Ken Leistner’s Strength Training Wisdoms

The following strength course was developed by Ken Leistner in 1986 (published in PL USA). Mr. Leistner was quite famous. He met and trained with strength legends like Pat Casey (first man to bench 600lb), Lee Moran (first man to squat 1000lb) and others. In this article Ken will give you some wisdoms about drugs, football and strength training. It’s a must read!  Mr. Berg

“The myths make these strength training world spin around perpetuated by those who have the most to profit by doing so, and those who have the least.

There are magazine publishers, nutritional supplement manufacturers and distributors, the designers and builders of equipment and the many so-called experts who offer their knowledge for sale via booklets or personal instruction who need the public to believe the garbage that has passed for gospel truth for so long.

The many sincere athletes who desperately seek improved performance, increased strength and better health perpetuate the myths because they want to believe that the many things they have been doing in the gym and all the money they have spent on nutritional supplements and space age equipment is justified, and hasn’t been an enormous waste.

Unfortunately, the average results of training are no more and no less than they were when I first became interested in training in 1965. Certainly there are more ‘good physiques’ around and powerlifting records are higher, but the population sample of those who now train competitively and non-competitively is so much greater than it was then.

When relatively few individuals train due to social stigma or the instructions of coaches and colleagues, it’s unreasonable to believe that there will be ‘many’ championship quality bodies or lifts developed. When literally thousands upon thousand more are involved in the activity, it should not be surprising that records increase and the physique that would have place high in the 1966 Mr. America contest would be hard pressed to win a state title.

Thus, while the overall results have improved, the percentage of successful trainees probably remains approximately the same. If one removes the anabolic drug users from the sample, the quality of physique and strength level isn’t that different, and the very outstanding individuals have always existed.

bob peoples deadlift
Bob Peoples Deadlifting

Doug Hepburn, Paul Anderson, and Bob Peoples all had lifts, drug free and long before the advent of special equipment or supplements, that still compare favorably to the best lifts of today’s men.

chuck sipes bodybuilding
Bodybuilding-legend Chuck Sipes. (Trained with Schwarzenegger!)

The physiques of Marvin Eder, Bill Pearl, Reg Park and Chuck Sipes would still be top competitors today, even without the use of drugs that some national level bodybuilders call upon to build ‘mass’, ‘density’, ‘cuts’, and ‘sex appeal.’

In 1970 I read a statement by Arthur Jones that the muscle magazines of the 1950s said essentially the same as those of the 1960s and would continue to say the same thing in the 1970.

Here it is, the ’80s, and a careful perusal of the magazines dating back thirty years or so indicates the validity of Arthur’s statement. There are continuous attempts to ‘dress up’ or ‘modernize’ training principles but there hasn’t been much in the way of real change.

Interestingly, the programs that are a real departure from the tried and true approach of hard work on the basic exercises are least effective and most short-lived. In my opinion, a magazine cannot generate a lot of revenue by calling for brutally intense work on well known. easily done basic movement, not month after month, so they scratch and search for ‘breakthroughs’, selling the lifting public on the idea that there will always be a better way to become bigger and stronger.

I don’t buy it, although I did buy the premise, the supplements, the drugs, and the equipment for many years, sincerely believing that I was making the most intelligent choices possible for myself and those who trusted me to provide effective training advice and information.

I learned the hard way that new is not necessarily better and that once the commercial hype is stripped away, strength training is the easiest thing to understand the most difficult to actually implement.

One has to fully understand and accept that one can be very strong even if they do not have the leverages to squat, bench press and deadlift well and that the only strong people in the world are not necessarily those with favorable leverages for the powerlifts or Olympic lifts. Strength exists in many forms. Most who have trained for any length of time cannot easily alter perspective and think of a display of strength that does not call upon the use of a barbell or dumbbell, nor can they imagine the use of implements other than ‘weightlifting machines’, pulley, barbells and dumbbells which will allow the development of great strength.

I have been fortunate in knowing many very strong men, some of whom trained conventionally, some of whom went their own way in the gym. Some used barbells and dumbbells while others never touched the tools of the lifter’s trade. Yet, despite differences in height, weight, bodily configuration, and goals, they all were terribly strong. I hope that some of this very special information will be incorporated into your quest for ever increasing strength.

Joe Don Looney
For those of an earlier generation, Joe Don Looney, collegiate (Texas, TCU, Cameron J.C., Oklahoma) and professional (N.Y. Giants, Baltimore Colts, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints) football player, represents a legend, an enigma and a source of night long stories and tales. He was a physically gifted individual who used barbells and dumbbells to become one of the strongest athletes of his day, achieving his physical success through sheer determination and sacrifice. He was the athlete who could be found in the gym at midnight, who brought his weights to preseason camp so that he could train between two-a-day sessions; who spent each off-season in the environment that encouraged all out training.

He was also the individual who provided me with my first organized training program, and the encouragement to follow it through. The program, like all the other that have given me success, is simple and unadorned.

It was also used by Joe Don to achieve the ability to stand 6’1″, 233 pounds with a 9.6 sec hundred to his credit and lifts that in the mid-sixties rivaled that of top lifters, including a deadlift and squat in the 700 range.

As SPORTS ILLUSTRATED noted, “his Mr. America physique even made the local (California) bodybuilders envious”, and his hugely muscles body propelling down the field had to be seen to be appreciated.

Here is the program that was so effective in building size, strength, and as one write seated, ‘infusing Joe Don’s speed muscles with so much recoil’.

Bench Press
Barbell Row
Barbell Press
Power Clean
Dumbbell Press
Barbell Curls (optional)
Leg Press
Leg Curls
Leg Extensions
Calf Raise

All of the upper body work was done for eight repetitions, the lower body for twenty. When I first asked ‘how many sets of each should be done?’, I was told to do ‘one, two or as many as you think you can benefit from.’

Having also been instructed to go ‘all out’ on each set, ‘saving nothing for later sets’, it quickly became obvious to me that one, or at most, two sets of each exercise would be my limit.

I also found that I often could not do each and every movement in the program each workout. Joe Don’s advice was to ‘do all the upper body work one day and all the lower body work another.’

Not in the manner of the popular but non-productive ‘split-routines’ of the day, but on the ‘rotational system’.

I would, at times, do upper-body on Monday, lower on Wednesday, upper on Friday, rest on the weekend and resume training with lower body work on Monday and Friday of the following week, with upper body on that Wednesday only. At other times, I would for squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and cleans only one, or at most two times per week for each movement, finding that I could not recover adequately otherwise.

Of course, I would not recommend the power clean at all (see The Steel Tip, Vol.1 No.5) but it was part and parcel of every football player’s program of the day.

Joe Don would augment his off season lifting program with a combination of sprints and distance running and a specialized routine which was done one time per week. He modified a child’s snow sled so that it could be loaded safely with barbell plates. He would attach himself to this sled with a long harness and sprint up and down the field at Louisiana State University’s Tiger Stadium.

This not only gave him increased muscular endurance, but great overall bodily strength. Although his numerous conflicts which cut short what might have been a brilliant career received as much publicity as his physical prowess, he was one of the strongest athletes ever, and he achieved it the ‘old fashioned way’ by earning it through arduous and consistent training.

Isadore Leistner
My grandfather was not an athlete, but was no doubt one of the strongest men to ever walk the streets of New York City. At 5’8″, 230 pounds, he had no formal education and, thus no background in organized athletics.

He began his working life at nine years of age, pounding railroad spikes for the Canadian Railway and by the time he was fifteen, he was already at his full physical prowess. Hard days and nights as an iron worker and steel mechanic made him strong and hard, but he used to supplement his work with various feats of strength that added to the power in his arms and shoulders.

Into his early seventies, he would take hundred pound wooden kegs of nuts and bolts, pinch grip the lip of the kegs and slowly ‘front raise’ them until they rested neatly on a shelf approximately three feet from the ground. He took great delight in doing this, as well as ‘lateral raises’ with the same kegs. he would stand to the side of the keg, pinch grip the lip nearest to his thigh and with straight arms, hoist the load onto the shelves in the shop, or onto the back of a truck.

Anvil lifting was another one of his favorites, and he once told me that I should ‘forget about those weightlifting things you play with’ and concentrate on lifting ‘real strength building things’, like the anvil.

One of our anvils weighed approximately 170 pounds and was mounted on a wooden base that brought it to a comfortable working height. This would be hoisted from waist height to shoulder level. Reps would first be done to the right shoulder, and then repeated to the left. For building the lower body, one would walk the anvil around the top floor of the shop, first on one shoulder, and then on the other. Of course, my grandfather could do this better than anyone else, even though all of the men were strong by anyone’s definition. the really large anvil resided in the basement, and one had to be content to bearhug it, and waltz it across the room four or five times, or until you dropped from exhaustion.

I have no doubt that my grandfather would have been extremely powerful without his little ‘training tricks’, but lifting kegs of bolts and anvils enhance his strength and made him much stronger than his coworkers who merely labored by his side all the day (and often into the night).

It would be very beneficial for any competitive athlete to obtain an anvil, or a keg that could be filled to various level with scrap iron, nuts, bolts or anything else you want to fill it with.

Lifting it in various positions will greatly add to one’s upper and lower body strength. In fact, Mr. Steve Justa, Box 97, Harvard, NE 68944, sells a barrel lifting course for $6.00 that is absolutely fantastic.

It isn’t fancy, but it provides the reader with an organized routine for lifting barrels or legs in way that will build tremendous bodily power.

His is the stuff that real strength training is about, the type of truly hard, ‘bust butt’ regimen that could boost the power of any lifter or athlete. I highly recommend it.

Kim Wood
Kim Wood, the eleven year strength and conditioning coach of the Cincinnati Bengal’s, is another man who’s strength training roots harken back to the ‘old days’ when one was expected to work all out on a simplified program. As Kim has said,

“The original Nautilus concept was developed from the origins of strength training, getting the most out of every repetition, and making every set count toward overall progression in building strength.

It was simple, unadorned training with the machines being no more than a thinking man’s barbell.”

Kim’s own initiation to strength training was quite unique. Although neither of us would not recommend that one train as he did, it proves that once can become brutally strong if one is willing to pay the price, and put effort into a few basic, easily learned movements, using the most basic of equipment.

Noting knee pain at the beginning of his sophomore year of football practice, a young Kim Wood was told that he had osteochondritis dissecans (see The Steel Tip. Vol 1 No, 6). Being unable to bear any weight on the knee joint, all athletic activity was halted and Kim’s movement was limited to crutches and a walker.

His disappointment was exceeded only by his desire to succeed as an athlete, so he dusted off a barbell that his father had given to him, and developed a program that almost defies belief.

Kim trained five to seven days per week, doing little more than the bench press. His inability to bear any weight on the knee joint made it difficult to do any other exercises, although he would occasionally do chins or use a cable set to do various pulling movements. The benchpress, however, formed the basis of the program. Using a picnic table bench to lie on, he would screw the end collars on tightly, stand the barbell on end, and rock it onto his chest to begin the movement.

This in itself requires a certain degree of strength, but it was a necessity, lacking any type of rack, spotters, or real training knowledge.

He began his bench pressing routine by suing a specific weight and doing the same number of repetitions as the weight on the bar.

He did 135 pounds for 135 reps, 140 pounds for 140 reps,and continued in this manner until he was doing 250 pounds for 250 repetitions!

I asked Kim how long it would take to complete ‘set’. “An hour, a few hours, sometimes more because I’d break for supper.” He would do as many repetitions as possible, rest with the bar on his chest or rock it off him, and continue again for as many repetitions as possible until being forced to rest again. The rest periods would usually last a few minutes, but would occasionally stretch out as the workout became a very lengthy affair.

“When I was doing 200 or more reps, it would take a while. I’d knock off the first fifty or seventy-five and then get it in bunches from there until I completed the required repetitions for the day.”

If nothing else, Kim became an exceptionally strong bench presser, doing 400 pounds regularly by his senior year in high school where he was an All State running back and State Heavyweight Wrestling champion at 210 pounds.

Another interesting aspect of Kim’s bench pressing program was his technique, as he always bench pressed with a relatively close grip, his index fingers being on the smooth part of the standard Olympic bar.

“Without any real knowledge of training, I did it that way because it was the most comfortable to me.”

Throughout his entire athletic career, he maintained the same style, despite the advice of others to alter his grip. Later in high school, he added various isometric exercises to the program, but felt that he overstrained on this.

He later adopted a more rounded program at the University of Wisconsin, where he reduced his overall amount of bench pressing, doing 275 for one hundred repetitions ‘only’, getting most of those in the first ‘set’.

When one considers that Kim Wood could bench press in excess of 400 pounds while still in high school at 5’10”, 210 pounds in 1963, the true impact of that lift becomes apparent.

Kim continued to improve his bench press almost an additional one hundred pounds, at the same bodyweight, as he continued to train, not for lifting competition, but as an adjunct to his football and wrestling activities. His unusual approach indicates that one can use a program that is not technically efficient or ‘scientific’, but can achieve great results if one works intensely hard and consistently.

‘Butcher Boy’

No, the Butcher Boy wasn’t a professional wrestler but a fellow named George who was a nineteen year old butcher’s apprentice. He was valued at work because of his ability to lift the largest carcasses and anything else.

George had placed in the top three in the heavyweight class for two years at the New York State High School Wrestling Championships and stood 6′, 230 pounds. He had never touched a barbell in his life, yet was much stronger than most of the fellows who inhabited the one true bodybuilding/lifting gym in the neighborhood.

George did, however, have a regular training program that kept Kim strong and fit.

George’s father had suffered a severe back injury while working as a carpenter, and George decided early in his athletic career that he would build a strong, injury-proof lower back.

Beginning in ninth grade, when he was fifteen years of age, he lifted cars. He began with a vehicle he could handle, a Volkswagen Beetle belonging to his sister. He would lift the front end for sets of twenty repetitions, bending down in a modified deadlift stance, and standing as erect as possible.

He would then hold the bumper in the fully erect position for a count of three, return the front wheels to the ground, reset himself, and repeat the lift.

As his strength grew, he began to lift the rear end of the car, which, of course, was considerably heavier. He performed his ‘lifting program’ every other day, rain or shine, day or night, for years.

When I met him, George was 18, and could lift the front end of panel trucks, Cadillacs, and station wagons for sets of thirty of fifty repetitions. For a short while, both of us provided valet parking at a local night club, and George would entertain the patrons with his lifting skills as a means of earning more tips.

One evening he lifted the front end of a 1959 Chevrolet Impala to shoulder height  by ‘deadlifting’ it to his waist level and then working his way under it until he was supporting it at his chest and shoulders. For this, he won a wager in excess of one hundred dollars.

The only other exercises George did were pushups and chin ups, movements encouraged by his wrestling coach.

He would do pushups, not for repetitions, but for time, trying to do as many reps as possible within a particular time period. One day he would do as many pushups as possible in one minute, and repeat that three or four times. On another day, he would do as many as he could in seven or eight minutes, trying not to rest between individuals repetitions, but keeping a constant and steady pace for the entire bout of exercise. He would not necessarily do chin-ups immediately after the puhsups. These were sometimes done later in the day, as the mood hit him, or as part of a complete ‘workout’ of car lifts, pushups and chins. The important point is that he was consistent, and would make the time or complete one set of as many chin-ups as possible, every other day. At 230 pounds, I saw him do over twenty five chin-ups, and two or three one arm chins, a tremendous feat of strength for a man of his size.

If one were to analyze George’s program, it becomes apparent that he was intensely working most of the major muscular structures of his body with a brief but hard workout which was done consistently. Whether one uses the fanciest of chrome plated gymnasium equipment or odds and end lying around the yard, these principles are the very ones needed for progressive improvement in strength and muscular size. As the Butcher Boy proved, one need not necessarily lift a barbell or dumbbells to become strong if one trains intelligently.

Harvey Adams
One of the all time Long island legends, Harvey Adams, appeared in SPORT ILLUSTRATED and all of the local newspapers. He was an outstanding high school football player, an excellent student, and a very unique personality. He made the statement that he would not attend college on a football scholarship if Woody Hayes did not personally tender an offer to play at Ohio State.

Although he was a dominant force on the field, Harvey’s chances of playing football defensive tackle at Ohio State were as limited as his 5’8″, 180 pounds. He was fearless, fast, and as tough as they come, but too small in stature to play his high school position in the Big Ten. Thus, he began his college career at New York University and became a training partner of Olympic team shot putter and heavyweight lifter Gary Gubner.

By the end of his freshman year, Harvey had gained fifteen pounds of functional muscle and was ready to rescue his football career. He transferred to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Points, Ny and immediately became their star player. In the off-season, he devised a strength training program the he rarely varied from until his college career ended.

Although he was always very strong and muscular, and occasionally trained in the limited facility at the high school while he attended school there, his training program allowed him to ascend to ‘legend’ status.

At 5’8″, he rolled in at 230 pounds of solid steel, with measurements to match. His thighs were over thirty inches and his neck over twenty. His arms were huge and he had the muscular definition of a national level bodybuilder.

His willingness to battle anyone anywhere made him feared, both on the football field and off.

When his playing career at Kinds Point ended, he was a Little All American middle line backer his junior year, and repeated at defensive end his senior year, the line backing post being taken by his younger brother Donald. He was offered a free agent contract by an NFL team that wanted to convert him to fullback, and got another offer from the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. He opted to enter the business world and shortly afterward, left the New York area.

The program that allowed Harvey Adams to bench press 450 pounds clean and push press 360, squat with 500 for reps, and run a 4.6 forty yard dash, was done three times per week from January to September and once or twice a week during the football season. His off-season program was augmented by a lot of two-on-two basketball, and a game we called ‘hamburger’ which was a modified three on two, or three on three nutcracker drill played without pads, on our front lawn. All exercises were done for three sets of ten repetitions, with the first ser serving as a light warmup, followed by two all out sets, taken to the point where he could not do another repetition.

Bench Press (once every two or three weeks, work to a limit single or triple)
Upright Row
Barbell Press
Barbell Curl

Leave a comment