21st Century bodybuilding has become a complicated business. It seems that to get anywhere in this game nowadays, you’ve got to have PHD level knowledge on everything from nutrition to kinesiology, from chemistry to, dare I say it, psychology. We’re constantly being bombarded with state of the art research about everything from metabolic typing to visualization, from chemical sub-structures to ECG graph print-outs. It’s enough to make an old school iron pumper growl in disgust. Fortunately for the several million of us who would like to keep things simple, however, there is one muscle building truism that will never change, no matter how far our sport meanders into technical triviality: to build huge and freaky muscle mass you’ve got to haul heavy poundage.
Go Heavy or Go Home
The principle of progressive resistance is the cornerstone of the sport of bodybuilding, and for good reason. Without it we simply will not progress. That’s because our bodies have an amazing adaptive ability. If you’re pumping 100 pounds on the tricep push-down for 10 reps, it won’t take your body long to get used to that level of stress. When it does, it won’t have any reason to respond and the process that, if supported by proper rest and feeding, leads to bigger muscles will never get started. That is why you need to be lifting heavier and heavier weights progressively to keep packing muscle onto your frame. To put it bluntly, if you’re not pushing the poundage to the edge of your ability, you’re pretty much wasting your time. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to increase the weight on the bar each set. That is only one way to make the weight feel heavier. There are a whole host of intensity techniques that will also do the trick, such as reducing rest between sets or doing drop sets. Yet, increasing the weight progressively is an essential ingredient that must not be side-stepped.
The Great Rep Debate
Go heavy for 6-10 reps to build mass, and go light for 15 to 20 reps to get cut.
That apparently sage piece of bodybuilding advice has been doing the rounds for longer than most of us have been on the planet. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting, it’s a load of baloney. It has led a lot of mass hungry gym neophytes to while away their gym time with light weights and high reps, get absolutely nowhere and give up in despair, convinced that they just aren’t genetically disposed to building muscle. One the other side of the ledger there are those hardcore individuals who are convinced that the only way to get big is to max out on every set, keeping the reps way down in the one to three range. After all, they argue, a stronger muscle is a bigger muscle, so lets get as strong as we possibly can. It’s hardly surprising, then, that there’s a lot of confusion around the trenches regarding the ideal rep range. So, what’s the truth about this rep thing?
To build muscle we must firstly place maximal stress on that muscle. Performing one repetition of a movement with a maximum poundage will not recruit all of the fibers within the muscle cell. In fact, it will only stimulate somewhere between 65 and 80 % of them. The more reps you do, the higher the number of fibers recruited. Of course, there has to be a trade off to this – after all you can only do one rep with your one rep max. So the weight needs to come down to enable you to do more reps and, as a result, recruit more muscle fiber. As the reps increase, the initial 65-80 % of fibers recruited fatigue and more fibers are called into action. After a certain number of reps there will be no more fibers left to recruit and the set will come to the point of positive (concentric) failure. To complicate matters further, there are more than one type of fiber within the muscle cell. There are, in fact, two types of human muscle fiber. Type 1 (or slow twitch) fibers have a slow contraction time and are highly resistant to fatigue. These fibers are predominant in cardiovascular exercise. Most of our everyday activities also involve slow twitch fibers. Type 2 (or fast twitch) fibers are just the opposite – they have a fast contraction time and a low resistance to fatigue. These Type 2 fibers are the ones responsible for muscle growth. They are stimulated by heavy resistance. The lighter the resistance the more the Type 1 fibers come into play. Clearly, then, there must be a cut off point where the resistance switches from maximally activating Type 2 fiber to stimulating Type 1 fiber. Not surprisingly, dozens of studies have been performed over the years to determine what that cut off number is. The result? The ideal range to maximally stimulate Type 1 muscle fiber is between 6 and 8 reps. Any less than that and you won’t be recruiting 100 % of those fibers and much more than that will switch the emphasis over to Type 1 fibers.
Temper the Flame
Having established the technical validity of training hard and heavy for 6-8 reps, lets add a qualifier or two in order to create a sensible, productive routine. You cannot and should not go heavier every time you work out. Your body operates in cycles and rhythms that make it impossible to be constantly lifting a heavier weight every time you work a muscle group. As we all know the body also arrives at its own plateaus. If it didn’t, we’d see guys who have been training since the Sixties pushing 800-pound bench presses by now. So, if you set your mind on pushing a heavier weight every single work-out, there will be only one inevitable result: you will start to cheat on your form in order to get more weight up. In so doing, you’ll be leaving yourself wide open for a serious injury. So, rather than setting your mind on upping the weight every session, view the adding of weight as just one – albeit the most important – way to enhance training intensity. When a weight that you used to be able to barely manage 6 reps on now allows you to squeeze out 8 reps, than it’s time to add a pound or two – not before.
You should also cycle your training so that every six weeks you get a complete break from working out for a week or so. This allows the body time for both mental and physical recuperation. Do not fall into the trap of working your body to exhaustion. It demands time to refresh and refocus. If you ignore this demand, your body will literally eat away at your muscle stores – the mere thought of which is enough to send most bodybuilders into a catatonic state.
A Heavy Routine
When it comes to hard and heavy training, what role models come to mind? The Nineties gave us Dorian Yates. The Eighties saw the emergence of the golden eagle, Tom Platz. The Seventies belonged to Arnold. The Sixties were ruled by such luminaries as Bill Pearl and Larry Scott. And the Fifties? Anyone remember Marvin Eder? If you’re going “Marvin who?” then you’re in need of a quick iron history lesson. Marvellous Marvin is perhaps the strongest bodybuilder who ever lived. Check out a few stats: 510 lb bench press; 365 lb standing press; a dozen one arm chin ups. At 198 lbs and with 19 inch arms this guy was impressive. Marvin put his incredible strength and mass gains down to his no frills style of hard and heavy training. What follows is the basic routine that Marvin used to pack mass onto his frame and build strength levels that still astound us a half century down the track:
Close Grip Bench Press
Bent-Over Barbell Row
Standing Barbell curl
That’s it – seven exercises to cover the entire body. The program works because when you work your major muscle groups with a systematic, heavy program, the synergistic muscles that surround them are also recruited and maximally stressed. So you are getting a total body work-out for less time in the gym. This is a great routine to pack on dense, thick muscularity that will make you look as strong as an ox. Do the program twice a week. Perform three sets per exercise, aiming for 8,7, and 6 reps respectively per set – except, that is, for the leg raises. Marvin used to do 100 of them – and he had great abs.
What About Periodic Power Training?
So, is there any value in bodybuilders periodically doing reps in the one to three range to add density and thickness? Definitely. After all, two of the greatest physiques of all time – Schwarzenegger and Columbu – were grounded as power-lifters before they rose in the ranks of muscledom. There are, in fact, two good reasons why you, as a bodybuilder, should do power training every few weeks:
It will increase your absolute strength, which will, in turn increase your relative strength. To put that another way, lets assume that your one rep max on the bench is 275 lbs and your 6 rep max is 200 lbs. Then, through doing heavy singles, doubles and triples, you get your one rep max up to 290 lbs, it should follow that your 6 rep max will increase to about 212 lbs. So, when you revert back to your bodybuilding routine, you will be lifting heavier weights.
There is a certain type of density and thickness that only comes from extremely heavy training. It’s hard to describe but instantly recognizable. The competitive bodybuilder who has developed this look will be at a definite advantage when competing. And for those of us who will never set foot on a bodybuilding stage, it will help us to develop that rugged, manly look that was probably the reason we picked up a weight in the first place.
Every few weeks why not pick a body part and train it power-lifting style? Take the chest for example. After warming up thoroughly on the bench, do a pyramid work-out where you drop from 3 to 2 to 1 rep per set. Then go back the other way for a total of 5 intense sets. You can do the same thing with squats for the legs, dead-lifts for the back, military presses for the shoulders and curls for the biceps. Obviously, though, you wouldn’t want to try this sort of thing on isolation movements like the leg extension. This sort of work-out is extremely taxing on the muscle so give the body-part a full week recuperation before working it again.
Go Heavy, Go Safe
The heavier the weight you lift, the more the likelihood that you might lose control of it. For that reason it is imperative that you have at least one good spotter when training heavy. You also need to thoroughly warm up before attempting to handle heavy weight. You should do specific stretches for the working muscle group as well as one or two warm up sets with a lighter weight. Also be very careful about how you go about the process of getting the weight into position. A surprisingly large number of training injuries occurred before the first rep even begun during the initial positioning phase. This is especially true of such movements as the dumbbell bench press. Often the lower back is injured when people twist unnaturally to get the weight into position. Avoid this by putting your spotter to work to pass the dumbbells up to you.
The Siege Mentality
Do you remember the last time someone really made you mad? I’m not talking angry, I mean fuming under the collar, screaming blue murder furious. If that chump turned up in your face while you were feeling that way, you’d probably end up with a one way ticket to death row. Well, when was the last time you felt that way in the gym. I’m not talking about being angry at another person but being angry with the weights. You see, those damned hunks of iron are sitting there taunting you. There saying, “You haven’t got the strength or the guts to push me around. You’re a loser and you’re going to fail at this work-out.” And what do you do about it? Well, most guys turn up already defeated. Life has knocked them around, they’re already feeling exhausted and they want to get this blasted work-out over to get home for The Simpsons. They feel intimidated by those heavy weights and have already programmed a negative result into their brain. So is it any wonder that these guys are not getting the results they want?
Contrast that with the guy who enters the gym totally psyched and ready to engage those weights in mortal combat. Don’t get me wrong, the guy doesn’t have to be all loud and demonstrative about it – a quiet determination is far more telling. He knows exactly what he’s going to achieve, he’s visualized himself successfully pushing the weights in perfect form and he’s primed himself nutritionally for maximum work-out energy. This guy has what the late great Mike Mentzer referred to as the siege mentality. Here’s what Mentzer himself once said about his own mindset in the gym, “Upon contact with my ‘enemy’, the weights, my nervous tension would explode in a burst of energy so intense that often the other bodybuilders around us would stop training and watch. There were instances in which, while waiting to do my next set, I’d be shaking with rage.” Can you take a leave out of his book and develop a more aggressive attitude when stepping up to face the heavy weights at your gym?
BONUS – Heave More with Rest-Pause
When it comes to lifting heavy weight, one of the most brutal training methods you can employ is the rest-pause technique. Rest-pause allows you to take a set beyond the point of muscular failure to recruit more of those elusive, hard to get at muscle fibers that are guaranteed to trigger new growth. It simply involves resting for 10-15 seconds at the end of a set taken to failure and then banging out two or three more reps with that same weight. That short rest will allow your body to re-energize. Oxygen will re-enter the muscle tissue, metabolic by-products will be removed and ATP will be re-synthesized. A variation on this technique is to choose a weight that is equivalent to your 3 rep max and perform a single rep. Then pause for 10-15 seconds and perform another. After another 15 second pause perform a third rep and so on until you have completed 10 reps. Perform basic mass building exercises with this technique and do them inside a power rack, with the lower pins acting as a safety rack. Give rest-pause a try and you’ll soon be experiencing more pleasure from your heavy poundage pain.
Dane Fletcher is THE Training Authority and writes exclusively for GetAnabolics.com, a leading provider of Bodybuilding Supplements and alternatives to Steroids. For more information, please http://www.getanabolics.com.