Have you ever noticed the extraordinary number of exercises most gym members do? That’s no surprise, given that gyms now feature tons of machinery. It’s all well and good. We’re told that variety is the spice of life and that you should change training routines every six or eight or 12 weeks to prevent the muscles from getting stale and to constantly stimulate the system. We’re also told that those who do stay on a given routine will undoubtedly plateau, lose interest quickly and make less progress than those who change routines the way they change underwear.
Is that really true? Evidence from lifters and bodybuilders suggests that it’s decidedly not the case. On the contrary, those seeking exceptional gains in size and strength actually follow the same routine, albeit with minor variations, for years.
Moreover, many of the muscleheads of yore did only a few exercises, but they worked with remarkable diligence in order to make huge gains. Examples, you ask? Consider Bill Starr, one of the foremost experts on strength in America today, IRONMAN columnist and author of the incomparable The Strongest Shall Survive, which was published back in the late ’70s. At one time Bill was one of the best Olympic lifters in his weight class in America, and, when he later turned his attentions to powerlifting, he deadlifted 600-plus pounds at a bodyweight of 181. Here’s his philosophy in a nutshell: Work like hell on a very limited number of movements, give full attention to proper lifting form, get adequate rest and recovery, eat well, and thou shalt grow big and strong.
The movements that Bill recommended 20 years ago are still entirely appropriate today: the squat, bench press, overhead press, power clean and deadlift. Occasionally throw in some curls, some leg extensions, some leg curls. Other than that, concentrate on just a few movements but work them like the devil himself was standing on the bar.
The Eastern European and Soviet lifters understood that very well. Back in the early 1980s they all told me the same thing: Their training facilities were primitive by American standards’they kept the chrome and glitter and dials to a minimum’but man, oh, man, did they work their butts off when it came time to train. They squatted and squatted and then squatted some more and pulled and cleaned till the cows came home, then got up the next day or the day after to do it all over again. In short, drugs or no drugs, they simply worked much harder than American lifters were willing to work, and it showed. For many long years the Soviets and Bulgarians absolutely dominated the field of weightlifting.
And their physiques were nothing to scoff at either. Check out some old photos of David Rigert or Nedelcho Kolev or Sultan Rakhmanov. Those guys had builds that would have given any Mr. Universe a run for his money, and none of them did more than maybe six or seven exercises in their entire careers.
Our forebears in the iron game have shown that the most effective routines for the vast majority of strength athletes are actually those that are simplest in terms of layout but very difficult in terms of actual training. We must never confuse simplicity with ease. Moreover, the so-called basic exercises, such as the squat, bench, barbell row and so forth, provide the body with far more real development than any number of weenie triceps extensions, preacher curls or one-leg leg curls could ever do. ‘Timothy Seavy