Friday, January 29, 2010

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. -Friedrich Nietzsche

I have often heard this quote from a German philosopher who was named after a Green Bay linebacker, I guess. While it is a great motivational sound bite, I’m not sure if it’s really true. Even if it is, I am sure it is not the best training philosophy for most of us.
As I read the latest (Jan. 2010) edition of Long & Strong, one of my favorite publications, one theme struck me. Almost each one of the articles where a thrower was profiled mentioned the fact that they are discovering or have discovered that often less is more when it comes to training. Quality of work is of much greater value than quantity of work. As I pondered this I couldn’t help but think of two coaches I have had the privilege to cross paths with and their different approaches to maximal results.
In 1989 the Bulgarians were on top of the weightlifting world and the reports were that they were training to the maximum several times a day, every day. Many of us wondered if that were really possible and, if so, how were they doing it? A Bulgarian coach, Angel Spassov, visited the U.S. and presented several clinics around the country sponsored by the NSCA. Being too poor to travel to Bulgaria myself, when I heard a clinic was to be held in Phoenix, I scraped together the fee and loaded my family into our truck and went. While we later found out that Mr. Spassov fed us some information that was suspect, (like the notion that Bulgarian lifters did step-ups for leg strength instead of squats) it was still a very eye opening experience for me. I still have my notes from that day in my files. He spent a great deal of time talking about natural testosterone production and it’s importance in training. Dr. Mike Stone and others have since published research that clarifies and in some cases contradicts the Bulgarian claims, but that is not the point of this post.
The really interesting topic, to me, was their process for selection of weight lifters. They scouted schools and screened boys aged 10. (This was just as women’s weightlifting was beginning to be popular, girls weren’t mentioned) The test battery was Standing Long Jump (2 legs), Vertical Jump, (1 and 2 Legs), 30 meter sprint, Pullups, and 4kg Overhead Shot Throw. Flexibility was screened by performing an overhead squat with a jerk grip. Selected boys trained in a “school” for athletes living in a dormitory type setting. Spassov claimed that their success rate was 1 world champion for every 66 boys in the program at a cost of about 6 million Bulgarian dollars. (That is what I wrote in my notes that day)
When asked about any psychological motivation techniques, it took him quite awhile to understand the question. Finally, he stated that there is no such thing as psychological motivation, only natural selection. Athletes who rose to the top received benefits of better living conditions and travel. Those who didn’t improve were sent back home. To me, it seems that the Bulgarian “success” was not a result of a sound system of programming, but of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Take a group of athletes selected for their natural attributes and train them as hard as possible. The few who are genetically robust enough to adapt and survive will rise high. Of course he also mentioned the importance of “medicinal support” in the process. If Spassov wasn’t pulling our legs, there are probably 60 or so broken lifters behind each champion. East Germany had similar, but even more structured approach and claimed an even higher success ratio, but of course we now know that “medicinal support” was also a major factor in their system. Today it is well documented that China uses a similar selection and sport school process with a huge population to feed into it.
Here in the United States we have a different way of looking at things. American athletes are not selected, but voluntarily choose to participate and with few exceptions (Todd Marinovich for example, lol) are not in a tightly controlled environment. One of the greatest lifters and athletic champions ever to represent the United States is relatively unknown outside of the hard core lifting community. Tamio (Tommy) Kono won 6 World Championships, 2 Olympic Golds and 1 Silver, 3 Pan-Am championships, and set world records in 4 different bodyweight classes. He also served as National Coach for both Germany and Mexico as well as coaching many U.S. National and Olympic teams. It has been my privilege to converse with him several times and even had lunch together once. He is the most sincere and humble gentleman you could ever wish to meet. He has written a book “WEIGHTLIFTNG, OLYMPIC STYLE” which any coach who uses lifting in their training should have. It explains technique in simple language and the competitive experiences he shares are worth the price alone. I don’t know if he was the inspiration for Sylvestor Stallone’s story in Rocky IV or not, but he really lived that story as he was invited to a lifting meet in Russia and arrived with no coach or interpreter. He overcame many obstacles and was victorious. I am leaving out the details in hopes you will read it for yourself. The mental aspects of competing that are explained are relevant to all athletes. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that Tommy began lifting while in a Japanese-American internment camp during WWII and for much of his career training in a low ceiling basement with a dirt floor.
While I could write volumes about Tommy Kono’s accomplishments and character, my point is that Tommy very bluntly proclaims that less is more, quality trumps quantity, and it is better to be slightly undertrained than overtrained. He does not mince words when he states that the Bulgarian-type approach to training was born of the necessity to keep the young men tired and busy (as they had no responsibilities outside of lifting) rather then any scientific reasoning. There is an American system and it consists of intelligently applying training in proper doses to stimulate improvement. It is highly individualized, requires thought and adaptation, and it can be integrated into a full life that allows for education, career, and family responsibilities. If you read the latest “LONG AND STRONG” you will find that many modern track athletes also agree.
If you would like to learn more about Tommy, purchase his book, or his excellent knee and waistband products visit the link listed on our links below: www.tommykono.com
Also a few youtube video segments of Tommy teaching the lifts were posted on this site in 2009. You can scroll down to find them.


  1. You may want to review Nietzsche’s Bio, as the linebacker comment makes the site seem uninformed (lacking credibility).

  2. That was a joke dipstick.