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Building Quads with Georg Hackenschmidt

A great workout in tribute to a wrestling and strongman legend

by Poliquin Group™ Editorial Staff
3/4/2010 1:50:20 PM

In the world of sports, every so often someone invents some special move that changes the way the sport is played. In many cases the move is named after the inventor; for example, there is the Axel jump in figure skating, the Thomas flair in gymnastics and the Ali shuffle in boxing. In weight training, one individual changed the way we looked at leg training. The result: the Hack squat.

This great leg exercise, which is basically a deadlift with the bar positioned behind the body, was popularized by Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt. Of German and Swedish descent, Hackenschmidt was born in 1878 in Estonia, and walked the talk of physical and athletic fitness until his death in 1968 in England.

“The Hack,” as he was known, started his pursuit of physical perfection at a young age. Hackenschmidt distinguished himself by being named the best gymnast at his school when he was 14 years old – all 120 pounds, 4 feet 7 inches of him. Who knew he would grow to 5 feet 9 inches and weigh a rock-hard 215 pounds! When he was 18 years old he could lift 200 pounds overhead with just one arm, and in 1898 he exceeded strongman legend Eugen Sandow’s world record one-arm overhead lift of 255 pounds with a best of 269 pounds – later he did 279. That same year he also snatched 196.5 pounds with his right hand, a world record.

One of Hackenschmidt’s favorite exercises was to assume a wrestler’s bridge and perform a pullover and press – now consider that, generally speaking, most athletes perform this exercise with only their bodyweight. But that wasn’t much of a challenge for The Hack, so he applied the principle of progressive resistance to this difficult exercise – he once lifted 311 pounds in this manner, a world record that stood for 50 years. And there’s more: He could also grasp a 100-pound dumbbell in his right hand and a 100-pound dumbbell in his left, and hold them sideways at shoulder height in a crucifix position; he also did a one-handed deadlift with a 660-pound stone (yes, one hand!) and placed third in the 1901 World Weightlifting Championships. Whew!

Impressive as those lifts were, Hackenschmidt was better known for his prowess as a wrestler, which in his era was a sport that was followed with the same degree of enthusiasm that fans of football and basketball exhibit today. His popularity was such that his world heavyweight championship match on September 4, 1911 – a rematch against heavyweight champion Frank Gotch – drew 30,000 spectators and a gate of $87,000. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to $1,978,276! Just how good was he?

For starters, Hackenschmidt won more than 3,000 matches (yes, winning every single one) between 1889 and 1908. Although he claimed the title of world heavyweight champion first in 1901 when he bested Ahmed Madrali of Turkey in Greco-Roman wrestling, Hackenschmidt was considered the undisputed champion in 1905 when he defeated Tom Jenkins, the American champion. Hackenschmidt’s accomplishments were all built on his lifelong passion to push the limits of strength and conditioning.

Hackenschmidt was considered a masterful technician with great quickness, strength – incidentally, he is credited for inventing the “bearhug” – and unparalleled conditioning. In fact, on a bet he once jumped over a table 100 times nonstop (and, incidentally, in his mid-80s, part of his exercise regime included jumping over a chair 50 times at least once a week). Along the same subject, in 1902 he reportedly did 550 reps with 110 pounds in the Hack squat.

Many of Hackenschmidt’s training ideas are detailed in his book, The Way to Live (available through Bill Hinbern’s fantastic weight training bookstore, www.superstrengthbooks.com), which is a fascinating read, as it discusses so many aspects of his athletic career. A workout system he favored was to divide his training into four series of exercises. The fourth series of exercises focused on leg training, which typically consisted of his “Hack squat” followed by back squats and leg presses in which the barbell was balanced on his feet (ah, don’t try this at home).

During Hackenschmidt’s time exercise machines weren’t exactly commonplace. So when he sought to develop an isolation exercise for the quadriceps, he had a barbell in mind (the so-called Hack squat machine wasn’t developed until years later). Interestingly, it’s claimed that the name of the exercise comes from the word hacke, which in English is “heel” – but with the first four letters of his last name spelling H-A-C-K and Hack being his nickname…well, you decide.

A very low-cost alternative to back squatting, the Hack squat will promote top-level growth in the vastus medialis, the teardrop-shaped muscle of the lower leg that crosses the kneecap. Granted, using a barbell instead of a machine makes the movement uncomfortable and reduces the amount of weight that can be used, but its effectiveness overrides any comfort problems. By the way, I have seen pro bodybuilding champion Milos Sarcev, IFBB, used 950 pounds on a Hack squat machine.

With this background, I designed this program as a tribute to the legendary athlete Georg Hackenschmidt.

Pre-Workout Briefing
Do this routine for six workouts, working the legs once every four or five days. This program uses the principle of post-exhaustion tri-sets, which is the opposite of the pre-exhaustion supersets and tri-sets popularized by the late Arthur Jones, founder of the Nautilus and MedX corporations.

A post-exhaustion superset entails performing the most neurologically demanding exercise first. As such, you’ll do a compound exercise followed by an isolation exercise that taps into the same motor unit pool of the muscle you want to focus on. When Jones trained Mr. America Casey Viator, he would have him perform a series such as leg extensions followed immediately by leg presses followed immediately by squats. Viator, in one workout, used 750 pounds x 20 reps, 225 pounds x 20 reps in the leg extension, and then 13 full squats with 502 pounds! In a post-exhaustion protocol, you would do the squat last.

For this workout, however, I substituted Hack squats for back squats, and did the exercise that used the smallest motor unit pool last. And this is key: You have to select an exercise that recruits a lot of motor units – therefore, you would not follow a squat with a side adductor raise. Also in contrast to Jones, I vary the reps and tempo of each exercise (and I assume that Viator was shooting for 20 reps on that last set). The idea is to knock off as many motor units from the motor-unit pool as possible.

Please try to follow the tempo prescribed – generally, when trainees go through this type of excruciating routine, they tend to start getting sloppy with the tempo by the time they get to this exercise. I recommend that you guess light and complete all the reps rather than going too heavy and end up looking like a penguin having an epileptic fit. And make sure that all weights are pre-set so you don’t inadvertently get some extra rest by screwing around with the poundages.

Hackenschmidt Tribute Workout for Quads
A-1. Barbell Hack Squats: 3 x 6-8, 5010, rest 10 seconds
A-2. 45-Degree Leg Presses: 3 x 12-15, 2010, rest 10 seconds
A-3. Leg Extensions: 3 x 12-15, 2012, rest 120 seconds

Here are some tips on the exercises you’ll perform.

Barbell Hack Squats. Hackenschmidt had sought to develop an isolation exercise for the quadriceps, and he succeeded. However, in his heyday, exercise machines weren’t exactly commonplace. Georg invented the exercise with a barbell in mind, and the so-called Hack squat machine wasn’t developed until years later.

In order to perform a true Barbell Hack Squat, you need a barbell and an adjustable rack so you can place the barbell at an optimal height for picking up and racking the bar. Your heels should be elevated by at least a two-by-four so you can squat with a straight back and your hips will be under your shoulders in the bottom position (I prefer to use a wedged board instead of a two-by-four so that the exercise is more comfortable for the arches, but a two-by-four will do).

Set the two-by-four in the middle of the power rack. Set a barbell on the rack so it is about four to six inches lower than your gluteal line. Standing with your back to the bar, grab the barbell, preferably with straps. This is one of the rare instances where I do recommend the use of straps.

Walk forward until your heels rest on the board. Initiate the squatting motion by allowing your knees to travel as far forward as possible, without allowing your glutes to move back. Keep a slight arch in the lower back. Once your knees have gone as far forward as possible, lower your hips to the bottom position of the squat. Be sure to keep your back upright by pushing the bottom of your sternum up. Don’t allow the shoulders to round forward, and be certain your hips are under your shoulders in the bottom position.

45-Degree Leg Press. For those of you who are familiar with my training concepts, you know I’m not a big fan of the leg press machine, as it builds nonfunctional strength. However, since the focus of this workout is hypertrophy and not necessarily functional strength, I’m more than willing to make an exception. I especially like the Atlantis Pivot Press, which I have in my gym, because it has an optimal strength curve for this exercise. However, if your gym doesn’t carry it, use the standard 45-degree leg presses.

I don’t think it’s necessary to describe how to do a leg press, but consider that when you extend the hips and knees, make sure to keep the tension on the thighs by going to 95 percent of knee lockout. And, to prevent any dizziness, make sure you breathe in during the eccentric contraction and exhale on the concentric contraction. Again, the key is to keep the tension on the muscle at all times.

Leg Extension. Yeah, you read correctly: leg extension. As you probably know by now from my previous writings, I don’t generally recommend leg extensions because they expose the knees to undue stress. This is why I don’t have such a machine in my gym (which is basically designed along the lines of Noah’s ark in that I pretty much have two of everything). But, when the legs are pre-exhausted from the previous two exercises, you won’t be able to use much weight on them, so the stress on the knees is significantly reduced…plus, you’ll be doing this routine for only six workouts.

If available, use an Atlantis leg extension machine because this brand’s conservative angle and rounded-edge seat pad reduces the stress on the knees and the roller pads are self-aligning and therefore don’t need adjusting. Keep your head in a neutral position (avoiding the tendency to poke your head forward) and don’t grip the handles too tightly, as it will raise your blood pressure and increase the likelihood of dizziness. The Strive plate loaded machine is also a good one.

By the time you walk/wobble off this machine, you’ll probably feel nauseated. That’s quite normal because of the high lactate levels you’ll have generated. The good news is that high levels of lactate are linked to high levels of growth hormone, which is a biochemical involved in fat metabolism. But because of this effect, don’t eat anything more than a light meal within two hours before doing this grueling routine or your pre-workout meal will end up redecorating the gym floor.

One trick to help you maximize your results is to take branched-chain amino acids during the workout, such as BCAA Excellence 2.0. This formula now includes lysine – an essential amino acid needed for growth and tissue repair. As for other benefits, this product will increase exercise endurance and post-workout testosterone levels, and reduce post-workout soreness and muscle catabolism.

Keep in mind that this routine is very demanding physiologically and psychologically – it’s challenging enough to do the late, great Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt proud.