You’re a skinny 16 year old who wants to build some muscle.
Scenario #1: 2018
You Google “how to build muscle”.
9,970,000 results… well, fuck.
You start cycling through articles about creatine supplementation, anabolic windows, supersets and drop-sets, optimal rep ranges for hypertrophy, periodisation, what is cock-docking (you get distracted), maximum recoverable volume…
Shitting buggery this is complicated, where do I start?
Scenario #2: 1958
You walk into the local gymnasium which smells of sweat, rust and Bovril.
What’s that over there – a human man or a baby rhino, it’s hard to tell?
Whatever it is, it’s deadlifting 500 pounds, smoking a fag and wearing Brylcreem.
“How do I get big and strong”? you ask.
He dumps a barbell on you.
“Kid, lift this until you’re exhausted, stuff your face with food, rest up and get some sleep, then come back again in two days time.”
Now, while these two scenarios may be exaggerated (only slightly), many people starting their fitness journey in the modern era will almost certainly be afflicted by the former example of analysis paralysis.
With all the noise out there on social media, conflicting advice in internet articles, science bogged down with complexity for complexity’s sake, the supplement industry constantly selling you shit, it can be difficult to know where to start and who to believe.
And, sure, while the 1950s were plagued with economic austerity, polio, having to crap in a garden shed and the public subjugation of blacks, gays and women, at least things were simple when it came to building muscle.
You picked heavy things up and put them down again, you ate lots of food, you slept, and you took life easy.
This was the uncomplicated gospel preached by the top bodybuilders of the day – all of them natural, all with attainable physiques.
Anyone could follow their weightlifting routines and dietary advice and, with consistency and perseverance, achieve success.
In this article we’re going to look at one such routine from a true bodybuilding legend – Clarence Ross.
Winner of the 1945 Mr America contest, Clarence Ross was one of the most recognisable faces of ‘golden age’ bodybuilding.
He adorned the cover of numerous muscle magazines in the 40s, 50s and 60s and was, along with John Grimek, one of only two men to twice defeat Steve Reeves in competition.
Ross was one of the first bodybuilders to pioneer the thick chest, and his classical physique, a Da Vinci wet dream made flesh, a near perfect blend of size and definition, is today still regarded as one of the best to ever grace the stage.
Importantly, like many of his contemporaries, such as Grimek and Reg Park, Ross was as strong as a bull.
His outlook was that if you wanted to build muscle, first you needed to prioritise getting strong and powerful, as, quite simply, strength equals size.
Ross could squat over 400 pounds for 10 reps and, on one occasion when training together, Park was shocked to see him nonchalantly incline press a pair of 160 pound dumbbells like they were baby cauliflowers.
And, like the other golden era greats, Ross acquired his strength, muscles and knowledge of what worked best by his own trial-and-error (covered below), not by reading peer reviewed articles in the NSCA about bosu balls or subscribing to some attention-seeking cumtrumpet on YouTube.
In the late 1930s, when Ross started training, he followed a single set system for building muscle, which was the conventional wisdom of the time.
These three-day-per-week routines would usually comprise a dozen or so exercises, with no more than one set of ten reps performed per exercise.
Although he gained 30 pounds in 18 months on this routine, Ross plateaued and his interest in bodybuilding waned.
Then, in 1942, while enlisted in the forces, he came under the wing of veteran bodybuilder Leo Stern, who reignited Ross’s interest in lifting weights with what he termed a ‘split set’ routine.
These routines were a type of circuit training where exercises were revisited throughout the workout.
Again, the routine was performed three days per week, and Ross began to relax his form and bring in more ‘cheating’ style movements in order to shift heavier weight.
This routine yielded significant gains in size and strength, and, with a few modifications, such as splitting upper and lower body work into two sessions on training days, introducing some specialisation blocks and Olympic style lifts for power work, Ross used this protocol to train for the 1945 Mr America contest.
After his victory in 1945, Ross became one of the first bodybuilders to advocate a new trend – the ‘multiple set system’ for building size and strength.
After the Mr. America contest, which I am proud to have won, I went into a regular set series program for the first time, performing this routine three times a week, 3 sets, 10 reps each exercise: squat, calf raise, bench press, bentover rowing, upright rowing, barbell curl, reverse curl, triceps curl and situp.
Later in life, Ross advocated this training methodology as the most effective way to build size and strength, and admitted that his progress would have been far better had he followed it when starting his training.
During the post-1945 era of his training, Earle Liederman, a writer for Muscle Power magazine, watched Ross train at Bert Goodrich’s gym in Hollywood (where Steve Reeves also trained and worked as an instructor) prior to the filming of ‘So You Want To Be A Muscle Man’, a 1949 comedy short in which Ross starred.
This exact workout appeared in the January 1950 edition of Muscle Power magazine in an article entitled ‘Watching Clarence Ross Train’.
Here is the mammoth full-body workout in its entirety (including sets, reps and poundage) which, according to Liederman, took Ross two hours to complete, taking roughly one minute rest between all sets and working out like “a mass of energy leaping from one thing to another with forced determination”.
|Exercise||Sets and reps||Poundage|
|Squat||4 x 10||260, 310, 380, 310|
|Leg Press||2 x 16-20||585|
|Leg press calf raises||1 x 100||275|
|Bench press||3 x 10||260|
|Incline press||3 x 10||105 dumbbells|
|Barbell row||3 x 10||170|
|Side raises||3 x 10||50, 40, 35|
|Barbell curl||3 x 10||170, 170, 165|
|One arm bent over curl||1 x 10||60|
|Behind the neck press||3 x 10||120|
|Behind the neck chins||1 x 10|
|Forward bends/twists||3 sets|
|Bench push ups||3 x 20|
|Sit ups||1 set|
|Leg raises||1 set|
|Bar hanging||1 set|
|Neck work||1 set|
Here are some guidelines for following this routine.
Work out three times per week on non-consecutive days.
For example: Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.
This full-body approach allows you to hit the main compound lifts three times per week while still getting fours days to recover and grow.
It should be self-evident that squatting three times per week is going to disrupt homeostasis and trigger growth far more effectively than squatting once per week.
For each exercise, start the routine with a weight you can easily lift for the prescribed reps.
Then, in a linear progression fashion, add 2.5kg/5lbs to the bar each session.
If progress stalls, make doubly sure you’re in a caloric surplus and getting enough rest and sleep, as this is usually where the problem lies.
If you are, then it’s time to change things up – I would suggest something like Reg Park’s 1960 ‘Strength and Bulk Training’ 5×5 course.
As Ross pointed out, a routine “must be changed from time to time to make it more progressive and interesting to avoid the sticking point in training and to keep enthusiasm going strong”.
In his own magazine articles, Ross advocated a balanced and substantial diet, with lots protein, clean carbs, and fruit and veg.
He avoided “fattening” foods, and, like many of golden era bodybuilders, drank inordinate quantities of fresh milk.
For hardgainers, he prescribed drinking a glass of milk five to six times per day, between and with regular meals.
Ensure you are getting at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night, and, in the words of Ross, as much as possible “take life easy”.
Remember, your muscles don’t grow when you’re lifting weights, they grow when you’re recovering from lifting weights.
Like Reg Park, Ross was an advocate of employing ‘cheat reps’ with certain movements such as barbell rows in order to up the intensity.
Cheating, in this case, refers to using added body motion and looser form (e.g. using shoulders and legs for rows) to allow the handling of heavier weights.
Heavier weights = better strength gains.
Ross always maintained a careful record of all of his workouts and routines, detailing sets, reps and exercises, as well as notes concerning his week-to-week progress.
He also stressed the importance of tracking progress with photographs:
Having photos taken is a more satisfactory way of evaluating the physique than looking in a mirror or relying on the observations of friends.
For with pictures you have a permanent record and can study each detail of your development at your leisure and intelligently decide what corrective training measures must be taken.
Bodybuilding is a long-term pursuit, so don’t set yourself up to achieve your goals overnight.
Allow yourself enough time to get into shape – if not you’ll grow impatient, worry about progress, commit training errors or maybe even incur an injury.
Keep adding weight to the bar, maintaining a caloric surplus, and sleeping eight hours a night.
Be consistent and you’ll get there.
Clarence Ross’s approach to training was characterised by simplicity, consistency and hard work.
If you’re new to training or have hit a plateau, take a cue from Ross and his buddies from the golden era, not from a £79 workout PDF that’s being flogged by some roidy moron prescribing HIIT, tricep kickbacks and protein pancakes.
Cut out all the extraneous bullshit and get back to old-school basics – a heavy barbell, full body workouts three times a week, and plenty of good quality food and rest.
Stop wasting time on the details, on articles discussing the latest research into optimal hypertrophy rep ranges, and focus on the bigger picture, i.e. doggedly getting your squat up to 200kg.
Do that and everything else will fall into place.
Shout out to Henry at Gymtalk for the blog.