Ben Johnson's Weight Training Program by Coach Charlie Francis

Ben Johnson Training

Weight training is beneficial for all sports - try it today and see the improvements you make

Ben Johnson shattered the world record in the 100-meter sprint in Rome in 1987 and then again at the '88 Summer Olympics. The rest is history. Johnson tested positive for anabolic steroids, and, subsequently, all of his performances were removed from the record books.

I had the opportunity to treat Ben when he passed through Los Angeles in early '88, and in my opinion his combination of flexibility, strength and speed was unprecedented. Naturally, I questioned him about his training, but I soon realized that I would have to speak to his coach, Charlie Francis, to fully understand their approach. Charlie is writing a book, and I was able to reach him through the William Morris Agency.

During our interview I discovered that Charlie applied logic, scientific knowledge and clinical concern for injuries in formulating Ben's training. I deal with coaches from all sports on a regular basis, and Charlie's approach was one of the most advanced and most sound I have come across not only for track, but for weight training as well.

Unfortunately, many people have not recognized the diligent effort that Ben put into his training or the brilliance of his training program. Charlie Francis has been Johnson's coach since 1977, and it was the combination of coaching and training that produced the fastest man in the world.

Everyone who has ever seen Ben Johnson comments on the powerful appearance of his physique. It will come as no surprise to readers of this magazine, then, that Francis used weight training as a major component of Ben's training program.

Ben had formed a strong base of calisthenics work before he was launched into a world-class weight program. His early bench press hovered around a modest 180 pounds. In the fall of 1983 he embarked on what was his most serious weight-training program thus far, consisting of the following movements:

» Bench presses

» Incline presses

» Upright rows

» Squats

» Leg extensions

» Cleans

» Pulldowns

» A few light, "fun" exercises; i.e., curls.

By 1985 Johnson had worked up to a 350-pound bench press and could do bench squats (bench set below parallel) of 2 x 6 x 500 pounds. They dropped the power cleans from the routine at this point because Francis felt that Ben was pulling the weight too far away from his body. This technique flaw, combined with the steadily increasing poundage, caused too great a risk of injury. Remember that Ben used the weight training to supplement his sprinting, not to excel . in weight-training events. As Charlie explained, "To avoid injury and stress, Ben never 'maxed.' " If Johnson felt fatigued from his sprinting, they would either reduce or eliminate the weights in order to allow time for his nervous system to recover.

Nineteen eighty-six found Ben bench pressing 3 x 3 x 365 and bench squatting 2 x 6 x 550. By 1987 his continued progress was evident: 2-3 x 2 x 385 in the bench press and 2 x 6 x 600 in the bench squat.

That this approach to training is unique is demonstrated not only by its results, but also by its theory. "If you change the components in training, then you are constantly stiff and you must retrain constantly," Francis said. "What good is that? You must do all of the components simultaneously." (This point certainly contradicts some bodybuilding theories of past Mr. Olympia's.)

Charlie used a "vertical" summation of training as opposed to a horizontal approach. The sample analysis graph in Figure 1 should help you to better understand this method. All the components are utilized and vary in volume. If one area of training is in-creased, then another is decreased- but not eliminated. For example, when Ben is in a maintenance phase of weight training, Charlie might have Ben bring down the volume by performing bench squats for 2-3 reps x 600 pounds instead of the larger volume of 6 reps.

As Francis said, "Ben was never far from strength and speed." The volume of both speed and explosive power work would be increased while the weight training was decreased because, obviously, a full volume of all components of his training would quickly lead to overtraining, burnout and injury.

During preparation for a competition Johnson and Francis broke the weight training into three phases: an accumulation phase, a maximum phase and a maintenance phase. The accumulation phase was a six-week period in which the poundages were gradually increased. The maximum phase lasted seven weeks and was divided into two three-week phases separated by one lighter week. The maintenance phase (less volume) was determined by the next competition.

While Ben was in his maintenance phase during his preparation for the 1987 World Games, in which he set a world record of 9.83 seconds, a noteworthy phenomenon took place. The increased recuperation due to the lower volume of weight training allowed Ben to bench press 6 reps x 350 pounds during the same week in which he set the record. Charlie reiterated that Ben "was always near speed and strength," and with regard to the weight training, he said, after peaking, Ben would use less volume, but he stayed with near-maximum weight. His last heavy squat in his maximum phase was seven weeks before Rome, but he would do two to three reps with near-maximum weight.

Mid-1988 found Ben with a nagging hamstring injury. While in the Caribbean during this period he performed many training drills in the water, and he focused heavily on upper-body training. In Italy during the summer of that year, Johnson performed 2 x 10 x 352 pounds in the bench press; later that summer he achieved 2 x 10 x 330 in the incline press.

As stated previously, Ben always performed all facets of the training program, varying the volume only in order to allow for proper concentration and recuperation. Added Francis, "Application and recovery from application are equal, which is why we train. Train smarter, not harder."

Ben continued to lift in Seoul, Korea, where one particular workout drew a great deal of interest. He performed two sets of the bench press, 4 x 225 and 4 x 315, and then loaded the bar to what he thought was 365, intending to do two easy reps. He had not converted the Olympic kilo plates correctly, however, and the actual weight was 407 pounds. An East German throwing coach who was present discovered that Ben weighed only 173 pounds and stated, "I have heard the stories about Ben's lifting, but I never believed it until now."

Observed Charlie, "I have no doubt that he could have done 440 pounds that day.

"Ben was capable of performing two sets of 600 pounds easily in the bench squat, and the next day he could do his speed work," Francis continued. "Other sprinters have handled heavy poundages before. The American sprinter Stan Floyd squatted 675 pounds for a maximum single in 1981, but he injured his back on that lift. Ben would have rest periods of 10 to 14 days between any maximum efforts [not singles]." In the interim Johnson performed sub-maximal lifts.

In my opinion this design of avoiding overtraining and maintaining strength without injury is truly an amazing feat. According to Charlie, "If Ben were attempting to solely perform maximum lifts rather than to simply train for the sprint, he would have lifted much, much more.

Francis has structured a superior approach in varying training volumes in order to create a maximum performance that can be built on for years. Notice how the weight exercises are what we call "the basics."

"The weight training is not specific," Charlie explained. "It is general to the organism. I wanted Ben to train the highest percentage of muscles in his body with the fewest lifts, and I wanted it well balanced. We know that the amount of work is equal to the weight x distance x time. You can vary any component. I never believed in maximum velocity with weights due to the injury factor.

"You can improve the maximum velocity in another major component," Francis continued. "Ben's heel was found to travel from 0 to 80 kilometers per hour and back to 0 in 0.10 seconds. That is equal to 22.2 meters per second. The squat is approximately 0.5 meters-per-second velocity. If the squat speed is increased to 0.6 meters per second, which is really quite an increase, the injury risk is raised substantially and the overall speed has changed very little."

Again, I would like to point out that this idea about the speed of the movement contradicts some popular trainers' current theories. I certainly agree with Charlie Francis on this approach as well.

"The Eastern Europeans have placed too much emphasis on the involvement of the ankle in the sprint," Charlie stated. "This is demonstrated by their calf development. The power ratio of the hip to the ankle is 7:1. The power in the sprint is from the [hip] extension achieved through the hamstring. I don't use any load bearing on the calves because of the work that the calves receive in drills and exercises." The depth jumps were eliminated after 1981 when Ben developed some knee trouble (chondromalacia).

Ben typically trained his upper body and lower body three days per week apiece using a simple pyramid style; for example, he would bench press 10 x 135, 8 x 225, 4 x 315, 2 x 365. He would rest as needed between sets and train only four days per week if he felt that he needed to cut down. Francis monitored Ben closely for signs of overtraining, although, he said, "Ben had great body awareness."

In the quarter finals in Seoul Ben exploded out of the blocks and decelerated when he felt assured of qualifying for the next round. The rest of the field gained rapidly on Ben, however, and he barely qualified for the semifinals.

After the race Charlie approached Johnson and exclaimed, "What are you doing?"

"I didn't want to risk a hamstring injury by re-accelerating," Ben replied. "Anyway, I knew that I was just under 10.20 seconds, and that would put me into the semi's." Johnson's actual time was 10.17 seconds. Francis marveled that Ben understood his body and his speed so well, a point that perfectly illustrates the idea of listening to your body when training and not following someone else's theory or program.

Ben's speed brought him a 9.79-second time in the 100-meter in Seoul. This included the time it took to slow down enough to turn around to look back at Carl Lewis and also to raise his arm overhead. Charlie feels that Johnson could have run a 9.72 race if he had run straight through the tape.

Notice that Ben was 0.09 seconds ahead of his Rome time in the Seoul Olympics, yet he finished only 0.04 seconds ahead. This is the slowing during the last 10 meters discussed above. His speed in meters and split times may be difficult to imagine. A statistic that may be easier to comprehend is the fact that Ben Johnson runs the 40-yard dash in 3.7 seconds!

Francis concluded our interview with advice to athletes and coaches, and it applies to all athletes: "If there is any degradation or deterioration in training, stop. If there is any doubt about one more rep or run, don't do it. If you are trying to learn with reps, you won't get it later if you haven't already. Leave it and come back to it. For example, if I hear Ben's feet hit heavier on the track, that's enough. Top athletes need to be controlled from over-motivation. Don't listen to just anybody. If you are left in doubt, don't do it. The idea is to apply correct and appropriate training at the right time."

Charlie Francis structured a training program that was previously unheard of-a program that was able to avoid overtraining, maintain, maximize and build strength and speed year after year. This insightful training produced the fastest man in the world. So look beyond the media hype and see value of this training for what it is - well ahead of its time.

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