Q: I follow your writings and enjoy your advice! However, I noticed that you recommend the Donkey Calf Raise quite often when talking about training calves. The couple of gyms that I frequent don't have a Donkey Calf Raise machine and I'm rather reluctant to interrupt other people to get them to sit on my back. Are there alternative exercises that I can use to replace the Donkey Calf Raise?

A: The reason I like the Donkey Calf Raise is that it places your gastrocnemius in a superior stretched position. Seated calf raises are fine, and the most common piece of calf-training equipment in most gyms, 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?

Q: I really like the column, Charles, which brings me to my point. I have a question about back training. I injured my back doing heavy squats about three years ago and although they're undoubtedly my favorite exercise, I'm no longer able to do squats or bent-over rows. My back is more than wide enough, but the thickness is suffering because I can only use rowing machines (Cybex, Hammer iso, etc.). I would really appreciate some advice to help me work around this problem. Please help! I want to win the Western Ontario championships this year!!!

A: First of all, it's not because you injured your lower back three years ago that you can't do the exercises you want to. Often times, the lower back pains/strains experienced after an injury are caused by tight hip flexors. Regular stretching of these muscles would help you return to squatting. To learn how to stretch the hip flexors, I suggest you consult the book titled "Facilitated Stretching" by Robert E. McAtee and Jeff Charland. It's published by Human Kinetics 1-800-465-7301.

Of course, there are a lot of exercises that can help you thicken your back. You can, for example get more thickness by doing chins and focusing on bringing your lower sternum to the bar. Another thing you can try is to hold the contracted position for 3-4 seconds during your machine rows; this will overload the scapulae retractors which will contribute to upper back hypertrophy.

Q: What's your opinion of 20-rep breathing squats? I just finished reading my copy of Stuart Robert's BRAWN, and I have been talking to a lot of people over the net about the benefits of 20-rep squats. What's your opinion of this training method?

A: The classic 20-rep squat routines are certainly worth a try. They were popularized by earlier Iron Game writers like Peary Rader and Bob Hise.

What sort of gains can one expect on it? Typically, a teenager weighing 150 pounds can go up to 165 pounds in 8 short weeks while following a 20-rep breathing squats program (assuming he's eating something other than Ding-Dongs and Mountain Dew). 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.

Q: If a trainee returns to the gym and finds that his strength hasn't increased from his last workout for that body part, should he just call it quits on that body part for that day?

A: Yes. The motto one should respect is, "go heavier or go home." If your strength hasn't increased since the last workout, two things could have happened:

  1. You waited too long between workouts and thus lost the training effect. (This is often seen during what I call the "Menstrual Training Cycle," which is 4-days on, 26 days off.)
  2. You didn't wait long enough, and therefore supercompensation hasn't yet taken place (the most common of the two causes).

As a rule of thumb, you should try to do one more rep or add some low percentage (1-2%) to the bar. The key to sustained progress is to continually add small increments to the load to coax not force the muscles into strength adaptation. This can be accomplished two ways:

Small Disks

You can buy Eleiko Olympic small discs of 0.5 kg and 0.25 kg from Sports Strength. They fit on Olympic size bars and dumbbells. 1-800-285-9634. (Most of the time, you're forced to jump up in weight by increments of 5 or 10 pounds, and this often presents an insurmountable load).

PlateMates

PlateMate magnets fit on the end of the bar or dumbbell. The company offers them in 2-1/2, 1-7/8, 1-1/4 pounds and 5/8 pound sizes. To purchase them call 1-800-877-3322. I recommend you buy the donut shaped ones because they also fit on hexagonal dumbbells.