Louis Abele’s Back Program c. 1948


Although unknown to the modern olympic lifter, Abele was one of America’s finest lifters during the 1940s and 1950s. Unfortunately he was overshadowed by fellow US lifters John Grimek, Steve Stanko, and John Davis during the course of his career. Similarly the outbreak of the Second World War denied Abele the chance to lift at the 1940 Olympic Games, a time when he would have been in his prime.

Nevertheless, Abele’s lifting career saw him put up some rather impressive poundages as you’ll read about.

With regards to training philosophy, Abele was a strong advocate of specialisation and high intensity training. Illustrating this, Abele tells the reader that he once exercised so hard that his teeth hurt from breathing! I suspect that this level of intensity is relatively rare in today’s gyms. Anyway what fascinates me about Abele was his advocacy of specialisation and by that Abele meant training primarily legs for 2 to 3 months before moving on to another body part for a similar amount of time. In this way Abele would focus almost exclusively on one body part, to the detriment of others, reach what he felt to be a maturation point and then switch his training up. From memory I can’t think of too many current lifters who adhere to this sort of programming although one supposes that the concept of a deload week is vaguely similar.

Anyway, the below article details Abele’s back workouts from his early 20s. For interested parties, the text itself comes from a series of letters written by Abele to Chester O. Teegarden which were published by Iron Man Industries of Alliance, Nebraska in 1948.

As always… Happy Lifting!

As I explained while you visiter me last (May 1942) I am a great proponent of specialisation. When I first awakened to the possibilities of specialisation I had been reading Mary Berry’s writings in which he outlined some suggestions of previous specialisers.

From my earlier experience it was possible for me to outline a program which I believe is as good as ever evolved. I had, by this time, been steeped in the benefits of heavy leg and back work and this idea, therefore, became the basis of my program.

As is well known after a gain in bodyweight, the smaller muscle groups respond more easily to exercise than if one’s bodyweight remained stable. Therefore, reason prompts me to work on the large muscle groups first, then on the smaller groups. What would be the sense of straining and striving for bigger arms and shoulders first, when the leg work that causes the gain in weight and the proportions of arms to the other parts of the body produces the desired results more efficiently? It always seemed reasonable to me to bring up the legs and hips first, back and chest next, and with the consequent enlarging of the rib box and shoulder girdle, the arms, when finally called upon, will grow rather easily.

Naturally, one specialises when further growth through other methods becomes too slow. When the muscles become accustomed to a definite degree of exertion they will fail to increase in size unless they are caused to exert themselves further. This becomes impossible after one has reached a peak in his training. If one kept increasing the work of all the muscles at one time it would not be long before rigorous mortis set in. This leaves us with only one alternative: That is the specialisation in one specific section of the body at one time. As I have explained to you previously, I had done my leg program first, which lasted over a period between two and three months. I also believe I explained to you that I estimated poundages that were within my power to reach and therefore would start at a poundage that would enable me to make a gradual increase throughout the program. Any one with some measure of experience can judge how long he will continue to improve steadily and can therefore set his poundages with a fair degree of accuracy.

This is the Back Program which I followed:

  1. Eight Bent Presses. Consecutive from shoulder to overhead.
  2. Straight Leg Dead Lift. On a box to arches of feet.
  3. Chin the bar. 10 to 12 reps with weight attached usually by a rope or strap around the beck. Three variations were used: Regular and under grip and pull to chest; over grip to chin; and behind neck.
  4. Stationary rowing exercise 12 repetitions.
  5. One arm rowing with a kettle bell, 15 repetitions.
  6. Two arm snatch. 10 consecutive times, no pause, from dead hang.
  7. Two arms clean in the same manner as the snatch but later eliminated because it was too tough.
  8. Regular dead lift. 10-12 repetitions.

When I used to do snatches and cleans I had to pry my fingers off the bar and often would tear callouses off. It also caused such violent breathing my teeth ached.

During a specialised program on any part of the body the unused parts of the anatomy will naturally loose some shape and tone. But do not loose sight of your principle aim. After these periods of specialisation are over the unused parts will snap back to their original size and shape in two weeks time.

These are some of my best measurements and lifts which you requested:

  • Press: 315
  • Snatch: 310
  • Clean: 375 (no jerk)
  • Jerk: 375 (no clean)
  • Bent Press: 225 at 185 pounds bodyweight
  • Deep Knee Bends: 400 x 18, 450 x 10, 475 x 7


  • Neck: 18 inches
  • Arms: 18 1/2 inches
  • Chest: 49 inches
  • Forearms: 14 inches
  • Wrists: 7 1/2 inches
  • Waist: 36 Inches
  • Hips: 43 Inches
  • Thighs: 28 1/2 inches
  • Calf: 17 1/2 inches
  • Ankle: 9 1/4 inches
  • Height: 5 foot 9 inches
  • Age: 21
  • Weight: When dressed, 238


Yours Truly,

Louis Abele

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