Let's get inside a different pair of eyes for a moment. We're so used to looking at the gym from a bodybuilder's
perspective that taking a different point of view might be of value. How does this sport of ours look to others?
To the outsider, bodybuilding seems a very simple thing. You pick up heavy weights. You pull on cables or perform reps on some esoteric combination of cams and pulleys. You do this often enough, and voila - you're huge and ripped. All that's left is to shave down, oil up and pose.
Most people in the gym are going nowhere slowly because they don't recognize the simple fact that bodybuilding is scientific as well as physical-that it's more than just hoisting tons of iron every week. They wander into the gym, do a few curls and presses and tell all their friends that they're "into weightlifting."
If you ask them, as in the old burger commercial, "Where's the beef?," these dilettantes (a fancy Italian word meaning "pencil necks") always answer, "I don't want to look like those people in the magazines. I'm just trying to firm up." The translation, of course, is, "I'd like to get big, but I don't have the guts to push myself into the pain zone or the brains to figure out a good program."
Getting past the no-guts, no-brain syndrome is what separates the success stories from the also-rans in any walk of life. Bodybuilding is no different. While the courage must come from within, the knowledge must come from experience and learning.
The dumbbells, barbells and machines in the gym are simply the tools of your trade. Some will work well for you, and some won't. The exercises you do with those tools are simply the means to the desired end. Again, some exercises will work, and some won't.
Whether you're training for a physique contest or preparing for the Olympic high jump, you must train specifically for your goal. I do a lot of legwork, but I'll never jump over a bar much higher than my bellybutton. Our purpose as bodybuilders is to develop mass and definition.
Building a championship body is like building a million-dollar mansion. The first step is to lay a solid foundation. The initial work goes to the down- and-dirty men, with their concrete and rebar, not to the painters and finish carpenters. When you're building a million-dollar body, you lay the foundation with the down- and-dirty basic barbell movements.
Unfortunately, while a building may take a few months to erect, a body takes years. Only a few individuals have the long-range vision to persevere. The following seven exercises are the blue-collar workers of body construction:
2. Bent-over row
3. Bench press
4. Standing shoulder press
5. Close-grip bench press
6. Standing barbell curl
7. Calf raise
There they are: the seven building blocks of the beginning bodybuilder's program. There's the temptation to get too fancy too soon, but a good foundation is the most important aspect of eventually becoming big beyond freakin' belief.
The beginning bodybuilder's task is to master each and every one of these exercises. Many of the rookies I see in gyms all over the country just can't wait to get away from the basics and begin messing around with the latest finishing moves from some star's program. They're off on some quirky alternative exercises before they've mastered the basics. It's like school kids trying to do algebra before they've learned the multiplication tables.
These core exercises are the most grueling because of the high degree of neuromuscular activation involved. They're better than machine exercises because they require you to balance the weight, thus activating stabilizer muscles and charging your nervous system.
Just because you stick with the foundation exercises doesn't mean your program has to be boring. As you gain experience, you'll learn many variations of the basic moves.
To the neophyte, for example, the squat seems pretty cut and dried. You put a barbell across your shoulders and proceed to alternately squat down and stand up. To the veteran, however, the movement is much more complicated. Bar placement on the back will change how your legs respond. Foot placement can shift the stress to various muscles. Small adjustments can keep you from experiencing injuries and tendinitis.
Yes, even the humble squat has its mysteries. The beginner also thinks using a leg press is the equivalent of doing squats, but it not. It comes down to the neuromuscular activation factor discussed above. That's what makes the squat the king of all leg exercises.
There's nothing wrong with trying out new movements for specific bodyparts, but don't do it at the expense of the basics. The idea here is not just to master the basic exercises but to master them in every possible way.