Training with Titans: George Hackenschmidt


Picture the scene. It’s 1911 and famed Wrestler George Hackenschmidt has finally retired from the squared circle. Looking forward to a life of relaxation and leisure, the man from Estonia grants you the privilege of an interview. In his strength and wrestling career, Hackenschmidt has popularised the Bear Hug, the Hack Squat and even set a world record in the Bench Press. His athletic exploits have dazzled crowds around the world for years. So when you sit down with him to talk training, a nervousness enters your body. The ‘Russian Lion’ is known for taking no prisoners.

Q] You have your first question lined up. Nervously you look George in the eye and timidly ask how to become strong like him…

Puffing out his chest, Hackenschmidt bellows out

“It is only by exercising with heavy weights that any man can hope to develop really great strength.”

Q] But what, you plead, about bodyweight exercises…
George thinks for a minute before retorting: “A man may secure and maintain a condition of fair physical fitness by means of exercising without weights … but he cannot hope to become really strong unless he exercises with weights .”

Q] Hoping to stump the Lion you ask about light reps and high repetitions. Can’t I build muscle that way?

The ‘Lion’ seems amused…

“Some trainers recommend to their pupils for the training of all muscle groups one and the same light weight and believe they are able to obtain the same effect by frequent repetitions.My experience has taught me that this is wrong … One must consider that, although it is quite possible to enlarge muscles by certain light, prolonged exercises, at the same time the development of the sinews may be neglected, and it is the sinews which transport the action of the muscles to the bone frame.

The sinews can only be exercised and strengthened by correspondingly heavy muscle work. Besides, to take a paradoxical example, it is quite impossible to improve strong muscle groups, as for instance, the hip muscles, with light-weight exercises.

A further illustration of the fallacy of attempting to develop the muscles by frequent repetitions with the same light exercises may be found in a comparison with any and every other form of athletics, in which a man would never think of merely repeating his training programme. In order to improve himself either in pace or distance, he must set himself a steady progression of arduous effort.”

Q] The message to you was clear. Train hard, train heavy. Should one go to failure?

The ‘Lion’ looks you up and down and smiles,

“Do not perform any exercise to excess, so as to tire yourself out. If you feel tired and exhausted, give yourself the necessary rest, and, as in everything else, use moderation and common sense. REMEMBER that excessive and rapid exercising is harmful.”
Q] What about exercise selection? Deadlift/Squat/Bench, am I right Mr. Russian Lion?

“It is advisable to vary the exercises constantly … to develop all muscles harmoniously. It is, therefore, most necessary to train systematically. Every human being possesses about five hundred separate muscles …

Q] You cut across impatiently. Yes, yes, yes, but what split should I use? Chest/Back, Legs/Shoulders?

Ignoring your impatience,

Hackenschmidt continues: “For the purposes of development … it will be quite sufficient to classify them in groups, such as Neck muscles, Shoulder muscles, Arm muscles, Chest muscles, Muscles of the Abdomen, Back, Legs, etc. No one can afford to neglect any of these groups. All, in fact, should be equally developed, those which are naturally weaker to a greater extent than the others, until all are equally strong, when the object in view, should be that of equal all-round improvement.”

“I recommend you map out a certain plan, according to which they exercise all the muscle groups twice on three or four days every week, or on six days if time allows… If it is intended to further increase strength, one should begin to train once or twice per week … with heavier weights … And on such days avoid part, if not all, ordinary exercises.”

Q] What about cardio? Will it kill my gains?

George’s mouth opens in shock. His career was built on fitness and strength. Trying to maintain his cool, he tells you: “a man should of course combine these exercises with skipping, running, jumping and gymnastics of every description in order to similarly develop his activity and agility.”

Q] When should I train? The morning or the evening?

“As a principal rule I should stipulate for regularity of training … Hence it is advisable to exercise as nearly as possible at the same hour every day.”

Q] How long should I train for…
“The exercises should not exceed one quarter of an hour at the commencement, and should only be increased by five minutes in a few months. Afterwards, about thirty minutes are fully sufficient to the acquisition and preservation of strength and endurance.
Q] What about diet? Low-carb? High fat? High Protein…

Hackenschmidt tells you to stop overthinking things,

“I believe I am right in asserting that our Creator has provided food and nutriment for every being for its own advantage. Man is born without frying-pan or stewpot.

The purest natural food for human beings would, therefore, be fresh, uncooked food and nuts … My experience has taught me, that foodstuffs are of secondary importance. There are very strong people who are strict vegetarians, whilst others eat a good deal of meat. A fare which consists of three-quarters of vegetable food and one-quarter meat would appear to be the most satisfactory…
I would shun altogether all highly seasoned and sour dishes. Much has been said lately in praise of sugar as food, but as artificial sugar is an acid-forming substance, I should not recommend it. Natural sugar, such as is contained in dates, figs, and other fruit, is certainly preferable…

Q] But I should eat a lot of protein right?
“I maintain that it is absolutely a mistake to eat a great deal…

Q] What about meat? Surely that’s okay?
“The disadvantages of meat foods are …that nowadays it is most difficult to obtain meat from absolutely healthy animals (I count those artificially fed in stables and pens among the unhealthy ones), and … that far too much flesh food is taken.
In the case of pure vegetable food, excess is less dangerous … Pure vegetables … certainly form the ideal human food …”

Q] But what about…

The ‘Russian Lion’ holds up his hand. The interview has come to a close. Hackenschmidt rises from his chair and leaves the room. You sit there looking over his answers and know that it’s time to hit the weights room.

If you have any more training questions for the ‘Russian Lion’, the answers can be found in his 1908 book, ‘The Way to Live’, which can be accessed at