Strength Coaching Advice From the Man Who Wrote the Book on It

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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In the 1950s, Terry Todd had a problem. He was on the University of Texas tennis team, but he risked being thrown off for violating his coach’s strict policy and doing something forbidden: lifting weights.

Terry accepted his fate, but made up for it by going on to become one of the most decorated powerlifters of all time, with both national and international championships to his name. Indeed, his legend was such that Arnold Schwarzenegger — no stranger to the weight room himself — tweeted out a personal remembrance after he died last year. “He was such a monster,” the actor and former governor wrote. “A true force, but also a kind heart and a great storyteller.”

Todd, along with his wife, Jan — a record-breaking powerlifter in her own right — helped develop an extensive library devoted to sports and physical culture, a collection of 30,000 books that now lives at the University of Texas. (One presumes the school’s current tennis players are allowed to lift weights.)

The duo also worked on a series of books, including the latest, “Strength Coaching in America,” written along with Jason P. Shurley, an associate professor of health, physical education, recreation and coaching at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The book traces the history of strength training back from ancient times up to today, focusing especially on the sea change that transpired in the late 1950s–60s, when lifting weights went from something that could get you kicked off the tennis team to something widely credited for the success of some of the era’s best teams and individual athletes.

We spoke with Shurley about that history and what he learned in writing the book. Here are his takeaways:

Q: The change in the past 50 years can’t be overstated. How would you explain it?
Shurley: “The really big change was Boyd Epley in Nebraska in 1969. And you’ve got guys like Terry, who are athletes, who, despite what their coaches are telling them, are lifting weights. They see the difference on the field. Or [Heisman-winning running back] Billy Cannon at LSU in the late 1950s. They become this successful team, and you see the difference on the field. So you get the athletes, and then the scientific researchers and by the 1960s, teams that aren’t lifting weights at all are kind of these dinosaurs who don’t stand a chance. There are still holdouts, but they started to age out.

Today, [for organizations] it’s deciding what’s useful and what’s a sales pitch. At LSU, for example, they’re testing sweat concentration [in other words, what’s in an athlete’s sweat], and then consuming electrolyte drinks that are created based on the results of those tests.”

Q: Yes, some athletes take steroids. But that’s not the main reason they’re bigger and stronger today, is it?
Shurley: “That story, the lurid story, the stuff that people do illicitly, what guys don’t talk about except in the back of the gym. We chose not to focus on it — it’s been told. People who are approximately my age and older, growing up when lifting weights was a requirement to play junior high football, by the time those athletes get to college, they have six years of weight training under their belt, then 10 years when they finish. What 10 years of training can do for somebody has been the underexplored element of that story. People were interested in talking about the drugs, but most athletes don’t take drugs — most [athletes] do, however, train year-round.

“That was the thing with the drugs. One of the challenging parts in this shift in training is in the ‘60s, but the first anabolic steroid was brought to the U.S. in 1958. So you can’t separate the two, at least at elite levels. They grew up together. But the important thing to consider is: What is the real prevalence? When there was a steroid scare in the ‘80s, the highest estimate among high school students was 8–9%, and some were more like 6%. That’s fewer than 1 in 10.”

Q: The trainers who changed the way we train are largely forgotten. Do you think this book changes that?
Shurley: “If you’re not familiar with names like Bob Hoffman (who helped popularize the barbell in the ‘30s), Joe Weider (who created Mr. Olympia) or Thomas DeLorme (the pioneering doctor whose research essentially laid the groundwork for modern strength training) — or those of Boyd Epley, the godfather of modern strength training, and Jan and Terry Todd, for that matter — you’ll enjoy learning their stories.”

Q: Would you say the Todds were legendary but humble?
Shurley: “I fell into the project, and it built on Terry’s work. He wrote about muscle binding and how coaches thought it was bad. But [after strength training], he was bigger, he could jump higher, he had more endurance, and a lot of his career was writing about that. The first time I met Jan she said taking on a new grad student is like taking on a new member of the family. I thought she was being hyperbolic, but she meant it. It’s been a more familial relationship.

“I was always surprised by Jan’s modesty and lack of interest in talking about her own records and career. She would if you pressed her, but not as much as I would’ve if I had accomplished all that. [Laughs.] Terry was similar, he liked telling stories about other old-time strongmen — like meeting Andre the Giant.”

Q: When it comes to strength training, what’s your biggest piece of advice?
Shurley: “Talking to my own students, there’s this idea of this perfect program, but oftentimes people who are just going for general fitness get lost in the weeds. Really, going to the gym four days a week and challenging yourself, you’re gonna see improvement.

“I feel like people have always had unrealistic expectations. Even 20 years ago with magazine covers. When I was a strength trainer at Gold’s Gym, a woman would come in who was 30% body fat and wanted to look like someone on our cover. Or a guy who was 140 pounds soaking wet wanted to be 220. It’s the same, but now it’s on our phones.”

Q: How to you advise people to get started?
Shurley: “I see people performing lifts that are too advanced, relative to their experience, because those lifts are trendy. For example, kettlebell swings are a fine exercise, but they’re more difficult to perform correctly, with the proper spinal alignment and hip-hinging, than people often expect. I see them performed all the time, but many people do them with some combination of a rounded back and semi-squatting.

So I guess the advice I would have for a novice interested in learning to perform them, or the increasingly popular Olympic lifts and variants, is to find a qualified coach/trainer/instructor. Many gyms won’t have someone like that on staff, so they may need to seek out one that caters to strength athletes or competitive lifters. If that’s not feasible, one could probably learn the basic form from YouTube tutorials and them film themselves and assess their own form between sets or after their lifting session.

Q: What’s the one underrated lift you should try right now.
Shurley: “As far as underrated, I suppose I’d go with deadlifts, though I think that’s changing. They’re relatively easy to perform, train a host of muscle groups at one time (hip/knee extensors, spinal extensors, scap elevators, shoulder extensors, finger flexors, etc), and have good carry-over to activities of daily living.”

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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