This article is for those veteran trainers who have built a fair amount of size: are you seduced by mass to the exception of everything else?
He knew what he was doing. His Monday, Wednesday, Friday antagonist-based training had gotten him pretty far. A two-count upward contraction and four-count downward contraction felt as natural as breathing. He could laser-target an isolated muscle and annihilate it with the iron. After five years he was now 185 pounds and in good shape. He was habituated into his daily schedule: Work until five o'clock, drink some java on the way to the gym, and exercise hard for 70 minutes. The weights came first, followed by cardio on the bike for 20 minutes.
He liked the heavy basics like rows, bench presses and squats, but also liked preacher curls, seated calf work and certain machines. "Power bodybuilding" was his thing. If Terry had any concern at all, it was that he had more or less hit a progress plateau for the last year or two. He also didn't feel quite as athletic as he did when he was in college. But results don't lie and Terry was bigger and leaner than every other guy he knew. It felt good to get regular compliments.
Diet-wise, Terry was used to his three squares. He knew which foods were great bodybuilding choices and he had the discipline of a Green Beret in following his diet. He had been "eating clean" for so long, he actually had very little desire to cheat. (This is called the termination phase for you behavioralists.)
If Terry's scenario looks reasonable to you, I agree. It is reasonable. But the dictionary definition of reasonable uses words like "suitable". Suited towards what? I'm not sure I want to be suited to a very narrow environmental stimulus. What if strange new challenges crop up?
The truth is, there may be small, mounting problems in Terry's lifestyle of which he is only now even catching a whiff. Will it be five more years before he notices that he's so specialized to his environment that he's lost the ability to sprint 100 meters without a hamstring pull – or jog two miles across town? Will he reach a point when he strains something every time he tries a ballistic lift or "real world" heavy lifting task? How's that lower back going to be after eight years of weekly heavy back squats?
I can't help but feel that bodybuilding experience and single-minded "progress" bring the need for extra awareness. Even 18-inch arms seem less than manly if they come from an almost sterile, controlled gym environment. "Two-up...four-down...keep those elbows still...rest 60 seconds...repeat..." I have a growing concern over how transferable these adaptations will actually be. I am also concerned over the health consequences of reveling blindly in certain movements.
And what about nutrition? "Eat those egg whites for breakfast...Eat two cups of rice and a can of water-pack tuna every day for lunch...Have a 16 oz. pre-training coffee...Drink a sports drink thereafter...Have one chicken breast with a half-pound of spaghetti 60 minutes thereafter...take four fish oil capsules at bedtime...repeat tomorrow..." I have a growing concern over single-minded nutritional discipline as well. Choosing those five or six foods that one perceives as "good" and refusing to eat anything else because it is considered weak or "off my diet" is not dedicated, it's foolish.
Imagine how dissimilar the daily training and diet was that Arnold employed in order to imitate the physique of a barbarian. Do you think a warrior would hypertrophy to that degree? Does pushing a massive wheel in a circle or fighting with a sword build big, peaked biceps? How about hunting for your food, is that anything like tuna and rice every day at noon? Perhaps more pertinently, who would really win in head-to-head combat between a barbarian and most modern bodybuilders? Mmm Hmm.
The modern bodybuilder, for all his years of strict form in his chosen movements, would likely pull a hamstring or even tear something before things really got underway. As much as I love negatives and heavy weights, I don't think I like the idea of "false advertising". It's like having a lawnmower engine under the hood of a flashy sports car. (So actually, as an old school trainer who was also into powerlifting and function, Arnold is not the best example of dysfunctional mass – but certain primping 300-pound pros of today certainly are.)
Am I hacking off you single-minded mass hounds? Good; I hope it'll serve as a wakeup call because I used to be (and partly still am) one of you. Now in my mid thirties, I'm undoing about twenty years worth of weakness that my physique sure doesn't show. Although I'm no longer 230 pounds or able to incline-bench 315 for reps, I still look like I could easily wade into battle. But looks are deceiving. I've become just too darn specialized and adapted to slow controlled heavy negatives and traditional bodybuilding training.
Nutritionally, similar habits can quietly become entrenched. For example, this past year I've been feeling too reliant on morning and afternoon coffee to function. A few years prior, I was eating far too few foods, sticking only with those that were perceived as "healthy" like tuna, pasta, oatmeal, skim milk, egg whites, etc. As with training, the body adapts to one's chosen diet. Did you know that, over a few weeks, macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, fat and even alcohol) proportions alter one's ability to "burn" fat versus carbs as fuel? Or that minor but progress-stagnating micronutrient deficiencies might occur? Or that missed phytochemicals (plant substances) may increase disease risk? There are even changes in brain chemistry that slowly create that reliance on coffee (or perhaps other stimulants).
So what are some rational tenets of training and eating for us veterans who have grown too specialized? There is ONE that fixes so many others automatically. It's called variety and the more you think about it, the more attractive it becomes as an ultra-simple habit that you can create very much to your advantage! Let's take a look:
- Variety prevents too much of a good thing (joint stress, glycogen depletion, micronutrient accumulation, "sub-clinical" metabolic aberrations)
- Variety allows for acquisition of the potential missing factor in stagnated progress
- Variety forces the body to adapt to new surroundings and challenges (seasonal workloads and foods are natural rhythms)
Now that we're seeing the importance of variety for creating true warrior physiques and breaking out of training/weight gain plateaus, here are some ways to fix any weaknesses that you intermediates and veterans are strong enough to admit:
- Put your hard-won mass to work! Flip tractor tires, press logs, carry heavy dumbbells as far as you can (heck, just train for a strongman event!), practice sword or martial arts techniques, add purposeful stretching sessions, pick an Olympic lifting or powerlifting program and take six weeks trying it, rotate heavy basic movements from workout to workout (e.g. squat, then leg press, then hack squat, then find a different kind of leg press, repeat).
- Make a pact with yourself not to follow any one routine for more than a year's worth of mesocycles.
- Train with different partners.
- Put your nutritional discipline to work! Eat as many different things as possible. In practical terms, let's say one new food item each time you grocery shop. Some starter ideas for vegetables include: a different bag of frozen veggies every time you shop: broccoli, then colored peppers, then zucchini, then "California blend", then a stir-fry blend. A similar thing can be done with fruits (frozen or fresh): mixed berries, apples, peaches, pears, melon, bananas, a different one every each week. Or how about grains? Oatmeal, All-Bran, high-fiber rye bread, flaxmeal, corn, brown rice, etc. Even meats can be varied: chicken, tuna, lean pork medallions, 93% lean ground beef or round steak, various seafood, turkey, lamb, etc. You're getting this weekly grocery list idea by now.
- Focus on foods that are in-season; they're cheaper and naturally cyclical throughout the year.
- Eat with different friends and colleagues who are health-conscious.
In the end there's certainly nothing wrong with huge muscle mass. It's what so many of us crave! It's just a matter of recognizing that we can become too good at ultra-strict exercise movements and dietary discipline. We must gain awareness that we're creatures of habit. We're social by nature and tend to be subtly influenced by others, from spouses to co-workers to training buddies. Try to make a conscious effort, even if it's painful, to recognize where you are specialized to the point of detriment. Take on new challenges and seek variety in the gym and at the table.
It might just be the solution to your progress plateau and make all that mass truly barbaric.