Attack of the Old-Time Strength and Power Routines
As corny as they are, I like those old-time monster movies from the 1950s and ‘60s. Curiosities like Attack of the 50-ft. Woman, The Blob, and Plan Nine from Outer Space (generally considered the worst movie of all time by many critics) all hold my interest. However, I don’t think Hollywood is going to make movies like this ever again—which might not be such a bad thing. Something else that I like which came from the ‘50s and ‘60s are the old-time strength routines—the type of programs that were used by some of the greatest strength athletes; men like Paul Anderson, Doug Hepburn, and Marvin Eder. Unfortunately, you see old-time monster movies more than you see old-time routines used by today’s strength athletes. I think that’s a real shame, because these programs are just as good now as they were thirty, forty, or fifty years ago.
If you have read any of my past articles for Iron Man magazine or other publications, then you know that I have espoused many of the old-time routines used by bodybuilders of the past in order to build lots of strength, mass, bulk, and power. In this article, however, we’re going to take a look at routines that are geared the most for strength and power. Of course, that’s not to say they can’t have a kick-ass hypertrophy side effect.
For the sake of keeping this article relatively short, I’m going to look at three different programs. All of them are very good and, yet, distinctively different.
Countdown for Power
In researching old Iron Man, Strength and Health, and Muscular Development magazines from the ‘50s, the ‘60s, and even the early ‘70s, I found one of the most popular methods of training among powerlifters was the 5/4/3/2/1 method. Most of the lifters who utilized this used either a heavy/light/medium or medium/light/heavy method of full-body workouts. On the subject of full-body workouts, I could find hardly any lifters who didn’t use them up until the late ‘60s. (If they did use a split program, it was nothing more than an upper body/lower body split.)
The following routine is very similar to the ones used by a majority of powerlifters during this era. It’s also a perfect routine for any bodybuilder or recreational lifter that’s ready to make the transition to serious strength training. One word of caution: it’s not for outright beginners. Make sure you’ve spent several months on some type of heavy training routine before trying this one. Also, you might want to spend a few weeks on another full-body workout in order to be properly conditioned. If you don’t decide to do that, then remember: you’ve been warned.
This is a three-days-a-week program. I’ve listed the days as Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, although any three non-consecutive days will work. Here it is:
1. Squats—Here, we will use the 5/4/3/2/1 method. Begin this exercise with 2 to 4 progressively heavier warm-up sets of 5 reps. The number of sets will depend on your level of strength on squats. The stronger you are, then the more sets are needed, and vice versa. Once you are finished warming up, you will do your first “work” set of 5 reps. Pick a weight that is tough, but one where you know you can get all 5 reps. Once you are done, rest a few minutes (two to three is optimal) and then load the bar with another 5 to 20 pounds of weight. Once again, how much weight you add will depend on your level of strength. Really strong squatters will add as much as 20 pounds, while weaker squatters can only get away with as much as 5 pounds. For this set, you will be performing 4 repetitions. Rest, add more weight, and repeat for a set of 3 reps. Repeat two more times for a set of 2 reps and, finally, one repetition. Your final set of one rep should be done with approximately 95% of your one-rep maximum.
2. Bench Presses—Use the same 5/4/3/2/1 method as the squats.
3. Deadlifts—Use the same method as the squats and the bench presses. The only difference here is that your back and leg muscles will be a little fatigued from all the squatting. For this reason, you might want to be a little more conservative with the weights you pick. Only you know your body best.
1. Squats—For the light day, you are going to use a 5x5 system of training. Warm up in the same manner as you did on Monday, with 2 to 4 progressively heavier sets. For your “work” sets, you will use a weight that’s 10 to 30 pounds lighter than your 5-rep set from Monday. Stick with this weight for all 5 sets of 5 reps.
2. Bench Presses—Use the same 5x5 method as the squats.
3. Deadlifts—Use the same 5x5 method.
1. Squats—For this day, you are going to use the same 5/4/3/2/1 method as on Monday. Here, however, you will use 10 to 20 pounds less on all of your sets. Make sure that you warm-up in the same manner as Monday.
2. Bench Presses—Use the same method as the squats.
3. Deadlifts—Use same 5/4/3/2/1 method as squats and bench presses.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of this program:
1. Many powerlifters in the ‘50s and ‘60s used a program like this one almost verbatim. However, some lifters did add some extra assistance work. If you feel like it, don’t be afraid to include some sets of overhead presses, curls, lying triceps extensions, pullovers, chins, and ab work. Of course, you would only want to pick one or two (at the most) to add to the end of each session. Also, if you feel at all drained, then just lay off the assistance work.
2. Every five weeks, take a down week. Don’t push yourself at all during this week and cut out all assistance work. This will help your body recover better, and promote better gains in the long run.
3. Though simple, this program is intense. Make sure you are eating plenty of food every day and getting at least seven hours of sleep each night.
The Bradley Steiner Size and Strength Split
Anyone familiar with the writings of Bradley Steiner (he wrote a lot of good stuff for the old Iron Man magazine back in the ‘70s), might be surprised that he actually recommended a form of split training. He called it the “Rugged Size and Strength Split Program.” I have good feeling that it was the only split program he ever wrote about.
So, what’s this program look like? We’ll take a look at the major tenets of the routine, then I’ll offer some suggestions for making the routine work for you. These suggestions will be based on both my own observations and those of Bradley Steiner.
Steiner said that this routine might be better described as a “divided” workout schedule instead of a “split” program because you divide up a total body workout and you don’t use anything close to what’s normally considered a split routine. Here’s how the thing works:
On three non-consecutive days each week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for example) you perform the following:
An abdominal exercise
On two other days during the week (Tuesdays and Saturdays would be ideal), you perform the following:
That’s it. Pretty conservative for a “split” routine, isn’t it? It can work wonders for your strength, however, if you follow these guidelines:
1. Don’t perform the exact same set/reps every training day and every week. In other words, change things up. Some days (or weeks) use a 5x5 system of training. Some days use a 3x3 system. On other days, use heavy singles. And on some days you might want to employ the 5/4/3/2/1 method. Also, you don’t have to use the same set/rep scheme on each exercise. For instance, you might use the 5x5 method on bench presses and bent-over rows, then use heavy singles on the deadlifts, and then triples on the squats.
2. Make one or two days each week “light” days. This doesn’t mean using high reps. It means cutting back on the poundages you are using. This helps recovery and keeps you from burning out.
3. Steiner recommended taking a week layoff every five weeks of hard, steady, progressive workouts. I think it is good to take a break every five weeks, but I don’t think you should take a complete layoff. Layoffs of an entire week tend to breed bad habits of being inconsistent with your training. Instead, have a down-week every five weeks where you cut back on the number of sets, the number of reps, and the amount of weight you are lifting. This will prevent overtraining while still not allowing you to miss workouts.
4. After every five-week cycle, don’t be afraid to change exercises around. Instead of bench presses, use incline presses. Instead of stiff-legged deadlifts, use rack pulls. Instead of behind-the-neck presses, use standing overhead presses. The only exercise I never want you changing (Steiner and I would agree wholeheartedly on this) are the squats.
5. Make sure you follow an adequate nutritional plan. Eat plenty of good protein, carbohydrates, and good fats. Three square meals and a couple of protein shakes should do it for you. If you don’t eat properly, then even abbreviated programs can breed overtraining.
Some of the greatest strength athletes from the ‘50s and ‘60s were not only very strong, but they also had great physiques. Men like Marvin Eder, Bill Seno, and John Kohigian would still look fantastic by today’s standards. In fact, I doubt you could find many “drug-free” lifters who could come close to looking like these old-timers. I think one of the reasons these men were both outrageously strong and in great condition was because of the rigorous programs they performed. They were in far better conditioning than today’s bodybuilder or powerlifter (though powerlifters tend to be catching up) because they had built up their bodies to the point where they could train each muscle group hard three days per week and they trained (on average) six days per week. Not many lifters in today’s era of “recovery” and “recuperation” would be able to handle a workload like that.
Having said the above statement, I do think you’re ready for a regimen close to the kind Eder or Kohigian performed if you have performed the above two workout programs in this article for an extended period of time. Now, it’s time to take your strength to a more advanced level. Keep this in mind, however: you don’t have to perform this workout program. I think most lifters could spend their lifetimes on the Bradley Steiner Split Routine and get great results. If you want something different, however, what follows will be a real change of pace; not to mention the fact that you could likely be in the best shape of your life after a few months of performing it.
First off, I’m going to lay out the routine for you. After that, we’ll take a look at some suggestions so that you can get the best results out of it. This one involves training six days per week. Here it is:
Monday—Wednesday—Friday (Bench Press, Squat, and Assistance Work)
1. Squats—8 sets of 8, 5, 3, 1,1,1, 1, and 8 reps. Begin this with a warm-up set of 8 reps. Add some weight and perform a set of 5 reps. Add a little more weight and perform a set of 3 reps. After that, perform 4 progressively heavier singles, working up to around 90% of your one-rep maximum. After your final single, rest a few minutes and drop down to the weight you performed your set of 5 reps with. Crank out a set of 8 reps. Rest a few minutes and get ready for your next exercise.
2. Flat Bench Presses—8 sets of 8, 5, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, and 8 reps. Use the same set/rep system you used with the squats.
3. Incline Dumbbell Bench Presses—4 sets of 8 reps. Use the same weight for all 4 sets. No set should approach failure, though each set should work you a little.
4. Lying Triceps Extensions—5 sets of 10 reps. Use the same weight for all 5 sets. Only the fifth set should be really tough.
Tuesday—Thursday—Saturday (Deadlift and Assistance Work)
1. Deadlifts—5 sets of 8, 6, 4, 2, and 1 rep. The deadlift is a more demanding exercise than either squats or bench presses, thus the fewer number of sets. Start off with a weight where you can easily get all 8 reps. Add a little weight and perform a set of 6. Add some more weight and perform a set of 4. Rest a few minutes, add weight, then crank out a set of 2 reps. Once you are well rested, add more weight and do your final single. While the last three sets should be tough, you should be using a weight where you know you will be getting every repetition. Remember, you are training this lift three days per week. Make sure the weights are reasonable.
2. Chins—5 sets of 8 reps. Use the same weight on all 5 sets, which might be nothing more than just your bodyweight.
3. Barbell Curls—5 sets of 10 reps. Use the same weight on all 5 sets. Make sure each set is stopped a few reps shy of failure.
4. Ab work.
That’s it for the advanced routine. Here are some pointers to help you get the most out of it:
1. The first couple of weeks, you might not want to use extremely heavy weights on your singles. Kind of ease into the single repetition training. This will allow your body to adjust to the increased workload it experiences during this program.
2. Make sure you get plenty of sleep every night. A minimum of seven hours each night is needed when training on this program. If it’s at all possible, take a thirty-minute to one-hour nap about an hour after training.
3. Make sure you eat plenty of food. This is not a program for someone trying to lose a ton of bodyfat.
4. On weeks where you feel at all drained, don’t be afraid to cut out the Thursday workout. Also, on some days you might want to take it easy on the deadlifts by not going very heavy and working on proper form instead.
5. Every so often, substitute rack deadlifts or sumo deadlifts for conventional deadlifts. Also, feel free to substitute different exercises for the chins, barbell curls, or lying triceps extensions every few weeks.
6. Take a downshift in volume after every four weeks of training. On these weeks, work up to no more than 70% of your one-rep maximum.
Summing it Up
There you have it; some very good routines for packing on the pounds to your squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and even many of your other lifts. These routines might have their origins in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but there’s no reason they can’t bring good results in the 21st century. Give them a try and you’ll be surprised just how good they still work.