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Only the Strong Shall Survive
An Ideal Beginning Strength Program

This month I present what I believe to be one of the best beginning routines for strength training, but it also holds special interest for anyone who includes high-skill exercises in his or her program.

The majority of requests for information I receive deal with back injuries and programming. This month I present what I believe to be one of the best beginning routines for strength training, but it also holds special interest for anyone who includes high-skill exercises in his or her program. While I like to think that I’ve come up with some original programming concepts over the years, this isn’t one of them. This came from Sid Henry of Dallas.

At that time, in the late 1950s, Sid was the strongest lifter in the state and one of the top heavyweights in the country, which meant the weight room was his domain. Space and equipment were limited, so if you trained at the same time as he did, you followed his program.

I was eager to take advantage of his knowledge and gladly did what he told me to do, and since I was making gains, there was no reason to ponder the whys and wherefores of it. Later on, however, when I found myself in charge of coaching beginners in YMCAs in Chicago and in Marion, Indiana, I did take the time to think about the system he’d taught me and so many others. I came to the conclusion that the reason his program was so effective was that it was simple, dealt with only the basics and provided plenty of repetitions on which to hone technique on the high-skill lifts as well as ample work for back, shoulders, hips and legs. Your workload steadily increased while your form improved. Plus, you needed very little equipment and could do it in a small space.

Sid was an engineer by profession and the precison of thought that science requires carried over to the way he designed routines. He calculated sets, reps, numbers and exercises for each workout, numbers that were never deviated from’the exception being when he or someone he was coaching had an exceptional day. Then they pulled out all the stops. Sid believed that breaking personal records was highly motivational and one of the keys to making continuous progress. If you were on, the sky was the limit, and he urged you to keep going.

To encourage that, he built a complex record board that covered one wall of the tiny gym. There were spaces for long lists of lifts and bodyweight divisions and one at the bottom for the best lifter in each category according to the Hoffman formula, the only formula available back then. That enabled 148-pounders to compete against the heavy lifters. Sid, of course, held all the heavyweight marks, but every so often someone challenged him for one of the formula spots. Whenever that happened, his competitive juices soared, and he was very competitive. The result was that every lifter who trained there put as much effort into trying to push Sid off the formula lift as he did lifting in a contest. In many ways the gym records were even more important than winning a meet. They meant bragging rights in the weight room.

Another motivational idea Sid came up with to liven up lackluster workouts was the betting board. We didn’t bet for money but, rather, half-pints of milk that you could purchase for a nickel from a vending machine in the lobby. Lifters would bet X-number of milks on a certain lift, and the results were recorded on a blackboard. The debts were never collected, just used as a bank for future bets. While it was only a game, every lifter on the team would nearly kill himself trying to complete any lift on which there was a milk bet. No one wanted to owe a teammate a large number of milks, since there was a standing rule about the debts being collectible upon demand. It proved to be the most helpful trick because it enabled lifters to move up a notch, even when they weren’t successful. At least they got to try a new weight, and that went a long way toward their making it in the future.

Sid was a strict disciplinarian, which I happen to believe all beginners need. Many start out using sound programs and do well, then read of a program recommended by an expert and switch over to that. After a short period of time they come across another routine by yet another expert and switch over to that. Trying out different approaches to training is fine and beneficial once you’ve established the foundation and technique on the various lifts; however, jumping from one program to another in the formative stage is detrimental to progress.

I compare it to the science of psychology. There are three distinct approaches that psychologists and psychiatrists use: Freudian, nondirective and Gestalt. Each can be an effective means of helping a patient, but you cannot mix them. The therapist must select one and use it exclusively. That’s exactly how it is in strength training, particularly for beginners.

When Sid agreed to coach you, you had to follow his rules. First, you had to do what he said in the weight room with no arguments. If you went against his advice, that would be the last time he gave you any. Second, you had to lift three times a week. If for some reason you couldn’t make a scheduled workout, you had better make it up sometime during the week. I was already a believer in the importance of consistency in training, and Sid’s rule reinforced my habits. He required his trainees to keep a training log, which helped me throughout my lifting career. It enabled him to scan a recent workout, spot weaknesses and make adjustments in your program, and the discipline of writing down all the numbers helped you prepare for the next session.

A devout Catholic, Sid also had rules concerning his trainees’ behavior. He didn’t smoke, drink or use profanity, and if he trained you, you didn’t either. Off-color jokes and remarks and swearing were not allowed in the weight room. Since I was in my religious period, I shared his moral views. He was a mild-mannered gentleman, except when someone did something that riled him. One afternoon while we were in the middle of a session, a man stepped into the doorway to watch us, and he was smoking a cigar. When Sid smelled the smoke, he went berserk, charging at the stunned man, and nearly threw him down the seven flights of stairs. It was great. Anyone who’s rude and stupid enough to smoke in a weight room should be maimed, at the very least.

While I am painfully aware that many people who train heavy think screaming and cursing are the best ways to demonstrate that you’re a real man, I still believe that a more noble setting, where the rules forbid conduct that’s offensive to others, is the best atmosphere in which to train, particularly if youngsters and ladies are present.

ALLSid’s workouts consisted of the three Olympic lifts’press, snatch, clean and jerk’and included power cleans, power snatches, snatch-grip high pulls, front and back squats, plus jerks from the rack if that lift was a problem. All of those with the exception of back squats fall into the category of high-skill exercises. You may not think the press qualifies, but it most certainly is a high-skill movement when you do it as a strength event. We did presses at every workout in order to perfect our form as much as our strength.

Workouts always started with the clean and press, mostly because the press was the first lift contested in meets. You did one clean, then five reps for the first three warmup sets, then followed that with five sets of three with the same weight; for example, 115, 135 and 155 for five, then five sets of three reps with 175. Next came either power snatches or power cleans done in the same manner, except you did fewer warmup sets for power cleans, since you’d already done quite a few cleans with the presses. On other days full cleans or full snatches followed the opening presses, performed with the same formula of sets and reps, three sets of five and five sets of three.

Sid’s trainees did snatch-grip high pulls at least once a week, right behind the full movements or the power cleans and power snatches, three to five sets, depending on how you felt, with no warmup sets necessary. If you started showing signs of fatigue, you stopped at three sets. You followed the same pattern with front squats and jerks from the rack, and did back squats for sets of fives.

There were no fancy gimmicks’no partials, negatives, rubber bands or chains’just lots of concentrated work on full-range technical exercises. What made the program so effective was the progression. If you were successful with your five work sets at 175 on the press, your next press session would look like this: 115, 135 and 155 for five, then five sets of three with 180. Here are two key points that make it work:

1) You increase the work weight by only five pounds regardless of whether the previous five sets of three were easy. Keeping your increases small ensures that you establish a solid base.

2) This one is perhaps more important: If you fail on any of them, whether it’s the third or the final set, you have to use that same amount of weight for your work sets the next time you press.

While that may seem like a simple, logical concept, it’s extremely hard for competitive athletes to hold back, especially youngsters. They’re anxious to pile on more weight, even when they’re struggling with lower poundages. Having to succeed with every rep forces you to pay close attention to every set. Should you get sloppy on the second work set, taking it for granted, then you pay the price. It rewards success and penalizes failure, just as life outside the weight room does.

On more occasions than I care to admit, I stayed with the same work weight for a month, and it was very frustrating. I finally broke through and moved on ahead again. Had I cheated on the basic plan, which I could have done by training early, before Sid got there, I would have hit a wall and not been able to break through.

Since Olympic weightlifting is based to a large extent on technique, Sid was a stickler about form. If a jerk wasn’t locked out properly, it didn’t count. If you bent your arms too soon on a snatch or clean or rounded your back, the lift didn’t count. You had to do the three Olympic lifts in strict accordance with the rule book. If there was a bet on, you had to be precise, with the three judges rendering the final verdict. That emphasis on technique gave us a distinct advantage in competitions because we knew if we locked the bar outside overhead, it would be passed.

As I indicated above, each session consisted of presses or jerks’and sometimes both’two pulling exercises plus front or back squats. We did no auxiliary work at all. We didn’t need it. When I trained alone, I could go through the workout in an hour and 15 minutes, but in the Dallas Y weight room we often had eight lifters doing it, and that took longer. We learned to work fast, unloading and reloading for the next lifter expeditiously and leaving any socializing for after the workout.

We did the warmup set and the first couple of work sets quickly, with little rest between them. Then the pace slowed somewhat for the final work sets. Moving at a fast rate helps build a different sort of strength, and knowing how to do that is extremely useful if you ever plan to lift in a contest. On occasion you may have to follow yourself on the platform with only a few minutes’ rest between attempts.

Sid’s program proved to be perfect for any level of lifting, not just for beginners. Gerald Travis was a seasoned veteran, and he benefited from it. So did Sid. Three years after I started training with him, he won the Senior National Olympic Championship and became one of the few Americans who ever defeated the great Norbert Shemansky in his prime. And I continued to use his methods after I became a member of the York Barbell Club.

Since this is obviously a tribute to my first coach and friend Sid Henry, I’d like to mention what impressed me the most about his lifting. It was his amazing ability to handle big weights in a contest even though his lifts going into the meet were way below his expectations. The common routine for nearly every lifter prior to a contest was to work up to his starting poundages on Monday or Tuesday, then do token workouts one other day before the Saturday meet. One time we were getting ready for the Lone Star Invitational, which Sid promoted. He was spending a great deal of time and effort publicizing the contest, which took its toll on his training. At his final press workout on Monday he was really struggling, missing 305 three times before grinding up a rather ugly lift.

All who were watching him figured Sid would start conservatively. He had a spirited rivalry with Nat Heard of Houston. Nat was an exceptional presser, while Sid usually made up the necessary ground in the quick lifts. So I was stunned to see him open with 355. He made it with ease and completed his final two attempts.

Over the years I had the opportunity to train with March, Garcy, Emrick, Bednarski, Puleo and Patera, whom I consider great lifters, but none of them could match Sid’s ability to get himself ready when his premeet training was subpar. And Sid never took steroids. He knew about them in the early ’60s but refused to take them on ethical grounds.

Peary Rader, who admired moral character in lifters even more than their ability to move big weights, was a huge fan of Sid’s He once stated that Sid was the ideal role model for any young weightlifter. I wholeheartedly agree and consider myself fortunate to have met him in the formative stage of my lifting career. Try his program. It works.

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 and Defying Gravity. Look for his available books at IM

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