The Ins And Outs Of 19th Century Alpha Strength Training

cageToday I am going to define for you what strength training is at 19th Century Alpha. I will cover and discuss what I do as well as what I don’t do and why, without going all science on you. I am going to share with you how, when, and why I got started strength training. I will also give you the nutshell version of the journey that has spun me and several close friends, full circle many times, on the road to understanding the truth.

As far back as my memories will take me, I have always been interested in strength and building muscle. Who remembers Dr. Bruce Banner? How about the Incredible Hulk? I sure do. I don’t even know for sure if I thought the hulk was a real guy. I just know I wanted to be crazy strong like he was. We are talking about the original tv series here with Lou Ferrigno starring as the hulk. The digital hulk didn’t come on the scene until decades later. We all know who Hulk Hogan is. He’s still around today. Those guys are two examples of big muscular dudes from my childhood that I think of first. Now don’t get all bunched up at me. I know darn good and well that both of these guys were juiced to the gills (on lots of steroids). I certainly didn’t realize it back then, nor did I care. What I cared about was figuring out how to build myself into a human muscle monster like those guys. Back then I automatically associated being huge with being strong. Today I know and understand the difference. To summarize this best, I would have to say that from a very young age I built an image in my head that a man should be big and strong and I have never veered from that vision.

When my brothers and I were kids we all played and competed in different sports. Even then I knew that lifting weights was in my future, but I remember thinking it was for older kids. Finally, as a sophomore in high school, my day had arrived. It was time for me to find my inner hugeness and I was ready to make it happen. Unfortunately my weight training teacher was not a strength coach at all. He was a teacher that got roped in to teaching a weight training class. There was no coaching at all. I remember hearing him tell the class that we couldn’t do upper body everyday. That is the only thing I recall him ever saying. I must admit, that was great advice. I’m sure he said all kinds of stuff, but none of it stuck. We were basically on our own. I remember following some silly pyramid protocol on the wall and that’s about it. I lifted all through high school with little to no knowledge of what or why I did anything. I just did it. It’s a wonder I still have functional joints at all. I’ll bet you I didn’t put on 10 pounds of muscle in those three years combined. I know that at 5’5″ tall, I graduated from high school at a massive 115 pounds. Please, please save the applause.

After high school I took a brief hiatus from lifting due to no money and no access to a gym. At that time I also knew nothing about body weight training. When I was about twenty years old that problem was remedied. I bought my first decent bench press, lat pull combo, some plate weight, and a bar from a friends older brother. I was lifting again but only doing upper body work, still with zero logic, sort of. This was the first time I was forced to lift with my own thought processes. Generally speaking, I would do some light warm up sets and then shoot for the moon. How much truth this would come to hold, I had no idea. Again, sort of. My exercise choices were limited and admittedly, I really didn’t care. I was young and silly and I just wanted to bench press the world. I managed to build my self up to about 135 pounds with a bench press of about 260, sort of. Yea, I could bring 260 pounds down and bounce it back up. My sternum was always sore and I’ll bet you my butt came up 5-6 inches off the bench. Today, I consider that a joke. It’s not safe and it’s not a bench press. Okay, on a technicality it’s a bench press, but it’s more of a sloppy, dangerous waste of time. Admittedly, I also recall some Busch light in between sets. Ah, the wisdom of the youthful mind. Sometimes I wonder how I survived my earlier adult hood.

Enter Val. Val was my Ups delivery driver for a bike shop I managed. On a side note, I was also a very dedicated mountain biker in my early twenties. Val was in his early forties when I met him and had triceps for days it seemed. He was a positive example and he explained things in a way that I understood. I learned an incredible amount from him. When I met Val I weighed about 135 pounds, didn’t eat enough, trained completely wrong, and the list goes on. I asked him what I should do to gain weight and get strong. The first basic advice I got from Val was simple and truthful. It still stands as some of the best advice I was ever given. Eat a lot more real food, lift heavy weights in a controlled environment (no beer while lifting), follow a good yet simple strength training protocol, stay away from the druggies(steroid guys), and ride your bike a little less. I used to ride seven days a week. I followed Val’s advice and my life was changed forever. I would lift by myself sometimes. Other times I got lucky and would schedule a workout with Val. Every time I squatted with Val he would tell me over and over, “you gotta squat lower man”. If I had only listened back then. Here’s the deal with that time period. In a six month period of time, my body weight went from 135 to about 170 pounds. I put on a ton of muscle and strength, while gaining very little fat. I may have even gotten leaner. I can’t say for sure. Keep in mind I’m only 5’5″. People that I knew well were on me like fire about my gains. Most of my friends didn’t believe I was clean, even though they saw the crazy quantities of food I was eating. Even though they were accusing me of cheating (using steroids), I took it as a great compliment. I knew the truth. I knew I was always clean. Also keep in mind that I had been severely underfed for several years coming in to this period, so it’s really no wonder that my body responded so quickly. Other than one crazy “get ripped” experiment a few years later, I have always been that heavy or heavier since that time period. On another side note, when I did the “get ripped” experiment I lost a lot of strength, because that’s generally what happens when you get super lean without steroids. Sadly, I moved away and lost touch with Val. Due to my own ignorance I spent the next ten or so years backpedaling.

Briefly let’s cover my mid 20’s to mid 30’s. I drug a good friend and lift partner through all kinds of crap that he never would have done if not for my nonsense. We did all kinds of bulks and cuts that are a waste of time and effort. The long and the short of it is that we tried every program under the sun. One thing I learned through a lot of hard knocks is that programming designed by steroid dudes doesn’t work for drug free trainers. Drug free people can’t handle the volume or frequency that juicers can. Our drug free bodies simply don’t respond to all that nonsense and we can’t recover fast enough ending in nothing good. I tried all kinds of different weight gainers, protein powders, and creatines. I personally never got anything from any of it, other than a bunch of extra fat gain. There are people that I consider reputable today that still swear by creatine. If you take it, take the plain old affordable creatine mono-hydrate. Protein powders and weight gainers are a waste of your money period. Alright, let’s get to the modern day solid, concrete, no nonsense approach to getting really strong.

You should always warm up before you put big weight on the bar. It’s good insurance and just good sense. Body weight exercises are a great way to warm yourself up prior to hitting the iron. They would be considered a general warm up. General warm ups are immediately followed by specific warm ups. Specific warm ups are under the bar working the exercise you will be performing for your work sets. My specific warm up sets start at five reps and go down to three reps as I get closer to my working sets. Specific warm up sets should be treated just like a max effort attempt. What I mean here is that your form and your concentration should be the same as if you were attempting a world record lift.

Your working sets have zero business being any higher than five reps. Form starts to fail. We can argue this all day. I will not be proven wrong. Something in your form is going to slip probably before you even get to five reps. People will argue that I am wrong, that they can stay perfectly tight for way more than five reps. Can you hold your tempo or speed? Maybe you can, but that just means you are working with too light a weight. For people who are working their entire body, your working sets need to be no more than five sets total. Your central nervous system (cns) is tougher than most people think, but it does have limits. More than five working sets will slowly break you.

Accessory exercises should be specific and kept to a minimum. Don’t get me wrong here. They are a functional part of any good program, but most of the time they are overdone. You won’t catch me doing more than one accessory movement per workout and usually I won’t go over three sets. The rep count rules are the same for accessory work as they are for working sets. No more than five reps. Remember, heavy, heavy, heavy. We are trying to get stronger.

The only other thing you need to do is what I call balance work. Balance work is just as it sounds. It takes care of imbalances in your bodies musculature system to keep you from getting injured while continuously pushing harder to get stronger. Two excellent examples of balance work are hamstring, hip, and glute work for your lower body and middle to upper back, and rear delt work for your upper body. Another reason for balance work is to make certain that all your muscle groups are firing correctly and completely. Balance work can be a little different in its rep ranges. It’s not necessary to make your eyes bleed here. Rep ranges of five to seven are perfectly acceptable.

How about a two sentence paragraph for your reading pleasure. Work your abdominals hard and heavy with anything other than a crunch type movement.

That pretty much covers a general spectrum of how to get really strong for a drug free strength chaser. Yes, there’s more to it than that, sort of. I cover all of those little details in my programming. Let’s talk about why this is all you need and why more work just won’t do for drug free lifters. I will use personal references for both points. I have had several good buddies take the drug road (steroids). It didn’t matter how they trained. It didn’t matter what they ate. Their rep and set manipulation played almost zero in their over all strength and muscle gained. They just got bigger and stronger every single week. Most of them ate like crap and still got bigger and leaner at the same time. Two of theses fellas that I am referencing trained the same way they did before the roid use and failed to get bigger or stronger. Miraculously it would seem, the same poor training habits turned into a goldmine of strength and size as soon as they started injecting the drugs. I literally watched one buddy put on about 25-30 pounds of body weight in about four weeks. He also got leaner every single week. Weird. As I mentioned earlier, in years past I have run through just about every program ever written. I have spent countless dollars and years trying to attain the golden key to drug free maximum size and strength just to find out it was right in front of me the whole time. That brings me to my second personal reference. All of those “how to add xxx pounds to your bench press in twelve weeks programs, I have a copy of. Bought and paid for. I have every book and article that you can think of. I have read and worked every one of them, and not a single one of them is sustainable for a drug free lifter. Most of them don’t do anything close to what they say for obvious reasons. Why, you ask? Because they were all written by drug users. Period. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not much. There is good material out there. It’s just few and far between.

On the positive side, let’s cover why the “less is more” approach has always worked and always will work for us drug free trainers. This first reference, per a conversation I had with my wife last Sunday, may apply to more guys than gals, but it will make sense to everyone. When I was a little boy and trying to prove to my little homies that I was the strongest of us all, I never picked up reasonable sized rocks a bunch of times. That doesn’t prove anything. He who picks up the biggest rock WINS. Savvy? In the world of stone lifting for competition, you will never see someone lift a 200 pound stone for 10 reps in training hoping to build enough strength to lift a 300 pound stone one time. That doesn’t even sound logical does it?

But what about higher reps for building muscle you ask? That’s just a simple load of lies compiled by the modern day world of bodybuilding. When I put on 35 pounds of almost pure muscle in six months time, it was done with maximal effort sets with five reps or less and an absolutely absurd amount of food. That my friends is the simple truth.

There are three unbreakable rules in drug free strength training if you are looking to achieve your genetic potential. They are as follows:

Your training must be correct.

Your nutrition must be correct.

Your recovery must be correct.

There is one more unspoken rule that is not always mentioned but it is very important. Keep a specific log of every rep and every set that you do. I didn’t start keeping a log until January of 2000. Starting from then, I can tell you about every single workout I’ve done to the detail. It would seem that my journey didn’t exactly fit in the nutshell that I mentioned, but I promise I kept it as condensed as I could, sort of. 😉


And for the love of whatever it is in this world that lights your fire, PUSH HARDER!






  1. Right now my three working sets are six reps. Every rep has a competition pause on all three sets and the sixth rep of the last set has a full three second pause. When I get that done, I move up five pounds. I won’t stay on this setup for long. I am doing it this way to retrain myself to drive off the bottom with my pecs instead of so much competition form technique. I will still compete but the recent bombardment of drugs in the drug tested federations has really turned me off. I will compete as high level as I can, but my strength will be brute rather than “excellent technique” from now on. I just turned 45. Years ago I messed with Jim’s program too. I found as a drug free lifter that after every three week cycle I thought I might die from systemic exhaustion. I don’t like that and couldn’t work around it with his programming. His philosophies are very solid, but he is an admitted juicer and his views of what drug free people can sustain may be a bit skewed. Here is a generic example of how I add weight to my programming. Let’s say I can lift 200 pounds for five singles. 200, 200, 200, 200, 200. The next time I do this movement my goal is 200, 200, 200, 200, 205. Next time 200, 200, 200, 205, 205. Next time 200, 200, 205, 205, 205. Next time 200, 205, 205, 205, 205. Next time 205, 205, 205, 205, 205. It doesn’t always go this smooth but it always brings me strength as long as I don’t sacrifice form to get bigger numbers. My form is so strict, my closest friends sometimes tell me I take the fun out of it. I love it that way. Sloppy strength is sloppy. Brute strength is awesome! I hope that helps. Any idea what your real bodyfat % is? Not your broscience number, but the real number. You’re a big boy. You can bench way more than you currently do. I firmly believe that. Keep me posted, thanks for the comment, and keep asking if you have more. I love talking strength.

  2. I’m 54, 6-2 235 lbs. Bench 1RM is 275. You do 3 sets of 6 reps at the same weight, or work up to one max set of 6 reps? I have tried 3 sets of 5 with same weight across and plateau pretty quickly. When I work up to one max set of 5 reps, like Wendler’s 5/3/1 prescribed 65%-75%-85% I can make progress slowly.

  3. A couple questions for you. How old are you, how tall are you, and how much do you weigh? Currently my bench press training happens once every other week. The opposite week I work clean and press with strict form. So it works out to something like week “a” is bench press warmup, three heavy working sets of six reps or less of paused rep bench press followed by two sets of strict clean and press for sets of eight. Finish it with some hang cleans for 2-3 sets of eight. Week “b” would be the opposite. Clean and press warmups, three sets of no more than six reps of strict clean and press followed by one arm paused dumbbell bench press for two sets of eight reps. Finish with hang cleans for 2-3 sets of 8. When I successfully finish three working sets with a weight, I add weight. I always add weight when I can in an organized fashion. That’s how you get stronger my friend. My programming can vary from time to time, but it’s always based around lower rep higher weight. My current sets of six is crazy for me. I have focused in the wrong direction for the last couple of years and have paid the price in the muscle and strength department. I am currently building my body weight back up and my strength with it. Thank you for the comment. Please feel free to ask any time.

  4. I have been lifting for 10+ years and agree with everything that you’re saying on reps for compound lifts (squat, dead, bench). Best gains I have made were from simple programs that had 1 top set, 1-2 sets assistance and took 40 minutes to complete. However my bicep strength does best with reps in the 10 rep range. I currently do 140 lbs on ez bar for 10 reps. Can you please tell me what your bench press training is? I have been stuck at 1.2x bodyweight bench press for 3 years.

  5. If by “old bullocks” you mean to infer that my words are not true, I would ask why and what did you feel is not true? If I am misunderstanding you, what did your statement mean?

  6. Sounds a load of old bollocks to be honest.

  7. Thanks Keegan. You know I’m working on it.

  8. Thanks Will. It’s sometimes hard for people to see through the lies. I want to get the information to as many as possible.

  9. Keegan Fawley says:

    Solid work coach! Article was put together very well. Looking forward to some nutritional and tutorial articles in the near future.

  10. Well said! I for several years tooled around with random BS, mostly BS wrote by roid users. So I spun my wheels for a bit.

    I never really saw any true muscle gain until I started lifting very minimalist (less volume, few key lifts) and focusing on getting stronger. I spent a good amount of time in the 8-12 range, got no where. Started 4-6 reps a year or so back and finally started seeing changes I had hoped for for years.

    Looking forward to more of your insight, you clearly have the knowledge.

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