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Keeping It Simple

In this day and age, when training programs are available for every sports activity under the sun—even for fencing and badminton—it’s often hard to imagine that it wasn’t so long ago that weight training was considered taboo by the majority of American sports coaches. Even athletes who were engaged in contact sports like football avoided resistance training for the most part. Those who did lift weights usually did so on their own and often on the sly.

In the early ’60s things began to change, and by the middle of that decade more and more football teams were using some form of strength training. That came about as a direct result of the success that Alvin Roy had in Louisiana with Billy Cannon, the great running back. Roy trained him in high school, then joined him when he signed on at Louisiana State University. Cannon led the Tigers to a national title in 1958 and won the Heisman the following year. Roy cashed in on what he’d done with Cannon and the LSU team and moved to the pro ranks, first in San Diego, then Kansas City.

What happens in the pros has a huge influence on every football coach in the country, from Pee Wee League to Division I colleges and universities. When word spread that pro teams were doing strength training, scholastic and collegiate coaches’ ears perked up. If the pros do it, it must have merit.

The problem was, there really weren’t any programs available for football coaches. Pat O’Shea wouldn’t publish his book, Scientific Principles and Methods of Strength Fitness, until 1969. Bob Hoffman wrote a book on training athletes, but it was gibberish. A few of us in the sport of Olympic lifting knew a bit about what Roy was doing, as he had close ties to the York Barbell Company and Hoffman. Roy had been the team trainer for the United States Olympic team in 1952 at Helsinki and had attended the World Championships with Hoffman in East Berlin in 1966.

Whenever Roy came to York, I did my best to pin him down on the particulars of his strength program, but all I ever got were partial answers. He didn’t want to publicize what he was doing. It was the same as Hoffman’s keeping steroids secret. It gave them an edge. That’s why we never published anything about Al’s programs in Strength & Health. He told me he was much too busy to write an article on the subject.

It was only natural for football coaches to turn to York for information on how to put together a strength program for their athletes. York, Pennsylvania, was known as “Muscletown” for good reason. The strongest athletes in the country trained at the York Gym. The house organ, Strength & Health, touted good health and fitness, but most of all it was about getting stronger. In the mid-’60s, Tommy Suggs was the managing editor of the magazine, and I was his assistant. We started getting lots of letters and phone calls from football coaches. They wanted help putting together a program for their players.

Tommy and I saw that as a golden opportunity to spread the gospel of strength training to a huge segment of the athletic population—thousands upon thousands of young athletes across the country. Our hope was that a certain percentage of those taking part in a strength-training program at a junior high, high school or college would move into Olympic weightlifting when their football careers were over. It could be a recruiting tool like nothing that anybody had seen before.

There was only one hitch: We didn’t have a program for football players. We knew how to train Olympic lifters and powerlifters—even bodybuilders—but training a football team was outside our area of expertise. We’d both played the sport, and that helped, but aside from what we knew about what Roy was doing, we were flying blind.

First of all, we found out as much as we could from the coaches themselves. We asked questions: What equipment was available? How long did they allot for training? Most of all, what were their primary concerns about weight training?

We began holding clinics and putting on exhibitions at a number of high schools within driving distance from York. Some clinics included the entire student body, but most were just for the football team and the coaches. After the shows we asked a lot of questions, and soon we had a pretty clear picture of what could and could not be accomplished,

We used the same basic guidelines that we’d used when formulating our own programs for the sport of Olympic lifting. After all, the eventual goal was the same: to get stronger and become more proficient in the sport. The chosen exercises must target the large muscle groups with a specific exercise for the shoulder girdle, back, and hips and legs. Because equipment was very limited, the exercises had to exploit what was available. Time was also a major factor, as many schools had to complete their strength training quickly so the athletes could catch buses and go home.

Above all, the program had to be simple in design. The exercises had to be easy enough for a football coach to teach, and we knew that very few had any background in weight training. We both thought that the ideal program would be for the athletes to do exactly what we were doing—heavy overhead presses, full snatches and full cleans and jerks—but that was pie in the sky. It would never happen. It would be much too complicated.

Safety was the number-one concern of every coach we talked with. That’s why the exercises we proposed had to be safe. Of course, no exercise is 100 percent safe if it’s done improperly, yet we understood that just about any exercise is safe when done correctly. So we didn’t avoid the hard stuff.

Selecting the exercises took a while. We would talk about it at work, with the other lifters at York, and we finally settled on back squats, power cleans and flat-bench presses. The exercise for the hips and legs was a no-brainer. The back squat has always been the cornerstone for anyone wanting to get bigger and stronger. We were fully aware, however, that we’d run into problems, based on a research study done by Dr. K.K. Klein at the University of Texas in the early ’60s. It concluded that full squats caused unstable collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments and advised against doing a full-range movement.

The Klein study had quite an impact on football coaches. Those who had strength programs forbade their players from doing full squats, and the state of New Jersey outlawed full squats in secondary schools. Nuts, but it’s a fact. Tommy and I had both taken part in Dr. Klein’s study and believed the results to be totally bogus. Why? He’d place a gadget made of aluminum, which covered the upper and lower leg like a cast, then would exert pressure on each side of the knee and take a reading from a dial similar to a blood pressure gauge. He always asked if the subject did full squats before exerting the pressure, and he—not an unbiased assistant—was always the one to do the task. It was clear to all of us taking part in that farce that he could obtain any reading he wanted, which is exactly what he did.

I’d written a few articles on the topic and had documentation from Research Quarterly stating just the opposite of what Dr. Klein had determined. The point was that full squats, done properly, strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments that surround the knee joint and greatly reduce the risk of injury. We understood that we would face many coaches who objected to doing full squats, but we decided it was worth the trouble. A program without full squats was going to be much less productive than one that included them.

The exercise for the back took us some time to figure out. Alvin Roy included the deadlift in his program, but we believed that it was a high-risk lift for the athletes who would be using our suggested program—youngsters in junior and senior high schools and colleges. They wouldn’t have the strength base to lift anything heavy, and the deadlift is the exercise in which athletes handle the most weight. If form is not perfect, a back injury is possible.

We thought, why not have them do an exercise that is safe, builds functional back strength and at the same time improves a great many other athletic attributes, such as coordination, quickness, balance and timing. We decided on the power clean. Olympic weightlifters and bodybuilders all used it to build back strength, and though it was a high-skill movement, it was easy to learn. We were concerned about the last part until we did a few working clinics with high schoolers. They picked up the technique for the power clean as quickly as they did for the back squat. Best of all, it was a safe exercise.

Because we were both active Olympic lifters and did lots of overhead presses to prepare for competition, we naturally gravitated toward that lift for the shoulder girdle, or upper body. Although we believed that the overhead press was the best choice, it was getting a great deal of bad publicity. A rash of prominent sportsmedicine doctors were telling newspapers and magazines that pressing heavy weights was potentially harmful to the lower back. At the same time word was spreading that the press was going to be eliminated from official competition for the same reason.

We knew those negative reports weren’t true. The press was under siege for a reason that had nothing to do with safety. The international judges were using the press as a political tool, passing push presses and those with knee kicks and ridiculous back bends for those they favored and turning down clean lifts when the athlete was of the wrong nationality.

Yet we didn’t want to have to spend time defending another exercise. We would have plenty of that with the squats. Next in line was the incline press, an exercise that all bodybuilders liked and quite a few Olympic lifters included in their programs. The athletes could use heavy weights, and it was extremely safe. There was, however, a glitch. Incline benches were like hen’s teeth. York Barbell had only one, and to use it you also needed to have a power rack; it didn’t have supports to hold the bar. In all the high school weight rooms that we visited, we never saw an incline bench. When we talked with coaches over the phone, we learned they didn’t have one either. No sense including an exercise that no one can do, which meant we were left with the flat-bench press.

Weight facilities in high schools did have flat benches, some flimsy and some made of wood, but at least they existed. Several schools used the wooden benches in the locker room as flat benches. Primitive, but it got the job done. At that time powerlifting was growing, and flat-bench presses were becoming more popular. Bodybuilders had always included them in their routines, for obvious reasons, although few Olympic lifters did them. They knew that too much flat benching tended to tighten the shoulders, something Olympic lifters don’t want. They also added weight to the chest, and Olympic lifters don’t want that either. The chest plays a small role in overhead lifting. Better to pack muscle on the shoulders and triceps than the chest.

Still, the flat bench met the needs of the football players, and because they could use more weight on it than on incline or overhead presses, it was very popular—sometimes too popular. Eventually, after the overhead press was removed from Olympic lifting and powerlifting and strength training for athletes grew in popularity, the bench press became the lift that everyone used to determine overall strength. Much of that can be traced to the program Tommy and I put together, although we certainly never envisioned that.

Three exercises: That was it for starters, the ultimate in simplicity. Keep in mind that we were designing a program to be used by young men who had no background in training. The three exercises would build a solid strength foundation, equal attention being given to the three major muscle groups. Once they established the base, they could insert other exercises into the routine, including ones for the smaller groups, such as the calves, deltoids, biceps and triceps. In the beginning, however, those three would serve nicely. We dubbed them the big three.

As everyone who’s ever written out a training program knows, there’s a great deal more to it than just exercise selection. We needed a formula for sets and reps that would meet our simplicity criterion. Fortunately, confirming research was available. It had been determined that the best formula for building strength is four to six sets of four to six reps. With simplicity in mind we selected the mean, five sets of five. Fives are easier to deal with than fours and sixes, especially if a coach is writing up programs for as many as 40 players. Even if the players themselves are doing the figuring, fives are easier.

Three days a week of training those basic lifts is sufficient, More at the beginning stage is too much, for the body needs rest to grow and get stronger. Also, an extra day usually means working on the arms and chest, which distracts from the main idea behind strength training: to get the large muscles bigger and stronger.

Understand that we were proposing a dramatic departure from the programs that football coaches were then using, which involved a multitude of exercises and 10-rep sets on each. The number of sets varied because of the time factor. In many instances the athletes did only one set; by the time they finished going through the circuit, the workout hour was over. At most they did three sets, but there weren’t many gains to show for so many exercises.

The rationale behind that sort of program was that every muscle group, whether large or small, would be exercised specifically at every session in order to gain overall strength. While that may work for an advanced strength athlete or bodybuilder, it doesn’t for anyone in the beginning or intermediate stage of training. Doing multiple exercises dilutes energy, and no one bodypart gets enough focus to bring about any appreciable improvement.

What the coaches failed to realize until we pointed it out was that the three selected exercises—back squat, bench press and power clean—not only hit the large groups very directly but also strengthened the smaller ones. Calves are developed during squats and the top end of power cleans; triceps are stimulated during bench presses; deltoids are made stronger with benches and power cleans; and the biceps get a great deal of work when pulling heavy weights. So the smaller groups become stronger in proportion to the larger muscles.

Finally, we inserted the heavy, light and medium principle, which the football coaches had neither done nor even knew about. Yet that principle is critical for success in any strength program. All of the Olympic lifters at York Barbell used it in some fashion. Basically, you do one strenuous workout followed by a less demanding one, with the third being somewhere in between. That tenet has been around since the mid-1930s, when Alan Calvert wrote about it in Strength magazine. Hoffman bought Strength out when Calvert fell on hard times; it became Strength & Health.

To many the concept is confusing, but it need not be. Some like to use percentages—fine if the coach has time and enjoys doing that sort of thing—but we devised a much simpler approach to dealing with the three training days.

The heavy day is just that. The athlete moves as much weight as possible on the three exercises for five reps. The other four sets are warmups, steadily moving up to the final work set. The goal on the heavy day is to handle a bit more than you did the previous week. It doesn’t have to be that much. Add five pounds to a lift and train long enough, and the increases suddenly become impressive. Your light and medium days are directly related to how much you handled on your heavy day.

The light day always follows the heavy day. The light day serves two important purposes: It enables you to perfect your form on the three exercises, and it permits your body to recover from the heavy session. Technique is paramount for any strength athlete but especially for beginners, as the form they develop in the early stages of training will stick with them for a long time. Here’s how to find the numbers for the light day. Whatever you used for your third set on the heavy day will be your last set on your light day. Let’s say you followed this progression on your heavy day for squats: 135, 185, 215, 235 and 255, all for five reps. On your light day, your workout would look like this: 135, 175, 195, 205 and 215 for fives.

To find your top-end weight for your medium day, follow the same procedure, but use the fourth set from your heavy day. That would have you doing the following progression: 135, 175, 195, 215 and 235 for fives. Of course, that can vary. Some athletes prefer to do more lighter poundages to warm up better, while others like to handle sets three and four closer to their last set.

We began sending this program to coaches and also teaching them how to use it at clinics and exhibitions. Our master stroke, however, was persuading Hoffman to secure a booth for the York Barbell Company at the Kodak Football Coach of the Year Convention in the Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C. Tommy and I said we would man the booth. For two days and nights we answered questions, often the same one over and over, as eager football coaches bombarded us. They wanted to know everything about how to set up a strength program and, for the most part, we had the answers.

“How can we do squats without a rack?” they asked.

“Have teammates hold the bar, and let the lifter get under it. Then, when he finishes his set, they can take the bar off him.” Stuff like that.

We demonstrated the three lifts, then held a hands-on clinic. We also gave presentations on the importance of nutrition. Knowing that they weren’t going to retain a whole lot of information on the topic, we boiled it down to a basic suggestion: “Tell your players to eat lots of protein—milk products, meat, fish, poultry, eggs and so forth. Avoid junk foods and drink a protein milk shake every night. Two a day is even better. If the commercial products are too expensive, use powdered milk, which can be bought at any supermarket.”

We handed out programs and left tired yet satisfied with our efforts.

The following January we were back at the same convention. This time we didn’t have to promote our program. The coaches sold it for us. Coach after coach came to us raving about how the strength training had helped them during the season. Our best spokesman was a junior high coach from Virginia. The previous year, when he’d talked with Tommy and me, his team had gone 1 and 9, and he was about to be replaced. After using our training program, his team went undefeated and won the conference title. He even brought a scrapbook with clippings and photos of his team’s amazing turnaround and showed it to anyone who would look at it. He’d also followed our advice about the protein milk shakes, and as a result his players had gained a huge amount of bodyweight—so much that the opposing coaches proclaimed that they were using steroids. They weren’t, of course. Train hard, eat lots of protein, get enough rest, and the young body will respond accordingly.

The purpose of my rather detailed discourse on how Tommy and I put together a functional strength program is to show you the right procedure to follow when designing any program. I use the same methods whether I’m setting up a program for an older man or someone who’s able to do only a few exercises. The underlying theme is always simplicity. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be able to create a routine that fits your needs perfectly. And you’ll get the results you’re seeking. Skip the basic principles and make it complicated, and you’ll end up with little or no results. It’s an easy choice.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit IM

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