Lost in the chaotic news cycle that’s overwhelmed every area of journalism since the onset of COVID-19 was an important anniversary for meathead lifters and physical culturists. The date in question: May 8, 1995. The event: Kirk Karwoski, arguably the greatest powerlifter of the modern era, performed what many recognize as the most impressive display of squatting prowess ever captured on tape.
The video itself has an almost Zapruder-like quality to it – the grainy footage, the shaky frame, the decidedly non-HD audio. To the untrained eye, it may seem like nothing more than a large man squatting an ungodly amount of weight. And that it is, but it’s also so much more.
What you’re seeing here is a superstar at the peak of his powers: 800 pounds, five reps, no knee wraps, no squat suit (a specialized bit of gear, kind of like a skintight wetsuit, that helps strong squatters handle even more weight). Just one man with a weightlifting belt and the sort of unbreakable confidence that comes from a solid decade of single-minded focus toward the pursuit of technical excellence.
Guiding Karwoski throughout his fabled lifting career was Marty Gallagher. An accomplished powerlifter in his own right, Gallagher’s minimalist approach to training and coaching is his greatest gift to the iron game.
You’d think that in order for someone like Karwoski to squat more than 1,000 pounds in competition, they would have to live in the gym 24/7; and while alpha-athletes of that calibre definitely train with an enthusiasm unmatched by mere mortals, in his exceptional book The Purposeful Primitive, Gallagher shares samples of the programs he used to coach the best of the best. In just about every case, these guys were doing no more than five exercises per session, with sessions lasting no longer than 60 minutes.
“You’ve got about an hour,” Gallagher writes. “After 45 to 60 minutes, for someone in reasonably good condition, energy starts to fade quickly, strength plummets and performance begins to suffer so badly that logic dictates the session should be ended.”
Of course the unspoken caveat to this statement: The key factor to training success that average gym-goers ignore is that those 45 to 60 minutes have to be filled with seriously hard work. Showing up is part of the battle. Doing the work is the rest.
I’ve been thinking about Marty Gallagher and his methodology an awful lot lately. His no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes style of training is perfect for these strange days we’re living in. You likely don’t have a barbell and squat rack in your backyard (hell, how many of us even have a backyard?), but chances are you have a set of legs and/or arms. Despite what you may have read in the comments on my last column, that’s all you really need to get strong and healthy.
Another popular, if not quite as yet classic, entry in the genre of fitness lit backs up this assertion. Jailhouse Strong offers a bunch of training templates and techniques for maximizing size and strength with nothing more than your body and a pull-up bar. Maybe you can fire off 20 push-ups without breaking a sweat, but what if we slowed things down a little and added a two second pause at the very bottom? I’ve seen an awful lot of terrible lifting technique over the years, but I’ve yet to see anyone successfully cheat their way through a set of fingertip push-ups.
I have a theory that the reason powerlifting has become so popular with the general population over the past 10 years is because it allows casual lifters to feel like they’re accomplishing something special without putting in much intelligent effort. Sure it takes some moxy to step under the bar, as the saying goes. But I bet the majority of lifters who’re currently bemoaning their gyms being closed can barely perform a single set of “Tyson squats” (named after the former boxing champ; apparently he did lots of these during his prison term for rape).
Minimalism is a gift, not a curse. Think of the most successful people in just about any field; they channel their energy toward accomplishing a handful of specific, deadline-driven goals, following plans that are free of clutter. Now ask yourself, how well does that describe your pre-COVID workout routines?
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.
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