Thursday, December 4, 2008


With permission of Hardgainer, Vol. 7, No. 4 (January-February 1996)

Downtown Washington was quiet and still dark as I walked through the Gallery Place Metro Station. My gym’s front door was only about fifty feet away, in the heart of China Town. I arrived to open for an early morning training session with Vernon Veldekens. I’ve been training Vern for about eight months and he is about to achieve 300-400-500 status any day now. He is knocking on the door in all three lifts. He trained for a few years before I met him, so he was not a beginner when I took him on. For the last eight months he has been training at a new level of intensity, just what he was looking for.

Vern is the type of guy I especially love to train. He is a young (24) kid from Texas, 5’8”, and now weighs a solid 195 lbs. He’s a “throw-back” type not a sensitive nineties reader of a “fitness” magazine. He listens, loves to work hard, gives no excuses and takes no prisoners. He doesn’t let minor aches and pains stop him. He eats endless cans of tuna and drinks gallons of skim milk. He does everything I tell him, without complaints or arguments. He spends far more time talking about his training poundages than he does his bodyfat percentage. I like that. Guys who are more concerned with their bodyfat percentage (when they are not fat) than they are with their training poundages have missed the boat. No matter what I dish out. Vern never complains and always comes back for more.

Vern arrived a few minutes after I did. “Yo Vern! Ready to kick some ass?” Vern’s growl let me know he was ready. We started the warmup routine. We’d both already had coffee and big breakfasts. Aerosmith was blasting out high-energy music and the atmosphere was good. We quickly forgot that it was 6 a.m. After he was fully warm and stretched, he began with inclines. After a warmput set, Vern banged out a set of 5 with 185 lbs using a 2 1/2”-thick bar. After incline presses he quickly moved to preacher curls using a custom 2”-thick EZ-curl bar made by Bob Hise of Mav-Rik. Vern willed his energy to get sets of 5 reps with 85 lbs. After a short rest it was over to front pulldowns with 155 lbs and Vern took it to failure.

Vern did three work sets for all three exercises. For the first two sets he used the controlled-failure method, stopping at the rep goal even if he could do more. On the third work set of each set he went all out to total failure and held nothing back.

After finishing the third set of pulldowns he was dripping with sweat. The black rubber floor looked like it had been raining and there was a hole in the ceiling. He took just enough rest to recover, but I did not let him waste time. We had a lot of work to do in a little over one hour.

I kept him busy doing a set of 20 reps in the good morning exercise while I changed some plates. We started the next round and I was screaming in his ear. “You’re on national television! Hit the roof!” Vern pushed through three sets of 5 reps in the seated military press with 145 lbs using a 2 1/2”-thick bar. “Good work! You’re moving up 5 lbs next time!” I shouted. He was breathing steam with piercing eyes. With good focus he headed across the room for pushdowns. Two sets of 5 with 95 lbs. On the third set Vern looked like he had been struck by lightning as his whole body shook and he went to failure doing 7 reps. “Moving up again, Vern.”

Vern recently switched to a 5-rep routine after spending about six months building a solid foundation with 8-10 reps for upper body and 10-20 for legs. I believe in periodization or cycles, but don’t want to have a long build-up period. We make a few minor changes and back down a little, but are back to full-force effort in a few weeks. I believe that long build-ups waste productive training time. In any event, Vern has been going like a rocket since I made the switch. We will ride this wave for as long as it will go. But I’ll make minor changes for mental purposes along the way. If he gets stuck on a particular poundage for several workouts, I’ll take the pressure off by making a change, like using 5-3-1 instead of 3 sets of 5. There’s always something you can do to get a mental edge.

Sometimes, when you’re stuck at a certain poundage, the best thing to do is to add weight. If you miss it, you have nothing to lose and you can say that you got the feel of a heavier weight. But you might get it. In the mid seventies, when I was stationed at Castle AFB in California, I got 300 lbs for the first time on the bench. I remember I was stuck at 295 for months. I finally put on 305, had no pressure, and got it.

We were heading down the home stretch and Vern was slightly nauseous. I let him take a few extra minutes to rest and drink some water. “Are you okay, Vern?”

“Let’s do it!” he replied. Next was seated cable row for 3 sets with 165 lbs, and then 3 sets of 5 reps in the squat with 325 lbs. I yelled in his ear so that he got the final reps in the last set. He got them, but collapsed after the last rep. I was about to call 911 but felt reassured when I remembered that Vern was only 24 years old. Some of my other clients would have been dead if I’d pushed them that hard. The nauseousness reappeared with a vengeance. I got the puke bucket. Puking is nothing to be proud of, but sometimes it happens to the best of us.

Vern was still keen, and the workout was not over. A little puking wasn’t going to stop him. He felt better after a few minutes and said, “I feel good. Let’s finish!” (My kind of guy.) He did some wrist rolling with a 2” pipe and a 15’ rope that I hung over the balcony. Some people in the building were watching, and thought we were crazy. They simply can’t believe that people pay me to do this to them.

After the wrist roller and a set with the Weaver stick, the final challenge is for Vern to transport a 200-lb sand bag around the building, keeping it at chest height. It’s a bitch and even harder than 20-rep squats. You can’t believe how hard this is until you try it, especially at the end of a workout. Brooks Kubik advised me to add this to the routine about six months ago. At first I thought, “Yeah, right.” But I decided to try it, and it was brutal.

I now have four 50-lb bags and can adjust the weight by putting them in a larger canvas duffel bag. The sand shifts and it is hard to grab. Your whole body struggles to grip, squeeze, balance and control the bag just to get it to chest level, bear-hug style. Vern had previously got 150 lbs and today he was going for 200. When anyone can get 200 around the building and live, they get a free workout and their names and date put on the bag, like the Stanley Cup. Vern collapsed about five times and it took him about ten minutes to get around the building. Each time he collapsed he had to wrestle the bag back in position in a sort of clean, which is no simple matter with 200 lbs. But he made it. But if I hadn’t been yelling “Free workout!” he wouldn’t have got it.

He made it around and collapsed. “Good work, Vern. Free workout. See you Saturday. Today, you built muscle the old-fashioned way. You earned it!”

Here’s Vern’s weekly training program:

1. Incline press
2. Preacher curl
3. Pulldown
4. Good morning
5. Overhead press
6. Pushdown
7. Seated cable row
8. Squat
9. Grip and sandbag work as time permits

1. Bench press
2. Standing barbell curl
3. Pulldown
4. Leg press
5. Overhead press
6. Pushdown
7. Seated cable row
8. Trap Bar deadlift
9. Grip and sandbag work as time permits

Since we have the equipment to ourselves, and we have a time limit, I group the exercises and usually have Vern doing three different exercises in a row, taking about 30 seconds rest after each of the first two. Then he takes about 90 seconds rest after the final exercise in the group. This gives him about four minutes rest between repeat sets for the same exercise.

A workout lasts between 60 and 80 minutes, depending on if someone is scheduled after Vern. If no one is coming during the next hour, I hold Vern “hostage” for an extra 10-20 minutes for grip and sandbag work. Between workouts he does abdominal work, aerobic work and additional stretching.
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