Q: What are your thoughts on the frequency of squatting? I've seen lifters squat as infrequently as once every ten days, while national team weightlifters squat as often as nine times a week.
A: I can understand how being exposed to such a variance in training could be rather confusing for the reader. Let me put it this way. One shouldn't be concerned with the maximal frequency of training that they can handle, but more with the optimal frequency of training.
Successful strength coaches like Ian King and Al Vermeil, who have given serious thought to the optimal training process, will point out that there's no point in going back to the gym if you're not going to make progress. I'm in full agreement with this principle that I learned from Ben Johnson's coach, Charlie Francis. In other words, when you go to the gym, the motto should be go heavier or go home. There's no value to go to the gym to repeat a workout. If you're not going to do an extra rep or add some weight, you might as well stay home and wait for the right time to ride the supercompensation wave.
Now, I fully expect some readers to write in that it's impossible to keep making gains week after week, year after year, arguing that if infinite progress were possible, we'd all be benching a thousand pounds for reps. Yes, yes, that's true, but I'm talking about making perpetual progress within a particular workout routine. Let's face it, if you've been doing the same routine for more than three or four weeks, you've already extracted every last drop of usefulness from that routine. In other words, that workout has grown stale, and it's time to change. So, assuming that you're changing routines regularly, each workout should show some progress from the previous one.
Regarding squatting nine times a week, it's a classic case of "extraordinary training methods for extraordinary athletes." This approach works well, but only for mutants who might feel comfy as extras on "The X-Files." Less than 1% of the population of athletes can survive this kind of workload. Granted, it has produced results in these athletes, but I'm not convinced that it's the most efficient way to train.
The reason I say that is because in 1992, I was training a hammer thrower who could power clean more than the super heavyweight lifter who accompanied him to the Olympics. The thrower squatted an average of once every 3.5 days during his 22-week Olympic cycle and only bothered to power clean from the floor the last three weeks of that cycle. I am of the same opinion as Louie Simmons in regard to lifts being limited to a structural weakness within the musculature responsible for that lift.
In my opinion, the best training frequency for most individuals (70% of athletes) is once every five days. The more gifted ones will probably do better at once a week. And I've even seen some individuals who do better at once every ten days. That doesn't necessarily mean that they only train legs once every ten days. For example, they may follow a leg program that looks like this:
Day 1 — Sled work
The athlete pulls a weighted sled for sprints up to 60 meters in distance.
Day 5 — A lunge-oriented workout
The athlete tries to drive up his lunge or split-squat poundages. A form of step-up is also usually included.
Day 10 — Squat workout
Obviously, the goal here is to drive the poundages achieved in the chosen squat exercise upward.
Day 15 — Repeat
The athlete starts the cycle over again.
The feeling that you get while you do your warm-ups should tell you if you're ready to squat again. You may not squat that day, but do some other type of leg work like lunges or step-ups. This would suggest a case where the movement pattern frequency (how often you do that particular exercise) is too high, but your muscles are well recovered.
It's important to point out again that the nervous system takes five to six times longer to recover than the muscular system. In other words, your leg muscles may feel fine, but the squatting pattern may be hard. In that case, I wouldn't waste time and, instead, move on to other movement patterns that still overload the legs.
If you're not improving, change your frequency. Most trainees train too frequently, so experiment with reduced frequency. There aren't many people who can continue to improve on a frequency of two to three times a week per muscle group while holding a regular job and being exposed to other life stresses. While anabolics do allow you to increase your frequency due to improved recovery ability, it's possible that the majority of anabolic users are training too frequently, regardless, and consequently limiting the training effect.
Q: You recommend a lot of pull-ups in your "Poliquin Principles" book. Since abandoning the old pull-down machine, my strength has really shot up — thanks! My problem involves doing pull-ups on one of those bars built onto a dip/leg raise station. The bar is bent down at the ends, like most are these days, but it's very uncomfortable! Is this just me, or is it better to use a straight bar?
A: The pain that you're experiencing probably stems from the flexor carpi ulnaris muscle located medially on the forearm. Hanging from the bent bars shortens this muscle excessively, which may have prompted the pain. That condition can be very easily treated in a few sessions by a qualified Active Release Technique practitioner. Call 719-473-7000 to find the one nearest you.
Q: We hear that creatine can cause cramping. Then that's bunk, and all you need to do is drink enough water. Dr. Serrano recommends that you take buckets of creatine, but not before a workout or a game because you "might" cramp. You work with million-dollar athletes who probably use creatine. Do you feel comfortable with them taking it before training sessions and/or games?
A: For the most part, I would agree with Dr. Serrano, assuming that the creatine you're using is of good quality. The cramping can be caused by impurities found in the cheaper brands of creatine, and we know that there are a lot of them out there. For instance, I'm under the impression that the majority of creatine in the United States is being shipped in from China, where quality control remains an issue. Currently, the best creatine comes from Germany.
I also believe that it's an individual thing, like tolerance to carbs or something similar. According to research, creatine poses certain side effects in 22% of subjects, even if the creatine is of high quality and they hydrate fully.
I'm very pleased that Biotest's current liquid delivery system (used in Ribose-C) should alleviate many of the cramping problems seen in athletes. The creatine is extremely pure and high in quality, and laboratory testing has shown that the amount of degradation (to creatinine) in each bottle is less than .01%. Furthermore, the purity and enhanced absorption allows the athlete to use far less than they would ordinarily. Gone, hopefully, are the days of cramming down 25-30 grams of gut-wrenching, powdered creatine!
Q: My partner and I just completed your isometronic biceps workout. What a killer — we loved it! Can you apply the isometronic technique to other body parts, like the chest? My bench press hasn't improved since Mili Vanilli was at the top of the charts. Any suggestions?
A: From the earliest part of my career as a strength and conditioning coach, and after having read some of the articles by authors Don Ross, Rasch, Bill Starr, and Anthony Ditillo, I've been a strong believer in using the power rack to promote rapid strength and mass gain. The program that I've outlined below is generally most effective. The average intermediate bodybuilder can expect to beat his best close-grip bench press by 30-45 pounds. This is rather impressive since those gains are generally made in a time frame of only three to four weeks.
This routine's physiological basis is what American sport scientists Fleck, Kraemer, and O'Shea call "functional isometric contractions" (FIC). Over thirty years ago, players of the iron game were introduced to this training method under the term "isometronics," a contraction of isometrics and isotonics. However, strength experts like Letzelter, Hartmann, and Tünnemann prefer to use the term auxotonics. The concept behind this training method is to use the best of what the isometric method can offer and combine it with the regular type of lifting still known as isotonics.
FIC makes use of the specific joint-angle strength gains of isometrics after pre-fatiguing the muscles involved by using heavy, short-range repetitions in the power rack.
Here's what you do. Select three equally divided ranges of motion in the bench press: the start range, mid range, and end range. In all three ranges, you'll need to select a specific weight that you can move from the bottom of the range of motion to its top position. In all ranges, the range of the movement will be regulated by sets of pins.
In essence, you'll set up to do a set of bench presses under the power rack. You'll set the pins at the top of what would approximate where the bar would be if you were only doing 1/3-range movements.
Perform four to six partial reps in the normal fashion on a 202 tempo. When you come to the end of the last concentric repetition, make contact with the bar against the top pins. Apply as much force as hard as possible for six to eight seconds, trying to blast through the pins! Don't hold your breath during the isometric contraction; instead, use a very brief cycle of breathing, alternating rapidly between short inhaling and exhaling.
If you've performed this set properly, you shouldn't be able to do another concentric repetition after lowering the barbell. If you still can, the weight that you used was simply too light.
Do two more sets at this rep range. Then, move the pins to approximate where the bar would be if you were working the mid range of a bench press. Repeat four to six partial reps at a 202 tempo for three sets, pushing "through" the pins on the last set. Do three total sets at this range of motion.
Now, move the pins to approximate where the bar would be if you were working the upper third of a bench press movement. Again, repeat four to six partial reps at a 202 tempo for three sets, pushing "through" the pins on the last set. Do three total sets at this range of motion.
You'll have done nine sets. It won't be necessary to do anything else to work your chest that day, but you might want to do some assistance work (triceps). Make sure to do this program only once every ten days. Perform a more conventional workout in between FIC workouts.
Q: Why do some guys bench with their feet in the air, crossed at the ankles? It looks dangerous to me, but I've seen a lot of college athletes do it this way. You'd think that they know what they're doing — any clue?
A: There could be two reasons why college athletes do it this way:
1) Someone told them that it's best to use this position when you're hung over.
2) They forgot to wear a jock strap, and they're struggling to keep the family jewels out of view.
The real reason is probably because they were told that it takes pressure off of the lower back. While this is true, at the same time it can be dangerous not only for the trainees, but for other gym members, as well.
I once watched a football player do the "feet up in the air" version of bench pressing. The trouble was that one arm didn't extend as far as the other. Since he had no collars on the bar, it tilted to one side, dropping a stack of plates on the foot of a guy who was putting his weights back onto the rack. Turns out that the guy was a world-class powerlifter, Jiu-Jitsu black belt, and mob collector. Despite the foot-crippling pain in his foot, the mob collector proceeded to deliver a spectacular roundhouse kick to the head of the football player who, unwisely, had failed to apologize. I just had enough time to lunge forward and grab the unconscious football player's head before it hit the dumbbell rack — not a pretty sight.
Personally, I have my athletes place their feet on the ground for greater safety and stability. If you experience lower back discomfort in this position, it's either because you have tight hip flexors, or you're as short as Mini-Me. Stretching the psoas and the rectus femoris muscles before your bench workout should take care of that particular problem.
Q: My old training partner used to say, "If you ain't sore, then you didn't work hard enough!" Since our main goal was to induce hypertrophy, is that statement accurate? Do you have to get really sore to grow?
A: I would agree with your old training partner, up to a certain point. The question comes down to what hypertrophy is, exactly. As stated by Canadian exercise physiologist Duncan MacDougall, hypertrophy is "a biological adaptation to a biological stimulus." The biological stimulus is generally a microscopic tear associated with the lowering of loads.
It's been clearly shown many times in scientific literature that the eccentric contractions, not the concentric contractions, are responsible for tissue remodeling, and lowering results in tears that are often associated with pain. Maybe we should get used to saying, "Hey, dude, I'm going to the gym to lower some weights and get big."
That's the main reason why, in the early '80s, concentric-only isokinetic devices, like the Mini-Gym and Hydra-Gym machines, failed to stay in the iron game market. Since those machines didn't provide eccentric contractions, trainees failed to make significant gains over longer periods of time when compared to free weights.
There are definitely some ways to pair your exercises to create greater muscle soreness and, thus, more hypertrophy, but you've got to be a real masochist to want to learn them. However, all of the possible pairings go beyond the scope of this column, but I generally make a point to address them in my seminars.