to four-year training cycles. For the classic high school three-sport athlete, there would be difficulties in performing a cycle throughout the intensive football season or the busy weeks of dual meets in other sports. For the college athlete, especially in the scholarship system, one may not have four years to prove oneself. This concept carried over into the Olympic Lifts. Few American athletes would focus on the Snatch and Clean and Jerk (and the earlier Press) for the entire year. The successful Americans of the Sixties and Fifties certainly did not narrow their training like this, instead they opted for intensive five week programs before competitions.

General training dominated those non-peak programs. The athletes that ignored this advice tended to burn out with injuries and lack of progress. The Pacifica Barbell Club used this time as follows: “When not pointing to a specific meet, we would include many different bodybuilding movements. Included in this were Snatch Deadlifts and Shrugs, Bench Presses, Back Squats, Incline Dumbbell Presses, and arm work.” On the East Coast with the Central Falls Weightlifting Club under Joe Mills a similar approach was advised: “Mills believes that the York courses, including the fast deadlifts and repetition squats, remain the best general conditioners for weightlifting.”

An example of the York Courses would be this:

York Course Number 3 (Do one set of each exercise, 5 reps minimum, or do 5

singles without too much rest between each single):

Warmup…Flip snatches
1. One arm jerk (w/ bb)
2. One arm snatch (w/ bb)
3. Standing press
4. Squat
5. One arm overhead squat
6. High pull (to belt height)
7. Press behind neck, standing
8. Power clean or dead hang clean
9. Jerk
10. Dead hang or regular snatch

I can’t imagine a bodypart or aspect of Olympic Lifting this short regime wouldn’t improve. The Hoffman Standards a simple chart for gauging your progress by bodyweight (Gold, Silver, Bronze).


Whether Olympic lifter, shot putter or discus thrower, one constant point that seems to resound throughout the Americans of this period is “work on your weak points.” Perhaps that is the reason that general conditioning was emphasized over specific peaking programs; the athletes were constantly reviewing and restructuring due to a new awareness of a problem area. Some writers seems to appraise this as a false modesty when the athlete would respond “really, I’m not very good/strong at this or that,” yet it seems part of common mentality that you are only as strong as your weakest link. John Price, a good friend of mine and former Washington Huskie discus thrower, noted that this was the core principle of all the training programs while he was in college. The athletes at Washington learned this from a Swimming Coach who monitored the varsity weight room. Constant, diligent review of overall trends in one’s training, usually from studying training diaries or from a trusted friend’s advice, designed the next training program rather than a glossy magazine in the drug store.
“Turn your weaknesses into strengths!”


This would be the radical departure. With the stretching cult and the jogging cult of the Seventies came the Carbohydrate Cult. With it, America’s fortunes in Track and Field and Olympic Lifting crashed, save for a few events that emphasize picking fast parents. The simple rules:
1. No white sugar or white flour
2. Eat a high protein diet
3. Start the day with a “great breakfast”

Dick Notmeyer of the PBBC believed that number three was the most important. From the Dick Notmeyer glossary:
“This question: “What did you have for Breakfast?” is the answer to all questions and the question to all answers. “I want to gain weight, I want to lose weight, I want to lift more” were all answered by Dick with “What did you have for Breakfast?”
A good breakfast: Meat, eggs, other stuff
A bad breakfast: Not meat, eggs, other stuff
Note: the all-time answer by a young new lifter: “I had a great breakfast: seven bowls of Cheerios!”” This concept carries over to losing weight for a contest, too. The biggest mistake that the athletes in the Fifties and Sixties believed was to slowly lose weight over the course of a few weeks. These lifters believed in losing weight extremely quickly. Of course, when you look at these lifters, rarely do you find lifters, even in local contests, who look as fat as lifters from the 90’s and 2K. The High Carb fad has lead to a generation of obese children and adults. The “exercise police” will hate to admit it, but as Americans have cut back on beef and protein consumption, the general population has become fatter and fatter.

In “Making Weight for a Contest” by Bob Hoffman

Final summary:

“To summarize: live as normally as possible as the big contest approaches but reduce your sugar and starches to a minimum. Eat lots of protein and use germ oil concentrate as this has a tendency to reduce excess weight. Drink normally until a day or two before the contest. If necessary, take off what weight must be lost the day before and the day of the competition. Bill March took off 12 pounds in two days before the recent Region 1 contest and was still strong enough to make a new American total record of 1040. And finally, don’t reduce too soon or you will be weak. What you want to do is have the strength of the class above and the bodyweight of the class below.”

Note: this is all about weight loss, not FAT loss! Lifters lift in weight classes, therefore, they have to make the scale stop at a number. Never mix weight loss with FAT loss!

Fat Loss Ideas: the bodybuilders in the Sixties turned to Vince Gironda for advice on how to strip fat. Basically, one eats meat and eggs in limitless amounts. Then, every third or fourth day, the athlete consumes a high carbohydrate meal with salad to keep the “pump.” This is not different than the Atkins’ Induction Phase or some of the various “Caveman” diets currently popular. Yes, it works and it is that simple.

Training Programs

Russian studies point to a couple of rules concerning training programs. The concept of building a base then doing specific work has merit and value but will only work once. The more advanced an athlete becomes the more specific the training must become. However, rather than dropping all general work, the athlete needs to blend general and specific. One law I once heard was: “Shock, Adapt, Regenerate, Restimulate.” This is the basic approach of Supercompensation. The Soviets noted that the plateau on the Adapt phase was the key; better too short of a cycle than too long. This ties in well to the Sixties throwers and lifters attitudes and programs.

Bob Hoffman was right about his “1001” exercises according to the Russians. The more exercises one has in their quiver, the more variety and stimulus. It also allows the gains to continue. So, learning one arm snatches gives the athlete a few more workouts before “regenerating.” Olympic lifters would naturally mix physical and technical training, other athletes need to think of means of incorporating “mixed training” such as “lift-throw-lift-throw” for discus throwers. The East Germans used a term “accumulation” to describe the longest period of training through the year. Learning “1001” exercises, training the lifts or throws with various techniques (as simple as just using one hand) and mixing general exercises with specifics would all lead to the advantages of accumulation.

So, how do you put this in a program? One of my basic training dictums is that “everything works.” Of course, it might only work once. How does that relate to training programs? Well…

Every new idea, every old training gem, everything will work. Matching your personal goals to everything you come across may be difficult. No, it is impossible. One needs to learn the skill of discerning what is going to help and what is going to hinder. But, there are some training program rules:
1. Just because the computer printed it out doesn’t mean you need to follow it. Days can be bad, weeks can be worse, expect a dip or two each month. I find a bad workout every two weeks, often just because of my job, the commute, or the weather. Why do I know this?
2. Because I keep a journal. No training program is more valuable than your own personal history. I am amazed with the gems that I find reviewing old journals. Three days a week works for me better than six, two better than four. Bodybuilding exercises have no value in helping me Olympic lift. Ten seconds of thinking is better than ten weeks of working out. And those are the obvious lessons from my journal. I’m sure a couple of years from now, I will discover what I am missing this week.
3. Remind yourself that you may want to avoid a program that assumes a nutrionist, a masseuse, a pharmacist, a mental therapist, outstanding facilities, no job, no kids, no spouse, no money worries and some fairly nice genetics. What works for you may be radically different.
4. Finally, my experiences have shown me that it is going to come down to this: three days a week is GENERALLY the best way to lift. You can do several exercises for a set or two or do a few exercises for many sets. I have success with just doing one lift a day and spending up to an hour varying the weights each set. This works best for Olympic lifts, squats, and one arm movements. Don’t do this with One arm cable Preacher Curls.

The final key

Surround yourself with quality people. Of course, this is true all the time, but more so for the athlete. Part of the coaching for all the great throwing colleges (Utah State, Oregon, UCLA, USC) involved recruiting good athletes to train together. Over time, the good athlete becomes great when surrounded by quality throwers. Even if you have to drive a couple of hours every Saturday to train with others, do it. There is no better way to learn a sport than to be with people who have the same passion as you.

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