Wednesday, January 28, 2009

When Tommy Kono speaks wise men listen

After a Sunday evening telephone conversation with Tommy Kono, I decided to resurrect an interview article I wrote in August 2007 for another fitness forum website. It has been modified for today's blogflection at Pierini Fitness.

From the time he won his first Olympic weightlifting gold medal in 1952, Tommy Kono was invincible. He was undefeated internationally until the 1960 Olympic Games, where he took a silver medal. He set a total of 26 world records in 4 weight classes. He also excelled in physique competitions as well, winning the Mr. World contest in 1954 and Mr. Universe contests in 1955, 1957, and 1961.

After his competitive years, Tommy Kono then turned his energies toward coaching. He was the Olympic weightlifting coach for Mexico in 1968, bringing lifters to the Games from a country that had little history in the sport. He then went on to coach the West German Olympic weightlifting team in 1972, and returned to the U.S.A. to coach its team in 1976.He is in the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame, U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and one of the 100 Golden Olympians honored at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

Tommy Kono was born in my hometown of Sacramento, California in 1930. He was a weightlifting buddy of my Dad’s until moving to Hawaii in 1955. I grew up listening to my Dad tell me countless Tommy Kono stories. To make a long story short, during an August 2007 visit to Sacramento, I arranged a surprise 52-year friendship reunion of Tommy Kono and my Dad during his stay as a guest in my home. I had a chance to visit with him at length and he agreed to be interviewed by me for a fitness forum website article.

Grab a chair and get comfortable and enjoy the sage fitness counsel this wise Olympian has to offer.

Pierini: Many new exercise enthusiasts ask questions about a beginner weight-training routine. Please provide a beginner weightlifting routine with set and rep recommendations.

Mr. Kono: I have designed a workout that I call the Kono Plan for increasing overall muscle size and strength. It consists of barbell exercises that concentrate on large muscle groups of the body and on exercises that call into play many muscle groups at one time.

There are 8 exercises that make up the Kono Plan. They are as follows: (1) situps - 1 to 2 sets of 15 to 25 reps - ( 2) overhead press - 2 (later 3) sets of 8 to 12 reps - (3) upright rowing - 2 (later 3) sets of 8 to 12 reps -(4) bench press - 2 (later 3) sets of 8 to 12 reps -(5) bent over rowing - 2 (later 3) sets of 8 to 12 reps -(6) squats - 2 (gradually work up to 4) sets of 8 to 12 reps - (7) breathing pullover - alternate with squat exercise for 12 to 15 reps - (8) deadlift - 2 sets of 8 to 12 reps.

This program is for a 3 days a week training frequency such as Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. Additional details of my Kono Plan are included in my book, "Weightlifting, Olympic Style".

Pierini: How many reps and sets should be performed. What do you believe is the optimum number of sets and reps to perform for (1) strength, (2) hypertrophy, (3) general conditioning and (4) endurance.

Mr. Kono: For strength, I recommend 7-10 sets of 3 reps using heavier weights and longer recovery periods. For hypertrophy, I recommend 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps, and for general conditioning, I recommend 2 sets of 8 to 12 reps. Finally, for endurance, I recommend 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps with the exercises done following a circuit format with very short recovery between circuits.

Pierini: What do you think of training that consists of a single set to failure for each exercise? For example, doing 20 reps of squats, picking a weight that is your 10-rep max, but taking standing rest pauses and continuing until you have completed 20 reps?

Mr. Kono: I believe this is very hard and a different type of training, but the principle is a sound one. In my opinion, it is more mental training. I believe you need a training partner to successfully train this way.

Personally, I have never trained this way although when I was young (about 20 years of age), I performed a 20-rep set of squats using 360 lbs. when I weighed about 154 lbs. At that time my single rep squat best was 420 lbs. Years later at a heavier bodyweight, I tried a 20 rep set of squats with the same 360 lbs. and quit after 14 reps after I told myself I wasn't going to suffer any longer. In your example of picking a weight that is your 10-rep max and completing 20 reps, that weight is not your 10-rep max because if it was, there is no way you could complete 20 reps

Pierini: Should women train any differently from what you have recommended above?

Mr. Kono: No, they have the same muscles.

Pierini: What words of training wisdom do you have for competitive powerlifters to help them to improve their bench press, squat and deadlift performances?

Mr. Kono: I don't have a lot to offer other than to say that they should tax themselves and allow plenty of time to recover.Pierini: Have you ever used kettlebells in your training? What do you think of them?

Mr. Kono: I have never used kettlebells in my training, but I think they are good. I don't see them replacing barbells and dumbbells.
Pierini: Have you ever done just dumbbell only training? What do you think of dumbbell-only training?

Mr. Kono: I have never done dumbbell-only training. I consider dumbbells to be auxiliary or supplemental to barbell training. I believe that weight training should concentrate on using the most weight possible, which you can do more with barbells than with dumbbells.

Pierini: How much attention do you think a weightlifter should devote to macronutrient percentages, for example, the percentages of calories consumed of carbohydrates, protein and fat?

Mr. Kono: I have always favored a high-protein diet. I think carbohydrates are what make you gain or lose weight. I have never paid much attention to macronutrient percentages, instead just concentrating on maintaining a well-balanced diet.

Pierini: How important is meal frequency for the weightlifter/bodybuilder? What frequency did you follow during your competitive days?

Mr. Kono: Your choice of food and amount eaten are very important. Meal frequency is an individual thing depending on how your body responds and your goals. Mostly ate three meals a day, evenly spaced apart. I have a small stomach and cannot eat a lot at one sitting. When I wanted to gain weight, I had to eat more often. When I wanted to lose weight, I went back to three meals a day. Gaining weight was hard for me. Losing weight was easier.

Pierini: What are your thoughts about vitamins, protein and other supplements? What vitamins and supplements did you consume during your competitive days? What vitamins and supplements do you consume now?

Mr. Kono: I am not a nutritionist, but I believe vitamins, protein and other supplements are very important because modern food processing methods do not provide reasonable assurance that you will get all essential nutrients. During my competitive days, I took a multiple vitamin, and additionally Vitamin C, Vitamin E, wheat germ oil and protein drinks. Currently, I still take a multiple vitamin, and additionally Vitamin C, Vitamin E, fish oil capsules, and a glucosomine/chondroitin combination. I don't know if the latter helps me but it sure does help my nails grow faster.

Pierini: How prevalent were steroids during your competitive years in America and other countries? What about now?

Mr. Kono: Steroids came into existence in the early 1960s and then the word steroid was not used to describe these pills; rather they were referred to by their actual name such as Dianabol. This was during the latter part of my competitive years. There was hearsay many years earlier that a Dr. Ziegler, who traveled with the American weightlifting team to Copenhagen and Vienna in 1954, claimed that he spoke to a Russian weightlifting coach who acknowledged that the Russian team was using "something" to enhance their weightlifting performance. I never attached a lot of significance to anything Dr. Ziegler said.  Now, there is random testing of weightlifters to see if they are taking any performance enhancing drugs.

Pierini: How important were training logs and journals to you in your training? Do you still maintain a journal?

Mr. Kono: Training logs and journals were very important to me during my competitive years as I did not have a coach. My training logs and journals were very detailed. I no longer maintain a training log or journal for I am not so goal-oriented as in my competitive years.

Pierini: What is your current training? How many days a week do you train and what exercises do you do? Reps/sets. Free weights versus machines?

Mr. Kono: At 77 years of age, I now exercise to maintain my muscles and health. I train three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for about 35 minutes each. There are seven exercises I perform for two sets of 12 reps. My first set is a lighter weight for a warm-up, and then I perform the second set after minimal recovery. The seven exercises that make up my current training are: (1) machine leg press - (2) lat pulldowns - (3) sitting machine bench press - (4) machine abdominal crunches - (5) machine sitting lower back extensions - (6) sitting rear deltoid pullback using the pec deck machine -(7) machine overhead press.

Pierini: Have you ever trained using isometric contractions? What do you think of this training? Did you ever perform the exercises that were part of the Hoffman Functional Isometric Contraction System?

Mr. Kono: I experimented with isometric contractions as outlined in the Bob Hoffman course but found that this way of exercising was not for me. You have to be able to give all that you have for a maximum effort and I wasn't able to do this by myself; it was just too difficult for me. I believe you can fool yourself into thinking that you are giving your maximum effort when, it fact, you are not really. Therefore, in my opinion, this training works better with a training partner who can encourage you to try harder. I personally did not and do not think much of this as a primary training method so there is no sense in me training this way if I do not believe in it.

Pierini: American weightlifters Bill March and Louis Riecke made phenomenal gains in their weightlifting totals in the early 1960s that Bob Hoffman attributed to his Functional Isometric Contraction System? Did this get other lifters into doing isometrics? How prevalent is this training for today's national and world-caliber Olympic lifters?

Mr. Kono: Other lifters tried isometric contractions after observing the gains made by March and Riecke. I do not know how far they went with this training. I do not know how prevalent this training is today for national and world-caliber Olympic lifters.

Pierini: The term "busted up weightlifter syndrome" is used in the bodyweight-only training community to describe guys who are pretty banged up from their days of heavy lifting. How is your back? How are your shoulders? How are your wrists? How are your knees? What about other lifters you know from your competitive years?

Mr. Kono: I have never heard of the term "busted up weightlifter syndrome". It reminds me of when people would say that if you lifted weights you would get "muscle bound". We knew that wasn't true. This term also reminds me of a humorous phrase in the old days that bodybuilders were burnt-out weightlifters. I don't think it exists, but I will say this, if you strive to be the very best, you have to challenge and extend yourself and some injuries will occur. A former Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting coach said it best when he said: "if you go to war there will be casualties."

As far as me, at age 77 my back is good, I have a bad left shoulder, my knees are bad and I had my left hip replaced which I damaged due to my knees. My fellow Olympic team members, specifically Pete George, Isaac Berger, and Chuck Vinci are all doing well with their bodies.

Pierini: How much does America owe Bob Hoffman for his contribution to weightlifting/bodybuilding?

Mr. Kono: Bob Hoffman was the father of barbell and dumbbell training. He stressed the importance of weightlifting for all aspects of fitness, not just strength or appearance. Mr. Hoffman's contribution was tremendous. He gave a lot, including funding the travel costs so the American team could attend world championships.

Pierini: You've written a book called "Weightlifting, Olympic Style". I have read this book and think it is great. It doesn't really cover split style snatches and cleans. Are there any competitive lifters who split snatch or split clean? Your book also doesn't discuss the power jerk or the squat jerk that a small percentage of competitors use. What do you think of the power and squat jerks?

Mr. Kono: Split style snatches and cleans are extremely rare nowadays. They are as obsolete as the "Western roll" high jump technique, you just don't see it. I believe the split jerk is superior to the power jerk and the squat jerk, and will always be the predominant jerk method used by lifters. A competitor has got to have superior leg strength to successfully perform the squat jerk. Most of the time, coming out of the squat is the limiting factor when performing a very heavy clean and jerk so to be able to then squat jerk a heavy weight takes exceptionally strong leg power.

Pierini: You have designed and marketed weightlifting accessories. Tell us a little about these products. Are the knee bands a good knee injury prevention measure for those who do not have any knee problems?

Mr. Kono: I have designed and market Tommy Kono knee bands and waist bands and I believe both of these weightlifting accessories are equally good for lifters who do not have any problems, as a preventative measure, and for lifters who have problems and need extra support and stability.Pierini: What is your website address for our members interested in learning more about you and your weightlifting accessories or your book "Weightlifting, Olympic Style"?

Mr. Kono: My website is www.tommykono.com.

Pierini: Thank you very much for this interview, Mr. Kono, and best wishes for you and your family's good health, fitness and fortune in the coming year. Come back to Sacramento soon. You are always welcome in my home.

Click here for some nostalgic photos and clips of Tommy Kono

Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum


Anonymous said...

Very good interview. I suppose most people who strength train on a routine basis, whether with or without weights, will inevitably develop some sort of knee problems.

Pierini Fitness said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks for the visit and the compliment.

My knees fluctuate. I now wear a pair of TK knee bands whenever I train in the Oly lifts or do a set of burpees. They help.

Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

It could be because I'm young but I haven't had anything even resembling knee problems.