December 06, 2023 4 min read
OLD TRAINING BOOKS - BOB PEOPLES
By Shane Robert
I hated reading when I was a kid. It involved far too much sitting and not enough moving for my hyperactive life. If I did read, it was a comic book, and it would take a full day to get through a single issue since I would have to take 30-60 minute breaks between pages to run around and play. I’m not ashamed to say that I was one of those kids who eventually learned to enjoy reading thanks to the wizarding world when, around the time I was 11, I read the first Harry Potter book. That opened the door to reading for me, and though I can’t pinpoint exactly when, at some point shortly thereafter, I started reading a lot of non-fiction books, particularly books about history. This is something that I still do.
In the lifting world, people are always looking for the new big thing that will take their training to the next level. I, on the other hand, find myself looking more and more into the past to find answers or inspiration. Many great lifters of yesterday put in the time and effort to find what works and what doesn’t (at least for them) and were not afraid to experiment with something weird or different. Thankfully for us, most of them were all too happy to share that information with the masses.
One of my favorite lifters from the past was Bob Peoples. Bob was a Tennessee farmer who was born in 1910. He advocated lifting heavy weights in an era when most people thought that lifting was not only useless but detrimental to health, especially heavy weights. Given this environment, Bob was lifting on the most rudimentary equipment, most of which he built himself out of timber in a basement gym that he hand-dug out of the side of a hill. Despite these supposed shortcomings, Bob built his strength up to the point of completing a 725-pound deadlift in competition, at a bodyweight of 181 pounds. This lift would STILL qualify as the 7th highest deadlift in the USAPL 82.5kg weight class.
Bob wrote a “book” called Developing Physical Strength. It’s a short book (a pamphlet really) at only 50 pages, and in fact, the content is quite a bit shorter than that, as much of it shows designs for the many machines and lifting apparatuses that Peoples built over the years. Don’t be fooled by the brevity – each sentence is packed with insightful information. Indeed, I find it refreshing to read a training book that shares concepts without spelling them out, leaving the reader to experiment for themselves. For example, Bob will say things like, “If one is weak on the start, one should use leg work along with the regular deadlift. If one is weak on the finish, use the high deadlift.” He goes no further to explain what kind of leg work, how often, sets or reps, etc.
Peoples shares different training systems that he utilized throughout the years and which of those worked or didn’t work. He discusses the importance of working heavy and finding ways to overload the body, advocating for the use of what we would call a power rack (which was virtually unheard of in his day). He also pioneered what is now known as progressive range of motion training (PROM). Bob recognized the importance of eccentric training and was one of the first people to regularly use isometrics in all three forms (yielding, overcoming, and functional). Many of what we would consider “modern-day” training concepts are discussed in Developing Physical Strength. The need to do assistance exercises to build a lift is discussed, as well as the importance of what we call GPP (General Physical Preparedness).
What did Bob’s training look like? As previously mentioned, he tried a whole host of training templates and setups over his years. However, it was the simple Double Progressive System that he found the most consistent benefit from. Training 4-5 days per week and deadlifting each of those days, Peoples would do 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps ramping to a top set of hard effort. Whenever possible, he would try to add a rep to the top set, progressing from 3-5 reps before adding load. Occasionally he would do a second set, 50 pounds heavier than the top set, progressing from 1-3 reps, at which point that would become his new 3-5 rep weight. Included in this training were squats or other leg work, partial deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts, isometric movements, heavy ab work, and various presses. All done after a long day of farm work.
Perhaps Bob’s most enduring mark on the world comes through his pupil, strength megastar Paul Anderson, whose famous PROM squats in a hole were an exact copy of something Peoples did with his deadlift). Paul was so much stronger than his competitive (Russian) counterparts, that the Soviet coaches famously studied him and used the information to build out the now-famous Soviet System of training. This system has been so influential on modern strength training, that it would be impossible to imagine what the lifting world would look like without it. Without Paul Anderson, there would be no Soviet System as we know it. Without Bob Peoples, there would be no Paul Anderson. Ergo, without Bob Peoples, there would be no modern strength training.
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