According to Sebastian Oreb, there are two kinds of weightlifters. On the one hand, you’ve got the hard nuts who love the primal thrill of shunting huge loads. On the other, you’ve got the calculated lifters who love the science of strength training.
Ask Oreb which group he falls into and he grins: “I still like getting in there and going hard . . . ”
He may still be in thrall to the testosterone-fuelled thrills of lifting, but Oreb’s also come to admire the science. More than that, he’s come to understand it in a way that’s allowed him to become one of Australia’s most sought-after strength coaches. His rise began as a 21-year-old, when he embarked on a career as a PT. Noticing that most of his clients were hobbled by some form of niggling injury, he began investigating the science of rehabilitation. This self-education taught him the basics of human movement – levers and hinges, angles, and planes of motion. “That’s when I began to learn how to get strong,” he says.
He dug deeper into the science, sifting through the teachings of legendary strength trainers like John Broz and Charles Poliquin. He started testing the methods on his own body. And the methods worked. In 2011 he signed on for the Australian Powerlifting Championships, winning the 90-kilogram class with a 235kg squat, 195kg bench press and 300kg deadlift. That combined figure of 730kg was, at the time, an Australian record.
In 2014, Oreb opened his Base Gym in North Sydney. With its white walls and black rubber floor, it’s a space devoted to the simple pursuit of lifting vast weights. And it’s rapidly become a mecca for those seriously committed to the pursuit of strength. NRL hardmen Paul Gallen and Marty Taupau train here, as does UFC striker James Te Huna.
According to Oreb, whether you’re a professional athlete or a white-collar worker looking to get stronger, his approach is the same: “We start by focusing on building the muscle, then we turn that muscle into strength, then we turn that strength into explosive power.”
It’s a potent progression he achieves by following three simple rules. You in?
Load is King
This is Oreb’s seminal rule of strength training. The movements that allow you to shift the heaviest weight will rapidly build size and strength. For this reason, he ticks off four moves that should form the basis of any strength program: the deadlift, the squat, the flat bench press and the chin-up. These big, multi-joint moves are, what he calls, “bang-for-your-buck exercises”.
But within these parameters complexities arise. “Take the squat,” says Oreb. “Now, there are lots of different variations on the squat. But the best way to move the heaviest weight is the low-bar squat. This allows you to manipulate your levers best to move the heaviest weight.” He jumps up and demonstrates the technique. Instead of resting the bar across the traps, at the base of the neck, he positions the bar a few centimetres lower, across the rear delts. This forces the torso forward, allowing the body to recruit the big prime movers through the hamstrings, hips and glutes to lever the weight up.
“But I can’t just tell you: do a low-bar squat and you’ll lift a heavier weight,” says Oreb. “You need to learn how to do that movement. So I might start you on a front squat, then we’ll progress to a high-bar squat, then we’ll move to the low-bar squat. That’s the best way to teach the body how to move correctly.”
When it comes to the lower body, Oreb seldom moves beyond the squat and the deadlift. When it comes to the upper body, however, he stresses the importance of balance. “If all I did was bench press all day,” he says, “then I’d have rounded shoulders and a horrible posture.” Think structural balance, he advises – always employ a 1:1 ratio of push and pull movements.
“I like to do one horizontal press, like a bench press, and one horizontal pull, like a row. Then I’ll pair one vertical push, like a shoulder press, with a vertical pull, like a chin-up. It’s simple: a structurally balanced approach will keep your shoulders healthy.”
And what of smaller, isolation exercises? Oreb shrugs. Sure, he’ll do rotator cuff exercises for the purposes of injury prevention, but he won’t isolate muscles for the sake of aesthetics. “The body moves as a unit,” he reasons. “Everything we do in life is a compound movement. So for me, it’s all about bang-for-your-buck movements. Remember: load is king.”
Technique is Everything
As a young buck, Oreb used to saunter up to the barbell, slap on the heavy plates and slam out the reps, come hell or high water. “But there’s a lot wrong with that attitude,” he says. “Sure, you might get away with it for a while, but eventually something’s got to give. Even if it doesn’t catch up to you injury-wise, you’re not putting your body in the optimal position to shift that weight, so your numbers will be smaller than they should be.”
This is why Oreb contends that strength building is not just about moving heavy weights – it’s about moving them with perfect technique. His number-one technical tip? Shoulderblades back and down into the back pockets. “This puts your body in the perfect posture to do any movement, whether it’s a biceps curl or a squat. It’s the starting point for everything. When you do a deadlift, for example, people are told to focus on keeping their lower back neutral. But once you’ve got your shoulders back and down, it actually contracts a lot of the muscles around the lower back, forcing it into the correct position.”
Nail this posture, says Oreb, and your strength will explode. As proof, he recalls the first deadlift session he did with NRL hitman Marty Taupau. “When Marty came to me, his best deadlift was 190kg. I showed him a few technique cues and in his first session here he did 260kg for two reps. In his second session he did a 300kg deadlift. Now, I didn’t get him stronger – I just showed him the correct technique to move weight. Technique – it’s everything.”
Build the Base
So you want to delve into Oreb’s system? You want size, strength and power? Well, according to the man himself, your first move will be to take plates off the barbell. “I call my gym Base Gym for a reason,” he says. “You have to build the base. A pyramid can only be built as high as the base is wide. You want power? Don’t start training for power until you have the muscle mass and strength to convert into power.”
For this reason, the first eight weeks of Oreb’s strength system are typically devoted to strengthening the lower back. “Your lower back can’t be too strong,” he emphasises. “If you have a weak lower back, you have a weak body. So the first phase of my system is pre-habbing the lower back. If you keep going heavier with your lifting, the risk of injury’s high. So I bulletproof your back before you start lifting heavy. There’s no ego when you start.”
What does Oreb mean by “no ego”? He means using an ultra-wide-grip deadlift, hands at least twice shoulder-width apart. This increases the distance your levers have to travel, thus making the movement exponentially harder. If you can still shift a heavy load with this technique, he’ll stand you on a box, so your levers have to move even further.
“I’m not letting you lift a heavy weight,” says Oreb. “I’m forcing you to lift light.” By his calculations, when you start on his system you should be deadlifting 50 per cent of your maximum. “Safety first!” he says. “I don’t want you injured . . . You have to build that base before you get the ego involved.”