Before my sixteenth birthday my mom asked me, “What do you want for your birthday?” Without hesitation I said, “A gym membership.”
Up until that point I either had to make do with my 110 pounds of concrete-filled plastic weights or wait until her or my stepdad got a wild hair to go to the local Nautilus center with me in tow. Turning 16 would, however, give me the freedom to drive myself to the gym six days per week… assuming my 1973 Chevy Vega would make it.
So, on February 19, 1989, I received the best gift I’ve ever gotten: a gym membership to the now defunct Living Well Fitness Center. Sure, I could only go to the one by my house on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays because those were the designated “men’s days,” but that didn’t deter me one bit.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I eagerly drove 30 minutes across town to the gym’s other location so I could train on their Testosterone-only days. In fact, I liked that 30 minute drive because it gave me a chance to choke down my ground-up bull testicle shake and let its placebo effects kick into high gear!
On that glorious day I set out to build a physique that would garner respect and admiration from my male peers and, most importantly, attract attention from the ladies. After all, my introverted personality wasn’t helping me “round the bases,” if you know what I mean.
Call me crazy, but I didn’t (and still don’t) give a damn about how much I could bench, squat, or deadlift. Nor do I care how functional my physique is (unless the dysfunction is causing me pain), how fast I can flip a big-ass tire, or how far I can throw a keg or kettlebell. I just want to look strong. After all, girls couldn’t care any less about how much you can bench.
Since that day over 17 years ago I’ve managed to pack about 80 pounds of lean muscle mass onto my frame. I’ve also competed in 25 bodybuilding contests, once winning the state title in my weight class.
I’ve also managed to have my smiling face appear in some fitness magazines. Sure, those mags are (for the most part) goofy, but I gotta admit it was cool seeing my mug on the newsstands in the same type magazines I grew up reading. I tell you all of this not to toot my horn, but to let you know where my passion and knowledge lie – in building a leaner and more muscular body.
For those who are like me and want to look good naked (or on stage in a Speedo), I’ll share with you a dozen things I’ve learned from 17 years of bodybuilding. That’s right, dammit, I’m a bodybuilder and proud of it! (Although shaving your whole body, applying fake tan and oil to your dehydrated torso, and posing for hundreds of people in just a bit more than your birthday suit does seem a bit weird come to think of it. But I digress… )
Here are twelve things I’ve learned about building a great physique:
1 – Big weights don’t necessarily equal big muscles
One of the fundamental principles of resistance training is Gradual Progressive Overload (GPO), which means that for a muscle to get bigger and stronger it must be subjected, gradually, to heavier weights – or so that’s how we typically translate the GPO principle. However, there are tons of ways to give extra stimulation (overload if you will) to a muscle and force it to adapt.
You could do one more rep. You could rest less between sets. You could do an isolation exercise for that muscle immediately prior. You could do the negative (eccentric) part of the rep more slowly. Or you could simply focus on squeezing that muscle more during the contraction as opposed to just moving the weight from point A to point B. (Arnold called this the mind-muscle connection, and for stimulating and isolating a muscle it’s very productive.)
The fact is, more bodybuilders than not would fall short of being what most would consider super strong, yet they posses some serious muscle mass.
2 – Carving in striations? Not!
Listen, neither high reps nor isolation exercises (or the two combined) will “carve striations” into your muscles. So if you’re barking up the cable cross-over or leg extension tree in hopes of some striations falling your way, you’re wasting your time.
Same goes for cuts between muscles. Think about it, what makes for a deep valley? Two big hills on either side, right? If you want deeper cuts, get bigger muscles. And if you want striations, lose some body fat.
For those seeking something a bit more high-tech that actually does work, you could get some deep tissue massage or ART (Active Release Techniques) done to help separate individual muscles, enhancing the visual space between them. I’ve performed my own type of soft tissue work (a modified ART) to really help bodybuilders improve the separation between muscles with results that were incredible, especially between the three visible quad heads.
But basically, if you want serious cuts and striations, focus on your diet and cardio, not some pansy-ass isolation exercises.
3 – Strength is very lift specific
Try working your way up to squatting 405 (or whatever) for ten reps. Then immediately ditch squats in your leg routine and replace them with leg presses for 10 weeks. Now go back and try to squat 405 for ten reps. I bet you’ll fail miserably.
For obvious reasons, our body adapts to the exact exercises we do week in and week out. For that reason, it’s ultra important for you to find staple exercises that work well for your physique, stick with them, and get strong on them.
Dorian Yates rarely ever changed exercises; he just found the ones that worked best for him and focused on improving his performance on those. Now while I personally advocate using a bit more variety than Dorian did, he certainly managed to build a decent physique.
I’d also like to point out that in my above example of substituting squats for leg presses for ten weeks, although your strength would go down in the squat, your legs would be every bit as big and maybe even bigger. That’s further support for point number one.
4 – The bench press does not build big pecs!
The bench press is the most overrated exercise of all time. In fact, if you perform the bench press in the manner that most people do, it’s not even very good at stimulating the pecs.
To make matters worse, other docs I’ve talked to concur with my observation that the flat barbell bench press is positively correlated with a number of shoulder injuries like AC joint problems, biciptal tendonitis, and torn pecs. (I’m referring to tendonitis of the long head of the biceps tendon where it slides through the biciptal groove on the head of the humerus – essentially a shoulder problem.)
I’m not saying to never do the bench press; I’m just saying that I wouldn’t do it any more than any other chest exercise. Actually, I’d probably do it less than most others.
5 – Deadlifts do build a big back
What gives? One minute I’m bashing the sacred bench press and talking about not needing to focus solely on lifting heavy weights, and now I’m saying to do the fundamental powerlifting exercise: the deadlift.
For years I couldn’t make scientific reason of the dogma that deadlifts are the Holy Grail for developing a thick back. Try as I must to justify cable rows and pulldowns over deads, in the end the anecdotal evidence was too overwhelming.
Look at it this way: have you even seen anyone who can deadlift some serious weight that didn’t have a thick back? I didn’t think so. But you will see guys all day long who can do pulldowns or cable rows with the entire weight stack yet don’t have a back that could win the novice division of a local bodybuilding contest.
If you improve your deadlift by 200 pounds, I guarantee you’ll have a much thicker back.
6 – Squats are king for thigh mass
I bet you can think of at least two dozen reasons why you shouldn’t squat. Don’t waste your time; they’re all excuses, excuse, excuses.
The truth is, squats are hard-ass work, so we want them to be overrated! I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like doing them, but I do like the results.
To show how effective squats are at stimulating the quads and even hams, do ten sets of ten deep reps on the squat and see how sore you get. Now try to duplicate that level of deep muscle soreness with any other leg exercise, leg presses and hack squats included. It simply won’t happen (assuming you had the cojones to use close to your 10RM on most sets of those squats.)
Like deadlifts for back, there are just far too many people who’ve built great legs with squats to deny their effectiveness. Don’t get caught up in reading those muscle tabloids and the fact that many pro-bodybuilders don’t do squats. If you dig deeper (as I’ve done) you’ll find that the vast majority of them builttheir legs with squats and now maintain them with other exercises.
As Ronnie Coleman so eloquently stated, “Eva body wanna be a bodybuilda, but don’t nobody wanna lif’ no heavy-ass weight.” The same could be said for squatting.
7 – Don’t Always Train to Failure
It’s ingrained in many of us that, sans a warm-up or two, if you’re going to pick up a weight, you’re going to lift it until you can’t lift it anymore. After all, that’s the way a Testosterone Nation man should train, right?
If you’re going to train to failure you’re going to have to severely limit the number of sets you do in order decrease your chance of overtraining. While training to failure for a limited number of sets can work (a la Max OT Training, DC Training, and Heavy Duty Training) it’s a lot easier, probably safer, and just as effective to stop a rep or two short of failure. I know I’ve made my best gains in strength when training to just short of failure.
If it’s scientific studies you’re interested in, a recent study showed that training to failure led to hormonal signs of overtraining. Yet another study showed that only training to failure on the last of three sets was more effective than training to failure on all three sets.
Like Lee Haney said, “You should stimulate, not annihilate the muscle.”
8 – Don’t have Training ADD
I’ll admit it. I have a severe case of Training Attention Deficit Disorder. How many times have you started a new program only to ditch it for yet another program after only two or three weeks? If you’re like me, it’s fun to just go to the gym and do whatever you feel like that day. However, there’s a serious downside to that.
By switching programs and exercises all the time, you don’t give your body enough time to reap the benefits of your current program or exercises. For instance, if you decide to do H.I.T. for three months, then do it for three months! Don’t be an idiot and ditch it after five weeks because you’re bored and wanna do Advanced German Volume Training and a unique exercise you saw Christian Thibaudeau do. Save it for when you’ve completed your current program.
To appease your inner ADD child, occasionally do 8 or 10 weeks of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants training. Just don’t turn that eight weeks into eight months or you’ll end up spinning your wheels.
9 – Ditch Total Body Training
I’m well aware of the plethora of benefits of Total Body Training (TBT), and I’ll agree that you can build a very good body with it. In fact, I train some of my clients with TBT. With that being said, I simply don’t feel that TBT can take your physique to its ultimate potential.
Now, by “ultimate potential” I’m speaking of size and definition – a physique that would win a local bodybuilding or even Figure show. I have no studies, but tons of anecdotal evidence to back this up.
You’ve got to hit a muscle with a fairly high number of sets or crazy intensity to get maximum hypertrophy. In other words, you need to induce a lot of micro-trauma to the muscle. It’s simply not feasible to do that to more than two or three muscle groups per day.
So if throwing things or people is your forte, then rock on with TBT. If you wanna have a stage-worthy physique, then split your body into groups. As for anecdotal evidence, not one pro or top amateur bodybuilder trains their whole body at one time. While I’m not one to blindly follow others, you’ve got to admit that that’s some pretty convincing anecdotal evidence.
10 – Consider Stretching Part of Training
As someone who treats soft-tissue injuries, I could go on for days about the benefits of stretching to prevent injuries and imbalances. But how does stretching have anything to do with looking good naked? Let me tell you.
Stretching, over time, will help to expand the fascia that tightly encompasses muscles and muscle groups. This tight-ass fascia is thought to be one of the limiting factors of muscle growth. Therefore we want to find a way to stretch it to allow the muscle tissue some room to breath (or grow). Since site-injecting a few cc’s of oil into a muscle isn’t the smartest thing to do, let’s just use stretching to accomplish this goal of expanded fascia.
In order to maximize the volumizing effects, stretch right after training a particular body part while it’s still pumped. Also, keep in mind that for connective tissue (like fascia) to stretch, you’re going to have to do a lot of stretching (essentially Time Under Tension) and that stretching is going to have to be pretty intense.
I recommend stretching a muscle for about 60 seconds immediately after training it. You should be stretching hard enough that you’re really counting down those final seconds. Additionally, stretch another time or two during the day.
11 – Try Low-Frequency Training
In case you didn’t know, most bodybuilders these days train two or three body parts per day and train each body part only once every five to seven days. I’ll admit that training each body part once per week doesn’t scientifically seem like the optimal way to train. However, when you consider that about 95% of physique competitors (natural or otherwise) train that way, it’s hard to argue with the real-world results.
Now keep in mind that when training each body part only weekly, you need to hit that body part with plenty of work – again, lot’s of micro-trauma. Three sets of eight reps on bench for chest ain’t gonna cut it; three to five exercises per body part is more like it.
While I think training each body part once per week is a great basic template, I also advocate some higher frequency training from time to time in order to bring up a lagging body part. However, one can still improve body parts by training them only once per week. People do it all the time, and I’m doing it right now.
For the record, Figure competitors should (and typically do) train in a similar fashion to bodybuilders. Sure, leg hypertrophy often has to be kept in check, but training for Figure is more similar to training for bodybuilding than it is different.
12 – Feeling the muscle work is of utmost importance
As previously discussed, simply being strong isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get the muscle size you desire. When you train with a focus on simply moving a lot of weight, you will (albeit subconsciously) lift in such a manner as to make the exercise easier, either by changing the leverage or by coordinating other muscles to aid you in executing the lift.
Take the bench press for example. To really have a big bench you have to do it in such a manner as to use your front delts, triceps, and even lats as much or more as you use your pectorals. However, while this may boost your ego, it’s not doing wonders for making your pecs grow.
If your goal is big pecs, then you need to perform the bench press in such a way as to maximize the stimulation on your pecs while minimizing the role the ancillary muscles play in the lift.
To a bodybuilder, the weight on the bar is only a means to an end. Really focus on feeling the working muscle during an exercise. Then, and only then, try to do more weight or more reps while maintaining that mind-muscle connection.
If your primary goal is looking good in your birthday suit, I encourage you to really think about and apply these principles. If you want to enter a strongman contest, then train like a strongman competitor. If powerlifting is your sport of choice, train like they do.
But if you want to look like a bodybuilder, then I’d suggest you learn how successful physique competitors typically train. Even better, learn from some of those who built a great physique from a less-than-stellar foundation, and you’ll be well on your way.