Bob Whelan's Expert Q & A!

Bob Whelan answers your questions on many topics such as squats, grip training, MuscleTown USA, and much more!
Squats: Back Vs. Front.

I need some advice on the front squat. Is it a good alternative to the regular (back) squat? What's the best grip to use?

front squat is still "a squat" and it really makes no difference if you do it or the back squat version, as far as your routine goes. It's more a matter of tradition that most people do back squats, though front squats are more tricky to perform than regular squats.

It's my opinion that the front squat is at least as good, or better; unless, of course, you're competing as a powerlifter, but even then it will take a minimum adjustment to switch over to the regular squat, with no loss of strength-I've done it. Do what you like and prefer. If you prefer regular back squats, do them. They can be great too.

Many feel, me included, that the front squat is an even harder version of the squat than the regular one. I've done the front squat for years, with back squats too. I only do front squats now because back squats hurt my neck area. Every time I back squat, I end up with a stiff neck and can't turn my head for a few days. I think I'm getting a warning following decades of heavy weights on my spine.

Everyone is different, so if you like front squats, just replace the back squats with them. No big deal. You're doing no less work, that's for sure, and maybe even more work. Ask Olympic lifters about front squats. You use less weight as you must stand straight or else you'll dump the bar.

It makes you use better form and is more leg specific and less backand- glute specific than the back squat. You don't actually grip the bar during the front squat.

My finger tips just touch the bar and keep it in place. The bar rests in a groove in my delts, and my fingers just help keep it there. There's no gripping involved. If you're in a power rack-which you should be for the front squat, with pins set in place to catch the bar if you have to dump it-you've nothing to worry about. Just get your balance and form down pat first, and then build up the weight.

Many non-Olympic lifters like the cross-arms method. Olympic lifters usually don't use cross-arms when front squatting, since cross-arms are not used in Olympic lifting. I don't cross my arms. Use what feels comfortable to you. Remember, the bar is supported in a groove in your deltoids. Once you find what feels comfortable, and you can keep good form and balance, then you should be able to up the poundage quickly. Again, take your time to master form with a light weight before you go increasing the poundage.

The style that you use to support the bar (cross-armed or Olympic) is really not that important, as it's not actually involved in lifting the weight. I sometimes do a technique demo for my clients. I do a little jig with a light bar on my shoulders to show how the bar is wedged in my delts. I then do some front squats with my arms out straight just to demonstrate that the key is bar positioning and balance, and has nothing to do with grip. On the final few reps, due to total body fatigue, you must resist slouching on your form.

You'll need to strain to hold good form in order to get the last few reps. Gravity pulls you forward with the weight, and it's harder to stay straight up when you're tired. This is when your finger tips might help hold the bar in place. Sometimes I try "one too many" and end up dumping the bar in the rack. Some people, especially those new to the front squat, may feel more comfortable with a secure grip on the bar while squatting.

Check out, as they now have a seven-foot bar, weighing 52 pounds, that has parallel-grip handles made especially for front squatting. Ken Mannie, strength coach at Michigan State University, has his charges front squat with this bar, and he loves the feel of the bar while front squatting. A bar with this grip may solve your gripping problem while front squatting.

Upright Row

The upright row is considered a dangerous exercise by some. What's your opinion of this exercise?

As I've gotten older I've developed an appreciation of Stuart's conservative approach to form and exercise selection. I used to do the upright row with my hands close together, and pull the bar all the way up to my chin. It never bothered me when I was younger, but does now. I still do it (but differently) and think it's a good exercise as long as you don't pull the bar up too high and don't use a close grip. I believe it becomes increasingly dangerous if you go above the lower chest level.

I always do a few warm-up sets in the upright row before the heavy sets. For both warm-up and work sets I keep my hands right on the edge of the knurl mark on a York bar (about 16 inches apart). I lower the bar slowly with a good bottom pause, and raise it no higher than chest/nipple level.

If you do the movement this way, your chances of injury are dramatically reduced. Of course, if you still get a negative reaction even to the modified version, eliminate the exercise. Never persist with any exercise that causes pain or any other type of negative reaction.

Deadlifting Frequency

Some coaches feel that intensive bent-legged deadlifting on one day and intensive stiff-legged deadlifting on another day each week is too much for the lower back, but others feel it's okay. What's your position? What do you have your clients do, as a general rule?

In my opinion, deadlifting of any form should not be done more than once per week. The muscles of the lower back frequently need more recovery time than other musculature. The deadlift is one of the toughest exercises and there are many individuals, powerlifters included, who only deadlift once every other week (twice per month).

There may be a minority of individuals who can get away with doing a variation of deadlifts twice per week, but I feel that would be serious overtraining for the vast majority of lifters. Deadlifting hard and heavy once per week is the frequency I recommend.

Grip Training

Some people recommend training the grip hard once or at most twice a week, but a few recommend training it almost every day, rotating a number of different exercises. How much is enough with grip work, and should the grip be worked more frequently than other bodyparts?

I may be the wrong person to ask this question of, as I do grip work just to assist my strength training, not to compete in any form of grip competition. It may be different if you're seriously training to excel in a grip competition or demonstration, such as closing a certain gripper.

I recommend doing your grip training just like you would any other muscle- hitting it twice every 7-10 days as per the "commandments" of Whelan Strength Training. Why should the grip get any special extra attention, unless you're really involved in grip competition, which I'm not, and neither are my clients.

It's great if you have a strong grip, but your major lifts should be as impressive, if not more so. I get a good chuckle when I see some of the guys who are so into grip work that they seem to forget they have a body attached to their hands. I know a guy who can almost close the number three gripper, which is very impressive and a lot better than I can do, but he can only bench press about 250 pounds and squat maybe 350, if he's lucky. He thinks he's a strong guy just because of his grip.

I think some people are getting their priorities mixed up. Work your whole body, which includes the grip. Don't put emphasis on the grip at the expense of the major strength training movements. People who can only do feats of strength with the grip aren't real strongmen in my opinion. If their squat, bench press, deadlift, military press, etc, are done with heavy weights, and they have a strong grip, to me, that's impressive. To have a really strong grip and be weak in the major barbell movements, is getting it all wrong.

Muscletown USA Book

What do you think of the book Muscletown USA, by John D. Fair?

In my opinion, although it unfairly treated Hoffman too negatively, Fair's book is excellent. It's full of historical information and is a fascinating read. The facts in it can't be disputed, but some of the negative things about Hoffman were unfairly portrayed. The same effort wasn't made to dig in detail into the personal lives of other major characters in Iron Game history.

I don't know of any new book coming out with a more positive spin on the York/Hoffman side, but I'd love to see it. The problem is that Fair seems to go out of his way to show Hoffman's bad side. He seemed biased towards Joe Weider and cynical/negative about Hoffman. Factual information can still be unfair.

People usually dig deeper into personal negative things if they don't like you, and omit some of the positive things. (The opposite applies if they like you). If you can keep that in mind, Muscletown USA is a great book.

I love Hoffman. His influence got me started in all this when I bought my first copies of MUSCULAR DEVELOPMENT and STRENGTH AND HEALTH, in 1964, when I was ten years old. I admire the man and won't let Fair's book change my admiration for Hoffman. I'd like to see the same dirt-digging effort put into a book about other leading Iron Game figures, past and present, to help balance things.

Past Training Beliefs

What's the best description of how the old-timers really trained?

The only real absolute about the oldtimers is that they trained naturally, hard and progressively. They may have had crude equipment and limited information, but they made the most of what they had. If you take a close look at old Iron Game literature, you'll find a common theme: health, strength, vigor and longevity.

Cosmetic results, although mentioned, were clearly secondary. The cosmetic results were believed to be the end result of "doing the right thing," and were a reward for effort, discipline and a lifestyle commitment. The titles of the popular books and magazines reflected these values. There were STRENGTH AND HEALTH, HEALTH AND STRENGTH, PHYSICAL CULTURE, STRENGTH, THE STRONG MAN, and numerous other titles.

Compare these titles to the best-selling training books and magazines of today-the difference is astounding. The pioneers of Physical Culture were not just body beautiful posers. They were strong! Eugene Sandow and others competed in various feats of strength. They had to make do with crude training facilities and equipment, but they made the most of what they had. They had to endure the wrath of society, as attaining health and strength was not a trendy thing to do in those days.

This is how the term health nut got started (they were definitely not called buff!) Even though they had far less information available, they swore by the information they did have. How many of us truly can say we're using the information we have? Jack LaLanne was so dedicated that he trained his mind to visualize disgusting images at the very thought of junk food. Cosmetic results were seen as the reward for correct living and hard training.

Many of our Physical Culture forefathers went beyond physical health and were concerned with mental and spiritual health as well. Peary Rader frequently wrote articles about spiritual health; and Bob Hoffman and Bernarr MacFadden, in addition to writing about training, wrote about practically everything dealing with health and happiness, including moral issues.

We now have much better overall equipment, gyms, and nutritional and health knowledge. But we also have the horrendous mess of drug abuse. Public acceptance/involvement of training is much higher now. But most of the training principles have been around a long time.

There's nothing really new as far as strength-training principles are concerned. It just gets re-packaged. Read the "Letters from Chas" on, and his articles in old issues of HARDGAINER, as he repeatedly covers this topic. There's no single training philosophy that defines the old-timers. Klein, Maxick, Cyr and Grimek trained differently, just as individuals today train differently. Chas stated that none of today's training principles are really new. The only exception I can think of that may be considered new is the concept of very slow speed training.

Arthur Jones - Methods & Writing

I'm curious as to what you think about Arthur Jones, his writing and strength training methods. Also, do you consider yourself an advocate of HIT?

I have a great deal of respect for Jones, and consider him to be one of the brightest minds in the history of strength training. I didn't discover him right away though. My early influences were mainly from York (Hoffman and Grimek), Brad Steiner and later from the original IRON MAN from Peary Rader.

In the late 1970s I was temporarily influenced a great deal by Heavy Duty from Mike Mentzer, but later realized that he just paraphrased and repackaged Arthur Jones' theories, so it was really Jones I was influenced by. I don't agree with everything Jones says, but most of it. He definitely had a big impact on my beliefs.

I frequently use multiple sets, low reps and barbells. I believe how you train depends on the goal of your training. A powerlifter has to do low reps, multiple sets and use a barbell. A basketball player doesn't. I don't believe you have to go to failure to get good results so long as you train progressively. It depends on the goal of your training and your circumstances.

The methods promoted in HARDGAINER will pack on muscle and strength for all who conscientiously and diligently put them into practice. But the practical application demands great resolve, dedication, effort and persistence. We provide the training advice you need, but only you alone can provide the resolve, dedication, effort and persistence. Rise to the challenge, and then you'll reap the wonderful rewards!

When it comes to training stimulus, I'm mainly a poundage guy. A lot of HIT guys never talk about poundage, it's always only about going to failure. I always put poundage (in good form) first, ahead of going to failure or anything else as far as training stimulus goes. Although I'm a big supporter of going to failure, and controlled speed of motion training (for some trainees), for me they are clearly secondary to load progression.

I have a broad view of strength training and can see many ways that work. I don't feel the need to try to persuade people to do exactly what I do, nor do I get personally offended by differences in training philosophy other than those which use drug support. The most important thing is that you're natural and trying to train hard and lift heavier. If so, we're brothers, and there's no need to argue about minor details.


In strength training, it's all good as long as you follow the sensible rules of safety, progression and recovery as expressed in HARDGAINER. If you do power cleans or don't do them, I don't care so long as you don't get hurt. Same with odd objects, going to failure, etc. Just don't get injured!

I see the various modes and methods of strength training as tools in a tool chest. A craftsman can collect and use many tools to perform his art. Only a fool would throw useful tools away and insist on using just a few tools. Different tools can be used for different people. Some need low reps and multiple sets due to their goals, and some need one set to failure.

Regardless of the method used in strength training, I always put the greatest emphasis on load or poundage progression. Effort without progression is no better than calisthenics or manual labor.

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