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5 Timeless lessons

5 Zeitlose Lektionen

It's sad to see that many of today's exercisers vaguely recognize names like Saxon, Hackenschmidt or Hoffman at best. Sandow, however, is an old school name that even recreational bodybuilders should be familiar with - even if they only know him as "the guy from the Mr. Olympia statue."

These were guys who built insanely strong, impressively muscular bodies at a time when barbell bars with removable weight plates were still considered cutting edge technology and a perfect post-workout meal consisted of a plate of ham stew and a hearty beer.

It's a shame that these inventors and innovators go unrecognized, considering that even today's best trainers giving innovative training advice are building on what these iron sports legends discovered and developed.

Believe it or not, many of the theories and practices circulating today are actually interpretations of classic training methods. They may be supported by current scientific research and may have been modified slightly for greater efficiency, but on the whole it's very surprising how many parallels there are between 'new' ideas and old school concepts.

Let's take a look at five of the biggest training practices that have been used for years - some of them for over a century.

1 - No more weak points

"Everyone has a certain part of their body that is naturally more developed than other parts - say, for example, one person's legs are naturally strong or another person's arms are naturally strong. The former will be able to perform leg exercises with perfect ease, while all his arm exercises will require more effort.

It would be foolish for this person to devote more time and attention to his leg exercises because they are easier for him and neglect his arm exercises, which are harder and more difficult for him. Nevertheless, this is a bad habit that many people fall into when training."

- George Hackenschmidt in 1941

"... once you have reached a certain level of development, it becomes a must to approach training - especially back training - with a muscle-oriented approach. For most, this is the only way to build a muscular back that is visually appealing and symmetrical from top to bottom and right to left.

Sure, some genetically blessed individuals can basically just move heavy stuff and develop a balanced and symmetrical back (those bastards!). However, the vast majority of us need a much more fine-tuned approach - one that addresses each individual region of the back, not just the back as a whole.

- Dr. Clay Hyght in 2009

The lesson: Whether we're talking about balanced development of all the muscle groups of the back or body-wide symmetry, it's always important to look at growth and progress soberly.

Now I can't say for sure that Hackenschmidt was trying to tell Tom Platz to do less squats and more triceps training, but this could well have been the case. The "Golden Eagel" is the prototypical example of overemphasizing the strongest attributes at the expense of overall body development.

As epic as his quadriceps were, there is no doubt that they overshadowed the rest of his body. Unfortunately for Platz, he did not compete in the International Quadriceps Builders Association competitions.

This strategy doesn't necessarily apply to beginners, who don't tend to show outstandingly strong points in their muscle development early in their training career, but this strategy is still a good mindset to adopt early on. There is a saying in bodybuilding circles that the exercise or muscle group you hate training the most is probably the exercise/muscle group you need to train the most.

Keeping an eye on building the best balanced body will more than pay off in the future and lead to aesthetic, impressive body development while maintaining long-term health. Do you disagree? Then check out the shoulder health of the guy who bench presses for several hours a week but only does 15 minutes of back training per week.

2 - The brain - the strongest muscle

"You can go through the list of dumbbell exercises a hundred times a day, but unless you focus your mind on the muscles doing the work, such exercises will bring minimal benefits - if any. On the other hand, if you concentrate your mind on the muscles being used, then immediate development will begin."

- Eugen Sandow in 1904

"...the key to becoming stronger, more muscular, faster, or any combination thereof, depends on your understanding of how to recruit more motor units. If I had to summarize the intent and purpose of any effective mass and strength building training plan in one sentence, it would be as follows:

Recruit as many motor units as possible with every muscle contraction."

- Chad Waterbury in 2007

The lesson: Sandow called it "concentrating the mind", modern bodybuilders call it mind-muscle connection and numerous trainers refer to it as activating the nervous system.

No matter what terminology you choose, the message is the same: when you train, you need to be 100% focused and do everything you can to get the most out of every single repetition. Simply going through the motions is a waste of time.

One example often suggested by elite powerlifters is to treat your warm-up sets exactly the same as a max attempt: with serious intent and technical precision to ensure you are fully focused on the task at hand and don't lose a hint of effort. This goes back to emphasizing quality (reps and effort) over quantity. Just because a weight is not close to max weight is not an excuse to mindlessly perform the reps.

For bodybuilders, this could also mean performing activation techniques or pre-fatigue work to better target specific muscles during their primary training sessions. Any strategy that improves focus on the exercise being performed - for one repetition at a time - will have a positive impact on your short-term and long-term progress.

3 - Pay attention to the right strength ratio of all muscles

"Here is one thing that you who are reading this book must internalize firmly in your mind and that is that when a man stands on his feet, he cannot release the full strength of his arms unless the strength of his back and legs is in proper proportion to the strength of his arms.

I do not mean that the back must be as strong as the arms, but that it must be many times stronger."

- Alan Calvert in 1924

"I deal with about 70 athletes every day, many of whom are at an elite level. And because of their weak points, even those who think they're strong don't build nearly as much muscle mass as they could.

And if you intensely train the muscles of the upper, middle and lower back, as well as the glutes and the hamstrings, you'll see muscle growth not just there, but almost everywhere on your body..."

- Eric Cressey in 2009

The lesson: Ask 10 really muscular men how to build muscle mass in a short period of time and chances are at least eight of them will say "squats and milk," while one will tell you "just do heavy deadlifts and the other will say "P90X!" Forget the last guy and try training with any of the others.

One of the main reasons that squats and deadlifts have always been prioritized is that these exercises allow you to work a lot of muscles at once with a lot of weight - and that's always the best recipe for quick results.

Any exercise that works the back and/or posterior chain will also be an exercise that "just so happens" to work a ton of smaller muscles throughout the body as well. Can you think of any chest, shoulder or arm exercise that works as many different muscles with as heavy a weight as most back or leg exercises? No, definitely not.

Something else to keep in mind is that if you're only as strong as your weakest link, you'd better make sure your weakest link isn't one of the muscles that makes up part of your body's basic structure.

4 - More mass for the arms

"Massive arms are generally the result of total body training. A moderate amount of specialization in arm development should be enough to give your arms exceptional mass, strength and proportion.

You can't expect to use a Mack truck tire on a Ford or other lighter car. Neither can you expect to build a 43 centimeter upper arm on a 55 kilo body. It's essential to build a more muscular body so that bigger arms can be achieved."

- Bob Hoffman in 1939

"A good rule of thumb is that for every 2.5 centimeters you want to build on your arms, you need to build roughly 7 kilos of evenly distributed body mass. In other words, to achieve significant improvements in your arms, you need to build muscle mass all over your body.

The human body is a carefully tuned machine that will only allow a certain degree of asymmetry. So if you spend your training energy exclusively on building muscular arms, you will eventually reach a point of stagnation because you haven't trained your legs."

- Charles Poliquin in 2000

The lesson: First of all, if at least part of you doesn't think it's great to have a cute girl hanging onto your muscular arm while you walk into a room together, you're a hypocritical, dirty liar. The problem, however, is that some guys want those arms without "big and beefy thighs" or without "a wide latissimus that barely fits in a shirt."

I hate to break the bad news to you little guys, but with big muscular arms comes a big muscular body. Anything else will make you look like a shaved chimpanzee with an IQ to match.

And in the very unlikely event that someone has just read out "don't train your arms to get big massive arms", then that person can lie down and take a nap with a clear conscience, as this is adults talking to each other.

What I and what Hoffman, Poliquin and many other trainers are saying is that if you want to achieve an arm circumference in the 45 centimeter range or above, you need to do specific biceps and triceps training IN ADDITION to putting plenty of time and energy into squats, deadlifts and other heavy basic exercises.

This might sound like common sense to more experienced exercisers, but common sense is a very rare commodity in 15 to 22 year old gym members. These are kids whose idea of a heavy workout is quarter-rep shoulder raises with 15 kilos less than their own bodyweight - but these are also the very people who should be doing deadlifts, rows and presses more often than hammer curls on the incline bench and one-arm tricep presses on the cable machine.

Hoffman couldn't have said it more directly: You can't build a 43-inch arm on a 55-pound body. To build significantly bigger arms than you have right now, you need to build a more muscular body, and the fastest way to achieve this requires a training plan that pays a lot of attention to heavy basic exercises while also paying some attention to direct arm training - and not the other way around.

5 - Train instead of load

"Trying to work like a machine, knowing that the spectre of training is always at your side, ready to sap your resources through overload and bring about a breakdown, is the epitome of folly.

Nature has given you an instinct which will make itself heard with warning cues when excessive exhaustion threatens, and you should never allow these warning signals to go unheeded."

- Arthur Saxon in 1905

"The aim of a training session is not to perform a specific number of exercises. A training session is not a list of tasks that you have to go through and tick off. Training is about stimulating a physiological response. To get there you need to autoregulate and know what your body needs to grow and recover.

What we are trying to do is to develop processes built into the training programs that teach the trainee to autoregulate. Once they know how to do this, they can apply it to every single program they use and make it work - assuming, of course, that it's not an idiotic training program to begin with."

- Christian Thibaudeau in 2009

The lesson: There's something to be said for coming to the gym with a solid idea of what you're going to do during the next class, but an experienced exerciser will tell you that you need to listen to your body during that session if you really want to make progress.

Are your elbows hurting? Then you shouldn't do the next set of tricep presses, even if your program tells you to. Do you feel unstoppable after this set of leg presses? Then today has become a volume day - even if you wanted to try some new exercises later. There's a Scarlett Johannson lookalike teaching a cardio class? I'm guessing you're going to learn Zumba today.

It's a combination of knowing what you want to accomplish with a given workout or workout plan and knowing how to interpret the inevitable detours you'll encounter along the way. This is a skill that not all exercisers are born with, but those who will train the longest and those who get the best results develop this skill sooner rather than later.

If you know why and how, then you need to adapt a training program on the fly - you can respond to changes in your energy levels, an unexpectedly crowded gym and your muscle recovery, and even prevent injuries before they have a chance to do major damage and slow your progress.


As it turns out, the latest information isn't always the best information - the best information is the best information - and the best information will always find its way to the forefront to make itself relevant and useful - again and again.

Here's a quick summary of these points that have been around since the days of our grandfathers:

  1. If there's a muscle group on your body that you get complimented on four times a day, then you must have a weak spot too. If you think this is not the case, you are wrong.
  2. Every time you move weights, train with a level of focus that makes everyone else think you've spiked your workout shake with Ritalin.
  3. If you make your back and legs stronger, you'll see improvements in pretty much all other exercises.
  4. The fastest way to build bigger arms is to build your entire body. This is a ridiculously simple idea, but too many young exercisers still don't understand it.
  5. With every single set, every training session and every training program, don't underestimate the feedback from your body and the cues that will guide you closer to your goal.


  1. Hackenschmidt, G. (1943) The Way to Live. Pp. 43.
  2. Sandow, E. (1904) Body Building. Pp 21.
  3. Calvert, A. (1924) Super Strength. Pp. 12.
  4. Hoffman, B. (1939) Big Arms. Pp 11.
  5. Saxon, A. (1905) The Development of Physical Power. Pp. 54.


By Chris Colucci

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