Sunday, September 28, 2008


With permission of Hardgainer, Vol. 6, No. 6 (May-June 1995)

A few months ago a guy named Steve called me. He wanted to “tone up” and “body sculpt.” I abhor those terms. He said, “I want to put on some bulk, but I don’t want to get too big,” (as if it were going to happen by accident). After he said “bulk,” I told him that what he really meant was muscle. Bulk suggests something other than pure muscle. He also wanted to “lift for definition.” You lift to build muscle; period. You get definition by reducing your fat intake and doing cardiovascular exercise. (You must have muscle there already, or you will look like a typical runner.)

And here is the kicker: Steve did not feel he needed to work his legs. His were strong enough already, so he said. He said he could leg press 230 lbs (so can my grandmother). He did not want to do squats. He thought they were dangerous. He credited his “tremendous” leg strength to running and stair climbing. To my amazement, he still agreed to come by for the physical assessment, orientation and workout.

Steve sat attentively through the assessment and orientation, and seemed to agree with me on my nutritional information. When it came to the training, we had some problems. Steve—all 5-10 and 146 lbs of him—felt he was “too advanced” to train twice per week. He also felt too advanced to do only seven exercises for the whole body. He felt he needed several exercises for each body part. He wanted to infiltrate the workout with many little “toner” exercises, such as cable crossovers, tricep kickbacks, and lateral raises. He was incredulous that I could recommend only bench press (or incline press) for chest, only overhead press for shoulders, and only squats for legs. After I stated my case, and advised him that squats, properly performed, were not harmful but could help prevent knee injuries, he grudgingly agreed to try the program.

Before we started the workout, I asked how he added poundage to the exercises in his previous routines. He seemed stunned, and had to collect his thoughts before answering. He stated that once he found the “comfortable” weight, he stayed with it and never added weight unless it felt ridiculously easy (which was not very often). Steve felt it was not important to add weight. He was “squeezing” and “feeling” comfortable poundages. He believed in long-term commitments and stable relationships with his poundages. He also did not know what was meant by working to “muscular failure.”

After Steve warmed up for five minutes on the stairstepper, to elevate his core body temperature, he did a little stretching. Then, after I waited for him to adjust his sweatband, lifting gloves and wrist wraps, we began the workout. Normally, I start people slowly, but since Steve was so “advanced,” we went right to it. After only five exercises, and one set of squats (with 125 lbs), Steve was too tired to continue. He said he’d never felt so tired, and didn’t know “what was wrong.”

“Nothing is wrong, Steve,” I replied, “you have just been introduced to hard work. It’s intensity with emphasis on progressive resistance—with the basic exercises—that are needed to get bigger and stronger. Stay with the nutritional plan, and rest. I’ll see you in three days. If you’re still sore, we’ll wait until all the soreness is gone. You’ll get used to it, and be amazed by the results you get.”

But Steve wasn’t interested in hard work. He was looking for some pseudo-scientific gimmick. He never came back. You have to put wood in the stove to get heat. There is no magic formula. High-intensity training, plus good nutrition and adequate recovery, is the combination that produces results.

I saw Steve the other day. He’s still toning, shaping and sculpting away. He’s still working his legs only by running. And he still weighs 146 lbs.

An Example of the Right Attitude

Contrast Steve’s attitude with that of Alan Dinsmore, a client of mine who started a progressive training program more than a year ago. Alan was over fifty years of age when he started, but made no excuses for his age. He was not looking for gimmicks, had a great attitude, and realized that it was important to build a good foundation.

When starting with a client over fifty, you have to start slowly. Alan started very light. He didn’t go all out for several months.

We focused on total fitness, which emphasizes cardiovascular exercise, stretching and nutrition, as well as strength training. Once you get over thirty, there is no excuse for not doing regular cardiovascular training. Cardiovascular work is even more important than strength training. Your goal is not to look big in your coffin. Cardiovascular training was done at least three times per week, and Alan worked up to 30-45 minutes per session at low to moderate levels of intensity. (Alan’s age-adjusted maximum heart rate is 220 minus his age of 51, i.e., 169. The low to moderate, or 60% to 80% range, comes to 101-135 beats per minute.)

Alan’s initial strength training program consisted of 2 sets each of the bench press, overhead press, row, and pulldown. Reps were kept high, i.e., 12-15. (But, after six months, reps were changed to 8-12 for the upper body and 10-20 for the lower body.) We added a little isolation arm work, did no deadlifts, and just did leg extension and leg curl for the legs. Squats replaced the leg extension and leg curl after a few months. After a few more months of getting used to the intensity of squats, Trap Bar deadlifts were added. Squats and deadlifts were then alternated and done once per week each (but never taken quite to total failure, for reasons of safety). We trained twice per week, whole body, with each workout lasting one hour.

For progression, we moved up 5 lbs whenever the rep goal for the set was done in perfect form in both the work sets (following warmups). These two work sets used what I call a “controlled” failure method. If you do less than the goal for the set, despite going all out, then you are going to muscular failure. If you reach the goal for the set, however, you stop at the goal. The aim is to get, for example, 12, 12, not 14, 6. On the final work set for each exercise, you go to muscular failure because you have nothing to hold back for. Do not change the sequence of your exercises during a training cycle, or your notes won’t make sense.

Alan thrives on the hard work, and enjoys it. He realized that it takes effort to get results, and was more than willing to put forth that effort. Alan is about twenty years older than Steve, but is much bigger and stronger, and works harder. He now warms up with weights he used to “max out” with. After a year of training he gained nearly 4” on his chest, and nearly 2” on his arms. He reduced his body fat by 3% while increasing his body weight 4 lbs. He stuck to the plan, was willing to sweat, and got results the old-fashioned way—he earned it. And he trained for total fitness, not just cosmetic gains.

Alan is living proof that attitude and effort are the keys to success.
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