Physical strength and muscular size are two variables that are inextricably linked; after all, it is muscle tissue that produces force and the more of it you have, the more force can be produced. For decades, this was reflected in physical culture. Bodybuilders, powerlifters and even olympic weightlifters often trained in similar spaces and would routinely borrow from each others training books.
Old-school bodybuilders could be seen doing some iteration of power cleans and push presses, since the physical benefits were obvious in the physiques of elite Oly lifters. Powerlifters would often incorporate bodybuilding protocols to develop size in the off season and to encourage physical symmetry that would make their lifts more efficient. It was obvious to bodybuilders that strength would allow for more volume, which meant more size, just as it was obvious to strength athletes that more muscular size would always lead to more weight lifted.
Muscle and strength is easy to come by. Really, it is.
We all have a pre-programmed adaptive ability to restructure our tissues when environmental stress increases and it works very similarly in all of us. Just like everyone grows a callous when the skin is repeatedly rubbed, our bodies grow muscle tissue and make dense bones and connective tissue when we are exposed to tension.
Now, the recipe for success gets a bit more complex as you become more developed, but growth is so easy in the beginning that you have plenty of time to wrap your head around that complexity befor it becomes necessary. For most of your journey towards size and strength, there are two important things that need to be present to coax muscle growth: consistent training stress and a minimum amount of raw materials.
With the advent of the internet and, eventually, social media, powerlifting has climbed to new heights of popularity. As the talent pool swells with new competitors, the bar continues to rise. Every aspect of the sport has received ‘more’: more genetically talented lifters, more athletes who started younger, more access to meets and training facilities, and, of course, more improvements in technique and training.
In the last few decades of this powerlifting bubble, mad bro-scientists have been toiling away in the iron lab in an attempt to engineer more efficient movement patters, and thus stake their claim on a legacy in the sport. One of the by products of this engineering is the insistence that a hip dominant squat is the most effective way to move the heaviest possible load from point A to point B. Lifters began foregoing the deep knee bend that had been forming world champions for a century in favor of box squats, reverse hypers, glute ham raises, good mornings, and other posterior-heavy movements.
Supersquats is a book that Ironmind put out some time ago and was one of my formative influences for setting standards for what hard work is.
The title was eye catching enough for a 17 year old looking to find the fastest route of the world stage: Supersquats: How to Gain 30lbs of Muscle in 6 Weeks. My bullshit barometer was already finely tuned at that age, but Ironmind as a company carried more credibility than your typical newsstand muscle rag. Randall Strossen always emphasized simplicity in his products and publications, to the point that the company sold whey flavored whey protein (no artificial flavoring).
Many of the books published by his company were written by or about some of the early legends of lifting, guys and gals who gained world renown in an era that predated the saturation of corporate sales copy in the fitness industry. Ironmind also held Olympic lifting in the highest regard, offering training videos from Olympic training halls and photo prints of some of the most iconic lifts in the sport.
So how could a company that rooted itself in so much of the ‘good stuff’ offer up a book with such a seemingly phony sensationalist title? For 20 bucks + s&h I had to find out. After waiting for several weeks (these were pre-Prime days), the book came and I got to work.
Programming for strength is a relatively simple task on paper; you take a a few proven exercises, work them in some logical fashion throughout the week and implement some pattern of progression. Easy peasy.
While that simple prescription is obvious in most programs you might pick apart, starting from scratch is anything but simple. It isn’t until you have to justify every step you take in constructing a strength program that you realize how many variables need to be addressed and how ill-equipped you are to address them.
You might get stuck in selecting between two exercises you really want to try. Should you pick one over the other? Implement them both on the same day? Different days? Should they be done with similar reps and effort or should that vary? Are all of these decisions arbitrary and you’ve been staring at your notebook for 2 hours over nothing?
The deadlift has achieved status in the world of strength and lifting that few other movements have. It’s a feat that is tested in multiple strength sports, including powerlifting and Strongman. It’s role as a main developmental movement put it front and center in the training programs of just about everyone, from bodybuilders and Oly lifters to linebackers and track athletes. It was one of the earliest feats in lifting culture and it’s simplicity and accessibility has since made it a unifying test of strength across all fields.
The fact that it is utilized by everyone also creates a lot of controversy over what a ‘real’ deadlift is. Everyone will pull in a slightly different fashion and will judge strength around those specific standards. Bodybuilders always use straps and will generally favor touch and go work for high reps. Powerlifters abandon straps, strictly judge their technique according to their federation’s rule book while valuing feats at a single rep above anything else. Strongmen pull on a host of different implements at different heights and thresholds, often wearing suits and utilizing hitched lockouts to move the most amount of weight and they almost always pull with straps.
Last week I scheduled my first interview on this channel. I’ve been uploading videos regularly for 2 and a half years and had a consistent process of locking myself in the gym or my room and not coming out until I had something to upload. This process typically involved a few hours of walking around in circles, heavily caffeinated and talking to myself, before setting up the camera and bumbling through 90 minutes of awkward delivery. Editing out all of the “umss” and “errs” along with the wet mouth noises and fumbled words would reduce an hour down to 12 or 15 minutes of watchable video.
Sergey Smolov was a Russian Master of Sport, active as a coach through the 70s and 80s. He developed a program for boosting the squat of Olympic lifters in an extraordinarily short period of time. The Smolov program, which is now Infamous and lifting circles, used an insane amount of frequency and a very aggressive linear progression approach to shock even the most seasoned lifters into experiencing growth that they previously thought was not possible.
Author and kettlebell aficionado Pavel Tsatsouline made the West aware of the Smolov squat program in the early 2000s. The appeal of leveraging ‘Soviet secrets’ to put 100 lbs or more on your squat In as little as 13 weeks was too tempting a possibility for recreational lifters to pass up. What happened after that was a veritable Gold Rush of Gains; numerous lifters fell victim to shiny object syndrome and opted to test their mettle against the radical squat program.
In the last video, I covered 5 pretty common reasons that newer and lower-level lifters hit a brick wall too early. For those who don’t show up to the gym consistently, don’t put in a lot of effort or hop from goal to goal too quickly, consistent progress is surely not going to be in the cards. For those who have been around a little bit longer and got strong by figuring out that hard work and consistent effort is essential, continued progress is going to come down to more subtle factors relating to programming.
Any topic that involves the word ‘standard’ is pretty near and dear to my heart. Strength sports are very consumer-driven; the athlete is not the product like they are in the NFL or MLB but rather they’re the customer. They are they ones paying the entry fee, being sold the equipment and being marketed to by the sponsors. Don’t be mistaken; if you are the one leaving the event with less cash in your pocket, you are the consumer. And we happen to live in the era where the customer is always right.