Charles Poliquin is a legend in the bodybuilding and athletic world, and rightly so. In his quarter-century as a strength coach, Charles has trained enough Olympic medalists, world record holders, and world-champion athletes to populate a small town. We at Testosterone hold him in special esteem for his expertise and track record, certainly, but also because he was here when we first started the site 10 years ago.
Poliquin's introduction to the world of iron came about because of bad weather. At 14, Charles was the second-youngest karate student in Canada to earn a black belt, and the only one in his class to show up at the dojo during a raging Ontario blizzard. He and his sensei, Web Corcoran, spent the next hour lifting weights, and Charles was hooked.
Since then, Charles has coached Olympic athletes in 23 events, and has trained top professionals from the NHL and NFL. He has coaxed hundreds of medals, wins and personal bests out of scores of elite athletes. He has lectured in 8 countries in three different languages, published over 600 articles on strength training, and has been a regular contributor to Testosterone for nearly a decade.
What follows is a shot glass-sized distillation of Coach P's gallons of knowledge: 20 of our favorite Poliquinisms dealing with training, nutrition and supplementation.
1. Be as Strong as You Look
I've had the opportunity to train arms with a whole slew of pros, and I can generally handle more weight than they can, using stricter form, even though they're usually up to 70 or 80 pounds heavier than I am. The secret to my superior relative strength comes from the regular use of maximal weights. Most bodybuilders stick religiously to a 6 to 12 rep range when training arms. On the other hand, there are plenty of strongman contest competitors with massive arms who are every bit as strong as they look. What's the difference? Strongman competitors train using few exercises, done for multiple sets of low reps with long rest intervals between sets.
2. Splits Still Beat Full Body Routines
I'm the first one to want to improve on any training system, but I do not know anyone successful in the strength coaching business who uses full body routines exclusively. In bodybuilding, I don't think Ronnie Coleman trains whole body three days a week. I've never known a successful bodybuilder, even the low set guys like Dorian Yates, to do whole body training. Every single Olympian I've trained used split routines. I've been in this profession for 26 years and no one has ever convinced me, by their results, that full body routines are the only way to go.
3. The Rep Rules
The rep is the mother of all loading parameters. All loading parameters are a function of the number of reps you choose to perform. It dictates the rest intervals and the amount of sets you're going to do. Once you've decided that, it limits which exercises you can do. For example, the power clean should never be done for high reps because that's a high coordination lift.
4. Variety is the Main Ingredient of Training Success
Unless you're involved in this business full-time, you tend to adopt certain exercises and do them over and over again, to the exclusion of all others. We tend to adopt the same habits in other aspects of our lives. We tend to eat at the same restaurants, frequent the same stores, and call the same girls at 2:00 in the morning after we've had a few too many drinks and ask, "Hey, what are ya' wearing?" We are creatures of habit. In training, though, it's imperative that we break out of these ruts. We have to try new movements or try different ways of doing the same old movements. Variety is not only the spice of life; it's the main ingredient of bodybuilding and strength training success.
5. Dumbbells are a Better Choice
The more you stick to what we were designed for as animals – lifting rocks, carrying carcasses, and generally just fighting against gravity – then the better off you are. What that means is using free weights over machines. One problem with machines is the fixed pattern of movement. For that same reason, I think dumbbells are a better choice for most exercises than barbells, particularly if you're dealing with an athletic population. I went to the Soviet Union in 1982. It was astonishing how little variation of equipment they had. They had a lot of barbells and a lot of dumbbells, but there was nothing very sophisticated. It's what you do with the equipment that matters!
6. Cables Do Not Count as Machines
Cables are basically re-directed dumbbells. In my opinion, cables are the same thing as free weights, plus they allow you to re-direct resistance where dumbbells are limited. For some exercises, cable pulleys are superior. For example, for rotator cuff training you're very limited in the angles you can train it when using a dumbbell. The options are endless though, when using a pulley. A multi-functional cable unit is the same thing as a dumbbell. I don't consider it a "machine."
7. Want Great Abs? Then Do Your Squats!
Abdominal specialization for athletes? It could happen, but the abs actually have very little potential for strength increases when compared to other muscles like calves. Along with the grip, the abdominals are the least likely to improve with training. Some of these guys can claim all these poundages used in ab training, but it's actually the psoas doing the work. If you truly isolate the abs, after six to eight weeks an athlete will plateau the rest of his life. Research has shown that the most coordinated athletes master the most difficult abdominal exercises in six to eight weeks. The only things that increase abdominal improvement are squatting and deadlifting.
8. Give "Super Squats" a Try
The classic 20-rep squat routines are certainly worth a try. To do this program, one takes 3 deep breaths in between each rep. And, of course you're only supposed to do one set. What's really happening is that you're doing 20 single-rep sets with 10 seconds between each rep. This 10-second pause, while taking the 3 deep breaths, allows you to recruit higher-threshold motor units than if you did the 20 reps in a slam-bam fashion. Hence the greater-than-normal motor unit recruitment. When performed with the right load, you'll cough up a lung at the end of the set (which is a real badge of honor among hardcore trainers). If you're underweight and have low-work capacity, I strongly encourage you to try 20-rep breathing squats. But, like any other routine, it will work only until you adapt to it.
9. Best Reps for Hamstrings
For hamstring hypertrophy, do low reps in a leg curl machine and higher reps in stiff leg deadlifts, Romanian dead, reverse hyper, and back extension. The reason why is because when you're working your hip extensors you're also working your glutes and erector spinae and those tend to be higher rep muscles. In other words, if you're using the leg curl machine you should be using eight reps or less. Someone with a higher training age may only need three reps, but use a higher amount of sets, like 10 sets of 3.
10. Stretch Your Quads, Blast your Hams
Always stretch the quadriceps between hamstrings sets. Increasing the range of motion of your quadriceps prior to a leg curl exercise will increase the amount of motor units used in the hamstrings during the exercise and therefore the effectiveness of the chosen exercise. Since the quadriceps is the antagonist muscle to the hamstrings, and that stretching will allow it to relax, the force of the contraction in the hamstrings will be much greater in the subsequent contraction.
11. Bench Press Overrated?
Some guys grow with the bench and some don't. But go to the world championships in powerlifting and you'll see plenty of guys with big pecs, and all they do for their chest is bench. But I'd say that if you're pressed for time, any type of dumbbell press will be more efficient (all factors being equal). Now, some coaches recommend a very wide grip for barbell bench presses to bring more focus onto the pecs, but this just leads to achy joints. The widest your grip should be is 90 degrees between the upper arm and forearm when in the bottom position of the lift.
12. Better than the Barbell Row
One problem with the barbell row is that it's really hard for people to just use the lats and elbow flexors. They always unconsciously start to drive with the quads and use their glutes and lower back. The second thing is that the bar either hits your gut or your chest, which restricts your range of motion. The better way to do it is to just use the one-arm dumbbell row.
13. Chins: The Upper Body Squat
The chin-up and its variations should be considered an "upper body squat" because of its mass-building qualities and its ability to quickly increase functional strength. Chin-ups involve the sternal portion of the pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid, the rhomboids, the middle and lower portions of the trapezius, and the elbow flexors. A chin-up specialization program will not only build impressive width and thickness to your back, but will also pack solid inches on your arms by promoting growth on your biceps, brachialis, brachio-radialis, and pronator teres.
14. At Least Fifteen Pounds for Every Inch
Typically, you have to gain 15 pounds of overall body weight to add an inch to your upper arm measurements. Now, if you want to go from 21 to 22-inch arms, which is enormous, it'll be more like a 25 pound gain. Weider writers claimed that Arnold used to have a 22 inch arm cold. Arthur Jones said they were full of shit. Arthur Jones was right: the Weider camp was full of shit. For Arnold to have a legitimate 22 inch arm, he would've had to weigh 308. If you're going from a 14 inch arm to 16, then 30 pounds will do it. But going from 18 to 20 inches will require more like a 50 pound gain.
15. Close-Grip Chins Get your Biceps Growing Again
Throughout my career, I've met a lot of people who've packed inches on their elbow flexors simply by doing chinning exercises. Grasp the chin-up bar with a close, supinated grip. The palms of the hands should be facing you, and your pinky fingers should be 4 to 6 inches apart. Hang below the bar and then pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. This movement should be done very slowly, on the order of about 15 seconds or so. Then, slowly lower yourself to the start position. Don't short-change yourself by not coming all the way down. Like it is for any exercise, range of motion is critical. If your arms haven't grown for a while, consider adopting this movement. It's a sure-fire mass builder.
16. Pressdowns are for Poofters
Pressdowns are the most popular triceps movement. They're great because they put you in a position that makes it easy to scope out that lingerie model doing cable crossovers. Unfortunately, that's about all pressdowns are good for. Have you looked at the triceps of powerlifters and strongmen competitors recently? They're plenty massive, but very few of them will waste their time on pressdowns. Now look at your average gymnasts: most have massive triceps that were built largely by doing dips and pressing motions. Ditch the pressdowns and use these instead:
- Parallel dips
- Close-grip bench presses
- Decline close-grip bench presses
- Seated EZ-bar French presses
- Decline dumbbell triceps extensions
17. Grow Your Traps or be a Geek
The trapezius normally has a very rapid growth response, so much so that if you can't grow traps, you're truly destined for geekhood. I'd rank the power snatch as the top trap builder, then power cleans and the different forms of shrugs. Most people limit their range of motion though by using barbell shrugs. It's best to do them with a dumbbell one arm at a time so the trap can have a few inches more range. Do three weeks of that, then alternate it with an Olympic-style lift such as power cleans or power snatch.
18. Pack an Inch on your Calves in 30 Days
I've found that in order to build calves, you need some frequency of training and some volume, but you can't have both high volume and high frequency. Therefore, I advise training them twice over a five-day cycle, one workout being very high sets (16) and high total reps (250-510 reps); and the other being low sets (3) for a low amount of total reps (90). I've known people to gain in between 5/8 of an inch to a full inch with this routine in as little as 30 days.
19. No-Bull Exercises for Calves
I like the Donkey Calf Raise because it places your gastrocnemius in a superior stretched position. Seated calf raises are fine, but they're geared to working the soleus. For complete calf development, you need to work both the soleus and the gastrocnemius. If your gym doesn't have a donkey calf raise, or if you're reluctant to have someone of the same sex straddle you like a horsey, your best alternative would be the Dumbbell One-Legged Calf Raise. Another problem posed by donkey calf raises is figuring out how much resistance to use. For instance, how many fitness bunnies equal one Roseanne?
20. Break Plateaus with Doublé Training
Doublé is a French term that means to do something twice. I learned it from Pierre Roy, who's probably Canada's best weightlifting coach. Basically it involves doing the same exercise twice in the same workout. Whatever lift you want to improve, you do it twice. So for example if your squat is weak, you squat at the beginning of a workout, then you squat again at the end. It's a great plateau buster that can work for strength specialization or hypertrophy specialization. Let's say you have shitty calves. You can do ten sets of calves at the beginning of the workout, then train chest and back, then do ten sets of calves at the end.