The Current State of Affairs, by Dr. Ken Leistner

Stuart’s note: This article by Dr. Ken Leistner was his first for HARDGAINER magazine, in the third issue. Then, in the fourth issue, he had his first “Asking Dr. Ken” column, which ran for 38 consecutive installments. He also provided many other articles for HARDGAINER. The late Dr. Ken Leistner was one of the most experienced and knowledgeable coaches in Iron Game history, and one of the most widely published writers in the field. 

[In 1965], strength training was simple. It wasn’t necessary to inspect the multitude of gyms and health clubs to see which offered the best combination of equipment, hours and atmosphere. One did not have to pore over the latest muscle magazines and training booklets sold by the various physique and powerlifting stars, so that a productive program would be formulated. The limitations imposed by the relative lack of equipment, paucity of commercial opportunity in the weight-training field, and scarcity of clubs catering exclusively to the pursuit of increased muscular size and strength, limited one’s options, and made training brutally hard, but brutally simple.

My introduction to strength training came from a cousin who was an outstanding collegiate basketball player. We trained in his bedroom with a 200-pound combination barbell/dumbbell set, doing a limited number of movements. When the late Joe Don Loomey, former National Football League player, wrote my first “organized” training program, it reflected the fact that the University of Cincinnati had only a bench, a squat rack, an old-fashioned wall pulley for swimmers’ movements, and weights. The programs I used while training in my garage, or in the dirty, unheated loft above my father’s welding shop, were all limited by the fact that I had no more than a power/squat rack, a bench, and strategically placed pipes that could be used for chins and dips. On occasion, I had access to a lat machine made from an old 55-gallon drum strung over the rafters.

I didn’t have to worry about what had to be done, only how to do it. Lower-body work was limited to squats and deadlifts. Sometimes I squatted for high reps in the twenty to fifty range, other times it was fives and threes. I deadlifted for fives, tens, or thirties, and for long periods of time did them only in a stiff-legged manner while standing on an elevated block or stack of 45-pound plates. I would occasionally carry dumbbells up and down a long flight of metal stairs that led to the loft. My upper-body work never included anything more exotic than overhead presses, bench presses, dips, rows, chins, an occasional pulldown when I had the metal barrel rigged up, shrugs, and a rarely done barbell curl.

My progress was slow but steady, with a one-year burst following my freshman football season at the University of Cincinnati. It was at that point my motivation was its highest, with the realization that I simply had to get bigger and stronger if I intended to remain in school and play football. 

Without the esoteric, designer food supplements, my diet had to provide all the basic nutrients, and I did not make the assumption that there were any other choices. Lots of lean meat, potatoes, five to eight quarts of milk per day, vegetables, fruit, peanut butter, and bread provided my basic fare. This was supplemented by a drug-store-bought multivitamin tablet, and a blended drink consisting of milk, non-fat milk powder, eggs, bananas, and chocolate powder for flavor. Simply put, I ate large quantities of good quality foods, with little junk. A typical “snack” at the local diner consisted of four hamburgers, two or three orders of eggs, potatoes, and two or three shakes. 

In conjunction with my very intensive workouts, and at least two bouts of running each week, all year long, even in addition to regular football practice and/or pre-season training, there was boxing and judo. Thus, my enormous caloric intake was in part offset by a tremendous physical expenditure. Yet, because I was serious about gaining muscular bodyweight, I went from a muscular 150 pounds in January of 1965, to a more muscular 188 pounds by that June. When I reported in September, I was at the 195 mark and doing reps in the bench press with 320.

While training was simple back then, it was by no means easy. Despite thinking about doing multiple sets and training three to five times a week, the brutality of each workout allowed but two weekly workouts and they were very brief. After doing 20-rep squats and stiff-legged deadlifts for 15 to 30 reps, it was often necessary to lie on the floor for five to ten minutes before continuing. Presses, rows, dips and shrugs would finish me, and most of the time I still had to do sprints or agility work. One, and at the most, two work sets of any exercise left me quaking, and after doing six or seven total movements, the training day was more than over. Fortunately, I most often avoided overtraining because I didn’t have the energy to do more. 

When I “topped out” at 230 pounds bodyweight, I realized I wasn’t realistically going to go much further, but I had learned that one can get a heck of a lot bigger and very much stronger, doing it the hard, simple, old-fashioned way. And after decades of observation and learning since then, it’s still the best way to go.

Now, gyms and health clubs abound, and they all feel they must offer the latest in equipment and atmosphere. With burgeoning commercial opportunities, all of the stars are trying to say something different so that they can make a niche for themselves in the marketplace. 

The bottom line? Variety is important, and a training atmosphere that encourages hard work is terrific, but, and this is something most people don’t want to hear, one must build a program around the basic, “uncomfortable” movements such as full squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, dips, bench presses, shrugs, and curls if it’s expected to reach whatever the individual’s muscular/strength potential might be. It may not be fair, and it certainly isn’t easy, but that’s how it is!

To locate all the articles that Dr. Ken Leistner contributed to HARDGAINER, please see the contents of each issue, here.