Editor's Note: In this new series, our experts recount their toughest, most psychotic workouts. Should you try them? Two words: Hell. No. And our coaches will be the first to tell you that. Instead, think of these workout stories as lessons in intensity.
Remember, these training sessions were performed by professionals/lunatics. Don't try this at home.
Christian Thibaudeau will kick off the first installment.
I'm Not Always Smart (But I Look Damn Good)
I've done some pretty crazy things in the gym. Back in my Olympic lifting days I did some really off-the-wall stuff. For example, one summer I drove 90 minutes every day of the week to train at the Centre Claude-Robillard, where most elite athletes from the Province of Quebec train.
I'd train twice a day, squatting heavy on every workout! My knees must've aged twenty years that summer. It got to a point where I had to arrive thirty minutes earlier so that a physical therapist could warm-up my knees prior to my workout. I had to wear wraps over a pair of neoprene knee sleeves to be able to squat.
It was crazy. I should've stopped, but I reasoned that somewhere a Russian or Bulgarian lifter was training even harder than me, so I kept on pushing hard.
My Achilles heel was my small hands. I could snatch the world with wrist straps, but struggled with even light weights when I didn't use straps because I had problems holding onto the bar. I tore calluses at almost every workout, bleeding profusely and uncontrollably, which obviously made it hard to train efficiently.
For some reason I came to the conclusion that I had to make my skin tougher, so I started to do chin-ups with chains. Not chains for accommodating resistance purposes like with the Westside method, but chins holding onto old rusty chains. I figured it would toughen up my hands.
It might have too, were I able to keep on doing that form of training, but I had to stop after a week. Kinda hard to drive your car while holding the steering wheel with your elbows.
I could go on and on. However logical and scientific I might sound today, I did my fair share of "things that make you go hmmm" in the gym in the past. For years now I've managed to stay away from the crazy stuff and keep a logical outlook on training. But recently, I had a relapse.
The Dave Workout
There's a young guy who trains at my gym named Dave. Dave is about as passionate about bodybuilding as it comes. He knows every pro and has tried every supplement, exercise, and training method available. He practically lives in the gym. He's a good guy too, eager to learn and open minded.
I designed a program for him once and although he told me that he was "feeling it," I didn't see the results I expected. I never really saw him train though, because he lifts after I'm finished up with my clients. But because he's so passionate about everything, I assumed that he did the program justice by leaving his dinner in the garbage pail at the end of every session.
One day Dave and I were both in the gym at the same time. He'd already started his workout (he was doing shoulders) and his training intensity was, let's just say, on par with an anorexic grandmother's who's suffering from a wasting disease.
There was his problem: lack of intensity.
It just so happened that I was set to do shoulders too, so I asked Dave if he wanted to join me. To him, believe it or not, it was a lot like Jessica Alba offering you to spend a night with her exploring the various possibilities of human anatomy. Needless to say, he was thrilled and accepted.
I proceeded to put him through the hardest shoulder workout in the history of mankind. It was actually a stupid workout too, something like 50 sets, all taken to complete failure and often beyond with the use of rest/pauses, drops, forced reps, and partials. I think I must've used every single deltoid exercise known to man.
Physiologically, this workout probably set Dave and I back a couple of weeks because the body would need a lot of time to recover from that abuse. But what Dave lost physiologically he more than gained back mentally.
What I did was give him a crash course in ass kicking intensity, something that can't be explained with words or photographs, something that needs to be experienced.
Intensity of Effort
The amount of effort you put into your training session is responsible for most of the gains you'll stimulate. A training program, regardless of how good or cutting edge it is, doesn't have any magical properties that will summon the Gods of muscledom and make slabs of beef appear on your body just by going through the workout.
A training program is like a football playbook: you can have the better playbook with the best game plan, but without driven players who leave their sweat and blood on the field of battle, you'll get your ass kicked every time.
I coached football for seven years and won three provincial championships as a defensive coordinator. In 2001 we used only one defensive front, no stunts, and one blitz. Basically we did the same play over and over all game long. We gave out only 51 rushing yards and 120 passing yards. We also recovered three fumbles and made two interceptions, including one in the end zone with one minute left and leading by one point. The thing is, every single one of our players were warriors; they left everything on the field.
Effort is king of everything. Don't accept anything but the best workout of your life every time you hit the gym. And if you don't reach your level of expectations, come back with a vengeance.
A lot of people are content to be training hard by their gym's standards. They're happy if they train just a little harder than the average guy or gal at their gym. The thing is that the average intensity level of most gyms is about as high as a game of bridge at your local church's basement on a Sunday afternoon. So being above average doesn't mean much in that case.
I'm talking about treating each workout as a battle to the death with the weights. Sure, a lot of people qualify their workouts this way, but how many of them really live it? Dave certainly didn't!
I can't emphasize enough that this type of training is not a recommendation. It's actually about as dumb and counterproductive as a workout can be. Understand that this session had one and only one objective: to allow Dave to feel what maximum intensity is all about.
How can he reach a maximal level of effort if he doesn't even know what it feels like? As I mentioned, physiologically this workout might actually have set Dave back some. But the mental gains he made from it allowed him to exponentially increase his gains later on.
Exercise #1: Clean and Press
I hadn't done these in years, but figured I might as well start off this workout from hell with something that made Dave, um, uncomfortable!
We kept it fairly easy, 6 sets of 6-8 reps, cleaning and pressing the weight on every repetition. We only took 30 seconds of rest between sets. This might not seem like a hard thing to do, but keep in mind that the average teenager is used to taking four to five minute breaks between sets, with most of that time spent talking about the girl on the treadmill.
Exercise #2: Triple Set (Wide-Grip Upright Row, Cuban Press, EZ-Bar Front Raise)
Now the fun began! While I'm not a huge fan of the upright row, I do use the wide-grip (shoulder width) version from time to time, but only pull it up to the lower portion of the sternum.
For this first exercise, we did 6 to 8 reps to failure then immediately moved on to the Cuban press performed for sets of 8-10 reps.
We then moved on to the EZ-bar front raise. We used the EZ-bar because it has three distinct grip widths. We did reps to failure with a close grip, then spaced out to a moderate grip and performed 4-5 reps to failure, and ended with 2-3 more reps using a wide grip.
You can continue to perform more reps with a wider grip because the resistance lever is shorter (bar is closer to your body). During that third exercise, Dave had the tendency to use his lower back to relieve his front delts of the burning sensation, so I made him put his back on a wall to avoid cheating.
We did this triple set at least five times, but to be honest I didn't count. It was probably more like seven or eight times. Starting at the fourth set I added a drop. When we reached failure with the wide-grip front raise, we'd go down 10-20 pounds and continue to perform reps to failure. On the last set we also added a static hold at the end.
At that point Dave asked, "Do you always train like this?" I answered, "No, normally I train harder, but I want to take it easy on you. If you want to progress you must train hard." It started to sink into his mind. I was getting somewhere.
Exercise #3: Triple Set (Scott Press, Lateral Raise, Isometric Laterals)
This triple set is actually pretty cool and I do include it in my regular "intelligent" programs. I find it very effective for building up the lateral portion of the deltoid.
The first movement is a Scott press (because Larry Scott invented it) and it's fairly similar to an Arnold press.
As with the Arnold press, you start with the dumbbells held in front of you. In the Arnold press you'd simply lift the weights as with a shoulder press while rotating the dumbbells. In the Scott press you rotate the weights as you perform an overhead movement; it's closer to an exaggerated lateral raise.
We did 8 to 10 reps to failure on this movement. When we reached failure we continued the exercise by doing regular shoulder presses to failure. Then we moved on to lateral raises, which we did for sets of 8 to 10 plus one drop to add 4-6 more reps.
Finally, we concluded the set with some isometric laterals for 30 seconds. To do these, simply try to push out two immovable bars with your shoulders.
Again, we repeated this triple set at least five times. Or maybe it was six times. Or seven...
Exercise #4: Machine Overhead Press — Stage Sets
On this fourth movement we did a regular machine shoulder press but used a variety of techniques during the set.
We started out cranking out reps using a 505 tempo (five seconds down, no pause, five seconds up). When we reached a point where that became impossible, we continued to perform reps using a normal tempo. When that became impossible, we did as many top position partials as we could, then as many bottom position partials as we could. Let me tell you this: the rest of the workout feels like a warm-up compared to this exercise!
After three or four sets, Dave, who'd been pretty much silent since the first triple set, told me, "I'm always going to train like this!" He was obviously starting to see what intensity of effort was all about.
We finished the workout with some cable laterals, but I'm sad to say that we did nothing special, only two sets of 8-10 reps.
At the end of the workout I decided to talk to Dave about what he'd just experienced.
The Post-Workout Talk
"Dave," I said, "today you learned what hard training, what effort, is all about. What we did today, the amount of effort we put into every single set, taking everything as far as we could, is what hard training is all about. Simply put, you can't expect great results from average training efforts."
Dave nodded in understanding. What he just experienced was an awakening; he finally understood what would take him to the level of physical development he'd always dreamed about.
"Dave, what we did today is not how you should always train though." Suddenly Dave became confused. "The intensity we put in every set is what you should strive to reach in your own workout. The mental focus, going through the pain barrier, breaking limitations, is what hard training is all about. However, we must also plan our training properly, otherwise we'd just overstress our bodies and we wouldn't be able to recover or grow maximally."
He gave me an empty look. Disappointment? Sadness from the time wasted? Or was the truth sinking in?
"Look, if we count the supersetted exercises we come up to a workout of around fifty sets! At the level of intensity we put in, there's no way we can recover from that amount of work on a regular basis. The thing we did today was teach you a lesson about what training hard really means. The hard part wasn't the volume or the number of exercises we did; it was the fact that we went for our limits on every set.
"This is the type of effort you should put in on a regular basis, but with a more suitable volume. The programs I give you are designed to work optimally if you do the work sets with the amount of effort you experienced today. Without proper effort, even if the programs are well thought out, you won't get the results you want."
Dave thought about it for a second and replied, "So I should try to go as hard as I can on every set I do, but avoid doing too much work per workout?" Dave was getting it.
A look of relief lit up his face. "Phew," he said, "that's good to hear. I was getting kinda scared thinking about what we would've done for legs!"
Christian Thibaudeau is currently serving a five-year sentence for training manslaughter. Hopefully, with proper guidance, he can someday enter polite gym society again.