Andrew Charniga, Jr.
There Is No System
Figure 1. The relaxed expression of a world champion female weightlifter. Not yet invented until 1987. Charniga photo
The fundamental problem with the USA system of strength training is that there is no system. In America, anything can be commercialized; this of course includes information. The commercializing of strength training research, methodologies, modalities and the like, even if some are valid, has ultimately led to confusion and an indiscriminate leaping from one “new and improved” strength training methodology or modality to another.
A scholarly examination of elite sport development in the USA by E. Sparvero, L. Chalip, and B. Green (Comparative Elite Sport Development. New York. Elsevier, 2008) made the following observations: “Although school, university, and professional sports systems are effective users of sport science knowledge, they are not producers of sport science knowledge…. There is no coordinated research scheme for sports medicine. The mass of American sport science research capacity resides in its universities, but outside the athlete development system…. given the absence of a coordinated sport development strategy and the lack of any significant sport science funding body, the long term outlook for American sport science is bleak.”
These observations were in reference to elite sport development for the Olympic Games. However, the observation concerning the lack of coordinated research does not take into consideration the confusion created by the commercialization of the research that is done in the USA and its effect on the development of elite sport.
General Guidelines for an Objective Evaluation of Strength Training Methodologies and Related Research in the USA
The quotations presented below are from some well known Soviet era sport scientists. They are in reference to the concomitant development of strength and muscle mass. These concepts form the basis of the critical analysis various topics to be covered in this series of articles of the history of weightlifting training in the USA. The commercialization of functional isometrics/power rack training is a rather deplorable circumstance with regards to its prolonged negative influence on American methodology of strength training for athletics:
1. “An increase in muscle mass is accompanied by an increase in muscular strength only in certain cases where the required movement is connected with overcoming a large resistance or moving it with a low velocity…. An increase in muscle mass is not an obligatory result of strength training.” Y.V. Verkhoshansky. Fundamentals of Special Strength Training in Sport 1977. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr. Sportivny Press©.)
2. “The athlete who employs heavy weights such that the movement becomes close to an isometric (although a very good strength development) risks ‘coordination enslavement’ which emanates from tension in the antagonists muscles.” (L.N. Sokolov, 1970, “Special Physical Training of Weightlifters.” Tyazheloatlet: V Pomosch Treneru. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr. Sportivny Press©.)
3. “These types of training (isometrics) can and do typically exert a negative influence on joint mobility, muscle and tendon elasticity.” (A. I. Falameyev. 1986. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr. Sportivny Press©.)
4. “No matter how constant the increase in strength, weightlifters cannot fully realize it because of the limited time determined by the amplitude of the task the working links in the kinematic chain have to execute the competition exercises.” (Y.V. Verkhoshansky. 1972. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr. Sportivny Press©.)
5. “There is no essential difference between the strength displayed in slow movements and isometric conditions.” (V.A. Zaprazhanov. 1988. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr. Sportivny Press©.)
6. “It should be noted that there is no connection between ability to generate great force and the ability to realize it at maximum speed. This is obvious with respect to the training of powerlifters and bodybuilders. There are virtually no examples of thes athletes who have switched to weightlifting and achieved distinguished results in the new sport. Whereas, on the other hand, there are numerous examples of high class weightlifters having switched to powerlifting and becoming champions.” (L.S. Dvorkin. Tiiazhelaya Atletika. Uchebnik, Moskow. Sovyetsky Sport, Publishers. 2005. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr. Sportivny Press©.)
The first five are the basis for the 6th observation of Dvorkin; which in simple terms, means that it is extraordinarily difficult to switch from training at a static sport like bodybuilding or powerlifting and succeed in a dynamic sport like weightlifting. This is despite how strong one is or how much muscle one has developed. Consequently, the value of strength training under predominantly static conditions and over restricted ranges of movement for dynamic sports is highly questionable.
The commercialization of the “Power Rack” (Functional Isometrics) and its profound effect on the American athletic community
The October 1961 issue of Strength and Health magazine is the beginning; “a ground zero” of a prolonged, commercialized information campaign extolling the benefits of isometric, high muscular tension exercises of small movement amplitude to develop strength with the simultaneous development of muscle mass. The hardware to which this training methodology was inextricably connected eventually came to be known as the “power rack.”
The term “power rack” is of course an oxymoron because systematic training with the aforementioned racks are for strength development not power. The development of power is connected with a simultaneous high speed muscular contraction and relaxation; which, one cannot effectively perfect performing isometrics or heavy weightlifting movements of small amplitude in a power rack.
In his report of the 1961 USA National Weightlifting Championships published in Strength and Health magazine (Strength and Health 10:53:1961), Bob Hoffman wrote, “Lou Riecke was the sensation of the meet, for he lifted 105 pounds more than he did one year ago. Broad shouldered, heavily muscled in the trapezius, his back and shoulders are developed to a point that make them pretty close to the best I have ever seen. This, with his slender waist and a fine pair of legs, indeed make him everything a weightlifter ought to be.”
Further on in Hoffman’s description of the 90 kg class at that competition; he made mention the following about the surprise winner Bill March, “a year ago he could not even qualify for the nationals because his best total of 800 lbs. in the 181 lb class was 25 lbs below the qualifying standard. …this year he has done 975 in the 198 lb class.”
These two men, had for that era, made phenomenal improvement in one year. They had one thing in common. Over the preceding year both had been under the tuteladge of Doctor John Ziegler, MD. Under Ziegler’s guidance, both athletes performed isometric exercises, mimicking some of the positions of the body and barbell in the three Olympic weightlifting exercises. They were doing mental training for concentration. And, they also were receiving dosages of a new pharmaceutical from the Ciba – Geigy Company, a derivative of the male hormone testosterone known by its trade name Dianabol.
It must be first emphasized that the relatively new research of Hettinger and Mueller which purportedly proved scientifically the effectiveness of isometrics for training strength led Ziegler, Hoffman, and others to credit the isometric exercises for these two athletes’ improvement.
Furthermore, lifters and coaches of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which can justifiably be called the beginning of the end of the era of absolute strength in Olympic Weightlifting, believed success in weightlifting was determined by the development of absolute strength with its accompanying large muscle mass and, of course, will power. No one really imagined something as insignificant as a small tablet could have a profound effect on an athlete’s strength development.
So, mental training aside, it was logical to assume the phenomenal progress Riecke and March made was justifiably considered to be the result of isometric training.
Figure 3. Maligov Adam (RUS) snatches 180 kg at 2017 European championships in 94 kg class. A weight the international weightlifting community was not dreaming of in 1960 for the heaviest weightlifters, let alone someone of 94 kg. Charniga photo.
The following is the first line of an article (Strength and Health 11:30:1961) written by Bob Hoffman entitled, “Revealing the New Power System.” He referenced it as the most important article I have ever written. “I am about to tell you about the greatest system of physical training, the greatest system of strength and muscle building the world has ever seen.”
Hoffman went on to trace the history of research into isometrics conducted by the likes of Hettinger and Mueller, Phillip Rasch, C.H. McCloy, Steinhaus, Karpovich; he wrote, “Isometric contraction will develop functional strength quickly and completely.”
Curiously, Hoffman’s use of the word “functional” to describe a physical quality like strength, or for that matter, a method of training has become, at the present time, so overused, so ostentatiously ubiquitous; it is meaningless.
Hoffman stated emphatically, the isometric training of March and Riecke was the secret to their phenomenal progress in such a short time. He even wrote that, “We had to keep this training secret, for it was a new principle and we did not want others, particularly the Russians, to learn about it until we knew more about it ourselves, knew its full value.”
Statements such as this, were, in all probability not an intentional marketing ploy. They reflected an honest; yet nonetheless overzealous reaction to what seemed to be the answer to the declining fortunes of American Weightlifting at the international level; a “new and improved” system of training for strength. Bob Hoffman, many times Olympic coach and the “Father of American Weightlifting,” without a doubt, was sincerely excited about the possibilities of this training methodology.
On the other hand, in effect, the claims expounded in this article also reflected another side of Hoffman, the businessman. Hoffman was an excellent businessman. Bob Hoffman had for many years personally bank rolled American Weightlifting. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours supporting lifters through his business the York Barbell Company and his magazine Strength and Health. He also paid out of pocket, the expenses to send American teams to numerous international competitions. All of this time, money, and efforts were made out of a genuine love for the sport.
Consequently, there was a duality in Hoffman’s overzealous reception of isometrics. This form of training could be a real boost to the declining fortunes of American weightlifting; to the delight of Hoffman the coach. And, the anticipated boom in sales of isometric equipment and training courses could be a boon to Hoffman the businessman; the scope of which is exemplified by this statement from that article: ”a system which will produce not only better weightlifters, better athletes, better men in the Armed Forces, but can help every man, woman and child in the nation.” Were this claim true, the whole USA was a potential customer.
At this juncture, it should be noted the two athletes (March and Riecke) for whom the isometric training was purported to be the source of their astounding progress; performed two distinct types of isometric contraction exercises. The first method involved simply pulling or pushing on an immovable bar fixed at various positions in a metal power rack stand.
The other method involved holding a barbell of various weights; against the pins of a power rack. The first method was thought by Hoffman to be problematic for someone who was in the barbell business. Hence, his invention of the second method; where plate loaded barbells were required. That way the athlete/customer had to have (purchase) a rack and a barbell. Problem solved.
The Initial “technical” advertisement campaign
It was no coincidence that the very first advertisement in the Strength and Health magazine appeared in the very same issue as the previously mentioned article, and it was no accident that the ad was inserted on the page opposite the end of this effusively glowing report of scientific research and practical experience with isometrics.
With the caption, “60 seconds daily quickly builds amazing strength and development!” (Strength and Health 11:65:1961) and a notation “patent applied for…,” the power rack marketing campaign was born. The rack pictured in the very first advertisement consisted of four metal tubes attached to a wooden base. The tubes were aligned/attached in pairs at the base and top and the whole device was secured on the wooden base and by steel rods to the wall directly behind it.
There were 550 holes drilled in the collective four tubes to provide a large number of possible positions to perform exercises. It was called an “Isometric-Isotonic Power Rack.” Pins approximately 12” in length were to be inserted into the holes in the tubes to provide a support for a barbell or just a bar for doing isometrics with weight or just static isometrics with an immovable bar.
The ad stated, “This is the rack and the training system used by leading lifters, who in a few short months made such sensational improvement.” The ad also touted the expansive versatility of the stand with which 14 different movements could be performed such as heavy squat stand, heavy leg press stand, bench press machine, leg press machine, incline press machine and other exercise positions.
Three models ranging in price from $29.95 (made of wood) to $99.95 (metal) were offered. A “super” 25,000 word training course penned by Bob Hoffman was offered free (a $5.00 value) with any of the four models pictured.
Claims were made that, “Many days you will train as little as 1 minute with a limit of five exercises for 12 seconds each.” Further on in the ad this profoundly hyperbolic statement appears, “Training with the Hoffman super power rack and the hitherto undisclosed secret training methods this Super Training Course includes will be the answer to your dreams, the answer to your physical desires.”
Of the illustrations in the ad, one in particular should be committed to memory. It is a picture of an Olympic lifter exercising in the power rack. His trunk and legs are fully extended, his heels are raised, shoulders are elevated and arms are partially flexed, head is tilted back and line of sight is upward. This was considered at the time to be the ideal “full extension” of the pull and every Olympic lifter should strive to achieve this position in order to lift the barbell high enough for the snatch or the clean. You could now practice this “ideal position” in the power rack with isometric tension.
This ideal of a weightlifter with a fully extended trunk, lower extremities and elevated shoulder girdle in this lifting position is of course a myth which has persisted to this very day in many quarters of the weightlifting community. In point of fact, it is counterproductive to an effective timely descent under and receiving of the barbell in the squat position, i.e., the descent is delayed and the joints are not prepared to receive and brake the descending the barbell from this “full extension.”
Figure 4. Extreme flexibility is a advantage in weightlifting. Charniga photo.
What has all of this have to do with the state of strength training in America? The commercialization of isometric training and its simultaneous equipment sales pitch may not be the beginning of this type of marketing; but, it certainly raised it to a level never achieved before. Virtually every major university, college, or high school weight room in the USA has at least one; and most, a multitude of power racks. It is arguably third behind a bench press bench and a barbell as the most ubiquitous piece of training equipment to be found in university and school weight rooms from coast to coast.
This commercialized training methodology with its attendant equipment and the all encompassing philosophy which went hand in hand with them, not only did not stave off the decline in American weightlifting at the international level; but, helped accelerated it into a nose dive. The isometrics/power rack craze could not have come at worse time. The era of absolute strength in Olympic weightlifting was coming to an end. Isometrics and power rack exercises were not the way to prepare for the speed strength era.
This attendant philosophy for developing absolute strength epitomized by power rack training, this psychology of strength training with concomitant increase in muscle mass, the misperception that strength development and increased muscle mass go hand in hand is very much in vogue today.
The reader should not assume in any way shape or form that this essay is meant to bash Hoffman, the York Barbell Company, his, or the company’s contributions to weightlifting. On the contrary, against this backdrop of the marketing of isometrics and the power rack there was a genuine belief that this training method would build the strength and of course the muscle mass needed to regain competitiveness with the Russians and other East block weightlifters.
It is highly unlikely that it ever occurred to Hoffman and the others touting this training that the type of exercises, the small range of joint motion exercised, the development of what Soviet sport scientists called “static strength” and the extra muscle mass could prove to be not beneficial to Olympic weightlifters; but on the contrary, a hindrance.
For instance, Hoffman was unable to fathom why the young upcoming American lifters of the early 60s and thereafter were unable to lift as much as the Soviets and East Europeans when the Americans had developed all of this strength and muscle mass; so much in fact they were able to virtually walk from the weightlifting platform to the Mr. Universe competition and succeed at bodybuilding after failing at weightlifting.
The declining competitiveness of American weightlifting and its relationship to the marketing of the power rack for “Functional Isometrics”
Pertinent to this discussion is the backdrop against which the commercialization of isometric training and the marketing of the power rack occurred.
The USA won its first real gold medal in weightlifting in 1936. Bob Hoffman was the Olympic coach. This was followed by four gold medals in 1948, four in 1952, and four in 1956. However, by 1960 the USA won only one gold medal, the last by an American male which was some 49 years ago.
In the aftermath of the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Bob Hoffman wrote an editorial (Strength and Health 9:3:1960) in which he analyzed the performance of the US weightlifting team. He wrote, “ In reference to the communist block athletes, naturally, they are not stronger, but they work harder at their sport.”
Subsequently addressing this same issue in 1961 (Strength and Health 01:3:1961), after first reciting a litany of excuses for the some of the poor performances in Rome, Hoffman went on to say, “There were a lot of reasons, but the most important ones… in simple terms, the real reasons our men did not win more often were the condition and ability of the foreign athletes, their skill, their endurance, speed and strength … But in so many countries the athletes train harder than our fellows do.”
Hoffman recognized the obvious; the communist block athletes and lifters from some Asian countries were training harder at weightlifting than the Americans. Either we had to train as hard, even harder, or come up with a superior system. It is obvious why isometrics and the power rack were quickly seized upon as the latter of the solutions. This method appeared to produce rapid gains in a relatively short time and required less time in the gym. No need here for a radical change of life style.
However fortunate American weightlifters were to have such a benefactor as Bob Hoffman, the USA, then and to this day, lacks a state sponsored, coordinated research effort designed to not only produce elite athletes, but to find the means, the wherewithal, to stretch the limits of human performance. The Soviets, and to a lesser extent other East block countries, had funded for many years and continue to fund such an effort.
There is a distinction between the information produced from research of elite sport performance in a communist country like the former Soviet Union and East Germany. This type of information, for the most part, was not readily commercialized as it can be in the USA. The training methodologies and training apparatuses were evaluated by coaches and sport scientists as either effective or not. This stands in stark contrast to how training information and training modalities can be hyped in the USA as they can leap from the laboratory to the market place.
As already mentioned, Hoffman wrote, “a system which will produce not only better weightlifters, better athletes, better men in the Armed Forces, but can help every man, woman and child in the nation.” So, right out of the “box,” there was the obvious attempt to sell the science of isometrics to ”every man, woman and child” in America.
Unfortunately, the marketing of the isometrics/power rack, an unfortunate part of the commercialization of knowledge in America, makes it difficult if not impossible to evaluate something like a “new” training methodology; this is an unfortunate outcome, which, in this case, accelerated the decline of American weightlifting.
Echoes of Hoffman’s observations from a radically different standpoint are to be found in an article “Our Rivals – The Foreign Athletes” written by Y. Kutsenko (Merited Master of Sport, Merited Trainer of the USSR. Tribuna Masterov,. 1963: 200. Translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr. Sportivny Press©.) This was his analysis based on first hand observations of the training of the teams at the Rome Olympics.
“The Americans did not adhere to a strict regimen. They went to bed later (24:00); got up later (9-10:00); dispensed with morning gymnastics, the warm up in the fresh air which was an obligatory routine for our athletes, the Japanese, and the Poles who considered it to be an essential means of improving health and improving sport form.
“It was obvious that many were clearly over – trained. Miyake, Berger, Kono and others, ‘prematurely’ sensing the ‘breath’ of their competitors, tried to amaze and show off…. You get the impression that the Americans, like the others, do not have a daily training plan….Right in the middle of their training animated contests break out with laughter and including betting; whether one is doing a competition or some other exercise.
“Today, I. Berger won $25.00 for snatching 112.5 kg; tomorrow there is a bet of $50.00 for a clean and jerk of 152.5 kg. T. Kono and C. Vinci challenged throwers O’ Brien and Neider who had already finished training and showered. But suddenly they began a bench press contest with them for a maximum. What is this?
“The Americans devoted little time to warm up before training. Running, jumping and gymnastic exercises were excluded… In my opinion they did warm up enough for the next exercise which was evidenced by the poor technique of the beginning sets.
The young, unassuming, Japanese athletes, in contrast to most of the Americans, warmed up carefully; and, they imitated the forthcoming movement before each attempt. They were subdued, focused, sensible on each task. They were psyched, angry at the enemy. It was a mix of muscular speed and effective work; this is what set the Japanese athletes apart. They would relax their muscles well between attempts, stretch or sit, and relax.”
Figure 5. World champion female lifter stretching after training. Charniga photo.
Kutsenko’s observations were an unflattering assessment of the Americans’ pre Olympic preparation, to say the least. Apparently Hoffman would have agreed at least in principle. Later in the previously mentioned editorial (Strength and Health 01:6:1961) he wrote, “The Russians have this willingness, this dedication, and that is why they are so good in so many sports. The Russian official who said, ‘We train seriously, while you prefer the easy way,’ was right”
Chuck Vinci was USA team’s only gold medalist at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was the last American male to win an Olympic gold medal in weightlifting.
At the 1961 World Weightlifting championships (later that same year of the report of the fantastic progress made by the two lifters March and Riecke) the USA won only three medals. Issac Berger won a gold, Kono a bronze, and Zirk a silver in the superheavyweight class. But Zirk’s total of 475 kg would have placed him second in the 90 kg class. The dearth of quality entries in the 90+ class made a medal possible as he was 50 kg behind the gold medal winner.
Despite the dubious showing of the USA, Hoffman noted on the bright side that Kono and March (unable to lift because of illness) entered and placed 1st and 2nd respectively in the Mr. Universe contest; which was part of the world weightlifting championships program in those days. Unlike the Americans for whom bodybuilding and weightlifting were becoming evermore fused together as one event in the pages of Strength and Health; none of the European lifters (Plukfelder, Toth, Palinski, for instance) took part in the physique event.
A number of misperceptions prevalent during the 60s regarding the training for weightlifting and weightlifting technique, which were and for the most part still are unfortunately ingrained in the American psyche, can be traced to this time:
1. the need to develop absolute strength with assistance exercises to improve results in the weightlifting exercises;
2. the need to develop muscle mass especially in the trapezius, quadriceps, and gluteus muscles to maximize the gains in strength;
3. the conceptual misunderstanding of the basic principles of the biomechanics of weightlifting technique; most misconceptions about the biomechanics of the weightlifting exercises come from video and still picture analysis;
4. the notion that increased strength and muscle mass would improve weightlifting results, even if the strength was developed from slow and or partial movements.
So, in the aftermath of the Rome Olympics, it was becoming apparent to Bob Hoffman that the weightlifters of the Soviet Union, the other east Europeans, and Japan were training harder and more diligently. These countries were developing their own training systems. These countries emphasized dynamic strength, coordination, flexibility, and overall dynamic conditioning in their systems while our lifters, fast becoming weightlifter/bodybuilder hybrids, were behind the times as far as developing modern training methods and appropriate conceptualizations of modern technique.
There was no American system.