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The gym where I occasionally train is on a college campus. It's well equipped with basic benches, racks, dumbbells and plenty of free weights-more than enough to build a strong, outstanding physique.
Although the gym is often full of people training, few reach their physical goals. Most of the guys who work out there spin their wheels by doing the wrong exercises, using improper form, doing too
many sets and simply not training hard enough.
There is, however, another gym on campus, one that is dedicated to the hardcore powerlifter and bodybuilder, and many of the better-built and often genetically superior lifters train there. These two gyms polarize the extremes in weight training-the genetically advantaged, who grow on any program, and the wanna-be trainees, who after devouring volumes of muscle magazines, pounce into the gym dressed in the necessary garb but fruitlessly pound away on curls and triceps presses, trying to be like some physique champion.
Whatever happened to the three-days-per-week, basic-exercise program? Something is wrong when you see a 150-pound trainee flailing away on a six-day split. Like many of these workout wanna-bes I was once seduced by the lure of certain bodybuilding publications that promised space age techniques to blast my way to a championship physique. I, too, did too many sets of the wrong exercises on too many training days. I grew very little in the way of muscle and strength, and by the last two workouts of the week
I was physically drained.
Energy is precious. The primary key to successful bodybuilding is to train hard enough to stimulate growth but to leave sufficient energy for recuperation. Ideally, 20 minutes after a workout you should feel invigorated, not drained.
Fortunately, I came under the tutelage of a coach who steered me toward a three-days-per-week regimen of basic powerlifting and Olympic lifting movements. On this program my strength increased rapidly. Later, when I switched back to bodybuilding movements on that same three-day rou-tine, I increased my muscle mass more in the first few months than I had in three years of training on a split routine.
I've also found that gains can be had on as little as two days of training per week. The abbreviated routine based on the 20-rep squat that was promoted by Peary Rader for so many years is the simplest and most underrated program there has ever been for putting on muscular mass. It also offers other benefits besides muscle building. As a member of a police department's special response team (SWAT) I have to meet demanding fitness standards. After two months on the 20-rep-squat program I blew out my physical fitness tests, surpassing my teammates in physical stamina, strength and agility.
Let's take a look at a few training truisms that will help you gain more from your workouts:
1 If you train to failure, do it right. When you train to failure, do only two sets per exercise. Keep the number of exercises low, and try to stick with a full-body workout that starts with your legs and works down to the smaller muscles.
2 If you use multiple sets, don't overtrain. Training to failure isn't the only productive way to work out. You can also do multiple sets- three to five per exercise-but when you do, don't train to failure. Also, decrease the reps as you go up in weight, or pyramid, on each set, and don't grind out your reps on your last set. Train hard but with 80 to 85 percent intensity, leaving yourself a little extra energy. If you split your workout over four days, you should still try to keep your exercises down to one per bodypart. If there is an area you want to specialize on, then use two exercises at the most.
Either approach-training to failure or multiple sets-is fine, but don't mix them or constantly change your exercises. Consistent gains come over several months by doing the same exercises, in the same manner, while gradually in-creasing the weight. When you reach a plateau, then it's time for a short break in training and a change in program. Consistency is a key to progression in any endeavor, not just bodybuilding.
3 Choose the correct exercises. The other day I walked into the gym and saw two emaciated and unathletic-looking individuals sitting side by side on a bench, desultorily and pathetically doing 15-pound concentration curls. They looked like two little children who'd lost their way-and in a way they had. Muscular size, athletic ability and physical fitness are not built with concentration curls and dumbbell kickbacks. Whichever of the three you pursue, it takes hard work with basic exercises.
4 Hit the basics and squat! That campus gym has a squat rack, but it seldom gets used. Yet it is a proven fact that the squat is the principle exercise for gaining overall muscle and power. The squat promotes growth not only in the legs and hips, but in the upper body as well. The ideal way to squat would be flat-footed with a medium foot spacing, the bar held high on the traps and the upper body upright. Most people, however, due to inflexibility or poor body leverage, can't squat like that, and it is often their excuse for not squatting at all. If you are willing to leave your ego behind, you can overcome this problem.
Decrease your weight drastically-yes, you may have to squat less than you bench-press-and use a two-inch block under your heels. Push up with your thighs and keep your hips forward instead of back. If you're lucky enough to have a U-shaped bar, use it. Otherwise a cambered bench press bar works well if it is wider than your shoulder span.
Now, where the squat rack is seldom used, the four benches are constantly filled with bench-pressers; however, I've yet to see a well-built body come from only benching and curling. I watched a rather remarkably built young man recently who went through a routine of bench presses, incline presses, declines, flyes and dips. The remarkable thing about his physique is that while he had well-shaped pectoral muscles, he had no back development and very little in the way of arms and legs.
I don't want to knock the bench press too much because it increases mass in the chest, shoulders and triceps, as well as pushing out the rib cage. It does have drawbacks, however, in that it is a movement that has a limited range of motion. For the athlete this can mean inflexibility in the shoulder region. It can also overdevelop the lower pectorals to the extent that they start to droop and look feminine. If you're trying to build mass and power, you should do as many squats, deadlifts, power cleans and rows as you do bench presses-or even more.
The basic exercises include more than just squats, benches, curls, rows, deadlifts and military presses. If you get too much lower pectoral development from benching, substitute inclines or dumbbell benches. If the squat builds too much mass in your hips and glutes, switch to front squats or heavy hack squats. For shoulders you have behind-the-neck presses and dumbbell presses. For the lower back there are power cleans, high pulls and hyperextensions. Chins and dumbbell rows can replace regular rows. Incline curls and preacher curls are just as effective as barbell curls. For triceps the best choices are dips, close-grip bench presses and lying extensions.
5 Use immaculate form. I often see people do things in the gym that would make a chiropractor's face go ash gray. Be careful of your spine and joints. When you're in your late teens and early 20s, your body may seem resilient and durable, but many weight trainers in their middle years can vouch for the back pain and arthritis that comes from long-term misuse. Doing situps off a hyperextension or decline bench is not advisable. Neither is doing squats or deadlifts with a rounded back.
I often watch skinny guys jerking and heaving heavy weights all over the place. They try to do lateral raises with dumbbells they'd have trouble pressing, and they bounce out of the bottom of preacher curls. Arching and bouncing a bench press does nothing for building mass or strength, and besides a muscle tear you risk losing control of the weight and dropping it on your face. Being able to boast of another 10 pounds in the bench is not worth losing your front teeth.
Unless you're practicing the explosive Olympic lifts, use slow, controlled movements. This is what builds muscle, and it doesn't wear on the joints or cause tendon or ligament tears.
6 Read and learn, but be cautious. My last piece of advise to the wanna-be trainee is to read as much as you can about bodybuilding, but be discerning in what you read.
Physique champions are master athletes at the top of their sport. For the average person to train on a top champion's routine would be equivalent to that same person trying to compete in the NFL or to step in the ring with Mike Tyson.
There are no shortcuts to bodybuilding success. Muscles are built with hard, consistent work on the basics.