Coffee & Guns

Dear John,

I was wondering if you could give us more info and details on what it was like to train with the Zangas crew.  What was their training week/split like? Did they periodize their training? Did he have you train differently since you were a football player and not a lifter or because you were younger? I have looked but I haven’t found a lot out there about his programming or training. As always thanks for your time and the great site and info.


coffee and guns #1


I was working on two new TTMJ posts when this question landed in my inbox. I felt it was about time to say something about George. In Greek, Geōrgos means "farmer" or "earth-worker", he was both.

Over the years, I learned many things from George. You find much of his influence in my own training and CrossFit Football.

For those of you who do not know Zangas, he was the director of the famous Thompson Powerlifting Team that included Bill Kazmaier, David Shaw, Doyle Kandady, Larry Kidney, Marv Phillips, Enrique Hernandez and Ernie Steinkirchner. He was inventor of the Marathon super suit and gold medal wraps.

What does that mean? He invented the squat suit and knee wraps. Before him guys were squatting in jeans and using ace-bandages to attach tennis balls to the back of their knees.

He was an accomplished powerlifter and trained me during my high school and early college years. George had a perfect garage gym long before it was cool to have a garage gym. Squat rack, deadlift platform, DB's up to 150's, comp bench, dip rack...

coffee and guns #2

The gym rules were simple…coffee black, you have to walk it out to count it, nobody gives a shit about lifting light weights and a 1911 always has the final word.

Last year, I told George we were squatting out of a monolift, he snorted with disapproval. After a few seconds, he says, “You stop drinking coffee too?” George was in the Navy and served on a submarine. He would say the coffee was ready when a spoon could stand straight up in the cup.

George believed in periodization and employed heavy days and light days, for those of you that follow Westside Barbell, max effort and dynamic effort or if you follow CrossFit Football, volume and intensity. He believed you should only deadlift once a week and never more than a few singles right after squatting. He thought the best way to train the deadlift was to ignore it. He felt everything was built off the squat...bench and deadlift alike. The training split was heavy squats & pulls on Saturdays, heavy upper on Mondays with Wednesdays for light squat and pulls and Fridays for light upper.

George felt a competition bench was useless for me and only had me perform triples with a close grip….one thumb off the smooth. To this day I only close grip…one thumb off the smooth. I have close gripped over 500 lbs on more than a few occasions. Anyone who has been to a CFFB seminar has heard me say…one thumb off the smooth. He liked the triples because it was a good show of power and the time indexing was similar to a play in football.

Right after benching we did anywhere from 6-10 sets x 8-12 reps of seated DB press. The goal was to hit the heaviest set of 8-12 possible. At my strongest, I hit 8-10 reps with 150 lbs DBs on the seated dumbbell press. He preferred the seated DB press to the standing barbell press, as he liked to take the legs out it. He did talk about his old friend, Bill Starr, loving the standing press, so we did incorporate it as an assistance lift…but never a main lift.

After the seated DB’s, we headed to the dips. We worked up to a 3-5 RM with weight and started stripping off weight for max reps…we ended the workout with pull ups, always for max reps.

Saturday sessions at George’s were long and grueling. The squat session would take a few hours as we used knee wraps on any set north of 80%. For those of us that were not that strong, we started using them in the earlier sets. Once we hit our lifts for the day, we progressed to deadlifts. Deadlifts were pulled in singles without a warm up. Why after all would you need to warm up after squatting for 2 hours? Once the deadlifts were done, it was on to hamstrings and 8-10 sets of reverse hypers.

Wait… a reverse hyper in 1991? George had one of the first reverse hypers made by his friend, Louie Simmons, from Westside Barbell. We used it religiously….much like today. We finished with trunk work.

George’s garage is where I heard about Peanuts and the guys from Westside Barbell in Culver City, Bill Kazimeir and the Louie Simmons. Strong men would show up, bang heavy iron and we would watch. I remember showing up and seeing a whole bunch of 45’s on the bar and thinking, “strange place to store weights…”, never dreaming that someone was going to lift it.

The first training program I did was the Russian Squat Program listed below:

Weeks          Day 1                     Day 2                        Day 3

Week 1         6x2 @ 80%          6x3 @ 80%             6x2 @ 80%
Week 2         6x4 @ 80%          6x2 @ 80%             6x5 @ 80%
Week 3         6x2 @ 80%          6x6 @ 80%             6x2 @ 80%
Week 4         5x5 @ 85%          6x2 @ 80%              4x4 @ 90%
Week 5         6x2 @ 80%          3x3 @ 95%              6x2 @ 80%
Week 6         2x2 @ 100%        6x2 @ 80%              1x1 @ 105%

Even though it is called the Russian squat program, I used it for bench press.

But what really makes me laugh was...the 6x2 days were suppose to be done at 80% with speed. Being impatient skinny kids, we changed it up, and ended up always working up to a heavy 1 or 2 RM on the light days.

In the beginning this worked very well and it evolved into every workout working up to a 1-3 RM and then doing drop sets with a ton of volume in assistance work.

However, things went horribly awry. I ended up sever patellar tendonitis in both knees. I had no idea what I was doing and ended up messing myself up pretty bad. George sent me to Joe Horrigan at the Soft Tissue Center in LA. Joe worked on my legs and knees and was able to fix my tendonitis.

One of the first times I worked with Joe he told me, “You are 16 years old…you have server tendonitis in both knees and a pulled hamstring. At this rate how do you expect to make it past high school? Change your training and smarten up if you expect to do this longer than a few years.”

I took his advice and went back to letting someone who knows what he is doing write the programming. I ended up getting healthy and getting a scholarship to play at UC Berkeley and the rest is history. Still following much of George's training advice in college, I squatted 615 lbs at 19 years old and bench over 500 at 21.

George’s program was based on heavy and light. For lower body, squat heavy, pull deadlifts sparingly. For upper body, limit your main lifts and make up the volume in accessory movements. A strong bench comes from the shoulders and tris.

Heavy iron, black coffee and hard work will fix any problem.

George passed away in October. He had a heart attack while benching in his garage. They found him with the weight still on his chest. I had a few weeks old voice mail I had not listened to on my phone from him. I had been meaning to call him late. George was a night owl and wouldn't answer his phone until close to midnight. We had been playing phone tag for 2 months before I got the call from my mom he had passed.

coffee and guns #3

Posted in Lifting Weights, Talk to Me Johnnie | Tagged , , | 23 Comments

23 Responses to Coffee & Guns

  1. Petr

    “strange place to store weights…” – 🙂

  2. Is the percentage of a 1RM in the Russian squat program? Or percentage of the given number of reps?

    Thanks for the great posts and kick-ass program!


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  4. Denny K

    awesome article John..I can read articles like this all day! Hopefully I’ll see you at #Occupy Strength in Chi-town!

  5. Steve

    Awesome post John, that was just what I was hoping for. Thanks,


  6. Phil

    “Heavy iron, black coffee and hard work will fix any problem.”


    RIP, George.

  7. Thomas,

    no idea what you mean. but 80% is of your 1 RM (comp max).

    RIP George.

  8. Smuggler

    Wait…Crossfit didn’t invent reverse hypers?

  9. “strange place to store weights” might have been the best thing I’ve ever read on the internet

  10. Vanish

    Hey man,

    I’d love to hear what you did for your patellar tendonitis. I’m 24, have patellar tendonitis in both knees, generally looking for advice.


  11. Nathan Greaves

    Haha Smuggler, that shit tickled me!
    pretty inspiring article. Sounds like a pretty inspiring man.

  12. CV

    Hey John,

    I am a longtime fan of CFF and your blog. You post some seriously great stuff here, and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate it. I don’t follow CFF, but the stuff you write has informed my training as much as anyone except maybe Rip.

    I’m truly sorry about the loss of your friend.

    Vanish: The reason John mentioned the patellar tendonitis was to make a point about overtraining. Look to your programming or your recovery; barring some structural problem, you’re not properly recovering from your workouts.


  13. Rob Is

    This is the best thing I’ve read in awhile. The russian squat program looks intense! 5×5 at 85%? Jeeze… 6×6? Brutal. That it ends with a 5% PR is awesome though. No fucking joke.

    Great post and very happy to have learned about Mr. Zangas.

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  15. Kyle Boyer

    Awesome article John. Love your stuff!!!

  16. pu239

    RIP George. Great article.

  17. Dan Gallagher

    Great article I have been on a bodybuilding type program for years …. Im 50 years old healthy and could lose a few inches around my waist I want to start strength training like the zangas article Any thoughts on making that a 3 day program that could work for me Thanks Dan

  18. Dan Gallagher

    RIP george

  19. What a great article. I was just thinking of George the other day and googled his name to see what had been written on him lately. He was a wealth of knowledge. He was loyal. He liked his coffee.

    • john

      George was awesome and a great mentor in the iron game. He was a wealth of knowledge that should have documented. All I have is recollections of our conversations and the programs the gave me. Thanks for reaching out.

  20. Earl

    Hi John:
    I had the great pleasure of knowing and working for George Zangas.
    I was working for him when His children were born. I also called George from Canada when my son was born.
    I have been trying to reach George for the last three years and now I realise
    my worst fear. I will never talk to and be incourage by Him again.
    Such a wonderful man who meant more to me in my life than I could
    ever explain to him. And now I can’t .
    Love and peace and rest with my kindness thoughts
    Earl and Julie Griffin
    Victoria, B.C.
    Canada 2015

  21. John

    Earl & Julie,

    Thanks for reaching out and remembering George. I find myself quoting George and using the “somewhere George is spinning his grave after that lift”. I knew he would like that.

    All the best,


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