Though This Be Madness, Yet There Is Method in It

TAGS: reagan, back to the future, apollo, summer, method, buechlein, training

The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything. Do not be afraid to make mistakes providing you do not make the same one twice.” —Theodore Roosevelt

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of my odyssey as a classroom teacher. Upon completion of my first year, the building principal summoned me to his office, and we reflected on what I needed to do to improve and become more effective as an instructor. Being a greenhorn, there were a variety of areas to focus on, but I left the meeting with one thought in particular that resonated in my mind. The administrator indicated that I developed above average lesson plans and learning strategies, but when I taught, I was merely going through the motions.

I had well devised and detailed plans that were often borrowed or modeled after similar designs constructed by educators who were revered as sages in the realm of lesson plan writing. However, I didn’t know how to effectively implement them. The principal stated that I was in essence teaching, but I hadn’t even come close to mastering the “art of teaching.” At the time, I was somewhat perplexed as to exactly what he was saying, but experience alone became my tutor. I discovered that I needed to “own” my own plans, and this in turn would enable me to truly believe in what I was doing. Someone once stated that it’s a long road to pedagogy, and I found this statement to be utterly true.

When I began lifting a quarter of a century ago, I made the same mistakes in the iron dungeons I frequented as I did when I initially taught in the classroom. I diligently sought out the lifting gurus and adhered to their programs that looked good on paper but somehow never delivered the results they promised or fulfilled the personal goals I was seeking. There was always a feeling I harbored deep inside that told me that much of what I viewed as true was nothing more than a gimmick, but I felt compelled or even obligated to stay loyal because I believed I had no other option. It’s now abundantly clear that much of what I read plastered throughout the mainstream weightlifting magazines was clearly written by charlatans that if brains were leather couldn’t saddle a gnat.

I eventually made a conscious effort to fly solo and detach myself from the teat of training. Now, I can only blame myself for my failures, not someone else or their strategies and ideas. Don’t get me wrong—many individuals need structure and an ever present hand to hold on to. The cookie cutter step-by-step templates serve them well. Not me. When I initially embarked on my own and began questioning the established dogma, I readily admit that I was confused as a goat on AstroTurf. Similar to my teaching experience, trial and error coupled with time has enabled me to believe in what I do in the gym. This is the key factor. Also, whether it be teaching or weightlifting, there must exist a method to the madness. My method of program design is twofold. I want to satisfy certain innate competitive goals, and I plan around pain. My approach is intuitive and instinctual. I simply go by what feels right.

I began seriously weightlifting in 1985 and can honestly say that I have never missed more than one week of training. This is something that I’m apparently proud of, but it has proven to be a double-edged sword. The positive aspect is the satisfaction of being able to do something I love for a quarter of a century. The negative aspect is the lingering injuries that have resulted in chronic pain. This plays a crucial role in how I plan a workout.

Selfishly, the workouts at my gym are solely based around me. What can I do on a given day? You may be saying that I’m an arrogant bastard, but I see it another way. It is analogous to the age old neighborhood dilemma involving a boy and his ball. The boy who brings the ball to the playground generally makes the rules. Others may not like the rules, but no ball, no game.  Actually, the guys who train with me will benefit from my programming because they won’t continuously abuse their bodies. I believe this will save them in the long run.

Let’s all amuse ourselves and flashback to 1985. Reagan is president, gas is $1.10 per gallon, Mike Tyson and Wrestlemania have their debuts, and Madonna and Wham! rule the music charts. The only thing that qualifies as more disastrous than the popular music of the time period was Coke’s decision to release New Coke and my weightlifting workouts. Talk about overtraining. I represented the moron population who believed if a little was OK, then more has to be better.

I lifted daily. No rest for the wicked! I recall one incident that exemplifies my mindset. I benched heavy in the morning, cranking out a minimum of 20 sets and then received a call that evening from my buddy asking if I wanted to go lift. I said sure and then inquired as to what he was doing. He responded that he was going to bench. I said that this was no problem and proceeded to hit it again. This scenario was more common than unusual.

Now, let’s pull a Michael J. Fox and venture “back to the future.” Today, I train two times per week and still make gains. One day is devoted to the squat and accessories while the other day is centered on bench pressing and supplemental exercises. My back is trained on both days.  I provide a genuine sample summer workout below.

Tuesday, squats


Bike, 20 minutes

Leg extensions, 100 total reps


The goal for the summer was to do 500 for 10 reps in the squat. I used a safety squat bar and squatted to parallel or slightly above. I didn’t use any lifting aids, including a belt.

Bar X  10

155 X 10

245 X 10

335 X 10

475 X 10

Unilateral movement

Single leg Bulgarian split squats with a 72-lb kettlebell in each hand

1 X 6

1 X 10


One–legged deadlifts with 100-lb kettlebells

1 X 10

1 X 10

Set the table

1 set of 10, 10, and 10

10 with right arm, 10 with left arm, and then 10 in the middle

Shrug holds

Used 100-lb kettlebells, did 10 shrugs, and then held for 20 seconds. Did 10 shrugs and held for 30 seconds and then did 10 shrugs and held for one minute.


Used the dart board for this. Around 60 reps total using a different grip or style for each set.

Saturday, bench


Bike, 20 minutes

Leg extensions, 100 reps

Foam press/manpon

Triples up to 405

Worked up to a single with 550

4-Board press

Did 6 reps per set. The first 3 reps were paused for a count and the last 3 were rapid fire.

315 X 6

405 X 6

495 X 6

585 X 6

Timed dumbbell presses off of a Swiss ball

80-lb dumbbells used throughout

First set was for 15 seconds

Second was for 30 seconds

Third was for 45 seconds

Final set was for a minute

Total reps = 75


One-arm rows using a 100-lb kettlebell. Follow the leader.

First set was 5 each arm

Second was 10 each arm

Third was 15 each arm

Final was 20 each arm

Total reps = 100


Used a deck of cards to determine the reps. The first 3 sets were all for 10 and the final set was for 6.

Order of exercises: Icarian rows, blast strap push-ups, and green band push-downs for triceps

Now that you’ve tasted a sample of my current lifting program, I will briefly explain why I have chosen what I do. I’m best known for my bench pressing prowess, so I will begin with a brief explanation of my current routine. I follow what I’ve dubbed the shotgun approach. I try to accomplish a variety of goals all in one workout instead of concentrating on a specific aspect such as power or speed. I design the workout so there is a power, strength, and hypertrophy segment all wrapped up into one.

Generally, lifters train the bench a minimum of two times per week focusing on speed one day and max effort the other or one light day and one heavy day. I discovered this approach to be counterproductive because I remained sore and never fully recuperated. Plus, I never saw any observable reason for having multiple days for the bench. As stated earlier, I have become comfortable in my own skin and feel confident in what I do even if it bucks the current trend or deviates from the conventional wisdom. Debates rage on endlessly concerning what plan is better. My point is that the best plan is the one that works best for you.

On bench day, I begin with a heavy exercise and work up to a max single. I consistently rotate the movement from week to week. My goal is simply to keep breaking personal records for each lift. As expected, this becomes quite difficult as more and more time goes by because eventually one’s potential is reached. The joy of lifting is the ongoing struggle to go beyond physical limitations. I’m never satisfied. Months may drift by and even years without a personal record being surpassed, but then out of the blue, a seemingly miniscule five-pound improvement is achieved, and this keeps the fire lit for another year. These gym records actually mean more to me than the American records I hold.

I have my favorite lifts for the bench, but I never do the same movement two weeks in a row. The initial movement usually is chosen from a core of four—presses off of foam, fat bar presses off a rolled up rug, 2-board presses, and reverse cambered bar presses. Notice that all these have a shortened range of motion. The only time I go to my chest is if my shoulders are feeling great. On really bad days, I will lessen the range of motion even more by adding an extra board or thicker foam pads. All of these movements can be enhanced by adding bands and chains for resistance. I especially like the chains because they aren’t as brutal on my joints.

The second exercise focuses on the triceps. It’s vital to have impressively strong triceps if a big bench press is your goal. I choose to perform anywhere from 5–10 reps per set for the second movement and consistently do 3–4 sets. The last movement I choose is repetition work. As the name implies, this portion of the workout emphasizes high repetitions that generally fall in the range of 80–100 total reps performed in four sets. Regardless of the lift being executed, all repetitions should be done in an explosive manner. The pace in my gym is fast and furious with minimal rest time between sets and exercises. Proper technique is required whether it be for a max single or the last rep of the day. There you have it.

I only bench once a week, but I get in heavy max singles, triceps strength enhancement, and plenty of reps at the end so I feel as though I did something. Actually, concluding with the high reps seems to aid in my recuperation because of the increased blood flow. I feel much better at the end of the pressing session than at the beginning. When the benching is over, I turn my attention to the muscles people often ignore because they can’t see them as well in a mirror.

The back muscles are extremely important for a prodigious press because they serve the dual purpose of maintaining stability throughout the lift while also providing the necessary foundation for proper set up. I like to do one rowing movement for the back and a second movement focusing on the upper back such as shrugs or some type of pull-up. Six to ten total sets are done for the back on this day.

My second lifting day is devoted to my lower extremities and revolves around the squat. After all, my goal is to not resemble an upside down bowling pin. My ability to squat heavy is controlled by a variety of nagging injuries including major back surgery and knee flare-ups. In recent years, I’ve repeatedly dealt with torn hamstrings probably due to overcompensating for the other problems. These problems have set me back, but they haven’t deterred me from trying. This summer marked a return to my favorite lift after a two-year hiatus. I did manage to maintain my core and leg strength by doing alternative exercises such as kettlebell swings and the like. I was also dealt a great hand by Mother Nature. I’ve been blessed genetically down below because I never seem to lose any real size or strength even with extended layoffs.

My current leg program always begins with the safety bar squat simply because it’s the only bar I can use. For my current training cycle, I set a personal summer goal of performing 10 parallel squats off a box with 500 lbs. These are all performed completely raw. By raw, I mean without the aid of any equipment including a lifting belt. Thus far, I’ve successfully completed my weekly goals, and I have two weeks left to finalize my quest. Typically, I warm up by doing 10 reps with the bar, progressively adding a plate to each side until I’m properly warmed up. The bar weighs 65 lbs, so a common progression would be the bar X 10, 155 X 10, 245 X 10, and then 335 X 10. I immediately jump up to my top set for the day such as 475 X 10. If I wouldn’t get all 10 reps, I would have to do it again the next week. The key is to start low enough and have enough sense to set a goal that is challenging yet practical.

My second exercise is often more squatting, but the repetitions are greatly increased. Sets may top out at 20 repetitions or more depending on the exercise chosen. Next, I incorporate a unilateral movement or one leg at a time to correct any imbalances. Choices here include Bulgarian split squats, lunges forward and backward, one-legged deadlifts, and step-ups. Generally, I conclude the workout with something for the posterior such as kettlebell swings, or if weather permits, various Strongman type exercises done outside.

Whether it’s people stopping me on the street or casually engaging in conversation at a restaurant or public gathering, the topic of conversation seems to always roam into the realm of weight lifting. Without fail, the individual will ask how much I bench. Upon answering, a couple of common themes arise. First, the person who initiates the conversation about lifting always has a close relative that no matter what you’ve accomplished, still manages to one up you. Secondly, it will be stated by the novice that you must lift every day to be that strong. This, of course, is solely based upon the shadowy relative that they know. When I respond that I only lift two times per week, jaws usually drop. Say it ain’t so! Well, it is.

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