"This is going to hurt," the big guy in the Hank Williams T-shirt tells me right before he sinks his fingers deep into my pec minor. He was right. I wince and he has to remind me to breathe.
We're in Dallas, Texas, and T-mag contributor Chad Waterbury is showing me how the Vietcong used to torture prisoners of war. Okay, he's not really torturing me; he's digging his fingers into my muscles, releasing adhesions and breaking up old scar tissue. When he's finally finished, the pain in my arm, which has been plaguing me for weeks, is gone.
The treatment session is indicative of Waterbury himself. He looks like the kinda' guy who'd be breaking arms, not fixing them. The 6'3" strength and conditioning coach is one of the strongest guys I know. His warm-up sets on the bench press are higher than most peoples' max efforts.
He looks the part, too. The night before we'd been to a couple of crowded honky tonks, tough cowboy bars in Fort Worth. When Waterbury walked through the doors, the crowd parted like a drunken Red Sea to let him pass. Like most genuinely tough guys, Chad doesn't have to say a word. He does though. He says, "Pardon me" and "Excuse me" and "Thank you."
I think most of the cowboys and sweet little redneck girls thought Waterbury was a new bouncer. That would be an easy assumption to make. Back in his undergraduate days, he was a sought after bouncer in some of the roughest bars of Chicago and later in Tucson, getting thirty dollars an hour for his services. Today, he's just a couple of years away from getting his PhD in Physiology. He'll have gone from head bouncer to college professor in just a few short years.
This becomes the theme of the weekend I spent hanging around with soon-to-be Dr. Waterbury. He's a walking lesson on why you shouldn't make assumptions about people. On first sight, you see this huge cat with tattooed arms, black cowboy boots, and a Glock ballcap. You think you have him pinned down. He even refers to himself as a hillbilly, just a good 'ol boy who drives a pick-up truck and likes a juicy steak and maybe a sip or two of Jack Daniel's on a Saturday night.
But that would be only half the story, maybe even just a quarter of it.
Just when you think he's going to pull out a can of Copenhagen and take a dip, he quotes, line for line, a poem by Robert Frost. He can talk about motorcycles and the scholarship he received to study groundbreaking Parkinson's research at the University of Arizona with equal ease and enthusiasm. He's one of the few guys I'd want on my side in a bar fight and on my side during a game of Trivial Pursuit. Waterbury can whup ass and talk philosophy with equal aplomb.
Chad is also a student of both history and outlaw country music. Driving through the streets of DFW, the truck's speakers blared songs about hard lovin' and hell raisin'. Waterbury tapped his booted foot. That was right up his alley. But I'd also caught a glimpse of the book he was reading on the plane to Texas: History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. This too was right up his alley.
You just can't pin Chad down with labels. He defies stereotypes, like any good T-man should.
T-mag Does Dallas
Waterbury had traveled to Texas just to hang out and talk shop, but we decided we may as well do something cool for T-mag readers while he was in the neighborhood. So on Saturday afternoon we met sixteen T-maggers at a Gold's Gym for a free seminar and "meet 'n greet."
As expected, the readers who came were a varied bunch: teachers, lawyers, accountants, college students, trainers, computer programmers, advanced athletes, newbies, and everyone in between. No matter the background or the level of experience, each was about to get some of their sacred cows barbecued and eaten by Waterbury. Like the man himself, his theories on training surprise most people. His duality is evident in both cases.
Chad began his talk with a lesson about the nervous system. You may think athletic performance and bodybuilding are all about muscle, but Chad starts with the nervous system. He told us about one study where half the participants trained a muscle while the other half only visualized training the muscle. Those who trained saw a 30% increase in strength, which was expected. What was surprising was that those who only thought about training increased their strength in that muscle by 22%, almost as much as those who trained! It's easy to see why Waterbury focuses on the CNS.
He then shocked most of the audience by telling them to train through light soreness. "If the nervous system is recovered, you can train the muscle group again, even if you're still a little sore," Waterbury said.
How do you know if your nervous system is fully recovered? "If you're an intelligent, rational, experienced lifter and you're motivated to train again, your nervous system is recovered," Waterbury said. "If you're not motivated to train, the nervous system is probably not recovered. Motivation is the key. You must drop the notion that a muscle group can only be trained once a week." Within this framework, he believes in instinctive training for advanced lifters. There are so many factors that affect the rate of recovery, only the trainee himself knows whether or not he's ready to hit the gym again.
Waterbury typically has his clients train each muscle group twice per week and often up to four times each week. Of course, if you're training the same old way – three sets of ten reps, going to failure every set, etc. – then maybe you can only train each muscle group once a week, but Waterbury thinks that style of training is outdated and inadequate. He says, "Don't train to failure. You must keep the nervous system from becoming overly fatigued if you want to train frequently. Therefore, leave the grunting and screaming to the frat boys who have thirteen inch guns and spend their entire day doing concentration curls. You should walk out of the gym feeling fresh. If you feel like you could go back in and do half the workout again, you're on the right track." His rule of thumb: leave the gym wanting more.
He takes a hard line on these issues, but it's tough to argue with him. After all, he's the biggest guy in the room – another irony. Waterbury doesn't like bodybuilding, yet he was the most muscular guy at the gym that day (and yes, he's a lifetime drug-free lifter).
He also eschews direct arm training and most of his programs at T-mag don't include things like curls and triceps extensions. Want to get him to roll his eyes? Ask him for an arm training program. The funny thing is, his arms are probably bigger than yours. He looks like he could curl 300 pounds, but he doesn't curl at all. (Smell that? That's BBQ'd sacred cow.)
The irony is that Waterbury probably holds the "secrets" to developing an incredible physique, yet he doesn't train with that purpose in mind. "Performance always precedes changes in body composition," he told the crowd in Dallas, "Seek performance and the body comp changes will follow. Bodybuilders don't think enough about increasing performance."
Perhaps the biggest take-home lesson from Saturday's talk was about sets and reps. To induce hypertrophy, Waterbury likes to throw the "rules" out the window. Generally speaking, he prescribes many sets of low reps. So instead of recommending three sets of eight reps, he flips it and prescribes eight sets of three, twelve sets of four, etc. You go heavy, but not to failure, and you keep the rest periods fairly short. Multiple sets of heavy load training targets the Type IIB fibers that have the greatest potential for growth. "Performing three sets of three won't do much for growth, but ten sets of three definitely will!" he told the crowd.
He also trains multiple strength qualities (maximal strength, hypertrophy, endurance) simultaneously, calling most periodization schemes that separate each quality "Complete bullshit!" The greater the variety of methods during the week, the better, he says.
Keeping his ideas about frequency and training to failure in mind, here's what one of his splits would look like:
Monday: Upper Body (Maximal Training)
Tuesday: Lower Body (Explosive Training)
Thursday: Upper Body (Explosive Training)
Friday: Lower Body (Maximal Training)
When asked about warm-ups, Chad dropped another bomb. He believes high rep warm-ups are worthless. "The key to injury prevention is to wean yourself off warm-ups," he said. The human body should be taught to take action without having to be warmed up. (Waterbury has trained members of the military's special force units, guys who don't have time to "warm-up" before calling their muscles into action.)
He suggests we all begin to use heavier weight and lower reps for our warm-up sets, gradually working up to only a couple of sets of three or four reps at 70% of 1RM. Chad himself warms up for the bench press with only a couple of reps of 315 pounds. Keep in mind that Chad, and all of his clients over the years, have never gotten an injury from such a technique. In fact, it bulletproofs them, he says.
Chad ended the mini-seminar with some unique exercise demonstrations. The first was the jumping box squat, an exercises used to increase explosive strength. (Instead of going over this one, I'll just direct you to Chad's T-mag article on that topic.)
He also demonstrated the overhead figure eight. Simply grab a couple of dumbbells, press them overhead into lockout, then walk in a figure eight pattern. This pattern makes the rotator cuff muscles have to fire to stabilize the load, but it also makes a great full body exercise.
(Oh, and so Dr. Waterbury doesn't crush me like a stale pretzel during my next muscle treatment session, I should note that he can do this exercise while holding aloft two Volkswagen Beatles full of college girls. He's demonstrating with the weenie dumbbells pictured because that's all we had available in the aerobics room we used for the seminar!)
Chad then moved to the Waterbury Walk. "I decided to name this one after myself before someone else rips me off," he said. Waterbury believes that one of the most "functional" lifts you can perform involves carrying something in front of you. While he likes the Farmer's Walk, he says the Waterbury Walk has more carryover to real life situations.
He's quick to state, "How many times in the real world, outside of the gym, do you lift something that's evenly dispersed on each side of your body? You don't. That's why it's extremely important to learn to maneuver with a load held in front of you. This philosophy is especially helpful for strongman competitors. The Waterbury Walk is ideal because it trains your body to move forward and backward with a load held in front of you. It also builds starting strength, one of the keys to explosive strength, off the ground and at knee level."
To perform the Waterbury Walk, deadlift a loaded barbell off the floor (about 65% of your raw 1RM load), take a couple of steps forward and set it down on a box or power rack supports. Release muscular tension, re-lift the load, take two steps backward, stop, reset your stance, and lower to the ground. That's one rep. Ouch.
Finally, Waterbury showed the Dallas T-peeps his unique variation of the squat thrust (sometimes called a "burpee" although Chad hates that name.) Begin in the standing position with dumbbells against the front of the thighs. Squat down on your haunches and place the dumbbells on the ground in front of your toes. Pop the legs back into a position that looks like a push-up with the hands on dumbbells, then jump the legs back up to the previous position. Finally, stand up with the dumbbells.
Waterbury recommends you work up to holding two dumbbells that represents 25% of your deadlift 1RM. For example, if your maximum deadlift is 400 pounds, you'd work up to holding two 50 pound dumbbells while performing the squat thrust.
Stop Digging and Start Thinking
I learned a lot from the seminar. Like any good presentation, it left me thinking about a lot of things besides the info presented. Here are some of my ponderings.
After talking with a few of the folks who attended the seminar, I noticed a pattern in their thoughts. Most of them were surprised by many of Waterbury's recommendations, and their first reaction was to reject his "strange" ideas about training. But we're talking about T-mag readers here, so they remained open-minded and are going to adopt some of his programs.
I think most of us automatically react to new info with doubt. After all, we want to figure out this whole weight-training thing and stick to what we know. We want to "solve" it. We're disturbed when someone comes up and tells us we've been doing it wrong or in a less-than-optimal manner. We resist, almost instinctively.
The human mind also seems to be programmed in a way that makes us want to believe the first thing we hear. If we're told three sets of ten to twelve reps is ideal for hypertrophy, we're likely to hold onto to that opinion tightly, even if it's not working that well for us. Perhaps we fear the change or perhaps we're just stuck in a rut and content.
But if we're smart, we'll step outside of our beliefs and ask ourselves, "Am I getting the results I want? Am I as strong as I want to be? Have I reached my goal of having eye-catching muscularity?" If the answer is no, then why stick with your current training style? If it ain't workin', then why are you still doing it?!
I find it amazing how some people (many of whom don't look like they've ever even touched a weight) will argue that their way of training is the best. Their own stubbornness and denial is holding them back from making great gains.
It's also a bit difficult to look at a guy like Waterbury and tell him he's wrong. He's built himself up from being a 160-pound basketball player, after all. He's not a genetic freak and he's never touched a steroid. It's hard to argue with his and his clients' success. The waiting list to train with Waterbury is a mile long and his services don't come cheap. What he does is obviously working and those who've adopted his full programs say they blow away most traditional bodybuilding routines. So, he must be doing something right, even if his ideas collide with the "rules" of bodybuilding.
Maybe it's time we rationally set aside the stagnant "rules" of strength training and try something new. Sure, most of us make changes in our programs every four to six weeks, but how big are those changes really? Are we still doing basically the same things – the same comfortable exercises, the same familiar training split, the same old set and rep schemes? I think it's time we break out of those boxes we've put ourselves in, and I think Chad Waterbury is the guy to help us, especially those of us who've been in the iron game for years. Waterbury just may be the ideal strength coach for the advanced lifter.
Maybe like me, you've recently found yourself in a hole. My progress had stalled and the injuries were starting to pile up. I didn't just need a change, I needed a major change, a total paradigm shift. As Will Rogers said, when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin'. The problem is, the hole becomes cozy and comfortable. We don't get stuck really, we choose to stay down there because it's secure and familiar. The Waterbury seminar made me take a look around my little hole and decide to climb out.
I've adopted one of Chad's programs and haven't changed it a bit. For the first time in a long time, I've trusted someone else with my training. Even though I help edit a bodybuilding magazine and have published dozens of articles myself, I've shucked all my pre-existing ideas about lifting to give Waterbury's stuff a fair shot.
This is what it's all about, folks – learning, improving, being challenged, and growing physically and mentally. To do this, sometimes even smart guys like us need to take a risk and let someone else help out. For the next few weeks, I'm putting my trust in the big hillbilly's programs. Ya'll might think about doing the same.