Old School Weight Lifting: How The Masters Built Their Strength

Old school weight lifting isn't the wimpy stuff you see most people in the gym doing these days. Curls and tiny lifts between energy drinks, with chrome plated machines reflecting their scrawny bodies... Afraid of putting any real meat on their bones!

Weight training is one of the best methods of strength training! If you want to start weight training safely and effectively, with the best info, diet, and routines, check out the 5 Day Beginner Weight Training Course!

Old school is hard. It takes real work, real sweat, and time. Give it your all and practice alongside the spirits of the masters.

The old-timers, warriors, and lumberjacks from days of yore didn't get strong in a few weeks or months. They got strong over a lifetime of hard work.

Masters like Joe Greenstein, John Grimek, Steve Stanko, Alexander Zass, Arthor Saxon, and John Davis dedicated their lives to becoming stronger. Without all the fancy technology and gadgets people have today.

The cover of an old school weight lifting manual by Alexander Zass, a.k.a. The Great Samson.
The manual on the right was published in the early 1920's by 'The Great Samson'.1

You might want to cultivate the same strength that made these men great. And you can, without quitting it all and going to log trees in Alaska. Because here's how they got strong...

Dinosaur Training

Brooks D. Kubik is a modern lifter who has spent his life cultivating old school weight lifting techniques. Big lifts like the standing press, squat, deadlift, bench press, and weighted chin-up are his bread and butter, along with grip work, barrel and sandbag lifting, and pretty much picking up anything heavy that can’t move away fast enough.

He calls his approach to old school weight lifting 'Dinosaur Training'. This is because, in his mind, real strength training is only done by old farts who work hard to get as big as dinosaurs.

And they're a relic from an age long past, when working hard was the norm. Not the exception.

Here are the essentials he lays out for Dinosaur Training:

Big Lifts

Like I say elsewhere on this site, you don't build great strength with bicep curls! Old school weight lifting was standing presses, deadlifts, squats, bench presses, weighted chin-ups and pull-ups, and farmer's walks.2

These lifts are really difficult. Which is why most people don't do them!

But big lifts give you tremendous strength and muscle gains, which is why they were essential for old school weight lifting. Lift big chunks of metal.

And no machines! Barbells, dumbbells, or other big heavy things; no shiny nautilus machines, which the old-timers would regard as merely expensive paperweights.

Hard Work

If you're not exhausted and broken when you leave the gym, something is wrong. You should be working hard if you want to make progress!3

Kubik gives examples of hard work, but basically it all comes down to you. Working hard when you're a beginner is different than when you've been training for a while.

But if you what to keep building muscle, keep working hard!

Thick Bars and Grip Work

Some gym-flies have big pecs, biceps, and other beauty muscles. But you can tell someone who does old school weight lifting by their crushing grip.4

Working your forearms and hands is difficult. It uses a lot of tendon strength, which builds slowly, and it's not as easy or obvious to show off a great grip.

But a strong grip is useful. Those who practice old school weight lifting are obsessed with the pragmatism - building strength that is actually useful. So you don't end up like those pitiful pretty people who can't even open a pickle jar.

Logs, Barrels, and Sandbags

Anybody can lift barbells and dumbbells. But old school weight lifting with odd heavy objects builds unique and powerful connected body strength.

Once you've wrestled a sandbag up to your shoulders, barbells really aren't that intimidating. And lifting heavy things that are just lying around (including anvils, cars, or whatever you have handy) is one of the staples of old school weight lifting.5

KISS and Time

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Don't get into overly perfect weight training programs, or special timings, or secret techniques. The basics stay the same - keep your workouts simple too.

And building muscle takes time. If you see someone who's horrendously muscular, they didn't just get that way in a few weeks. Starting weight lifting now is important, so you can start building your muscle.

It takes years and years to get really strong. Put in the time, work hard, and you'll build actual strength.

Joseph L. Greenstein: The Mighty Atom, World's Strongest Man

A photo of Joe Greenstein bending iron bars with his hands. Photo was taken from The Spiritual Journey of Joseph L. Greenstein, page 106.

Greenstein (born with the name of Yosselle) was one of the strongmen from the turn of the 19th century. And, unfortunately, he's been largely forgotten.

This short Jew, who stood 5 feet, 4 and a half inches tall and immigrated to the U.S. with virtually nothing, made himself into one of the strongest men to ever walk the earth.6 He was truly amazing. Here are a few of the techniques that he used to get strong:

Extreme Gradual Progression

Greenstein began his training as a weak, asthmatic kid who could barely walk without getting fatigued. But he became strong over many, many years of weight training for beginners, gradually increasing the weight he worked with, and building muscle and connective tissue - for his whole life.

Kubik makes reference to this as well. When you see someone who's incredibly strong, they might have great genetics - but they also have years and years of hard training that you don't. Yet. Hard work created real results.

Lifting Buckets and Breathing

The first exercise Greenstein was given as a child by his mentor, Volanko, was very simple. Take a bucket in each hand, each filled with a little gravel, and (holding them out to the sides of your body) lift them overhead.7

And then down. And then up. Greenstein did this every day, in the morning, for several months, putting an extra handful of gravel in the buckets each day.

This lifting, combined with deep breathing to accompany the bucket lifting, was how Greenstein began cultivating strength. If you're really charged, try it (maybe for just 30 days).

Hard Manual Labor

Greenstein led a very physically hard life. While he developed his own old school weight lifting and strength training methods, he also worked hard - at docks, in factories carrying bags of flour and other goods, and doing all manner of odd jobs.

Now, getting a hard manual labor job isn't for everybody. But old school weight lifting was never just lifting - it complemented the already-grueling regime that these men had in their daily lives.

Eat Healthy

For Greenstein, healthy eating was vitally important. And he had a few crazy ideas about eating, but they served him well.

Greenstein was a vegetarian long before that was popular.8 He practiced fasting on one day each week (and sometimes more). And he always ate fresh produce when he could - nothing canned, and no over-milled white flour.

As his mentor Volanko told him when he was a kid…

The wrestler [Volanko] produced his pocket watch and chain… "Inside your body is a machine a million times more fine and more important. What if I was to grind a handful of dirt into this timepiece?" He frowned. "Disgusting, no? Terrible. Like this watch, you don't put in your body what is unclean or bad for it."9

Live Your Life

The cover of The Spiritual Journey of Joseph L. Greenstein, showing Greenstein towards the end of his life.

Greenstein didn't go to the gym every day. He traveled and learned and trained with many people - Greco-Roman wrestlers in European circuses, a jujutsu master in Japan in the early 1900s, and he really came in to his strength when he began special grip and hair strength training (yes, hair) for strongman acts.

He lived a physically difficult life, but he lived it fully. He wasn't a gym rat - far from it!

I believe that his strength came in large part from the many and varied physical activities he pursued all his life. And his training was always in addition to supporting his wife and, for much of his life, a constantly increasing number of kids.

If you're more interested in him I suggest you read The Spiritual Journey of Joseph L. Greenstein: The Might Atom: World's Strongest Man. It's inspiring, and can also teach you a lot about what he did to get strong.

Oh, and be sure to sign up for the e-zine Starting Strong to get monthly strength training, exercise, and diet tips e-mailed to you - and access to the free e-book Train Smart, Eat Smart: Exercise Nutrition Hacks!

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Old School Weight Lifting: How The Masters Built Their Strength

1. Zass, Alexander. Samson's System And Methods: Explanatory and Instructional - The Great Samson (Alexander Zass) - The World's Strongest Living Man. London, England. 1924.
2. Kubik, Brooks D. 1998. Dinosaur Training: Lost Secrets of Strength and Development. Louisville, KY: Brooks D. Kubik. Pp. 44.
3. Ibid. Pp. 35.
4. Ibid. Pp. 89, 93.
5. Ibid. Pp. 112.
6. Spielman, Ed. 1998. The Spiritual Journey of Joseph L. Greenstein: The Might Atom: World's Strongest Man. Cobb, Calif: First Glance Books. Pp. xii.
7. Ibid. Pp. 9.
8. Ibid. Pp. 154.
9. Ibid. Pp. 8.

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