The Strength Lessons I Learned from an Old-Timer

May 4, 2004 08:45 AM

On my recent trip to the Carolinas I had a chance to talk to Jimmy, an old family friend. Jimmy has known me since I was a newborn, and in the 30 years I've known him to be a well-read man and all-around lover of life. Only on this recent visit did I learn he was also a self-taught strongman in his day.

After catching up on jobs, family, and so forth, I mentioned some of the Party training I've been doing. Jimmy got a special gleam in his eye and asked specific questions about standing presses and deadlifts. Then he told me about his old training days on the farm, illustrating his knowledge of several Party principles.

First, Jimmy trained for purely functional reasons. "I didn't have any use for Charles Atlas or any of those guys," Jimmy said. "Who cares if you're 98 pounds? It's not like I was going to oil up and show off big chest muscles under my overalls. I needed to change tractor tires and throw bales of hay around."

The only specific equipment he employed was an old barbell, 200 lbs. in weight plates, and lots of canvas bags to hold sand. "All the guys at school, the football players especially, said you have to do three or four sets of ten reps to get strong. But all that did was make me sore, if I was using any kind of real weight." By no means a blind follower, Jimmy changed his training. "What you do is use a weight you can lift four or five times, and only lift it twice. Then put it down. If you're putting up a weight until you shake under it, you're not getting stronger, you're just getting sore. Those football players walked around flexing their arms for the girls, but they just sort of stared at me when I pushed up 150 pounds with one hand. They said it had to be a trick."

I confess I gave him a stare, too. He was talking about cleaning and pressing 150 lbs. with one arm! This is a man who stands 5'5" or so with an average frame. I asked why he focused on the one-armed press. "I never saw the point in lying on my back and pushing the weight up," he said. "I usually worked on my feet, so it made sense to lift standing on the ground."

Other lifts he favored? -One-armed and suitcase deadlifts, one-armed rows, jerks, and especially cleans-cleaning the barbell, cleaning bales of hay with one or two hands, cleaning large bags of sand. "Anything you use your whole body for, that's a good lift to practice," the wise old-timer reminded me. "Most people who work with their hands need to pick up heavy things off the ground without putting their back out. So, that's what I practiced, and I got good at it."

But Jimmy's favorite lift to practice is one I will surely add to my next outdoor ballistic session: the clean and throw. "That one is fun and makes you strong all over," he said. "Pick up something heavy and throw it. I used to tease the neighbor boy because he never really got the hang of it, but I got to where I threw 200 pound bags about eight feet."


Go outside and away from valued property. Clean a KB or a sandbag to your shoulder. Dip the knees, tense your abs and butt, and throw for distance with your lifting arm. Think of a jerk, but direct your force at an upward angle and let it rip. Jimmy preferred most of his lifting one-handed, and that is how he practiced this movement? with a few exceptions.

Jimmy's wife hovered near us during this conversation, ready to call him out if he exaggerated his exploits. But she confirmed all his claims and added, "One time a fat hog got out of the pen at my daddy's house? Jimmy chased him for about ten minutes, then wrapped his arms around the hog's belly and tossed him over the fence and back into his pen." For those of us unfamiliar with porcine statistics, a "fat" hog weighs in the neighborhood of 250 lbs. and the fence in question would have been about four feet high.

  • Lift every day without exception. Starting the day with a few sets of heavy lifts gets the blood pumping.
  • Doubles and triples are the norm. Never lift to failure. Do 3-4 sets max for functional strength with minimal soreness and muscle fatigue.
  • Compound movements are best; standing lifts from the ground are the most practical.
  • 75% of his training was ballistic in nature.
  • Have fun. Throw stuff. (Farm animals are not recommended. Most of them do not like being lifted, and many kick, bite, or smell.)
These are some powerful lessons from a self-taught strongman!