Health Care

Primal Training | Jim Steel

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Basic, raw strength has always appealed to me, a sort of casual
super-strength that someone who is really “raw strong” can
display without needing a bunch of stuff to help them. I always
thought that it would be super cool to be able to walk into any gym
wearing a shirt, shorts, and shoes, and lift heavy weights. No
straps, wraps, sleeves, or belt needed.

Isn’t that truly

I have used all types
of equipment over the years when competing in both powerlifting and
training. I have used squat suits, knee wraps, bench shirts, groove
briefs, wrist wraps, belts, and knee sleeves. There was no “raw”
category back then in the 90s in the organizations that I competed
in, just “equipped lifting.”

All of the equipment
served a purpose for what I was doing at the time. I figured that if
my opponents were using it, then I needed to use it. I probably did 8
to 10 powerlifting meets using all that stuff. But damn, all of that
stuff gets old after a while. First off, just learning how to use the
equipment was a training session in itself. And when you are using
equipment, you can’t just go to a meet by yourself and compete –
you have to have a staff. Someone has to be there (maybe 2-3 people)
to help put your bench shirt on, wrap your knees, help with the squat
suit, roll your wraps, etc. I’d be drenched in sweat just putting
the squat suit and bench shirt on.

After a while, I got
tired of all that equipment and entered a powerlifting meet with just
a wrestling singlet on. The relief of not having all of that shit to
worry about was amazing. There was no stress at all, I could just get
ready to lift. While everyone was wrapping and waddling to the
platform, I was sitting in a chair, waiting for my turn to squat. I
remember one guy all wrapped up like a mummy looking at me and
saying, “That’s the way to go, man, just a singlet.”

Since then, “raw”
lifting has become more popular. And let’s get this straight: I
don’t care what you wear to compete. Go crazy if you want to and
put tennis balls behind your knees like the old timers used to do. If
it is legal in the organization in which you are competing, go for
it, doesn’t matter to me. “Raw” to me means no supportive
equipment at all, not even a belt. I have tried those knee sleeves
that they wear in competition now, and they are tight as hell and
feel great – just like knee wraps.

Even the equipped
lifters in the old days would start their cycles for a meet training
in just a t-shirt and shorts. As the weights got heavier in the
cycle, they would add in equipment. First a belt, then a few sessions
later knee wraps, and finally the last few weeks a squat suit.
Everyone wanted to hit a personal record raw, then belted, then
wrapped, then with a suit. I saw Kirk Karwoski squat 640×8 raw, 800×1
raw, and 800×5 with just a belt on. I spotted squatting phenom Rob
Wagner squat 405 x 20 raw at under 200 pounds body weight.

I remember going into a
gym when I was very tired of all the equipment and I ended up
squatting 635×1 in a shirt and shorts. A guy was standing behind me
who kept asking me if I needed a spot. “No, I’m good,” I said.
Every plate that I put on the bar, he kept asking me if I needed a
spot. Finally, he stopped asking and just watched. That was a very
satisfying day. One of my proudest moments in training was when I
finally squatted 500 x10 in a t-shirt and shorts by myself in a
garage gym. That was more enjoyable to me than lifting bigger weights
with all the equipment on.

I was standing
with Mr. Universe Kevin Levrone one day between sets of his benches.
Kevin was a bodybuilder who was actually as strong as he looked. I
saw him do 455 for reps on the bench at 52 years old. Anyway, this
guy walked past us and said hello. He didn’t stop to talk, just said
hello. He had some pretty good size to him, weighed around 235 at
5’9”. He walks over to the squat bar without a belt or any knee
sleeves and starts squatting. All by himself. Doesn’t talk, takes
just a few minutes between sets. He was doing sets of 2-3 reps. He
ends up at 655, does a few reps with it, all of them deep, and then
puts it back. No big deal. I remember he was going to go for another
rep and he knew that he wasn’t going to get it, and he said, “Nope”
and he was done. I looked at Kevin, I said, “That guy is strong as

Kevin said that the guy
comes into the gym all the time, by himself, and just walks over to
whatever exercise he is performing that day and just gets started and
crushes heavy weights. I thought, how cool is that? Just a loner.
Doesn’t need shit; no headphones, no spotter, no training partner
to get him all hyped up. He didn’t care if anyone was watching him. I
don’t even think he had a gym bag. He walked in off the street,
probably right after work, and squatted a shit ton of weight. Very

I used to watch the
Bulgarian Training Hall tapes from Ironmind in the old days. These
guys would work up to ridiculously heavy weights in the squat usually
wearing just a shirt and shorts and sometimes with a tiny little
weightlifting belt on. I’d watch those tapes before I went to
squat. There was a pre-workout drink back then named “Metaform Heat
” that would get your heart racing and make you want to pillage a
village like a Berserker. I’d be sitting there, watching the tapes,
drinking the Heat and start tapping my feet and scratching my head
because of some ingredient in it.

After watching Botev
squat 720 in sweatpants, I’d be ready for the gym. Those guys
lifted prodigious poundages so nonchalantly – just another day at
the office for them. Although my ex-wife fell fast asleep immediately
whenever I put those VHS tapes on, watching those guys with holes in
their shoes and wearing no supportive equipment dominating crazy
weights inspired the hell out of me.

I am all into this
primal stuff now, always asking myself what are we meant to do
evolutionary-wise; how we were meant to eat, sleep, and even train to
mimic our ancestors – basically, how we were meant to live before
the dawn of an agriculturally-changed society. I interviewed a doctor
for the Starting Strength website years ago and I asked him what
exercises we perform today that were essential for life in the
“caveman” days. He said the deadlift and the press. Makes good
sense to me; picking heavy shit up would have been useful all of the
time and being strong overhead would have been essential when hiding
the downed game in a high place to keep it from predators, or
crushing your enemy’s skull with a heavy rock.

To me, the deadlift is
the most raw of all exercises, the one exercise that lends itself
most easily to this type of training. You don’t need a squat rack
or a bench, just a bar and some plates. I guarantee that the cavemen
during some downtime when they weren’t running for their lives from
predators, used to challenge each other to pick stuff up. A rock, a
tree, a dead animal. In modern times, you don’t need much to be
primal and deadlift, just a bar and plates.

I have a basement gym
with a power rack, plates, bars, and dumbbells, but what I like best
is my setup under my back deck outside. I have a big horse-stall mat
with an Olympic bar and 235 pounds always on it. I have more weights
there but 235 pounds is the minimum on the bar. I love going out
there, doing some shadow boxing, and between rounds pulling some
deadlifts. Or just playing fetch with my dog and between retrieves,
doing a few sets of 5. I just do it in whatever I am wearing, and my
belt never leaves the basement. It’s raw and primal.

When my 11-year-old son
Max and I went away to Ocean City, Maryland for a week this summer, I
was not going to pay $20 a day to go to some foo-foo gym where
everyone looks at me like I’m some kind of meathead for doing
deadlifts – if they even let you deadlift in their gym. So Max and
I loaded up the weights from under the deck and took them with us on
vacation. Each morning, I would drive to a parking lot somewhere, and
Max and I would get our deadlifts in. I deadlifted every day, and Max
deadlifted twice that week. That was raw training – primal.

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