Primal Training

by Jim Steel | September 27, 2023

lifter preparing to squat at a strengthlifting meet

Basic, raw strength has always appealed to me, a sort of casual super-strength that someone who is really “raw strong” can display without needing a bunch of stuff to help them. I always thought that it would be super cool to be able to walk into any gym wearing a shirt, shorts, and shoes, and lift heavy weights. No straps, wraps, sleeves, or belt needed.

Isn’t that truly strong?

I have used all types of equipment over the years when competing in both powerlifting and training. I have used squat suits, knee wraps, bench shirts, groove briefs, wrist wraps, belts, and knee sleeves. There was no “raw” category back then in the 90s in the organizations that I competed in, just “equipped lifting.”

All of the equipment served a purpose for what I was doing at the time. I figured that if my opponents were using it, then I needed to use it. I probably did 8 to 10 powerlifting meets using all that stuff. But damn, all of that stuff gets old after a while. First off, just learning how to use the equipment was a training session in itself. And when you are using equipment, you can’t just go to a meet by yourself and compete – you have to have a staff. Someone has to be there (maybe 2-3 people) to help put your bench shirt on, wrap your knees, help with the squat suit, roll your wraps, etc. I’d be drenched in sweat just putting the squat suit and bench shirt on.

After a while, I got tired of all that equipment and entered a powerlifting meet with just a wrestling singlet on. The relief of not having all of that shit to worry about was amazing. There was no stress at all, I could just get ready to lift. While everyone was wrapping and waddling to the platform, I was sitting in a chair, waiting for my turn to squat. I remember one guy all wrapped up like a mummy looking at me and saying, “That's the way to go, man, just a singlet.”

Since then, “raw” lifting has become more popular. And let’s get this straight: I don’t care what you wear to compete. Go crazy if you want to and put tennis balls behind your knees like the old timers used to do. If it is legal in the organization in which you are competing, go for it, doesn’t matter to me. “Raw” to me means no supportive equipment at all, not even a belt. I have tried those knee sleeves that they wear in competition now, and they are tight as hell and feel great – just like knee wraps.

Even the equipped lifters in the old days would start their cycles for a meet training in just a t-shirt and shorts. As the weights got heavier in the cycle, they would add in equipment. First a belt, then a few sessions later knee wraps, and finally the last few weeks a squat suit. Everyone wanted to hit a personal record raw, then belted, then wrapped, then with a suit. I saw Kirk Karwoski squat 640x8 raw, 800x1 raw, and 800x5 with just a belt on. I spotted squatting phenom Rob Wagner squat 405 x 20 raw at under 200 pounds body weight.

I remember going into a gym when I was very tired of all the equipment and I ended up squatting 635x1 in a shirt and shorts. A guy was standing behind me who kept asking me if I needed a spot. “No, I’m good,” I said. Every plate that I put on the bar, he kept asking me if I needed a spot. Finally, he stopped asking and just watched. That was a very satisfying day. One of my proudest moments in training was when I finally squatted 500 x10 in a t-shirt and shorts by myself in a garage gym. That was more enjoyable to me than lifting bigger weights with all the equipment on.

I was standing with Mr. Universe Kevin Levrone one day between sets of his benches. Kevin was a bodybuilder who was actually as strong as he looked. I saw him do 455 for reps on the bench at 52 years old. Anyway, this guy walked past us and said hello. He didn't stop to talk, just said hello. He had some pretty good size to him, weighed around 235 at 5’9”. He walks over to the squat bar without a belt or any knee sleeves and starts squatting. All by himself. Doesn’t talk, takes just a few minutes between sets. He was doing sets of 2-3 reps. He ends up at 655, does a few reps with it, all of them deep, and then puts it back. No big deal. I remember he was going to go for another rep and he knew that he wasn’t going to get it, and he said, “Nope” and he was done. I looked at Kevin, I said, “That guy is strong as hell.”

Kevin said that the guy comes into the gym all the time, by himself, and just walks over to whatever exercise he is performing that day and just gets started and crushes heavy weights. I thought, how cool is that? Just a loner. Doesn’t need shit; no headphones, no spotter, no training partner to get him all hyped up. He didn't care if anyone was watching him. I don’t even think he had a gym bag. He walked in off the street, probably right after work, and squatted a shit ton of weight. Very cool.

I used to watch the Bulgarian Training Hall tapes from Ironmind in the old days. These guys would work up to ridiculously heavy weights in the squat usually wearing just a shirt and shorts and sometimes with a tiny little weightlifting belt on. I’d watch those tapes before I went to squat. There was a pre-workout drink back then named “Metaform Heat '' that would get your heart racing and make you want to pillage a village like a Berserker. I’d be sitting there, watching the tapes, drinking the Heat and start tapping my feet and scratching my head because of some ingredient in it.

After watching Botev squat 720 in sweatpants, I’d be ready for the gym. Those guys lifted prodigious poundages so nonchalantly – just another day at the office for them. Although my ex-wife fell fast asleep immediately whenever I put those VHS tapes on, watching those guys with holes in their shoes and wearing no supportive equipment dominating crazy weights inspired the hell out of me.

I am all into this primal stuff now, always asking myself what are we meant to do evolutionary-wise; how we were meant to eat, sleep, and even train to mimic our ancestors – basically, how we were meant to live before the dawn of an agriculturally-changed society. I interviewed a doctor for the Starting Strength website years ago and I asked him what exercises we perform today that were essential for life in the “caveman” days. He said the deadlift and the press. Makes good sense to me; picking heavy shit up would have been useful all of the time and being strong overhead would have been essential when hiding the downed game in a high place to keep it from predators, or crushing your enemy’s skull with a heavy rock.

To me, the deadlift is the most raw of all exercises, the one exercise that lends itself most easily to this type of training. You don’t need a squat rack or a bench, just a bar and some plates. I guarantee that the cavemen during some downtime when they weren’t running for their lives from predators, used to challenge each other to pick stuff up. A rock, a tree, a dead animal. In modern times, you don’t need much to be primal and deadlift, just a bar and plates.

I have a basement gym with a power rack, plates, bars, and dumbbells, but what I like best is my setup under my back deck outside. I have a big horse-stall mat with an Olympic bar and 235 pounds always on it. I have more weights there but 235 pounds is the minimum on the bar. I love going out there, doing some shadow boxing, and between rounds pulling some deadlifts. Or just playing fetch with my dog and between retrieves, doing a few sets of 5. I just do it in whatever I am wearing, and my belt never leaves the basement. It's raw and primal.

When my 11-year-old son Max and I went away to Ocean City, Maryland for a week this summer, I was not going to pay $20 a day to go to some foo-foo gym where everyone looks at me like I'm some kind of meathead for doing deadlifts – if they even let you deadlift in their gym. So Max and I loaded up the weights from under the deck and took them with us on vacation. Each morning, I would drive to a parking lot somewhere, and Max and I would get our deadlifts in. I deadlifted every day, and Max deadlifted twice that week. That was raw training – primal.

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