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No Brain, No Gain

I was standing in line at the post office behind an elderly man and a younger woman, who, I learned from listening to their conversation, was his daughter.

“Dad,” she was saying, “you need to go see Dr. Burns about your back.”

“No, I don’t,” he grunted. “The last two times I went to him about my back, all he did was give me some muscle relaxants and tell me to rest it. It didn’t help at all. Just hid the problem under the pills.”

“He’s right. You should rest. You shouldn’t be out digging around in the garden.”

“I like working in the garden. It gets me up and moving. And I don’t need to rest my back. I need to work it more, not less. It’s bothering me now because it’s weak from doing nothing all winter. Once it gets stronger, it’ll be fine. I’ve gone through this before.”

I wanted to pat him on his shoulder and say, “That’s great!” If more people would take that approach, there would be a lot less pain medication prescribed and a lot less national misery these days.

The older gentleman knew intuitively what to do to remedy his physical problem because he understood his body much better than anyone else, including a trained medical specialist.

Intuitive, or instinctive, training was what every Olympic weightlifter, strength athlete and bodybuilder used when I first got interested in weight training and physical culture. It was pursued out of necessity, as only a handful of coaches in the United States knew what they were doing. So the odds of living close enough to one of them to be able to take advantage of that expertise were slim to none.

Today newsstands are weighted down with fitness publications, but in the 1950s and ’60s only two were available: Strength & Health and Iron Man. Peary Rader also published Lifting News, but that mainly carried photos and results of contests and not much in the way of instructional articles. Weider came along at that time, but his focus was on bodybuilding, which left competitive lifters and strength athletes out in the cold. As a result, they learned by trial and error and by listening to their bodies.

That’s basically what intuitive training is all about—listening to the signals your body sends you. It was often slow going because most of us made lots of mistakes when trying to solve some problem with our training programs. It was a new skill—learning to pay attention to the small signals going to our brains from muscles and joints. No one had taught us how to do that, and those who had figured it out didn’t completely understand the process. They just did what worked.

When I first began lifting, I’d never seen a muscle mag or talked with anyone who trained with weights. The first gym where I trained consistently was at my first duty station, the West Palm Beach Air Force base, in Florida. The gym closed at four, which meant I had to train during my lunch hour, and I always trained alone. Missing a great meal bothered me because I was trying to put on bodyweight, but I was convinced that if I lifted diligently I’d get bigger and stronger. No one told me that, and I’d never read it. I simply felt deeply that it was true. That was my first strength-training intuition.

At that point I wasn’t thinking of becoming a weightlifter or bodybuilder. I was attempting to get stronger in order to play softball better—I was on the medical squadron team. I didn’t know, for certain, what exercises I should do and I had no idea about sets and reps. My only guide was recalling what I’d read in the little mail-order booklet I’d bought from George Jowett. Most of the exercises he described needed a barbell or dumbbell, which I couldn’t afford. I tried to rig up a barbell and dumbbell by using broken parts from my father’s bulldozers. Without the benefit of collars, that proved to be a disaster.

Still, I’d read the booklet so many times that I put together a sensible program and did the exercises in decent form. One thing that made that method of assembling a program beneficial was that I was forced to pay close attention to every aspect of training since there was no one to guide me. That isn’t the case when a young athlete is led through every step of the process. It makes for slower going, especially at first, but over the course of a lifetime of training, it turned out to be an asset. I had to listen to my body if I wanted to do better. I couldn’t depend on outside experts. When I encountered problems—and there were many—I had to solve them on my own.

It’s vastly different now. In addition to all the magazines, there are DVDs, videos, books, Web sites, plus clinics and seminars galore on every kind of physical fitness activity imaginable. Not to mention the gaggle of experts in the field, personal trainers and coaches with more initials behind their names than the Surgeon General, all ready to take a novice under their wings—for a fee, of course. In addition, every high school and college that wants to be competitive has a strength coach to teach the athletes the basics of strength training. There’s certainly no lack of information on the subject in this day and age. In fact, I believe there might be too much. It’s difficult to separate the truth from the bullshit because everyone has an angle for making him or her appear unique.

Which means that beginners don’t need to sit down and write out a program for their needs. They can simply copy one from a book or magazine or buy a video or DVD on the subject. In high schools and colleges it’s taken care of for them. Same when they join a gym. Need a program? Here’s a computerized one.

It seems like a wonderful change—not having to go to all the trouble of designing a program that specifically fits what you’re hoping to achieve. It is and it isn’t. Having a guide in the beginning is undoubtedly an asset, but at the same time you don’t have to learn how to develop a program or, even more important, make adjustments when your progress comes to a halt.

Frustrated athletes can go back and read all the articles and books they possibly can, along with viewing DVDs, but they’re still going to stay stuck. Why? Because they haven’t developed the ability to be intuitive. They have always depended on outside influences to teach them. There will come a time, however, when they must solve the problem by themselves.

Those who, like me, had to learn the intuitive approach from the very beginning can turn to it later in our lifting careers and put it to good use. Those who didn’t have to go through the learning stage the hard way generally can’t figure out how to move past a sticking point or other hurdles simply because they don’t know how. Yet it can be done if you believe that you possess the power to recognize the source of the difficulty and figure out the correct course of action to remedy it. It’s a learned skill, which means that anyone can use it with practice.

One other factor is critical. The generations that have come along since information on training became easy to find have developed a cookie-cutter mentality. They want everything to be laid out in a neat pattern—no fuss, no bother. They want to follow a pat routine without spending their valuable time determining how to improve in some category of fitness and strength training. They don’t mind paying for the service, but they don’t want to have to figure out the solution on their own, mostly because they doubt if they have the ability to do so.

The majority of the population in this country is very much like the characters in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Not quite that extreme, of course, although similar in many respects. Everything should be done in a precise, orderly fashion, and when that happens, they’re happy without having to think about it. Take some Soma if things get hectic. If there are problems, others will provide the answers. As a result, we as a nation have become dependent on others’ expertise and take few steps to become independent.

It’s become so absurd that there are now Web sites that educate you in how to start a walking program. How ridiculous. If you can’t figure out how to take part in a regular walking routine without instruction, you’re in big trouble. Most people who resort to that kind of self-help gimmick don’t think they can do it on their own. They have been conditioned through the years to believe that it’s better to follow an expert than dive in on their own. I don’t agree. What happens when that expert is no longer available?

I am of the opinion that each of us possesses a wealth of knowledge that we never bother to tap into. Homo sapiens had to have a high degree of it, or the species wouldn’t have survived. I believe the ability is still there, lurking under the surface, repressed for so long that time and practice are needed to get it in working order again. I happen to think it can be done if the desire is there.

To me, intuitive training is similar to telepathy, the ability to communicate without using sounds. Some anthropologists contend that it was quite common in primitive man and was used to convey messages over great distances. Shirley MacLaine wrote about telepathy among the Masai tribe in Kenya, and I’ve read that the real purpose behind the smoke signals Southwestern Indians employed was not what it seemed. Initially, observers thought that messages were being sent in the smoke, à la Morse code. Not so. Instead, the smoke was no more than a signal for the recipient to get ready to receive a message—a kind of telephone ring. To be sure, many scoff at that idea, yet just think about the times you’ve been thinking intently of some person you’re close to from whom you soon get a phone call, e-mail, fax or letter.

Intuition, by definition, is the ability to understand something without the need for conscious reasoning. It’s pure instinct. It would seem that the answer to your problem would pop into your head right away. Because the ability is dormant in most people, however, it has to be relearned. Rarely will solutions to your training problems reveal themselves like epiphanies. Rather, they’re revealed when you spend time concentrating on alternatives to what you’re currently doing.

Meanwhile, it’s helpful to know as much as possible about the subject you’re interested in—in this case, training. Learn as much as you can from articles, books, watching and listening to others. Gather all the data you can, and you’ll be better prepared to come up with a sensible answer to whatever difficulty you’re facing in the weight room. Think of any program you decide to use, though, as an outline, not hard-and-fast rules. Then adapt the information you have gleaned over the years to your own particular situation. That’s being intuitive.

It’s an ongoing process. Your body is constantly changing, as are your needs in the weight room. Most programs start with a very regimented routine, with exercises, sets and reps all laid out in a neat order. I use the concept myself, teaching a few basic movements with emphasis on learning correct technique and establishing a firm strength base. Every athlete, at that point, does exactly the same routine.

Once the strength base is solid and the form at least good, the athletes are ready to move into the intermediate phase. Changes have to be made, such as adjustments in the set-and-rep formulas, newer, more demanding exercises and greater overall workloads. It happens yet again when the athletes advance to the next level.

At these stages formulaic answers to problems no longer work for everyone. That’s because the formulas, often in computerized form, don’t take into account individual differences. They can’t, simply because there are way too many factors to deal with. Two people, same age, bodyweight and body type, with the identical amount of experience in lifting, won’t always respond to the same program identically.

So in order to move past some hurdle or avoid doing something to damage your body, you have to change your routine. Everyone is aware of individual differences, although we seldom factor that into training. It may, however, be the most important factor of all where a high level of strength fitness is concerned.

To add to the confusion, our bodies are constantly in flux. So a program that brought great results when we were in our 20s and 30s is no longer effective. Partly, that’s due to lifestyle. If during those years a person worked hard at a manual job, smoked, drank way too much and indulged in drugs or was employed in a toxic environment, the changes in his or her body would be more severe than in someone who’d lived a less indulgent lifestyle.

Then there are the inevitable changes that occur no matter how hard you try to stay on the healthy straight and narrow. You start losing muscle mass even in your late 20s, and testosterone begins dropping in your 30s. Endurance and flexibility wane in the 40s, as do many other physical abilities you take for granted. Add the major and minor injuries accumulated over the years, and you can well understand why changes in your training routine are necessary.

On the bright side, some changes are positive. Put on bodyweight, and your levers often change, making some lifts much easier than before. Over the years you soak up a lot of knowledge that will prove to be most valuable in future years. Even so, you must continually alter your routine to fit your immediate needs. Do that by listening to your body. Take inventory every single day—even better, twice a day, when you get up in the morning and at night before you go to bed. Move round, and your muscles and joints will report how they feel after the previous workout. The morning after a session will be the one that gives you the most info, but sometimes the late-night one is useful too.

Let’s say your right shoulder is hurting more than usual. Why? Did you do too much of a certain exercise? Went too heavy? Too many reps? How can that be prevented? What exercise can you substitute for the one that’s bothering your shoulder? Was it just because of the cold weather? Maybe you could do that exercise on another day.

That’s the first step in the process called intuitive training. Set out all the variables in your head or on paper, and start running through the possible solutions. Typically, one will stand out. Give it a try and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, think through the variables again and pick another remedy. As I mentioned, it’s a learned skill. The more you practice it, the more proficient you’ll become at figuring out how to move past sticking points, making a weaker area stronger and avoiding severe injuries. What I’m talking about is good old-fashioned common sense, which to me is just another way of saying intuitive or instinctive training.

One of the things that really jumped out at me when I first started training at the York Barbell Club in the mid-’60s was that all the Olympic lifters in attendance—Bob Bednarski, Tony Garcy, Homer Brannum, Tommy Suggs and Bill March—trained differently. I thought they’d all be following some routine laid out by Bob Hoffman or Dr. Ziegler. Not by a long shot. Hoffman knew absolutely nothing about training Olympic lifters, and Doc set up programs only for the power rack.

The lifters designed their own programs without assistance, and they all used intuition in a big way. Bednarski was very attuned to his body. If a planned workout was going south, he changed it on the spot. One afternoon Homer started in on some presses, then after just two sets he stopped. “It’s not going right,” he told me. “I’ll work out tomorrow.” Tommy was another lifter who listened to the signals his body was sending him. For a time he and I followed the same routine, but after a couple of weeks he started cutting back on the workload. He knew it was too much and made the change.

Over the years I’ve trained with excellent bodybuilders and found that they, like the top lifters, had unique programs that fit their special needs. Arnold, Franco, Zane, Oliva, Gajda, St. John and Vasilef all trained differently yet all reached the pinnacle of success in their sports. The most unusual program I ever saw for a bodybuilder belonged to Chet Yorton when we trained together at the old Muscle Beach Gym in Santa Monica. He did four exercises for two sets of 22 reps. How he came up with that grouping of numbers I’ll never know, but it worked perfectly for him. Not only did he have one of the most impressive physiques I have ever encountered, but he was extremely strong as well, maybe the strongest of the lot. For example, he would use 225 for his first set of benches, then jump 100 pounds and do 22 reps with 325. I know that because I handed off and spotted him. I seriously doubt whether another bodybuilder—or strength athlete for that matter—in the world could duplicate such a feat. And he weighed just over 200 pounds.

It was a routine he specifically designed to fit his needs. That’s what everyone should be striving for: a program that works for you. You can do it by paying attention to the signals your bodyparts are sending to your brain and making changes when necessary.

That’s yet another reason I encourage you to keep a record of your workouts. It’s a valuable source of information further down the road. When you encounter a major sticking point or are bothered by some muscle group or joint, you can go back and see how you overcame a similar problem in the past. Your training log may not be of much use to anybody else, but it’s a prime source of information for you.

As you proceed through life, learn all you can about as many facets of strength training and bodybuilding as you possibly can. The more data you have available, the easier it will be for you to solve your training puzzles. When faced with a dilemma, find some time and a place where you can concentrate fully and run the possible solutions through your mental Rolodex. Trust that the answer is in your memory bank because in most cases, it is.

This morning my shoulders were telling me that they were overworked, and my upper middle back was reminding me that I hadn’t done any direct work on it for a while. I’d planned to do steep incline presses but switched to multiple sets of bent-over rows with dumbbells. The next day my shoulders felt rested, and my back was fine. While that was an easy one—I’d encountered it before—the process is the same with the tougher cases. Be aware of what’s happening with your body every day, and when something needs to be fixed, keep your own counsel. No one understands how your body functions better than you do, and you can take that to the bank.

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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