What've Steroids Got To Do With It?
Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dorian Yates. Lenda Murray. Lee Haney. Sergio Oliva. Flex Wheeler. Denise Rutkowski. Lou Ferrigno. Paul Dillet. Sandy Riddell.
If you're reading this article, you've heard of most of these men and women. Even if you only read Men's Fitness or Shape and you're trying to build up your delts and pecs or shape up your thighs a little bit, you respect what these folks have accomplished. Through hard work and sheer determination and willpower, they rose to the very top of the bodybuilding world. And most of us, as muscle-building wannabes, found it quite easy to look upon them as heroes.
Is that wrong? Absolutely not. These people are the ultimate muscle builders. For some of us, they're the main reason we picked up a weight in the first place.
Unfortunately, though, in our efforts to become large and strong and powerful, we sometimes allow our emotions to lead us away from clear-headed thinking. And that's what this article is about: a logical, common-sense approach to increasing the amount of muscle and strength your body can carry--week after week, month after month, and year after year.
Before we get started though, let's make one point absolutely clear: this information you're about to read is written for NON-STEROID USERS. In other words, the so-called "natural" trainer. If you're natural, you have by now realized (or will realize someday) that you need a systematic approach to help you succeed. If you do use steroids, on the other hand, no system is needed. You can do just about anything you like in the gym--and you'll grow doing it.
For what its worth, I have used steroids personally. About 4 times over an 8 year period. I have no problem with them at all, except that using them is now illegal. And ... I ALWAYS LOST EVERY SHRED OF STRENGTH AND MUSCLE I'VE EVER GAINED FROM THEM.
I'm 33 years old today. After 16 years of training, I've developed a few ideas and methods that seem to work very well ... and pretty consistently, too. If I had to start over again, I could reach my present level of development in maybe two to three years.
I'm also what you would term a "hardgainer." That word is getting worn out a little bit lately, but but it literally refers to those of us who just can't seem to make any really substantive progress. Nothing is worse than busting your rear for 6 months and then having your best friend say, "Well, I just really don't see that you've changed any."
ARE YOU ALSO A HARDGAINER? If you are, then let's take a fresh look at what this business of training is all about. But first, let's make sure we avoid...
CHAPTER 2: The Frustration Pit
Let me tell you, in 14 years, I spared no effort or expense to gain muscle and strength. I tried every routine. Pyramid up; pyramid down; forced reps; negatives; rest/pause; supersets; high reps; low reps; high sets; low sets; "Heavy Duty"; three days/week; four days/week; five days/week; six days/week.
I devoured everything from M&F, Flex, Ironman, Muscle Mag--you name it, I either bought it or read it at the newsstand.
I've tried about every supplement, too, except for some of the more recent items, like creatine and OKG. I can't speak for them, but I can say very strongly that about 99% of the stuff on the market is being falsely advertised. I believe in high quality protein powder (whey especially), and maybe a combination carb/protein powder like Metabolol II or ProCarb. I endorse 400 calorie carbo drinks, too, to help keep your blood sugar up during a workout. But these last few items only reinforce the idea of SUPPLEMENTING YOUR CALORIES.
The fact is, folks, bodybuilding is a business. That includes supplement sales. It's very competitive and requires companies to come out with new products every few months just to keep up with everybody else. Who cares if the products don't really work? Who cares, as long as you're making a million or two a year?
I realize I'm starting off by sounding a little bit negative, but I can't emphasize enough that aside from steroid use, nothing can come close to INTELLIGENTLY PLANNED TRAINING AND EATING THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF REGULAR, GROCERY STORE FOOD. Magazine articles (seldom written by the champ they highlight) and magazine supplements will guarantee you years of frustration.
So what works? Is there just one "secret" answer? Am I the only one in the world who knows what it is?
Of course not. Lots of guys are writing about this topic today--Stuart McRobert, Mike Mentzer, and several years ago, Arthur Jones. The methods I use myself and with my clients work exceptionally well, but they have in common many of the same basic ideas.
Will these ideas work only for a select few? Or maybe only if you're a certain age?
The good news is, ANYONE can use these techniques. But the older you are, the more you'll appreciate them. Because when you're 22 years old, you're able to sustain a lot of abuse. At any rate, let's get on to topic #1...
CHAPTER 3: Energy to Grow On! (Planned Undertraining)
Remember those magic days when you first started working out? I actually made pretty respectable progress for a wimpy little 150 pounder. Just working out in itself was exciting!
EVERYONE else I know also made astronomical progress their first 6 months to a year. Then their progress leveled off, and they tried to solve the problem by increasing workout days, sets, exercises, etc., because all the "wise and experienced" veterans said they should. Unfortunately, there are two types of these veterans: those who are on steroids and can recuperate from excessive physical pounding; they've forgotten what it's like to be mortal. The second group are those who, though not using the drugs, have been working out long enough to sound wise and impressive--but their lifts haven't increased much in two years! (Basically, the blind leading the blind.)
There are a rare few who don't use steroids who can handle a lot more work than all the others. They are very rare, though. I'm not one, and I only know one or two. I have found that it's much wiser to assume you're a hardgainer and train like one. If you can get stronger every month of the year with minimal, hardgainer training, why increase what you're doing? Though you may be capable of ENDURING more training, I seriously doubt that you will profit from it.
How many times have you read about somebody who did maybe 15 sets for their quadriceps--squats, leg presses, lunges, hacks, etc.--who bragged about becoming nauseated and having to be "carried out of the gym"? Let's be honest with ourselves. We've all done this. And our bodies just aren't really designed to handle it, let alone THRIVE on it. It just saps too much from your pool of "recovery energy," if you will. And it leaves no energy to grow with. Believe me, GROWTH requires a lot of reserve energy that your body doesn't mind parting with.
One more thing: if you train only a bodypart or two, say, arms and chest, it's possible to make huge gains quickly without taxing the body's recovery ability too much. When I started training at 14, for example, I only did curls. No other bodyparts. I did biceps every day! My biceps were very impressive, and they literally stayed pumped up 24 hours a day.
When I began training everything else a few years later, my biceps took a nosedive. Whereas I once had ample energy for my biceps to recover and grow, I now had to spread that "recovery energy" over my entire body. Today, I do one maximum set of curls once a week after lat work; they get pumped up, and I am getting stronger with growing arms once again.
Is there a rule to follow here? Yes... DO AS LITTLE EXERCISE AS NECESSARY TO GET THE JOB DONE. NO MORE.
Some of you are thinking, "Yeah, I tried that stuff. Once a week per muscle group, etc. And it just didn't work!" Well, I tried it too. And it didn't work for me either... AT FIRST. But I stuck with it because I just couldn't handle more workout days or sets or exercises without getting worn out. That's when I discovered the power of...
CHAPTER 4: PERIODIZATION! (or, How to Plan for Big Gains)
By my definition, you have to increase your workout poundages--every year--if you're going to gain muscle size and strength... every year. This seems logical, but when you're struggling in the gym, it's hard sometimes to be logical and part with old habits. It was for me, anyway. Then by accident, I discovered...
I first stumbled onto this technique by watching Doug Furnas, a world-ranked powerlifter. He and his partners were always increasing their weights, always handling their weights smoothly, and rarely showing frustration with comments like, "Damn! I should have got 10 reps with that!" When I inquired, I found they were planning out their lifts. They generally took about 3 months, doing phases of 10, 8,6,4, and then 2 reps.
Interestingly, Doug Furnas, who has squatted at least 1000 lb., said that after years of training, he finally decided to cut out his "light" day for each bodypart, and was only doing one "heavy" day per bodypart, per lift, per week. Keep in mind, this was a young man, with steroid-induced hyper-recuperation.
I was convinced. But when I finally went to once/week training (per bodypart), I struggled to make gains! Only when I began planning out my lifts on paper (and thus discarding the "instinctive" training principle) and using periodization, did I begin to move forward.
To cut out the rest of my boring story, here's what I usually recommend:
Map out a 12 to 15 week cycle (I use 14). Here's a system that works well for me and also the clients I have that know how to concentrate and maintain tight form with lower reps.
2 weeks at 15 reps 3 weeks at 12 reps 3 weeks at 10 reps 3 weeks at 8 reps 3 weeks at 6 reps
I never use percentages to predict my reps. I always use a workout log. Let' go thru a make believe story, rather then explaining it clinically (incline press):
week #1: 150x15 week #2: 155x15 week #3: 165x12 week #4: 170x12 week #5: 175x12 week #6: 185x10 week #7: 190x10 week #8: 195x10 week #9: 205x8 week #10: 210x8 week #11: 215x8 week #12: 225x6 week #13: 230x6 week #14: 235x6
Cycle #2: Estimate a 10 pound gain:
week #1: 160x15 week #2: 165x15 week #3: 175x12 week #4: 180x12 week #5: 185x12 week #6: 195x10 week #7: 205x10 week #8: 210x10 week #9: 215x8 week #10: 220x8 week #11: 225x8 week #12: 235x6 week #13: 240x6 week #14: 245x6
Does it always work this neatly? Heavens, no. Here's what can go wrong:
*You miss your reps goal by one or two reps (7 instead of 8 for example)
*You get sick and have to back up a few steps.
*You never quite know how much to move up every week. with some exercises that are very heavy, say, 200 or more pounds, you can move up 5 lb. per week. With others, like one armed dumbbell exercises, only 2 1/2 pounds per week.
*You're never quite sure how much to jump up from one rep range to another (i.e., 8 to 6 reps).
Here's what can go right:
*You'll always be using more weight from one cycle to the next, if you plan intelligently and always undertrain.
*With practice and especially, OBSERVING NOTES FROM PREVIOUS CYCLES, you'll learn how much weight to add from one rep range to the next--and also one week to the next.
NOTES ON PERIODIZATION:
1. The key to making periodization work is PROJECTING THE GAIN you're going to make--ahead of time! PLOT OUT EVERYTHING, FOR EVERY EXERCISE, in your note pad. Write out each and every week's projection. For anything around 100 pounds, plan on 5 to 8 lb. gain from one cycle to the next. 150 to 200 lb., about a 10 lb. gain. Over 300 lb., sometimes 15 lb. gain!
2. On dips and pullups, when using extra weight, use your bodyweight in addition to the extra weight for calculations.
3. If you fall short one week, try to reason it out. If it's been a tough day and you missed some sleep, it's usually a fluke. Move up next week anyway. If you fall short two weeks in a row, it's usually because the projections are too ambitious. When this happens, I go back to my planning chart and cut back, but I do it strategically so that I still have a chance to attain my 5 to 15 pound gain for the cycle.
4. 10 pounds gain in one cycle not impressive enough? Well, without steroids, your most valuable weapon is TIME. A 200 pound bench press can be 280 in two years this way. But the usual struggles with "instinctive training" typically yield absolutely nothing--without steroids, that is.
5. Plan on making mistakes the first 2 cycles.
6. After completing a cycle, go back to your "actual" loggings. Add your projected gain (i.e., 10 lb. on inclines) for each week of your new cycle to the weights you handled each week previously --i.e., last time I inclined 150 x 15; this time I'll add 10 pounds to it!--and start again. You might keep a log that shows "PROJECTED" and "ACTUAL" on the same sheet. It's easier than going back thru every single page of a notebook.
By the way, if during your last cycle, you seemed unable to meet your goals (always getting 13 instead of 15, for example), you might repeat the cycle and get it right, or just add 5 lb. instead of 10 lb.
7. LESSER REASONS FOR NOT MAKING PROGRESS IN A CYCLE (aside from not using step #1 above):
A. poor planning
B. poor sleep
C. an overtrained muscle group
D. insufficient calories or protein
A Mini-FAQ on Periodization
Q. In your example you show a periodization schedule for the incline bench press exercise. Am I correct in assuming that you are doing ONLY one set per week of incline bench using the schedule shown?
A. Personally, yes, except for warmups ( a set or two).
Q. Do you do this with every exercise?
A. Yes, but I range between one and three exercises per bodypart.
Q. For example, do you do dips, flat bench, flyes or other chest movements during your once per week chest workout?
A. I usually go on to dips, and occasionally a set of Nautilus pec deck flyes.
Q. If so, are you doing 15 reps for all exercises which would mean that you are peroidizing all your chest exercises at the same time?
A. Yes, I enjoy periodizing everything (whether in the 15 rep range or any other)
Q. Since you're only doing one set, should you choose a weight such that the target reps will take you to failure: ...in the first week? ...in the last week? ....all 3 weeks? Please elaborate.
A. Once I"ve plotted out my entire cycle, I'm not too concerned with absolute failure every week. Unless I"ve made errors in my planning and I'm failing before I reach my target (see above). Maybe I'll keep 2 reps in reserve this week. That's okay, because believe me, you're gonna have to pour it on eventually, and an easy week or two will let you recuperate more and be prepared for the tough ones ahead. Sometimes, though, if I"m feeling really aggressive, I may go ahead and do as many reps as possible, like 18 instead of 15, etc.
Q. Do you ever change the order of exercises in your routine?
A. Only if analysis convinces me it's helpful. For example, I used to do straight pulldowns for lats. But when I got to about 230 lb. or so, I started suffering from some tendinitis in the right biceps tendon at elbow. So I began pre-exhausting lats with Nautilus pullovers. That helped my lats to tire more, and brought the weight down, though it's slowly climbing back up again.
Q. If you do change the order, then the amount of weight or number of reps will vary considerably. I can do 8-10 reps at 185 on incline bench easily if it is the first exercise I attempt, but if I do flat bench first then I have to drop the weight on incline. I tend to change the order of exercises in my routine in order to invoke the confusion principle and hopefully shock the muscle into growth. Over time I can see that I'm getting stronger, but it isn't as easy to measure as your periodization cycle. I'm just wondering if what I'm doing is significantly less effective or possibly more effective.
A. I decided a year or ago or so to measure "effectiveness" by just one parameter. Am I lifting more than I was a year ago? And was I lifting more a year ago than I was two years ago? After examining my exercise logs, I could see that most of my lifts were showing false progress, i.e., two steps forward, then two steps back. And I was conveniently forgetting the two steps back.
I now have abandoned the "confusion" technique as something that works very well for drug users (I've used them before, but no longer). They make progress every year they use the "stuff" in spite of "confusion' and also "instinctive" principles, rather than because of them, I'm convinced.
The very nature of plotting progress in your lifts (and thus, progress in muscle growth), almost requires a fairly steady diet of the same routine. So when progress isn't being made compared to last year, you can ask "Why?" and find an answer after analysis.
Blind devotion to a routine isn't productive, though, so I always stay open to changing something when it will help (as above with pulldowns). In regard to your mention of weight and reps changing when you juggle lifting order... This is true, but it's okay. I can bench far less after inclines, but I choose inclines first because I needed upper pec mass. And I got it. Though the flat bench weight goes down (like my pulldowns after Nautilus pullovers), it will start going up again if I'm doing the right things.
Q. Let me get specific. I use most HIT concepts (brief, infrequent, intense), but I don't do full body workouts. I do a 3 day split. I usually do Back/Biceps on Mon, Chest/Triceps on Wed., and Legs on Friday.
A. Great! I highly recommend the same thing. Full body workouts are also for druggies, I believe.
Q. I try to do 60 second sets of 8 to 12 reps in good form with 2 sec. positive and 4 sec. negative motion. I use double progression meaning I try to do more reps until I get 12 or more, then I add more weight.
A. I used this for years also (double progression?) and it worked a long time. When I noticed the year-to-year stagnation, I decided to graduate to what the powerlifters were doing.
Q. I try and rest less than 2 minutes between sets. I usually do 2 sets per exercise, but rarely more than 3.
A. When I started periodization, I did three. Then results slowed down, and I dropped to two. Results slowed again, and I dropped to one. Now I'm always well rested and progressing, and I can't seem to do less than one set (darn it).
Q. I periodically do negatives, breakdowns (more than 3 sets), 7/7/7, and other advanced techniques. I rotate what bodypart I "torture" with these advanced techniques in order to prevent overtraining.
A. Keeping in mind that I freely confess not to know everything, and probably very little of anything... I did negatives and forced for years (thanks, Mentzer), and was always stagnant. Too much for non-druggies. But breakdowns, now, I do occasionally. When I began periodization, I did them maybe 50% of the time, for weak bodyparts. But I cut way back and it's helped me a lot, though I may not "feel" as much pump, burn, etc.
Q. If I wanted to use periodization how would I do it for my chest/tricep day? Here are the exercises I usually do:
Flat Bench Incline Flyes Incline Bench Dips Tricep Pushdowns Decline "Skull Crushers" Tricep Dips (feet out in front) Isolated DB Tricep Extensions
A. My opinion only, of course... I'd choose just two of the pec movements. I'd take the ones that pumped my chosen bodypart the most and also helped that part get sore the next day to the greatest degree.
On triceps: they get hammered a lot from the pressing moves. I"d chose your very favorite exercise and destroy the tri's with it... Use breakdowns maybe, but just one exercise.
Q. Basically, this routine would have about 16 sets total, and I'd complete the workout in about 40 minutes. Any suggestions on how I can incorporate periodization into this routine?
A. Again, the key to periodization from what I've discovered so far is what they call being "proactive" rather than "reactive." This means reflecting for awhile and asking "what do I want to be benching (or dipping, squatting, skull crushing, etc.) one year from now? 18 months from now? Three years from now? Then plan the lift out conservatively. Even a 40 pound gain per year will take a 200 lb. bench 320 lb. in three years. Yes, that seems like a long time, but I've never seen anyone benching 320 lb. without drugs, even people who've been working out 10 years.
CHAPTER 5: Stubborn Muscles (How to Make Them Grow!)
Do you have stubborn muscle groups? The only areas I had that developed easily were my quads. People would stare at them in the supermarket. And well-shaped biceps, though they were not all that large.
My problem areas? Pecs. Front delts. Side delts. Rear delts. Lat width. Upper back thickness. Traps. Triceps.
In other words, just your average, upper-body, "oh, I can tell you workout with weights" muscles.
But I knew it was only a matter of time before those muscles would explode. Just keep bench pressing. And pressing behind the neck. And bent-over rowing. And shrugs. Just a matter of time... NOT! None of these exercises really did a lot for me.
How can you overcome these personal weaknesses? In a nutshell, you can do it by applying all the previous techniques--Planned Undertraining, Periodization--in addition to this last one: the Pump & Sore Rule.
This means simply that if an exercise doesn't at least either pump and/or make you sore right in the belly of the targeted muscle, then the muscle probably isn't going to grow.
This was always the case for me with bench presses, for example. I can get a great pump from them now, but several years back, my form wasn't perfected for maximum pec involvement. Flyes would both pump me up AND make me sore.
Today, I can honestly say I don't have any weak bodyparts. I don't look like Victor Richards, mind you. But I don't just draw attention because of my quads.
By the way, I don't buy the idea that some exercises work for one guy but not another. It's really a matter of perfecting an exercise so you can focus like a laser in the targeted muscle.
A Mini FAQ on the Pump/Sore Rule
Q. I just want to make sure I've got this right. One set of an exercise at the target rep range done with good form and concentration should make me feel pumped right afterward, and sore in the target muscle(s) the next day. If it doesn't, say due to less than perfect form or concentration, is it OK to do more sets (say 1 or 2 more), to try to achieve the same pump/soreness?
A. I wouldn't. Because you won't always get sore. My side delts, for instance, can grow and get pumped, but never get sore. My pecs, though, almost always get sore.
Here's why: once you get used to an exercise, soreness is more a function of how violently you can stretch a muscle. With dips and db presses, there are no stretch limits.
Take your lying tricep extension. It doesn't stretch maximally. But, if you do them seated upright and drop the bar down to your shoulder blades, thrust your chest forward, and pull your elbows as far back toward the ceiling as possible, your triceps will have to work enormously to get out of that stretched position.
Pump, on the other hand, is a function of your ability to focus on and isolate a particular muscle (assuming you're eating enough carbohydrates to hydrate your muscles enough). If pulldowns pump your ARMS, you aren't isolating your lats enough. If your lats pump up but never get sore, you're aren't letting the bar stretch your arms high enough.
So the short answer to your question is... Become a master of creativity, not workout endurance. Analyze and analyze your bodyparts and exercises and perfect them.
One maximum set IS sufficient for maximum strength and size gains. But the isolation, pump, and soreness issue is related to maximum development of individual stubborn muscles, and doesn't really affect strength gains.
CHAPTER 6: A Sample Muscle Growth Routine
Okay, we've talked a lot of principles here. But maybe you're asking, "How do I go about putting all this together?" Well, if you're creative, you'll probably want to do that on your own. But here are a few guidelines I recommend to folks both in person and online:
a. start with a 3 day/week routine Believe it or not, I'm personally down to two/week. I have two sons and I also like the idea of staying married. So I condensed everything into two brief workouts. They take about an hour each. But three is probably a little better.
b. Try just 2 sets for a complex bodypart (pecs, quads, lats for back width, traps/rhomboids for back thickness all count as one complex part), 1 set for a simple part (biceps, triceps) or part that is well developed already. Stubborn parts? Concentrate on the Pump/Sore rule; you might also do breakdowns after just one of your two exercises. Breakdowns=reduce weight by 20% and do 4 to 8 more reps, or failure.
c. Do pecs, delts, and tris on the same day. Shoulders and related connective tissue (tendons, rotator cuffs) can't handle too much pounding. Keep their hard work down to a day per week.
d. Do quads, hams, and calves on a separate day. It'll be a tough workout, but also the shortest. Throw in abs and you can be out in 45 minutes.
e. That leaves your upper back and biceps and forearms for the last day.
f. PRIORITIZE! Way back, my upper pecs were non existent. The collarbones just jutted out. So I took to doing inclines before anything else. That was my core pec/delt exercise. Today, the area is filed in nicely. I finish with mid/lower pec work (dips, pec deck, etc.) Another area: my lat width lagged behind back thickness, so I did pullups/pulldowns first in my back routine. So do weak areas first, then move to the stronger ones.
g. Drop all shoulder pressing! All your chest presses will suffice to stimulate front delts. Plus, you'll be glad when you're about 30, because that's when your shoulder joints will start falling apart--torn rotator cuffs, tendinitis, etc. Besides, side delts only grow from laterals and upright rows, so concentrate on them instead.
h. I can't say it enough: Pour all your steam into just ONE exercise per muscle. Plan your workouts so you can look back two years from now and see big gains in strength.
I hope this article helped you. I suggest you print it out and highlight the areas that interest you most. Then try these simple principles out for just 3 months. You won't be sorry. Thanks for reading, and happy hardgaining, steroid-free training!
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