NATURALSTRENGTH.com – Old School Weight Training Strength Strongman Power Vintage Bodybuilding: More From Dr. Ken Leistner

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When I joined Bruno’s Health Club in the Summer of 1983, my primary goal was to be able to get stronger in the three powerlifts.  Even though it would still be a couple years before I would make it to the platform, I tried to find as much information as I could on how to improve my lifting.  There was a lot of motivation around because not only was Bruno’s a gym that was devoted to serious lifting, powerlifting was still being featured on television from time to time, and of course Muscular Development magazine offered numerous articles about the sport of super-strength.

     By far the most important event insofar as popularizing the sport, was the introduction of Powerlifting USA magazine.  Even though it was only available by subscription, every once in a while one of the lifters at the gym would bring in a copy.  Sometimes Larry would post a photo-copy of the “Workout of the Month,” on the wall outside his office.  As I mentioned before, powerlifting was still seen on television, so there were a number of lifters who were quite popular at the time.  When I began to subscribe to PL/USA in 1986, I gained a new appreciation of the magazine, and its contents.  

     One of the most intriguing features was “More From Ken Leistner,” Dr. Ken’s monthly column.  These articles were not simply sets and reps, or how to improve your Bench Press.  Dr. Ken offered much more than just a workout.  Each month he provided the readers with his opinions on the sport, the people who ran the sport, and good, sound advice on how to become the best you can be.  The fact that he “pulled no punches” made his column even more enjoyable to read.  There is something about a person who writes from the heart that is just inherently appealing, especially to those who like to lift.  

     Naturally, when someone is outspoken and honest, he/she will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers along the way.  There were- and still are- a lot of big egos in the sport of powerlifting.  But I always found it refreshing to read the words of someone who told it like it is.

     Even though I began subscribing to PL/USA in 1986, over the years I have purchased back issues for the purpose of gaining access to the great articles of the past.  And let me tell you, there was some good stuff from the early 1980s.  I have already written about the Finnish Deadlift Routine, and I will have more to say about it in a future article.  But now I want to discuss Dr. Ken’s column from the November 1982 issue.   

     In this particular column, he addresses the topic of frequency of training.  Forty plus years ago, the question of how many days per week to train was brought to the attention of readers who were interested in getting stronger.  Fast forward to 2024, and the question of how often to lift is still paramount in the minds of those who “hoist the steel.”  It is especially important for natural lifters.

     It’s not hard to imagine the reaction of lifters back then when they were being advised that they can get stronger by training two, or at most, three days per week.  Even today, it is difficult to convince young trainees that two or three workouts per week is all you need.  In fact, more than that would constitute overtraining and leave you vulnerable to injury and burnout.  Split routines, “bodypart training,” and other ridiculous ideas are the norm today, as they were back in the 1980s.  And with the dissemination of bogus training advice being made worse through social media, things don’t look promising.  

     Interestingly, Dr. Ken mentions the fact that most people spend too much time in the gym.  He even speaks of those who spend the majority of their time in the gym socializing, and just “hanging out,” instead of training hard.  Substitute “texting” for “hanging out,” and you get a picture of the typical commercial gym today.

     “Two days a week gives you as much, if not more, latitude than training three days per week.”  At first, it may seem like a strange statement but if you think about it, it makes complete sense.  By only allowing yourself two days to train, you have no choice but to choose your exercises with care.  In other words, you cut out the movements that are excessive, “trim the fat” so to speak.  This gives you more time to devote to the big, basic movements.  

    For the competitive powerlifter, he alludes to the fact that if you train the three lifts on the same day, you will be able to simulate what you will be doing the day of a contest.  For many years, while preparing for a contest, I would Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift on the same day.  Usually on Sundays.  Because these movements are, obviously, very demanding, I didn’t do any “assistance” movements on the same day as the “Big Three.”  This prevented me from overtraining.  It also had another beneficial effect.  On contest day, I was accustomed to doing Squats, Bench Presses and Deadlifts on the same day.  I was never fatigued because my body was used to the physical demand required from doing all three lifts on the same day.  To put it in simple terms, train the way you compete.  If you’re only accustomed to doing only deadlifts by themselves during your workouts, then you will probably not lift as much at the contest when you have to “on” for three separate lifts.  “If training is not a whole lot different than a meet, in terms of gearing up physically for two or three major lifts in the same session, you won’t be on strange ground when it’s time to throw down the gauntlet.”  Or to put it more succinctly, “expect no miracle at meet time.”

     This particular article by Dr. Ken also delves into the area of recuperative abilities insofar as it relates to training. Although this information was originally intended for powerlifters in the early 1980s, the basic premise is valuable today for everyone who lifts weights.  This means that you must know what works for you and, more importantly, what does not.  Do not blindly follow some routine posted by a well known lifter or athlete.  As I mentioned before, the “Workout of the Month” was a popular feature, but even back then, I was careful to make sure that any workout that I followed would have to be adapted to suit my own physical ( and psychological ) limitations.  Back in the mid 1980s, a very well-known lifter was idolized and praised to no end. His every workout was broken down, and examined to no end.  God knows how many lifters tried to emulate him, with little or no success.  Since the “champion” in question lived at home with his parents, did not work and was on every PED from A to Z, it’s not difficult to understand why so few aspiring lifters benefitted from his “expertise.”

     Drug-free lifters of any age need to be careful with their choice of assistance exercises.  Again, this comes down to what works for you.  I’ve mentioned in previous articles that one of my all-time favorite movements is the Good Morning exercise.  There are many people for whom this is not a good movement.  But I’ve never had a problem with them.  On the other hand, the Hammer Deadlift machine, a fantastic machine, is most definitely NOT for me.  Each time I’ve tried using it, I wound up wrenching my back.  Yet, countless others have used it without issue.  Don’t try to figure out why, just do what works for you.

     As I write these words, it’s just over five years since Dr. Ken’s untimely passing.  I don’t think it’s possible to accurately discuss just how many people benefitted from his wisdom, expertise, and generosity.  I was fortunate enough to train at Iron Island Gym shortly after it opened in 1992.  Every time I see my vintage “Iron Island” 45 Lb plates, or my stack of Steel Tip Magazines, or my vintage Hardgainers that he generously gave me, I am reminded of a man for whom I had a great deal of respect and admiration.  And I’m proud to say that I have not wavered in that opinion over the years, and never will.  

Continued Rest in Peace Dr. Ken.

Editor’s Note: Great article Jim. I started reading “More From Dr. Ken Leistner” in the early 80’s too when I was still powerlifting and coaching it. I would make a copy and staple-it on the gym bulletin board for the lifters to read. I loved that column and it was the main reason I subscribed to PL USA. I have a pair of those same plates from Dr Ken too. Drew Israel brought them down when he visited me in the mid 90’s and wrote about it in one of his HG articles.

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