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Innovations in Iron

Creativity in the gym can get you bigger and stronger faster

One of the great myths in training, and in many other human endeavors, is that you make progress inch by inch, ounce by ounce, implying that if you’re on the right course, you can be assured of holding a steady course to your goal. It’s an enticing idea. Unfortunately, evidence indicates that the concept is little more than a fairy tale. In reality, progress in the weight room, just as in other activities, tends to come’when it comes’in leaps and bounds, and the path upward has more dips, twists and level spots than most people believe.

That might leave the impression that progress is less under your control than you’d like. Don’t worry. The realization can point us toward keys to progress, even if they tend to be off the beaten path. For example, one of the most fruitful ways of boosting your gains is also one that’s very rarely mentioned: Be creative in your training.

Back in the infancy of modern weight training the pre’vailing view was that the best way to make great gains was to do tons of different movements, many of which, as you’d guess, involved fairly small muscle groups. Along came a guy named Mark Berry, who said something like, ‘Nope. That’s not how it works, boys and girls. Concentrate on just a few movements involving major muscle groups, and the results will blow you away.’ Berry was considered a bit of a birdbrain because of that screwy notion, but when he made a convert in a small Midwestern town, the weight world was turned on its ear. Berry’s follower was a fellow named J.C. Hise, and he reported that by following Berry’s suggestions, he managed to gain 29 pounds in a month. That was back in the 1930s, when most people training with weights were happy to gain a few pounds in a year, so you can appreciate the revolutionary impact of Berry’s innovative training concepts.

Hise, by the way, was no creative slouch himself, and among his enduring contributions to training is the cambered squat bar’a bar that’s slightly curved in the middle. It sat on the shoulders much more comfortably and securely than a straight bar, enabling you to squat that much harder and make that much more progress. How’d Hise get the idea? The story is that his brother bent Hise’s lifting bar while working on his car. The rest, as they say, is history. Hise’s invention, by the way, is a perfect example of the widely accepted definition of creativity: It’s an unusual yet appropriate response. In other words, creativity uses an uncommon approach, and it has value because it offers a suitable solution to a problem.

Arthur Jones came along in an era when the pendulum had swung over to the side of doing a nearly infinite number of sets, and free weights were the dominant tool in any gym. Before Arthur Jones a state-of-the-art gym might have a lat machine, a leg extension/leg curl machine, a hack squat machine, a Smith machine and something for doing standing calf raises. Most gyms would have a lat machine and, maybe, a leg extension/leg curl machine. By A.J. 25 (after Jones) the weight world was so vastly altered that gyms were defined by their machines’machines for every conceivable purpose. Free weights became the exception in many clubs.

Similarly, for decades it was a nearly sacred concept that you lifted weights three days a week’Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Along the way there were side trips to split routines of different types, but the basic rule remained the same’three training days a week, each followed by a rest day, with two days off at the end of the week. Then the Bulgarian weightlifting coaches said something like, ‘Hey, coal miners work hard every day, and so do all the other laborers in the world. Why do these pantywaist weightlifters think they need so much rest?’ You’ve probably heard the stories about Bulgarians training six days a week, with multiple training sessions each day, as a result of that analysis. The first time I heard about how they trained, I was so stunned by their dramatically different approach that for days, if not weeks and months, I went around muttering, ‘It must be a mistake. They can’t really be doing that.’ They were, though, and in the process they produced athletes who exploded world record after world record. ALL The moral of the story is that creativity and innovation aren’t limited to the world of art. They’re just as applicable in the world of science and the world of weights’and the rewards can be incredibly rich.

‘So that’s easy,’ you say. ‘I’ll just cruise along the creative side of the street from now on and plan on getting bigger and stronger than ever.’

That’s certainly the right idea, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. First, most people aren’t very creative. That’s one of the reasons innovation is so rare and so special. Second, it’s one thing to say you want to follow the creative path, but it’s quite another, and much tougher, to actually do it. Most of us need a tremendous amount of social reinforcement and, conversely, have little reserve for dealing with skepticism and criticism’especially when we’re doing something that’s different from what 99 percent of the population is doing.

Research has demonstrated that great intelligence and great creativity don’t have the high correlation most people as’sume. In other words, some really creative people are sharper than tacks, while others are dumber than doornails. To be sure, one of the most creative trainers I know gives the impression of having a room temperature I.Q., but his ability to generate creative training concepts would obliterate a room filled with blue-ribbon sports scientists. Research also indicates that creativity can be fostered environmentally’in other words, if you’re given opportunities to be creative and are reinforced for your efforts, you’re likely to have your creativity enhanced.

Creativity and innovation are at the heart of each of the big steps forward in building size and strength. New ideas, usually considered revolutionary at the time, lead to major breakthroughs, producing results nobody ever thought possible before. Put that idea to work in your own training: Follow the herd for mediocre results; be willing to strike out on your own if you want something really special. IM

Editor’s note: Randall Strossen, Ph.D., edits the quarterly magazine MILO. He’s also the author of IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies; Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks and Paul Anderson: The Mightiest Minister. For more information call IronMind Enterprises Inc. at (530) 265-6725 or Home Gym Warehouse at (800) 447-0008, ext. 1. Visit the IronMind Web site at

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