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Paul Kelso

Strength coach, Paul Kelso is the author of the brilliant Powerlifting Basics - Texas Style. He's a long time proponent of drug-free abbreviated strength training, the trap bar and his popularising shrug variants.

We get a chance to pick his brains about training for functional strength.

25 November 2002

SFUK : Can I have a brief bio?

Paul Kelso : I grew up near Dallas, Texas. Did two tours as an Army medic, picked up college degrees in History and Literature, sang folksongs in the sixties and seventies, conducted oral history interviews for the Iowa labor unions, scribbled for newspapers, sold fishing tackle and entered bass tournaments, and was Student Dean at a small college in Texas. That last gave me the setting for the TEXAS-STYLE powerlifting book.

Since 1990, I have slogged around Asia as correspondent for POWERLIFTING USA magazine, and cranked out about ninety training articles since 1984. I have been teaching English the last fourteen years in Japan where I live with my wife Sumiko. I was a tall and lanky kid with below average strength and athletic ability, with poor coordination for hand-to-eye sports, etc. Started training when I was about 15, back in 1952. Used the York idea of basic 8-10 exercises, 3 x 8-10 reps, at first, then later had good success with 20 rep squats and chest expansion movements. I was also engaged in amateur wrestling competitions. Took up Olympic style weightlifting when about 17-18, and began training with some pro wrestlers at the same time. There was no powerlifting then, of course.I have no specific martial arts experience, but wrestled pro off and on.

SFUK : Some people believe that weight training builds "dead strength" - ie. it's great for demonstrating strength when using barbells and weight machines, but falls flat when it comes to "mat strength" - strength when wrestling. What's your take on this?

Paul Kelso : These people are "experts" or just guys on the street? Why then do American NFL football players bother with weights? Reminds me of the old time Phys Ed teachers and high school coaches who believed that weights built "artificial" muscles that were inferior to those gained from working in a mill or on a farm. They claimed "natural" muscle was better. What is the physiological distinction? A muscle doesn't know the difference between a barbell and a bale of hay. Training only for competition OLY or PL might not do much for endurance or athletic coordination for another sport, but a weight training program designed for a specific sport does. You can most certainly do endurance training with progressive resistance, but I would think "pumping" for hypertrophy with a high number of sets a bad idea. Weight training of various kinds certainly helped my wrestling in terms of additional leverage and chunking around guys bigger than myself that I could not finesse. And, I believe the combination of lifting and wrestling improved my overall coordination.

SFUK : Can you recommend a routine to build functional strength?

Paul Kelso : No one-size-fits-all program comes to mind offhand. I'd want to know what sport is targeted before designing any programs. The body can only do so many things: squat, pull, push, run, stretch, roll up in a ball, curling motions at the single joints, twists and rotations of various kinds and a few muscle control stunts. There will be similarities between any programs, but I doubt I'd have Tiger Woods doing overhead, snatch-grip squats. Hmmm... lemme think about that. To increase strength without much weight gain a wrestler, for instance, might try adding a few low-rep sets of squats, high pulls, and incline presses or jerks off the rack, for example. Say 3 x 2-3 "with a fairly heavy weight", 85-90 % of 1-rep max once a week, after a good warm up or mat workout.

SFUK : Do you think you can increase speed through weight training?

Paul Kelso : I know that programs have been devised that help. Billy Cannon of LSU, all-American running back in the mid-1950s, training in high school and college under guidance of Alvin Roy, certainly demonstrated that weight training aided him and the rest of the team. That was the great breakthrough in weight training for athletics, putting the lie to the old mossbacksā assertions that weights made you slow or "muscle-bound" whatever the hell that meant. Roy went on to design programs for the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City NFL teams and served as a trainer for the USA weightlifting team.

SFUK : Do you think Olympic style weightlifting is better for wrestlers/martial artists?

Paul Kelso : Better than common bodybuilding or powerlifting training? Probably yes, because of the emphasis on speed, explosion and timing. But OLY is very vertical, so I'm not sure how well it carries over. A wider variety of movements might work better.

SFUK : What's your view on plyometrics? Do they work? Are they dangerous?

Paul Kelso : I don't know much about this, but I know that a number of powerlifters have decided that plyometrics does nothing for them, and some think it dangerous. OLY lifters have experimented with it "the speed/extension/explosion thing" but powerlifting is about moving a weight through the shortest possible distance with the shortest possible range of motion. However, even some PLrs are now incorporating speed-training days, doing 40-yard sprints, tire-dragging and vertical jumps. I realize we may not be talking about exactly the same thing here.

SFUK : Many people have trouble putting on weight, and you're an expert in this subject - care to share?

Paul Kelso : Well, I don't know if I'm an "expert" I put a lot of muscular weight on myself and from the letters I get, others. I have never used AAS, so I can't advise on that, and won't try, except to say that on a gut level I admire physical culture more than the pharmaceutical. After 50 years around the gym Iām getting an idea of what the questions are. I'd say avoid over training, although that varies. When young I wrestled 2-3 days a week and lifted 2-3 days. I had fabulously short recovery time. Now I weight train 4-6 times a month and am trying to lose weight. No wrestling at age 65, thank you just the same.

I'd say a fellow should stick to a few basic multi-joint movements that involve the most muscles at the same time, train for overall growth and don't specialize on single body parts. Do workouts of about one hour tops and twenty sets for the full body, not per body part. Get enough rest and sleep. Be lazy when not training. Stop filling up with junk food. Learn about nutrition and learn to cook, or hire an Iowa farm grandma to take over your kitchen. Spend more money on real food and less on supplements. Learn to make "blender bombs" as it is more effective to drink protein than to chew it for weight gaining, in my opinion, keeping in mind that too much protein is deposited as fat. I had great success with the "squats, food and youth" program when young, but older guys can gain as well.

I gained ten pounds of lean muscle in my 50s with "squat, push, pull, go home" type programs. Try the 20 rep squat system, or do more squat reps per set, and incorporate a few deep breathing and ribcage stretching movements into your routine. This seems to have a metabolic effect, although not for everyone. I include some courses and an entire chapter on these questions in my new shrug book.

SFUK : Shrugs - Your training routines typically focus on large compound exercises, like deadlifts, squats and presses - why the fascination with an isolation exercise like shrugs?

Paul Kelso : When I first stumbled on to shrug variations back in the mid-60s, they became sort of a hobby, if not an obsession, to see how far I could take the "shrug principle" My new book, modestly titled KELSO'S SHRUG BOOK, now lists almost 30 shrug variations (including some "new" ones) that can be used for all kinds of purposes using a wide selection of equipment. I found that when doing bent over rows or even dips to failure that by using a "shrug" motion after the arms had failed I could continue working the targeted torso muscles. This suggested that the major muscles had not been completely fatigued by the traditional exercise, because assisting smaller muscles had failed first. So I dinked around from all angles with any exercise using the shoulder girdle or scapular movement and figured out positive and negative shrug variations. I began applying the "shrug principle" to lifts and stages within lifts. For instance, there is an entire chapter devoted to shrug variations for the bench press. These develop stability under the bar and aid in keeping the shoulder blades together öor as some say the "Lateral Arch".

SFUK : What's in your new book?

Paul Kelso : In general, a greatly expanded update of all my shrug ideas and some other matters from my writings over the years. In addition to the "How to's" and "Why" of all the shrug varieties, I again include training with trap bars and chest expansion and growth techniques. I have revised a lot, adding new material and trashing a few things I no longer believe in. Listed the Kelso's Shrug Laws as well. The new book is about 75% larger than the previous shrug book. There are lots of photos and drawings illustrating the ideas and considerable history and anecdotes about others who have used these methods. There are about ten specific courses in the book and a lot of info about how to incorporate the shrug variations into your existing courses. An extensive table of contents and other info can be seen on the publisher's site, .

SFUK : If you could give one piece of advice for an athlete what would it be?

Paul Kelso : Hooo boy! Where to start? Ok, it's like this: other than showing up regularly, don't change your routine month to month based on the most recent Hungarian-Chinese training rumor or what is in the latest glossy magazine, and don't waste your money buying every new miracle compound on the market.


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