Evolution of Strength Training – A Personal Perspective Over Fifty Years (Part One)

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I thought it would interesting to share with you a personal approach to the evolution of strength training as I have seen it using my experiences as an athlete and coach who has been involved in strength training for 50 years. When I began weight training in 1963, it was not commonly accepted as a method of training, in fact weight training was discouraged. There were concerns that you would become “muscle bound,” that it would slow you down, or it would interfere with you coordination. It was considered acceptable to do hard manual labor to develop muscle, but weight training was frowned upon. With all these thoughts in mind we had a guest speaker come to my high school to speak to all the athletes. The speaker was Lynn Hoyem, a backup center for the Dallas Cowboys, who spoke to us about the benefits of weight training. He had gained 50 pounds of lean mass through weight training. He gave us advice as to how to start a program, explained some of the basic physiology of muscle growth and strength gain. He offered tips on how to gain weight, as most of us were football players who were trying to gain weight. It was a very impressive presentation that was very different from we were being told at the time. I knew that if I were going to have any chance of playing college football, my sport of choice at the time, I would have to get stronger and bigger.

At that time there was not very much information on weight training. Before I started on a program I felt I needed to find out more information, because my coaches were wary of weight training. My best friend and I went to the local university library and checked out every book they had on weight training. The two books that I found most helpful were “Weight Training In Athletics And Physical Education” by Gene Hooks, who was the baseball coach at Wake Forest University and “Better Athletes Through Weight Training” by Bob Hoffman, who was the owner of York Barbell Company and a pioneer in weight training. The books were very good and gave us the information we needed as to selection of exercises, set, reps, and overall construction of weight training program as well as reinforcing that weight training would help us be better athletes. In addition Strength and Health magazine, published by Bob Hoffman, proved to be a good source, because it contained high-level information on all aspects of strength training, including tips on good nutrition. (In fact in looking back through my files while doing research for this article I found articles from Strength & Health on periodization which people would consider cutting edge today) The information was very good; in fact it was cutting edge, with the latest training ideas from the eastern bloc countries and features on top athletes who made use of weight training in their training programs. It was very informative and motivational, because they were working hard to break down the myths surrounding weight training.

After gathering as much information as I could, building some basic equipment and purchasing a barbell set my best friend and I started on a program. When I began I weighed about 163 pounds. I was so tight I could not touch my toes. I could barely do a pull-up and could only do about 20 pushups, not very good by any standard of measurement. Still people were cautioning me that weight training would make me tight and slow. After four months of a program I had gained 15 pounds. I could touch my toes; in fact I could put my palms flat on the ground. I now could do ten pull-ups and fifty pushups and was noticeably faster. I could also now also put my hand over the rim in basketball, where before I had been barely able to touch the rim. Naturally I was questioning the myths. In fact everything that the coaches and a lot of experts was saying was just the opposite of what had happened. I gained muscle, got more explosive, more flexible and faster. I realized that I was onto something and I needed to find out more. Thus began a magical mystery tour of trying out new training methods and ideas, which continues today.

Following conventional wisdom of the time there was no thought of weight training in season. Since I participated in three sports the only time available to lift was after track ended in the spring until the start of football practice in September. The next off-season, which was before my freshman year in college, I was able to gain another twenty pounds and increase my explosiveness. I realize now in retrospect that some of this was normal growth and development coupled with the hard work. Directed work during a growth spurt when the body is secreting anabolic hormones like crazy is an optimum time to make gains. This is a clear message to all those high school age athletes who are seeking the magic bullet of supplementation. A good sound diet coupled with a well-designed training program during a growth spurt will yield spectacular results.

After my freshman football season at Fresno State College there was no formal off-season program. We were instructed to be in shape for spring practice and sent on our way. Essentially we were on our own. We had one of the first Universal Gym multi station selectorized weight machines and a few free weights. Naturally since the machine was convenient and easy that is what I used. I found immediately that my “strength” increased rapidly. In fact I remember remarking to a friend that I can lift a lot more because I do not have to balance and control the weight. I quickly gained more muscle bulk, but now instead of feeling more explosive I felt bulky and slower, but I thought that was ok because everyone else was doing it. The first day of spring practice I pulled a hamstring, my first experience with anything like that. In retrospect it had a lot to do with the type of lifting I was doing, of course I did not relate the two at the time.

In setting out to design my program in preparation for my sophomore year I realized that I must get off the machines and do more work with free weights if I was going to develop the strength necessary to be a better football player. I had heard of a man named Alvin Roy who originally had worked with a high school in Louisiana and then with the LSU football program when they had won the national championship in 1958. He had worked with Billy Cannon, the Heisman trophy winner and Jim Taylor who went on to star with the Green Bay Packers, both of whom were fast, explosive and agile. The things that I read that he was doing made a lot of sense. Through my high school football coach I found out that he was now with the San Diego Chargers, as their strength coach. As far as I know he was the first in professional football. He had a book on their training program, World Champion San Diego Chargers Strength Program- In and Out of Season; it was co-authored by Sid Gilman the head coach. The book had all the details of their program. There was a big emphasis on Functional Isometric Contractions. Looking at today I find it quite interesting that they continued their program in-season, which was unheard of at the time. I followed the programs down to the letter. It was a varied program that involved squatting, Olympic lifting movements, as well as functional isometric contractions. I saw much improved results in terms of speed and explosiveness. The drawback was that I struggled to gain weight on the Charger program. Looking back it was just too much work for my maturity level. Also it later came out the players on the Chargers player’s had free access to anabolic steroid’s, which greatly enhanced their work capacity. There was no rest or recovery days built into the program which at the time I thought was ok, but I now realize was a big mistake, because I was always sore. The lesson to be learned here is that it is not advisable to blindly copy someone else’s program unless you know all the factors and ingredients of the program.

Through articles in Strength and Health and watching the track team at Fresno State weight train I quickly realized that the sport of track & field was very advanced in the use of weight training. Herb Elliot, who dominated the mile up through the Rome Olympics, and his coach Percy Cerruty made extensive use of strength training. Perry O’Brien, the first man to throw sixty feet in the shot put was an avid weight trainer. He was fast enough to lead off a sprint relay, so it obviously did slow him down! Dallas Long, the first man to throw over sixty five feet and Randy Matson, the first man to throw over seventy feet were all avid weight trainers. Lynn Davies, the 1964 Olympic Long Jump champion, was able to significantly improve his speed. Russ Hodge, who broke the world record in the decathlon in the early sixties, made extensive use of weight training in his program. Chuck Coker, the coach at Occidental College in Los Angeles was a pioneer in the implementation of weight training in Track & Field. In college it was the track team, especially the field event people under the direction of Coach Red Estes who extensively used strength training, not the football team. Larry Alexander was a high jumper on the track team had thoroughly studied the Russian high jump training methods used by Valeri Brummel, who was the world record holder at the time. Larry was kind enough to share his ideas with me. Brummel’s program made extensive use of a variety of strength training exercises and jumping exercises that we would later call plyometrics. Larry also introduced me Track Technique magazine, a magazine devoted to presenting the latest training methods in track & field. These articles laid out a systematic approach as well as reasons for the drills and exercises. The information published in the early to mid sixties is as timely today as it was then. It is no wonder that I found that when I worked out with the track athletes I got my best results from my strength-training program. The basic problem with all the programs that I used throughout college was that there was never any recovery. We went heavy on legs as often as three times a week, in addition to running every day, which never allowed our legs to recover. I thought having a sore back and dead legs were just a normal part of the training. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, we did not try to lift in season or during spring practice, which actually served as a break. The problem with no workouts in season is that every off-season was that I essentially starting over again each off-season. I questioned this because I saw the track athletes lifting throughout their season with no ill effects. In fact the shot putter’s would often lift the day of the meet. Little did I realize that this was a portent of things to come later.

Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta

Director at Gambetta Sports Training Systems
Vern is the Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. He has been the a conditioning coach for several MLS teams as well as the conditioning consultant to the US Men's World Cup Soccer team. Vern is the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. He has lectured and conducted clinics in Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe and has authored six books and over one hundred articles related to coaching and sport performance in a variety of sports. He has a BA in teaching with a coaching minor and an MA in Education with an emphasis in physical education from Stanford University.
Vern Gambetta

@coachgambetta

Athletic Development Coach & Consultant. Founder of GAIN Network. Proud dad. Love to read everything.
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