Weightlifting is not a modern hobby or concept. Go back 50, 60, 80, even 100 years back and you will find strongmen and lifters of all sizes. But the lifters then did not have machines, treadmills, cardio bikes, or even barbells/free weights you have today in the gym. They didn’t even have real gyms because there weren’t any around. The concept of gym memberships did not exist in 1890.
There were vacation resorts and clubs for the rich but none that specifically focused on lifting weights. Finding a barbell or any free weights was rare. But many old time lifters and strongmen still lifted. They became resourceful lifters. They lifted with whatever they could find: logs, sandbags, sledgehammers, barrels, dragged sleds, backpacks, heavy sheets of metal, poles, rocks, anything heavy they found… they lifted.
They didn’t care if the object wasn’t grip-friendly or tough to handle. They just lifted, built callouses, subjected themselves to progressive pressure, and toughened their bodies over the years.
Dynamic Strongman Training
These strongmen trained very dynamically. They climbed ropes, hiked mountains and valleys, scaled cliffs and valleys, chopped wood, used rice buckets for grip work, boxed with each other, jumped, ran, and hill sprinted. The lack of official gym equipment, equipment we know today, did not stop them from training. They just lifted whatever heavy stuff and things they found. And they built the muscles and physiques to show for their hard work and efforts.
Look at guys like Alan Calvert, Eugene Sandow, Charles Batta, George Zottman, Felice Napoli, Charles Pelan and all those early strongmen and bodybuilders of the 2-s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. They found creative ways to train when they did not have formal equipment lying around. They didn’t have protein supplements or steroids either . They just trained intensely, used heavy objects and weights, and ate a ton for building lean muscle mass.
They kept it all very simple. Why do complex and complicated training when simple will do the job. When all else fail, follow the examples of these old school lifters and KISS (keep it simple, stupid!).
Resistance is Resistance
A 50 pounds pile of chopped wood is the same as 50 pound dumbbell or barbell. If you can find any heavy object, heavy enough that you’re not used to handling or lifting, lift it over and over again, you will grow bigger muscles and get stronger all around. This is what old school lifting is.
Lift heavy and eat a lot. Don’t worry so much about the actual equipment you’re using. Equipment are just tools or pillars to fitness. Sometimes they can even be distracting and put you on the wrong track since you’re stressing about having to choose which equipment or machine to train with. The truth is, they all work depending on what your goals are.
Think about training for function, strength and muscle by using multiple tools (equipment). Missing just one crucial tool won’t hurt your progress. You can always find alternatives if you look hard enough. Being too focused on equipment will distract you.
In today’s commercialized gyms, we’re so easily distracted by those shiny fancy machines with the radio and wide screen television playing in front of the stationary bikes. It’s not uncommon to see a frat boy talking on his cell phone and doing concentration curls at the same time. When I used to work out in the gym, I even saw some soccer moms biking slowly while they’re reading a magazine or the newspaper, taking breaks to glance up at the infomercial being played on the wide screen set above.
If you’re going to train in the gym, train seriously. Eliminate the distractions and pay no attention to the non-productive events in the gym. Don’t waste all your time on the treadmill or bike. Don’t be afraid to tackle the free weights, the barbells, the dumbbells, and the squat rack. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes between sets. And do not waste time wallowing around the gym like it’s a party.
Often, the gym will add some new brand name resistance machine or the latest magnetic stationary bike to wow the gym population. They might install a new extra wide screen high definition TV in front of the treadmill stations.
The old time lifters did not care about any of this. They only cared about the basics of consistent training, using heavy weights, and eating plenty of carbs and proteins. If things got hard or they get stuck, they didn’t quit. They worked and continued to train in different ways using various exercise modalities and stuck through to it without ever giving up.
Back-to-Basics Strength Training
You can learn a lot about old school training with just following the basics. It’s back-to-basics training, back-to-roots training. Brooks Kubick, a national powerlifting champion and author of “Dinosaur Training” had this to say about basic back-to-our roots strength training on page 15 of the book,
“Dinosaur training is basic training the way it used to be done before steroids, armchair theorizers and commercial interests got things off track. It is like General Patton’s philosophy of war: “simple, direct and brutal.” It is rugged, it is tough, and it is demanding. It also is incredibly result-producing…STRENGTH IS EVERYTHING IN DINOSAUR TRAINING…”
He goes on to say,
“To be a dinosaur, you must literally become obsessed with the idea of adding more and more weight to the bar in every exercise you do. You must revel in the battle against heavier and heavier poundages. You must view the acquisition of raw, pulverizing power and brutal strength as your most important physical goal…”
From page 17,
“Dinosaurs like to lift heavy, awkward objects–logs, barrels and heavy sandbags. Anvils are also great. Any big slab of stone–any enormous log–any heavy steel barrel–any heavy bag of sand or lead shot will be a dinosaur’s delight. Why? Because lifting heavy, awkward objects builds muscle in ways that barbells cannot duplicate.”
You can pick up a copy of “Dinosaur Training” at Brookskubick.com . If you’re currently stuck or “de-motivated” consider dinosaur training as a fresh new start. Classic weightlifting is simple but demands tough hard training.
The mentality is what ultimately matters when it comes to effective strength and conditioning training for building strength, muscle, losing fat, and changing your body composition. If you can sink this idea of no-nonsense, old school classic weightlifting into your mind, you will be more resilient in the gym with greater motivation to train for greater muscle and strength gains.
We’ve been too distracted, too caught up, by the “noises” of training. These noises, cleverly marketed schemes of late night and afternoon infomercials on exercise gadgets (ab belt) , supplements, dieting pills, secret programs you name it. They’re all crap that doesn’t work but to serve as a distraction from productive training.
John Davis, a six time world champion and two time olympic champion in olympic lifting was the first man in history to clean and jerk over 400 pounds and this was in 1951 before the time of steroids of anabolic substances. This was before coaches, trainers, and exercise physiologists came up with complex periodization schemes and programs for lifting.
Davis didn’t have all the advantages of advanced exercise science research but what he did have was the willingness to work hard and commit to consistent training. He didn’t have a lot of options. To get ahead, he had to work hard, use heavy weights and lift. There were no supplements back then. He didn’t have any crutches and pillars to distract him. So he had only one direction. Lift or quit.
Today, with all the options, tools, supplements, and different ways of training, we become too distracted with too much planning and not enough doing, too much procrastination and pondering. We became lazy to activity and exercise as a population because it seems like work, forgetting that it’s actually fun since there’s lots of ways you can workout and strength train. To combat this lethargy and laziness, follow these 2 rules of old school lifting to get yourself back to productive strength training.
The 2 Rules of Old School Lifting
Whatever equipment you use, go heavy…heavy while controlling the weight. This goes for barbells, dumbbells, sandbags, rocks, weight vest, barrels, sledgehammers, tires, dragging sleds, pushing cars. Old school strongmen lifters did not pretend to flare their invisible lats or flex their biceps in the gym to impress anyone.
They weren’t distracted by hot girls wearing skimpy workout clothing. They didn’t go up to the mirror every 30 seconds to check out their own muscles. After all, if you have the physique and confidence, you’ll look the part of a dedicated lifter.
Use heavy weights, heavy enough that you can execute with good form without excessive swinging, cheating, and momentum. Find something heavy and lift it…over and over again. Classic weightlifting is the way to go when all else fail.
The old schoolers didn’t agonize over which cardio machine to use. With exercise programming, they didn’t even care about structuring their workouts by counting and planning reps, sets, volume, frequency, rest pause, drop sets, negatives, or periodization schemes. These bodybuilding jargon and words weren’t even in their vocabulary.
They just stacked more weight onto the bar and used heavier sandbags, logs, rocks, (insert heavy object) whenever they can. If they adjusted to a certain weight or object, they proceeded to go heavier once the body has adapted to the strength limit. This is what progressive overload is all about. Continue to challenge your body by using ever-increasing loads.
If you bench pressed 100 lbs yesterday and worked your way up to 300 lbs in 2 years, then you’re improved significantly. You’ve applied progressive overload with weight progression. Your body would adjust and you will get stronger and more muscular. Let’s take this concept of back-to-basics old school lifting and the 2 no-nonsense rules of lifting further and see how you can use it in your strength training workouts.
So far, we’ve discussed what old school lifting is and the 2 main rules of dinosaur training. I pointed out training with heavy weights with weight progression will build a strong, lean, and muscular body. Take the basic rules and you can apply it to simple strength training programs using a variety of exercise equipment and free weights.
The equipment includes all of the previous mentioned in the last article: barbells, dumbbells, sandbags, kettlebells, heavy backpacks and ruck sacks, weight vest. Taking the basic rules of heavy weights and overload, you can apply it to simple programs. Let’s take a look at barbell and dumbbell training first.
Barbell training is intuitive and easy to come up with workouts. You will use primarily mass compound lifts. As described many times here on Project Physique, compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work multiple major muscle groups in one go. Old school barbell lifting focuses on compound lifts several times a week. Here’s a list of the main compound exercises,
* deadlift- a full body lift that primarily works the legs (especially hamstrings), abs/lower back, traps, grip/forearms, and biceps
* squat- another full body lift that heavily stresses the legs (thighs and hamstrings), abs/lower back, traps
* military shoulder press- a vertical pushing movement that can be done standing or sitting with a barbell or dumbbells, works the shoulders and triceps
* dumbbell or barbell bench press- can be done in different weight bench positions either on flat, incline, or decline positions, works the chest, shoulders, triceps, grip strength
* barbell or dumbbell rows- a horizontal pulling exercise that works the entire back, biceps, and your grip
* chinups or pullups- a vertical pulling movement that involves the entire back, biceps, and grip, can wear a weight belt, heavy backpack, or weight vest to your body for additional resistance making the exercise tougher and more challenging
* dips- a vertical pushing movement that works the chest, triceps, shoulders, like weighted pullups/chinups, you can also wear a belt, backpack, or weight vest for added resistance
* barbell push press- an explosive movement for your chest, shoulders, and triceps
* barbell clean and press- another explosive movement that engages the entire body
You can see how using just 2 or 3 of the compound exercises that give you a well rounded full body workout that works every muscle in your body. And particularly with powerlifters they only focus on 3 lifts; the squat, deadlift, and bench press. Everything else is just fluff and supplemental.
A powerlifter focuses on just those 3 movements for competition and uses a variety of isolation and other compound movements to strength the major muscles for improving his strength on the big 3. They train for pure strength, to lift heavier and heavier weights. This is what I mean by training for function. Training for performance.
This is what basic weight lifting consists of. Just basic lifting with a few key exercises allowing you to get stronger on the mass movements. No games. No gimmicks. No needless fancy machines. No need for dozens of different exercises for each muscle. No wasted time. And no fluff.
And each of the above movements has at least 3 or more variations to go along so you can use different variations of the main movements for when you get stuck on a certain lift and cannot handle heavier poundages on a plateau.
Full Body Routines
You can do full body workouts 2-3 times a week using 1 compound exercise targeting each main muscle group using different rep ranges. Use the 5-12 rep range of 2-3 sets each. I recommend alternating rep ranges for upper and lower body on different training cycles. For example, use 5-8 reps for the upper body for the first 4 weeks and 8-12 reps for the lower body. Then after the first month is up, switch the rep schemes. Use 8-12 reps on the upper body and 5-8 reps on the lower body for the next 4 weeks.
Combine weight and repetition progression (see article) to get an idea of how you can advanced using these rep ranges for building strength and muscle. And especially weight progression and constantly “adding weight to the bar” meaning strive to use heavier and heavier weights over the duration of your workouts.
You can also throw in 1-2 isolation exercises into your barbell full body workouts to complement the routine. For variety, use different compound exercises or varieties of the main movement on different days. As an example, do the basic barbell back squat on one day, the front squat on the next day, and barbell lunges, hack squats, leg presses on the third day.
Work out every other day. The workouts should take you no more than an hour in the gym. Remember, only do the basic and necessary movements and don’t throw in a lot of junk machine and isolation exercises or spend too much time on the treadmill.
Your schedule would follow a Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday schedule for 3 full body workouts. The other days are rest days. If you’re short on time, do 2 workouts every week instead of the usual 3 workouts. Take a walk, jog a little, walk your dog, and do some light activity on the rest days.
Here’s a sample weightlifting routine based on the dinosaur model to gain muscle mass. Take this routine and roll with it if you must. I call this the 5×5 Full Body KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) routine that will help you build muscle mass fast,
– Barbell Back Squats: 5×5 (sets x reps)
– One-arm dumbbell rows: 5×5 (each arm)
– Bench Press: 5×5
– Farmer’s Walk with barbell or dumbbells: grab a heavy one and walk around for time until you drop. Record that time and try to beat that the next week.
– Weighted crunches: 3 heavy sets of 10, keep the weight on your chest
– Deadlift: 5×5
– Weighted Dips: 5×5
– Barbell Bent Rows: 5×5
– Sandbag Clean and Press: 2×8
– Dumbbell Side Bend: 3 heavy sets of 12, each side
Workout A and B are done each with 3 days of rest apart. That’s 2 workouts in 6 days. This is nothing groundbreaking, secret, or revolutionary. It’s what works and will continue to work forever for anyone aiming to build and gain muscle fast, the fast way. Focus on heavy weights, systemic progression by adding more weight onto the bar each workout, using proper form, and making every repetition, every set, every workout count.
Another dinosaur inspired strength training routine to gain muscle mass might look something like this using heavy singles:
– Squats 10 singles using 2 RM (repitition maximum; the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 2 full reps)
– Deadlifts 10 singles using 2 RM
– standing military press 3×5 (sets x reps)
– T-bar rows or one arm dumbbell rows 3×5 (sets x reps)
– close grip bench press 3×5 (sets x reps)
– ab circuit: 100 reps of crunches/plank hold for 1 minute/10 reps of flags on bench, do a total of 3 circuits
– bb wrist curls 1 set of 15-20 reps to failure
– reverse bb wrist curls 1 set of 15-20 reps to failure
*repeat workout A once every 4 days, that’s a total of 2 workouts every 8 days
Abbreviated and infrequent training done with high intensity and heavy ass weights is the name of the game here.
You can also replace barbells with dumbbells. For every barbell compound exercise, there is a dumbbell compound exercises that serves as an equivalent. For example,
Barbell bench press can be replaced with dumbbell bench press
barbell military press can be replaced with dumbbell shoulder press
barbell curls can be replaced with dumbbell curls
barbell deadlift can be replaced with dumbbell deadlifts
barbell squats can be replaced with dumbbell squats
barbell rows an be replaced with dumbbell rows
Get the picture? The movements are interchangeable. With dumbbells, you also get the added benefit of unilateral training, working each side one arm at a time if you choose to bring up your weaker arm/side. This promotes greater strength gains as you’re able to lift heavier dumbbells.
As stated above, you can also use unconventional movements (though they weren’t considered unconventional before the time of high tech gyms back then). These unconventional training tools are sandbags/ruck sacks, backpacks, kettlebells, tires, sleds. Take sandbags for as an example and you can see the list of exercises you can do.
sandbag clean and press- clean the sandbag from the floor to your shoulders and press up
sandbag clean to bench
sandbag hugs- walk for time until you drop it
sandbag squats- use a full range of motion and squat all the way down until your thighs are parallel or past the parallel position in relation to the floor
sandbag back rows
sandbag shoulder press
sandbag side bends for abs
There’s 9 different full body movements you can do with sandbags right here. And there’s more that I haven’t listed. Like dumbbells, you can do just about any barbell movement with sandbags. Resistance is resistance. Sandbags even have the benefit of working your grip, forearm, and finger strength because there are no actual grips to grab the sandbag. You’ll have to wrestle and challenge your forearms to maintain grip on the ends of the sandbags.
Use the recommended guidelines and training strategies from above. You can use a high intensity approach to sandbag training. You can pick 5-6 sandbag movements and string them together in a circuit. You can pick 4 sandbag movements for a full body workout and use a 5×5 set x reps scheme. You can do straight sets. You can split them into upper and lower body or push/pull/leg splits. Be dynamic and combine with dumbbells and barbells. The key here is implementation and actually working out, taking action and training rather than stress over the exact program structure. As long as you got the heavy poundages in place, you’ll do good.
By now, you should get the big picture of what old school lifting is all about. It’s a highly effective and efficient form of training where you go back to basics and train with increased intensity and focus. Start training with the dinosaur mindset and apply these training principles for greater and faster muscle building results.