Forward to the Past: the Best Strength Systems

2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the classic film Back to the Future. What makes this anniversary special is 2015 is the destination of one of Doc and Marty McFly’s time travels.

Sure, there are plenty of good reasons to travel from 1985 to 2015, but if Marty was looking for an edge to help him get strong, he should have stayed in 1985. The surprising truth is, the strength-training methods of the 1980s were decidedly superior to today’s methods.

back to the futureCompare the weightlifting and powerlifting records now and then. Even if the lifting sports are not your cup of tea, you should pay attention, as they are the canary in the mine of strength. Knowledge gained in weightlifting and powerlifting trickles down to every strength seeker, regardless of what he or she is training for.

Weightlifting: Then and Now

The graph below compares the world records in the total of the snatch and the clean and jerk in the days when Back to the Future hit the big screen and today. The black dotted line represents today’s records. The solid line—appropriately red, as five out of ten records belonged to the Soviets—indicates the records set between 1983 and 1988 (and one in 1991).

Weightlifting total world records history Why are there two sets of records? Because the weightlifting federation changed the weight classes twice since the early nineties to erase the legacy of the “juicers.” The sport’s establishment likes blaming the difference between the records of yesterday and today on drugs.

In the past, present, and the future many athletes did, do, and will use every edge available to them, legal or not. An unfortunate situation out of sync with the true Olympic spirit, but a fact. But just because the anti-doping authorities have learned to catch users of the drugs of the last century, it does not mean they catch all the tricks of this century. The cheaters and the testers are in constant arms race to beat each other. In summary, this history revision is nothing but sour grapes.

But this blog is not about sports ethics. It is about superior training. And the numbers state that the Soviet weightlifting system still rules. Bob Hoffman of York Barbell, the sponsor and promoter of American weightlifting, put it simply: “If you want to beat the Russians, you must train like the Russians.”

You might ask: why don’t the Russians use the system that brought glory to their mentors to beat or at least match their records? They ought to. Not long before their deaths, both Arkady Vorobyev and Vasily Alexeev, legendary champions and coaches, deeply disappointed in the state of weightlifting today, called for bringing back the System.

Powerlifting: Then and Now

Because there is a multitude of federations with widely inconsistent rules, a comparison is hard to make. In the squat and the bench press, where supportive equipment adds hundreds of pounds to one’s lift, it is impossible. In the deadlift, it is doable.

Take a look at the All Time Historic Deadlift Record table compiled from all federations. Some of the recent record pulls were done with advantages not available to lifters in the 1980s: 48-hour weigh-ins, whippier longer bars, better supportive equipment, deadlift-only meets. Even still, in six out of the twelve weight classes the records have not budged since the 1980s and the 1990s. There can be no argument—at least for the lighter lifters the methods have not improved since Marty McFly got into Doc’s time machine.

Deadlift world records

Most of the 1980s records were set using another timeless training system, this time American. It was born in the seventies through experimentation of powerlifting pioneers, perfected in the eighties by the next generation of champions, and later refined and systematized by Marty Gallagher who had been there since the beginning. Marty McFly should have just picked up the phone and called his namesake.

Bigger guys’ pulls have gone up—but not because of a better training system. Some of the gains are due to the factors mentioned above. Some can be attributed to radical technique innovations by Bolton, Konstantinov, and Magnusson. And as for Yuri Fedorenko, he is a student of Boris Sheyko who adapted the Soviet Olympic weightlifting methodology to powerlifting.

Back to the Future

Ironic as it may be, I will wrap up this piece extolling the virtues of the Soviet training system with a quote from uncompromising anti-communist William F. Buckley, Jr.: “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop…”

If you choose to be strong, go forward to the past.

back to the future car console

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

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