When it comes to muscle and performance, Charles Poliquin is so far ahead of most of the non-Testosterone pack it's scary. He's not only on the cutting edge, he's the guy who sharpens it. We're glad to be reviving his famous Q & A column here at T-Nation.
Swanky New Gym Gadgets
Q: I still use the Ivanko EZ-Grips you recommended several years ago. Any new gadgets you think are worthy of becoming gym staples?
A: It's not a gadget, but it's a staple. New York Barbell sells an Olympic dumbbell with a thick grip. It spins, so it's a lot easier on the wrist. Fat handle dumbbells have a lot of carryover for sports, and they're good for people into more functional training that applies to real life.
There's also a new gizmo out there called the Multi-Grip Handle. It's a new type of handle you can hook up to any pulley exercise you want.
It allows your wrists, elbows, and shoulders to move in a more ergonomic, "natural" way. You'll find that any exercise you perform with it will feel smoother and easier on the joints. It's a nice little toy. They can be purchased through www.multigriphandles.com.
I like bands too, but the problem with them is that you need a fixation point. A bench press isn't really linear. Now, I know Westside likes the linear pattern, but that's because the winner in their sport is the person who lifts the most amount of weight for the shortest range. But in real life with athletes, the bar actually moves in a flattened J pattern.
Well, there's a new type of bands you can attach to a bench that permit more natural movement. They're on a sliding device that allows the band to follow the pathway of the bar.
One of the problems people report with band training is that it can lead to tendonitis because of the fixed point. With these new bands, there's no fixed point; it actually moves naturally. This is another good tool to check out. You can get them at http://www.strengthcats.com/BNSsquatbenchpressbands.htm.
Swiss Ball Use and Abuse
Q: You've written some articles in the past about the use of Swiss balls. Today it seems like stability balls and their ilk are being abused and overused. Have your feelings changed about Swiss balls?
A: The problem with Swiss balls is that people started doing things with them that their bodies weren't designed to do! For example, squatting on the Swiss ball is completely moronic. It's a party trick.
One of the problems is that you have to squat bowlegged. There's actually one guy in the industry who was showing off by doing it at a seminar. He jumped off and blew his ACL! What happens is that you put the ligament in a bad stretch from squatting bowlegged.
Now, if you use the Swiss ball to modify the strength curve like I've done with some arm training movements, I think that's fine.
With Poliquin's lean-away eccentric curls, you sit with your back and triceps resting against the side of a Swiss ball. Perform the concentric (lifting) range of a seated dumbbell curl. Once you curl the dumbbells to the top, raise your hips so that your thighs are parallel to the floor. Your upper body should then be literally on top of the ball. Lower the dumbbells down and away from you. Lower the hips and repeat until you hit your target number of reps.
Also, Swiss balls are good for certain core exercises. The problem is when people say that Swiss balls cure cancer and get the IRS off your back. There are people out there making outrageous claims.
Recent research has shown that Swiss ball training for your core works only for six weeks (which is what I've been saying since '94). You'll get more abdominal activation from the squat and deadlift than any Swiss ball exercise, no matter how difficult. So if you're an untrained person, you can do the Swiss ball, but after six weeks you'll top out on the gains you'll get.
About 70% of Swiss ball exercises are worthless. It's just one of those things where people are taking an idea too far. There's some value to it, but it's not a cure-all.
Most personal trainers and strength coaches just don't know how to get people strong. I remember talking to this one trainer who uses all these stability gizmos. I asked him why he used all that shit and he said, "I'm not good, so I have to do these weird things so people will come to see me."
I remember seeing him make this post-menopausal woman do one-hand split jerks with a fat dumbbell. Now, Adam Nelson is one of the best shot-putters in the world and I don't make him do that! The risks are way too high.
The problem with using Duradisks and similar devices is that you have to use loads that are so insignificant that none of the prime movers really get activated. So if a woman can overhead press a 25-pound dumbbell, she'll only be able to use an eight pounder while performing this circus act on a stability device. She just won't be overloading her muscles.
I call it "entertainment training," not strength training. And any time I see that horseshit, I want to kick the personal trainer in the head with a pair of steal-toe construction boots.
And the BOSU ball? The BOSU ball is a Swiss ball for morons! Again, when you stand on it you're always bowlegged. Why do you want to get into a position that's not good for your knees and ankles? What about doing it on one foot? So what, then you have to reduce the load!
One of the dumbest things I see is the lying dumbbell press on a Swiss Ball using only one arm. The most a 180 pound guy will be able to use is about 45 pounds. Why? Because if you use more, you're going to flip over. Now, the same guy can use much more than 45 pounds to do regular flat dumbbell presses. So what's the point?
"Oh, it activates the core." Yeah, and to what degree? All you're doing is firing some stabilizers just to control yourself so you don't flip over, but you're not overloading the pressing muscles. So again, this is just entertainment training. It's circus training and it doesn't do anything!
Now, these devices do work well... in marketing terms. It's like those speed ladders. Parents see them and get impressed, but no world class sprinter has ever used a speed ladder. It's never made anyone faster on the track or the field, only made them better at doing speed ladder drills. Once the speed ladder has become an Olympic event, I'll train my athletes for it.
The same is true for cone drills. How often do you run in a perfect pattern in a football game? It's never perfect, especially once you add in a 300 pound defensive player running at you with the intent of trying to take your head off.
I did some consulting for a top soccer team last summer. Their strength coach is one of the highest paid in the world, making 700,000 euros a year. He has his athletes do all their energy systems training with a soccer ball. He's figured out that perfect running technique goes to shit once you add in a ball you're responsible for. So if you're going to be doing energy systems training, you might as well be using a ball with it.
The same is true with a hockey puck. You see a lot of guys doing these power skating classes, which is basically a cute looking figure skating coach who teaches a hockey player how to skate perfectly. But as soon as you put a puck on the ice and a 210 pound monkey who wants to ram your head into the boards, all those motor patterns you learned are gone!
What we know from an industry standpoint is that all those centers that rely on gimmicks and games, especially the ones geared for teenagers, need to have 76 new clients a month to stay afloat. Why? Because client turnover is very high. The kid goes there and does all this circus training, but he doesn't get faster on the field and he doesn't get stronger. He goes to camp and gets tested on the bench and power clean and comes off like an eleven year old stamp collector and gets cut from the team.
"Functional" training or just entertainment training?
There is such a thing as overcoming inertia. Whenever you sprint, jump, or throw, you're always overcoming inertia. What makes you overcome inertia? Getting stronger. Entertainment training gets you better at the skill, but it doesn't make you stronger and it doesn't transfer to the field. It's a way to make money as a personal trainer, but it's not a way to make money as a strength coach because your athletes won't get any real results.
And by the way, if you look at the studies on the core, it's actually the least trainable part of the body (after the hands) of all the muscles in the human body. (The calf is actually the most improvable.)
The #1 Training Mistake
Q: Diet and lifestyle issues aside, what's the number one training mistake people make when their main goal is hypertrophy?
A: The most common mistake is choosing the easy way out: choosing the exercises that don't recruit the most muscle. Leg extension vs. squatting, back extension vs. deadlifting, etc.
Basically, hypertrophy is a function of load times TUT (time under tension) within a certain limit. It's always a matter of how many motor units you can recruit. So bench pressing with chains (accommodating resistance) is going to do far more for you than the same number of reps with a plate-loaded chest machine. You need to choose the exercises that give you the most bang for your buck.
Let's say you have ten sets of twins and you divide them into equal groups. One group does deadlifts with bands, squats with chains, bench with chains, and chin-ups. The other group does leg extension, leg curl, lat pulldown, and machine bench press. The difference in hypertrophy would be monstrous between the free-weight accommodating resistance group verses the machine group.
Another example: Take someone and have them do ten sets of six in the pull-up where each set is hard. Take his twin and have him perform ten sets of six in the pulldown. The difference in muscle mass gain is going to be night and day. You recruit more motor units with the pull-up.
The problem with plate-loaded machines is that the leverage is often too good. Every kid in high school can do five plates a side, but they can't do five plates a side with any barbell exercise. The only time they do five plates is when they go to IHOP. And when in real life would you have to overcome resistance in a seated position? Never.
Another 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! Yet I saw a guy do five sets of eight on the bench press, pausing for two seconds on his chest, with 520. And he wasn't a lifter; he was a wrestler! He built that strength with basic equipment.
Now, these machines can be a good source of variation for the "beach body" lifter. In bodybuilding, the muscles don't have to have any function. They just have to look pretty. It doesn't matter if you use rocks or selectorized weight machines, as long as you have enough load and you last long enough (time under tension), you can hypertrophy (just vary the exercises.)
I'm not dogmatic enough to say that machines are "evil." It depends on the population. The executive doesn't care if he can do a pair of 90's on the incline dumbbell press; he just wants to look good in a bathing suit at the five star resort. Whether he used machines or dumbbells doesn't really matter.
Poliquin's "Wimp" Biceps Exercise
Q: Looking back at a lot of your programs, I see the Scott or preacher curl being used a lot. Why? That's a wimpy isolation exercise equivalent to the triceps kickback!
A: Allow me to disagree. There's a big difference in the Scott curl and the kickback. If you look at the EMG studies, the two biceps exercises that recruit the most motor units are incline curls and preacher curls. The main reason is that you don't have to fire any other motor units from other muscle groups.
How much load can you use on a triceps kickback verses a lying dumbbell triceps extension? The ratio is like 10%. The reason why the ratio is so low with the kickback is that we have poor motor unit recruitment. You just can't lift much weight. The two best exercises for triceps recruitment are the one-arm French press and the decline triceps extension, which are isolation exercises, but the load can be very high compared to a kickback.
Now, even though I like the Scott curl for biceps, no matter how good the exercise you always want to vary the angle and the implement. So you can do Scott curls at different angles, with a barbell, with a dumbbell, with a pulley, it doesn't matter.
Blast from the Past: The Arm Blaster
Q: Charles, since you like the preacher curl, what do you think of the old Arm Blaster device Arnold used to use?
A: Actually, there's a study on this that shows it does increase recruitment in the elbow flexors, probably because it's harder to swing with it. If you swing then the device digs into your ribs.
So it does increase recruitment, but a simpler way to do it would be to just put your back against a post.
The Barbell Row: Final Word
Q: You've kinda poo-poo'ed the value of the barbell row in the past. Why? Isn't it the best mass builder for the back?
A: 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.
This also allows you to send the elbow up in different pathways. One month you can send it straight up, one month you can pretend you're elbowing somebody in the face. This will allow you to recruit different portions of the scapular retractors. The barbell isn't a shit exercise, but the dumbbell row is a better alternative.
By the way, the only guy I've seen do barbell rows really well is Ronnie Coleman... and he used five plates per side. I've also watched him do sixteen plates on the T-bar row, and he did them very well.
Sure, the T-bar row is a short-rage movement, but it has a load, and it will build the back. But not everybody is as disciplined as Ronnie Coleman to do them properly.
People just want to hear that a certain exercise is the only way to go. It's just not true. The barbell row is fine, but after a few weeks, do something else!
Strongman for Beginners
Q: I don't want to compete in strongman competitions, but I was interested in using some of the implements for my weekend warrior activities. What should I start with?
A: The two easiest ones to manage are sled dragging and farmer's walk.
If you do intervals using a sled, it will improve your squat, your deadlift, or whatever you're working on depending on the loading patterns you use. My book with Art McDermott, Applied Strongman Training, goes over all of this.
Flipping tires is probably the least practical. You have to make big jumps in weight, plus there's some technique involved. Out of all strongman style training, tire flipping is the most associated with injuries. There are quite a few incidences of biceps tears with it because people use the wrong mechanics. Farmer's walk and sled dragging are pretty self-explanatory though, so I'd start there.
Now, one of the best tests of athletic ability is asking a guy to walk with the farmer's yoke.
Take a guy who can squat a ton and deadlift a house and ask him to run with a super yoke. It looks like an epileptic penguin having a fit. We did an experiment where we had some already strong individuals train only with the super yoke and the farmer's walk for four months. No squatting, no deadlifting. At the end, their squat and deadlift actually went up a percent or two. That's true core training. Run 25 yards with a super yoke and your abs will fire for sure.
Now, with the farmer's walk, a lot of people say to use hiking boots to protect the ankle. I prefer to just use running shoes so you don't protect the ankle. I want the ankles to have to stabilize themselves and allow you to increase ankle stability. That works far better than a Duradisk!
Athletic Potential or What Kind of Woman to Pick Up At a Bar
Q: What's a good way to tell if a young kid has great athletic potential for strength sports?
A: There was a study done once using world class Olympic lifters. If you give them a hand dynamometer grip test, you'll find that they're only marginally stronger than they were when they were twelve years old. The point is, at age 12, those who became world champions in weight training were already 95% stronger than other kids in their age group.
In other words, hand grip strength is a good selection tool. Want to find future world champions in weightlifting? Take a hand grip test of kids at age 8 and at age 12. This will tell you right away who's going to be strong.
Now, in China, for female lifters, they look for hairy forearms. If she's eight years old and has the forearms of a Lebanese cab driver, then she's going into weightlifting! This is because females with hairy forearms have high levels of androgens.
NFL football players who I've coached have used this knowledge for other purposes. They told me that if you're at a bar and it's 1:00AM and you haven't caught anything yet, look for the hairy forearms. Word of warning: she may be able to throw you against a wall and flattened you!