Where are all the Buff Guys?
Almost every guy at the gym desires a more muscular physique. I mean, let's face it, the majority of females these days aren't into men with wussy builds. Sex makes the world go 'round. A cursory look at any of the popular bodybuilding magazines supports this fact, and I'm not talking about the "collector edition" pictorials, either. Most of the training features are aimed towards men longing to be buff. So, with millions of men reading these publications and religiously following the programs, where are all the muscle machines?
Think about it. How many men actually possess a great physique? Not many. And those few who do have exceptional physiques didn't get them with the prescribed "miracle" programs found in most muscle mags or million-dollar-an-hour trainers. Fact is, those who succeed in the gym usually do so because of a willingness to observe and a fierce commitment to years of ball-busting work on the basics. It doesn't happen any other way. It doesn't happen by accident.
It's not like this only applies to men who want to become the next Mr. Olympia, set powerlifting records, win the World's Strongest Man title, or become king of the weightlifting platform. No, this applies to even the average Joe who simply wants a beach body.
It cracks me up when I hear some jackass talk about big muscles without a reasonable handle on how long it will take (and what it will take) to achieve these attributes. Pushing for a hard 210-pound body by next summer when you're a soft 185 isn't only unrealistic, it's retarded!
Of course, with good genetics, drugs, and an athletic history, it may indeed be possible. But the reality is most possess average genetics, never were seriously athletic, and don't want to use performance-enhancing drugs and risk imprisonment and damage to their health. The use of steroids, Testosterone, and other powerful anabolic and thermogenic agents (when used properly and in conjunction with strenuous exercise) can result in amazing muscular gains and fat loss; however, we'll assume the majority of weight trainers are "natural," hold down full-time jobs and aren't genetic mutants like Flex Wheeler. (Still, even Flex had to be observant and dedicated to years of gym time.)
Certainly every aspiring muscleman has spent his fair share of time reading the muscle magazines. To be sure, muscle rags do provide much information to the average trainer. Somewhere along the way though (and sooner rather than later), observational and rational thinking skills take over to distill all the input. It's then that the truth becomes known – and few people are strong enough to accept the truth.
So where does all this lead? To the aforementioned truth! Transforming the body is a difficult and time-consuming task, and the easier the program or exercises, the less can be expected. Simple. Five quad-searing sets of leg extensions isn't going to provide half the stimulus of one moderately hard set of free-bar squats. But, again, few want to hear this.
We're a species that seeks comfort and rejects pain. As a weight trainer intent on success, whatever the sport or goal may be, we must reverse this outlook. We must seek pain and reject comfort. When I speak of pain I don't mean the type that causes injury, but the type caused by effort. As master powerlifting trainer Louie Simmons once said, the less effort applied, the less payoff you'll get.
I'm of the belief that the only differences between a competitive bodybuilder, strength athlete, and fitness weight trainer should be program specificity and poundage used. Effort is a mandatory link between all who succeed with resistance training. I hate those who want so badly to separate strength athletes from bodybuilders and others concerned more with physique presentation. Diet and training specificity are the major differences; effort ties them all together.
Let's not forget that a muscle's size and its strength are closely related. I believe size always follows strength, so those who say "I train for size" are already missing the boat. We must all train for strength! This requires effort and hard work. Of course, the reps, rest periods and volume may vary, but a stronger muscle is a bigger and better-looking muscle.
An Ongoing Pursuit
Okay, so what movements should you be working hard? Easy: bench press, incline press, overhead press, bent row, deadlift, biceps curl, close-grip press, lat pull-down, seated and standing calf raise, squat, leg press, and stiff-legged deadlift. Perform these movements with a barbell or dumbbells unless cable apparatus (back work) or machines (certain leg and calf training) are necessary. Without question, there are tons more exercises one can do for each of the body parts, but these should be used only as "relief" exercises. Make the above staples of your lifting and you'll be well on your way.
Well on your way to where? Years of hard work pushing and hoisting iron, that's where! You see, this thing we call weight training works best when applied consistently for many years. A great physique is an ongoing pursuit. You'll never be satisfied with what you have, much like a competitive lifter is never satisfied with the poundage he lifts. And besides, do you really think once a great physique is built it stays a great physique indefinitely? A degree of maintenance must be done at least twice each week.
The Brain Game
Let's switch gears. I've talked briefly about the exercises and hard work one must do to achieve success with a regime of resistance training, but little about the proper mentality. Man, there's so much one can say about the psychology of a successful athlete! Proper "armament" of the brain is imperative!
One of the aspects of modern-era bodybuilding training that continues to perturb me is the inefficiency, redundancy, and plain old overtraining that takes place. And it's little wonder. Our old friend, the conventional muscle magazine, presents programs that no natural or non-professional trainer should follow. I regularly see folks performing too many sets of bench presses and then following them up with flat dumbell presses. Then they do flyes, crossovers and dips! And machine junkies are even worse. These people use so many different machines and exercises claiming they all hit at "different angles." It's ridiculous.
One would think the pro-bodybuilding ranks would be filled with sophisticated and cerebral lifters. Not at all. My guess is that 70 percent of these muscle behemoths have little clue what they're doing. Yeah, I know, they're huge, but chalk this up to, again, genetics and boatloads of drugs. If you want to see more exacting and efficient methods of training, look to the competitive lifters. Bodybuilders put too much credence on "pumping it up."
A muscular physique takes time, hard work on the basics, a cerebral approach to training and proper mental conditioning. With these conditions in place, a better-looking and better-performing body can be had in several months. Then you're well on your way to a lifetime of dissatisfaction and obsessive behavior! Yay! But that's okay. Chicks are worth it.
Now, those of us who do it for other reasons besides women? Steer clear, buddy. We have problems.
Gettin' Your Head Right
Let's explore the topic of mental attitude and its profound influence on weight-training success. The psychology of an athlete can be the difference between failure and success. Before we eat to build stronger muscles, an adaptive response must be triggered with physical exertion. Likewise, before we exercise with conquering zeal, we must achieve the right mental outlook.
Let me state for the record that I'm in no way a schooled psychologist of any type. What I know is by way of observation, listening, and experience. In a lot of ways, such practical wisdom holds more weight than the theoretical ramblings of a hundred professors. Boastful? Perhaps, but the majority of pro and elite muscle athletes don't perform 700-plus pound squats and possess 250-pound physiques without some degree of mental mastery.
So what is the right mental attitude for success in resistance training? There's no single right answer. Rather, a winning mental attitude can take shape in any number of ways. We're all individuals with unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. What might motivate me may do the opposite for another lifter.
Of course, cultivating positive surroundings and relationships in one's life can't be ignored. Everyone knows the importance of avoiding negativity; overall health and well-being demand it. So what I'll focus on is those vital hours leading to actual iron combat.
My friend, legendary bodybuilder Tom Platz, has helped me understand that much of what influences gym success is what's done (and thought) during these "small hours." With each athlete, patterns develop over time and rituals form. We've all heard those stories of hockey players not shaving during playoff season, football players refusing to talk minutes before game time, and baseball players wearing lucky clothing. These rituals may seem silly but they're crucial to the athlete's mental preparation.
Ritualistic behavior in the hours prior to a workout can help establish performance consistency. In my years talking with pro-bodybuilders and elite competitive lifters, it's become clear that familiar surroundings and actions result in the best performance. Platz once stated that the most difficult aspect of his hectic traveling schedule in the 1980's was training consistency. Being in a different city, hotel and gym every day made performance consistency a challenge.
Below I've listed the seven key components an athlete must consider, individualize and be at peace with in the time before a workout to achieve an optimal mental state. These are in no particular order.
1) Sight and Sound
Do action-packed movies put you in a kick-ass mood? Or maybe you need soothing music to help calm your over-stressed mind and better focus on the job at hand? I use my other passion in life, heavy and aggressive music, to give me the edge. Likewise, metal videos and concert performances help unleash my beast within. What gets you in the right mental state for optimal training? Figure it out and use it.
Set aside anywhere from half an hour to two hours before a workout to personalize the sites and sounds of your environment. This is where the "psyching" begins. Walking into the gym directly after a big meeting at work and expecting your best on the deadlift platform is nonsensical. Once again, optimal performance, like a muscular body, doesn't happen by accident.
As a general rule, I don't advocate eating much just before gym action. A protein shake can be helpful, otherwise your last regular meal should be no less than one hour prior. Advanced athletes, however, recognize the symbolic significance of certain beverages.
Coffee is a popular pre-game drink that stimulates your nervous system. I reserve its consumption to just hours before "show time." In this way, I've developed a strong association between coffee and exercising. Combined with heavy music and aggressive visuals, my cup o' mud puts the ritual into effect.
Like it or not, some amount of time is needed to get your head in order for what's to come once you step foot into the gym. I feel the least you can get away with is half an hour. If even 30 minutes is difficult, my suggestion would be to take this mental prep time from your actual gym time. It's better to only lift for half an hour than a full hour if it means you'll have the extra 30 minutes to prepare mentally. I really do. As extravagant as it may sound, I take anywhere from one to two hours to "get jazzed." A weapon without ammunition is useless, after all.
Any successful athlete must accept his shortcomings and weaknesses, and what's required to bring them up to par. If your legs can squat 300 pounds but your back can only squat 250, how much do you think you're going to squat? That's right, 250 pounds. We all have those body parts and exercises that are our strong points, but focusing on these instead of our weak points gets us nowhere.
Moving massive weight and displaying a massive and proportioned physique requires prioritizing, so it's imperative to accept what must be done – and love the challenge – instead of doing what comes easiest and most naturally. Where's the fun in that? Have a firm handle on reality, dude. Lying to yourself is not a positive mental attitude.
Too many think they have belief in themselves when, in fact, they don't. It takes time for most of us to develop complete self confidence and belief that our goals are not only do-able, but inevitable. This isn't conceit, but rather an unswerving dedication to what we believe is ours, if we're prepared to put in the time and effort. It's the warrior's spirit, I guess you could say. When we march onto the battlefield we must only know victory in our minds.
Who says a vivid fantasy life is unhealthy? When we fantasize about the truly impossible with regularity, soon enough our highest goals seem minor. Lots of strength athletes are comic book devotees and fans of monsters-demons-wizards-type movies. What do we say when we see a huge and strong athlete? We say he's a monster! Monsters aren't real. They're fantasy. Get it? Imagine yourself rowing 800 pounds for ten and suddenly 300 is a cinch.
Not injurious pain, of course. Resistance athletes experience their fair share of discomfort when training. We must not be afraid of it, but rather embrace it as meter for our efforts. To embark on a program of real weight training – squats, rows, deadlifts, presses, etc. – means that we've assured ourselves physical discomfort. I'm not suggesting we turn ourselves into pain-loving perverts. What I'm saying is that we must fully accept the pain and not fear it. It's just a given – get used to it!
There's little doubt that how we think in life (and especially those few hours before workouts) affects our ultimate chance for success. If you walk into the gym in the wrong mental state, your session will be a failure. It's simply too late.
In a way, our training never stops. We must strive to develop ourselves mentally into fierce warriors prepared to take on any and all challenges required to get that much closer to our goals. Vibrant and focused energy is necessary for all athletes. These attributes can't be harnessed by chance. Program the computer correctly and functions will run smoothly and efficiently.
Coming soon... Part II: Into the Pit!