This month’s topic is an exercise technique that’s not for the faint of heart. It is also one that shouldn’t be used too often, as it will cause the muscles and attachment involved to become overtrained. It is, however, a technique that will bring fast results by jarring target muscles out of complacency and making them stronger. It also improves stamina and mental fortitude because if you do it correctly, you’re going to see the White Buffalo.
I call it “railroading,” as that’s what most athletes called it when I first saw it done in the ’50s. While it was popular mostly with aspiring bodybuilders, a number of Olympic lifters and strength athletes included it in their programs as well. It is also called “stacking” and, when performed with dumbbell exercises, “up and down the rack.”
The last time I saw anyone use this technique was in the early ’70s, when I trained at the hardcore, black iron Muscle Beach Gym in Santa Monica, California. Now it is a relic of the past, much like the Zercher lift and one-hand lifts. Few know how to do it, and even more want no part of it because it requires reaching deep in the strength and endurance reserves.
Yet it is a very effective way to improve strength and stamina if you’re willing to put in the effort. Railroading isn’t the least bit complicated and requires a minimum of equipment: a barbell—it doesn’t have to be an Olympic bar—and plates. It can be done in an apartment or any other small space. What it does require is to have two people available to load and unload plates during the execution of the exercise. That’s necessary because moving very rapidly through the sets is the key to making the exercise work.
Railroading can be used to strengthen any bodypart, but it works best on the larger muscle groups and is particularly beneficial for the back. The exercise that I use to teach athletes how to railroad is the bent-over row and for a couple of reasons. For one thing it’s a simple movement to perform, and, also, your form doesn’t have to be as exact as it does on many other dynamic exercises, such as power cleans and high pulls. Once you learn how to do railroading with the rows, you can use it on other exercises, even for the smaller groups.
This is a three-person deal, consisting of the lifter and two others to serve as loaders. Weights need to be stacked close to the ends of the bar, so the loaders can slap them on the bar and remove them quickly. For most, having a stack of fives, 10s and 25s is enough. The loaders have to be on the ball—like a pit crew in auto racing. As soon as the bar hits the floor after a set, they should be in action. Loaders have a second duty as well-—to urge you to maintain a rapid pace.
Use straps for any pulling exercise. Doing all those reps and sets quickly will invariably cause your grip to slip a bit, especially when you get to the top-end sets. The straps will help you stay locked onto the bar and enable you to pull the weights higher. Higher means more muscles get involved, and that’s a good thing.
It’s a 10-set sequence. Your goal on the bent-over rows, railroading-style, is to use about 40 pounds less on your last set than you can handle on conventional bent-over rows. Say you can do 305×5 on bent-over rows. Your goal, then, is to get to 265×5 in your first railroading workout. You start with 135 and then jump to 185, 225, 245 and finish with 265, all done for five reps. The instant you finish each set, your loaders add plates. There are no rest periods from start to finish.
Once you’ve done your final set with 265, everything reverses. Though you do not handle the 265 twice, you still need five steps down to make the required 10 sets, so you add a drop. With the loaders quickly stripping plates after each down set, you use 245, 225, 205, 185 and, lastly, 135, again all for five reps.
When you’re finished, you’ll likely flop on the floor to catch your breath and try to relax your abused muscles. That’s how it should be. If you’re not exhausted, you either moved too slowly or didn’t handle enough weight. You can easily rectify that the next time you railroad the exercise. If you are unable to do all 10 sets, you need to lower the top-end weights, but you should never slow the pace. Only by moving through the sets in rapid fashion will you achieve the desired results.
I have noted that your form doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect, yet it cannot be sloppy or you will run the risk of dinging yourself. Try to focus on doing every rep as correctly as you can, and that will take your mind off of your screaming muscles. Also, on the final two top-end sets you can cheat just a tad. By cheating, I mean allowing your upper body to elevate at the end of the rowing motion instead of maintaining a very flat back. That is permissible because you’re still hitting the target muscles. Doing bent-over rows using the railroading technique hits the lats and middle back the way no other exercise does, something everyone finds out right away.
When you do these for the first time, you do only one full set. That’s enough to let you know how they feel and exactly what groups are involved—as well as which groups are relatively weak. As your body and mind adapt to the new form of stress, you can add another full set. Most think that once they finish with the top-end set, they can cruise. That’s not the case because at that point your body is exhausted and there are still five sets to go—and you must pay close attention to every set.
What other exercises can be railroaded? Lots. The bodybuilders at Muscle Beach especially liked to use it on barbell curls. A couple did three full rounds—and got immediate results. Railroading is beneficial for nearly every back exercise: high pulls, shrugs inside the power rack and deadlifts—not so much for benches or inclines, though, since the bar travels up over your face, and that can be risky.
Machines are well suited to this form of strength training. Railroading leg extensions and leg curls can help bring the quads and hams up to par quickly. Triceps pushdowns and lat pulldowns are also great. The good thing about using machines for railroading is that you can change the resistance very quickly, enabling you to move through the set superfast.
I don’t recommend them for any high-skill lifts because most people break form when the going gets tough, and you don’t want to do that. Practicing bad habits will form a pattern that’s difficult to break.
Do a couple of warmup sets before starting your railroading sequence. That’s only common sense. Many overlook it, however, believing that using light weights for the first few sets is enough. Better to be safe than sorry.
Put any railroading exercise at the end of your routine. I have my athletes do it on Fridays. That gives them two full days to recover. Also, do railroading on any specific bodypart only once every two or three weeks. That will keep you from overtraining the groups involved in the exercises and also keep you from dreading them. A little goes a long way when it comes to railroading. It’s one of those techniques for which less is better than more.
If there are some muscle groups that you know are lagging behind in strength, stun them with a full sequence of railroading. While it certainly does not qualify as a “fun” exercise, when done correctly and pushed to the limit, railroading brings fast and positive results—and to me, that’s worth a bit of discomfort.
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 www