When a country wants a gold medal, they come to Charles Poliquin.
Coach Poliquin has been hailed as the most successful strength coach in the world, having coached Olympic medalists in seventeen different sports ranging from shot put to biathlon. In this exclusive column, he answers all your burning questions about training.
The Parts of the Pecs
Q: Is there really anything you can do to target certain areas of the pecs like upper and lower? For example, incline bench presses hit the "upper" pecs; dips and declines target the "lower" pecs. Any truth to those old bodybuilding beliefs?
A: Actually, there is. Now, you will find some research that says that it's not true, but those studies were done with Radio Shack equipment and aren't reliable.
The truth of the matter is, there's a great percentage of electrical activity in preferential heads of the pectoralis. In other words, the clavicular (upper) portion will be recruited more during inclines, and the sternal (lower) portion will be recruited more during the decline bench press.
But it's a percentage of the contribution; certain exercises don't target one-hundred percent of the lower or upper pecs. So, the clavicular head still works somewhat during decline presses. The percentage of recruitment is merely shifted with certain exercises.
It's the same with biceps. When someone does incline curls, the long head of the biceps is more recruited, but the short head is still working.
Now, with chest work, the further the hands are up in relation to the center of gravity, the more the clavicular pectoralis is recruited. And the further the hands are near the center of gravity, the more the sternal pectoralis is recruited. So, theoretically, dips will recruit more of the sternal pectoralis than the decline press. In that way, you can think of the dip as an extreme decline press.
All that said, there's no such thing as the middle or inner chest, so obviously that nonexistent area can't be recruited by flyes or pec deck.
Built for Squats?
Q: Is it true that some people just aren't built for squatting, like taller guys?
A: Is it true? Not really. That's a myth, because anybody can squat. But the thing is that, mechanically, some people are better suited for the squat.
In other words, if you have a guy who's 5' 4", 200 pounds with short legs, he's going to be better suited for squatting than a 6' tall, 200 pound guy. It's why you never see top powerlifters who are ectomorphs. Ectomorphs just aren't mechanically built for squatting.
But anybody can squat. One of the reasons tall basketball players "can't" squat is because of poor ankle flexibility. Their sport is really hard on the ankles so they develop a lot of scar tissue in that area. But if you put them on a proper flexibility program, then they can squat like anybody else.
The same is true for squatting depth. Everyone should be able to go deep, regardless of body structure, provided that they're flexible enough to get there. If you can't go deep, work on flexibility, then go deep. Don't blame shallow squatting on your height.
High Reps for Hypertrophy?
Q: Is there ever a reason for a bodybuilder who's focused solely on size-gains to train above the 12 to 15 rep zone?
A: Only in certain muscle groups that have a higher percentage of slow-twitch fibers like the soleus portion of the calf, the erector spinae, and the quadriceps.
With some muscle groups, like quads, you can go as high as 50 reps per set. But a lot of it has to do with your fiber make-up. There's been some pro-bodybuilders who've grown on 30 reps per set. IFBB pro Nimrod King is an example of this.
He uses high reps and has huge arms, but obviously he's an exception to the rule.
Leg Press Breakdown
Q: What do you think of the leg press machine? A lot of strength coaches hate it, yet it seems that every big bodybuilder out there has used it with success for leg size.
A: The leg press is a great exercise for hypertrophy, but it's not popular with strength coaches because it doesn't transfer to sport. Your legs get stronger at the expense of your lower back.
So, I agree with both camps. It's possible to get big legs using the leg press, but those legs aren't functional for sport.
Now, if hypertrophy is your main goal, my best tip for maximizing the use of the leg press is to think in terms of time under tension (TUT). Do leg presses with as much weight as you can handle for two straight minutes.
And that means full range reps, not those quarter-reps that barely even vibrate the platform you see most people do. What's full range? Full range means you go down until your quadriceps cover your chest.
Q: What do you think of waking up in the middle of the night and drinking a protein shake or at least taking BCAA? Any benefit to that?
A: I don't believe in that. Sleep is for sleep.
As soon as you're awake for more than three seconds you disturb melatonin production, and melatonin is part of the hormonal cascade that builds muscle. To me, good sleep is when you put your head on the pillow and wake up eight hours later. Plus, the digestive system is made to rest at night.
Many also take BCAAs before bed, but a lot of people find that too stimulating and they wake up in the middle of the night. Instead, the best thing before bed is something that will keep your blood sugar constant. Casein, the slow-release protein, is a good choice.
BioSig and Cancer
Q: I've heard that BioSignature Modulation can be used as an accurate predictor of breast and prostate cancer. Is that true?
A: We just did a study on that with Dr. Mark Houston M.D. at the Hypertension Institute in Nashville that will be published soon in a peer-reviewed journal.
Basically, as a male, you should never store fat on your quads or hamstrings. There should also be an optimal ratio between your pec and triceps skinfold. When those figures get out of line, they're actually correlated with your PSA measurement, which is a predictor of prostate cancer.
Also, the more you store your fat in your lower body, the more likely you are to get breast cancer. In fact, when a male has female fat distribution patterns (fat on the hips and thighs), his risk of getting just about any form of cancer goes up.
Breast cancer was practically unknown for males just seven years ago. Today it's as high as one male out of every twenty. Environmental estrogens and poor detoxification pathways are usually to blame. And the fatter you are, the more anti-aromatase you make and the more "female" you become.
When I was growing up, I can only remember one kid who had tits, and he'd get made fun of. Today it's epidemic. Ask any physical education teacher in schools. In swim class most of the boys are wearing T-shirts in the water to hide their moobs.
The first thing we do with men showing signs of female fat distribution is to access their zinc level. Nearly 100% of the population is severely deficient in zinc. The next step is to get them on natural anti-estrogens such as green tea, grape seed extracts, and resveratrol.
The "New" EZ-Curl Bar
Q: I read where you endorse something called the Football Bar. What is that exactly and what makes it endorsement-worthy?
A: I've always been a big believer in dumbbell work. One reason is that, compared to a straight barbell, it allows for more-natural movement of the limbs for many exercises.
Likewise, one reason I limit the number of machine exercises with my clients is that most machines restrict movement of the limbs, often in an unnatural way. A great compromise between a straight bar and dumbbells was the EZ-curl bar.
The inventor of the EZ-curl bar was Lewis G. Dymeck, who was awarded the patent for it in 1950. By providing a variety of angles to position the hands, this squiggly barbell enables the user to perform a variety of exercises with less wrist strain.
This innovation has had an amazing impact on strength training and bodybuilding, as it provides more stability than dumbbells so that heavier weights can be used. That's why you see many EZ-curl bar exercises in my workouts, especially in my book, Winning the Arms Race. The EZ-curl bar is a winner.
You could say that the next generation of the EZ-curl bar is the Football Bar. Mike Bystol, owner of the Chicago Poliquin Performance Center, sent me one of these unique barbells. Whereas the EZ-curl bar is primarily used to take the stress off the wrist, the Football Bar goes one step further in that it was designed to also reduce the stress on the shoulders. Many of my colleagues who train NFL players use it regularly with their athletes because it permits them to use heavy loads in an anatomically safe position.
The Football Bar is made up of two separate frames. Each frame provides three grip handles, and the grip angle is quickly modified by rotating the bar 180 degrees. Even though dumbbells can simulate the same grip angles as the Football Bar, a full set of dumbbells requires – and I can tell you this from firsthand experience – a significant financial investment and isn't always conducive to training a large number of athletes.
The Football Bar is engineered to reduce stress on the rotator cuff during pressing movements by offering two different grip angles. Both grips, nearly perpendicular and parallel to the bar frame, reduce rotator cuff stress by channeling stress in either of two selected angles.
In fact, one reason that the log press is popular among athletes who compete in strongman competition is that the strongman log used in this event has the hands facing each other, instead of the pronated grip required when using a straight bar. This is one reason I've often used the log press when training athletes, especially athletes who have a history of shoulder injuries.
The Football Bar enables you to press the way you would punch in Jeet Kune Do (which means martial artists will love this bar). It's particularly useful when training linemen, as it duplicates many of the upper body movements used in the game.
Because of the dynamics of pressing and pushing movements during athletics, resistance across both shoulders is seldom uniform. With the Football Bar, athletes can use an "offset grip," which means one hand would be spaced further from the center point of the barbell. Working with this variation will help athletes build additional power and strength against unevenly distributed resistance.
Numerous exercises can be performed safely and more effectively with the Football Bar, exercises such as biceps curls, bent-over rows, and lying triceps presses. Further, one thing you'll find when using the Football Bar is that your wrists have to work harder to stabilize the bar, an effect that will enable you to tap into a wider motor unit pool.
Warm-Ups Gone Wild
Q: Any new fad in the strength training community that's driving you nuts?
A: Yes, extensive warm-ups and "mobility work" that can last 40 to 60 minutes before strength training. By the time the athletes do the warm-up they don't have any energy left to train. They also lose mental focus and are more likely to get injured.
Mobility, in my opinion, should be a different training unit performed four to six hours after strength training. Newsflash: the warm-up should be specific to the task! Kicking will get you warmed up for Tae Kwon Do; lifting progressively higher loads will get you ready for strength training.
Another pet peeve of mine is when people do advanced exercises without first mastering the basics. You see some trainers in New York having their executive clients benching with chains, yet they can barely even bench the bar. They're doing these cool training methods, but they don't deserve it; they don't need them yet.
If the client can't bench 150% of body weight, he doesn't need to get sophisticated. I saw another moron in Scottsdale have his peri-menopausal obese client do one-arm, fat dumbbell split jerks. Her form was so horrendous a rhino would perform better at ballet.
This is just marketing on the part of some trainers. Chains look cooler than a bench and a set of dumbbells, but that's all most clients need in the beginning.
Q: My forearms look like Paris Hilton's ankles. Got any tips?
A: First, stop using straps when you train your upper back. No more rows or chins with straps. Second, as much as possible, train with thick bars when training the upper body. That forges forearms rapidly.
Here's a quick routine that will put some additional mass on your forearms:
- A1. Palms-down dumbbell wrist curls for 10-12 reps on a 2010 tempo. Take no rest and proceed to exercise A2.
- A2. Palms-down low-pulley wrist curls for 15-20 reps on a 1010 tempo. Rest for 60 seconds and go back to exercise A1.
- Perform the A1-A2 cycle three times (do three sets of each).
- B1. Palms-up dumbbell wrist curls for 10-12 reps on a 2010 tempo. Take no rest and proceed to exercise B2.
- B2. Palms-up low-pulley wrist curls for 15-20 reps on a 1010 tempo. Rest for 60 seconds and go back to exercise B1.
- Perform the B1-B2 cycle three times.
- C1. One-arm radial flexion using a sledgehammer. 10-12 reps on a 2012 tempo. Rest 30 seconds and proceed to C2.
- C2. One-arm ulnar flexion using a sledgehammer. 10-12 reps on a 2012 tempo. Rest 30 seconds and return to C1.
- Perform the C1-C2 cycle three times.
The stronger you are on C1 and C2, the further away your hand should be from the iron mass. If you can do them with your hand all the way down with a 10 pound sledgehammer, your forearms can now put Chuck Sipes to shame.
Editor's Note: What, no sledgehammers available at your gym? Those bastards! Try these unique exercises instead to simulate the sledge:
Note: When performing this routine, cut out direct elbow flexor and triceps work by about 40%. Or, if you have plenty of time, do this routine on arm day, 4-6 hours after your arm workout.