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A Bodybuilder is Born

Episode 44: Striking A Balance

My wife, Janet, asked me recently why I bothered to wear my glasses while doing cardio. After all, technically I needed them only for driving. The only reason I would wear them otherwise would be to have a clear view of objects and people who were farther than about 15 feet away. That is why I wear my specs-to watch the spectacle of the gym floor play out before me.

The characters and stories taking place in any large gym are every bit as fascinating as shows like “General Hospital” or “The O.C.,” which I can watch on the little video monitor on the stair stepper’s digital readout. Janet has accused me of being a gossip monger at times. A keychain my daughter owns shows a cartoon woman on the phone saying, “I don’t repeat gossip, so I’m only going to say this once.”

Actually, I’ve learned that I can stay out of trouble by not interfering in melodrama but simply observing, much as anthropologist Jane Goodall did with chimps in Africa. I swear, if those apes had some weights to screw around with, you might not be able to tell the difference between baboons and some of the buffoons at my gym.

Late afternoons are the best time for “The Gym Show.” I typically train in the morning or early afternoon, when the place is stocked with retired folks and frumpy housewives. They aren’t like TV’s “Desperate Housewives”-unless you mean desperately wishing they could stuff their faces with doughnuts and flavored coffee with whipped cream and still look more like Teri Hatcher and Eva Longoria every day. Nope, there’s no excitement when I train, and don’t I wish they did look like Teri and Eva. Occasionally, though, I come in later to do cardio and get my fix of the best reality show not on television.

There are the Gottis and the Abercrombies-the young studs I introduced you to a few months ago, plus their assorted groupie chicks. These days they’re all more or less dating each other, the way the characters did on the old “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Missing only are a set of good and evil twins and a couple of amnesia cases.

There are also the blue-collar guys who train after work, eager to get their pump on and move some hefty iron after a long day of working in public transit, law enforcement, auto repair or whatever they do to earn a living. Some of them are fairly well built and strong, and the king of them is a man I’ll call Tom.

At one time, before he slightly tore his pec, Tom would bench-press 405 whenever he trained chest, and he trained chest at least twice as often as anything else. Being able to press that much weight at a bodyweight of about 190 lean and vascular pounds made him the idol of the teenagers who filled the gym during the evening rush hour, all of whom worshipped at the altar of the bench press.

That suited 40-year-old Tom just fine because he happened to like young girls-like 17 or 18 years old. Unfortunately for him, most of them considered him an old man. When his hair started to thin out and he went for a clean-shaven dome-we’ve all heard that women find bald men sexy-the girls just saw a baldy who’d lost the follicular war. At least he didn’t have to worry about dandruff, and his bench was respectable for a man of any age.

So there I was doing my cardio, and miraculously, Tom was training not chest but back. In fact, he was doing chinups. That made me take notice because chinups are about as common in gyms these days as portable eight-track players. It’s much easier to sit at a lat-pulldown station and pull the bar down to you than it is to hoist your own bodyweight up toward the sky.

I’ll admit it: I actually counted how many reps Tom did for his first set-18! They weren’t strict, slow reps with a pronounced squeeze of the lats at the top and a controlled negative so you really feel them stretch. Nope, these were rapid-fire reps-bam, bam, bam! There was no pause at the top whatsoever. Tom even bounced a little at the bottom every time to rebound back up.

Ha! I smugly judged them to be cheating reps, worthless for stimulating growth. Maybe I couldn’t do quite as many, but my mind was ready with excuses. Not only was my form far superior, but I also weighed 40 pounds more than Tom at the same height. Still, he did two more sets, getting roughly 15 crappy reps each time, and somehow his back looked as if it had pumped up pretty well.

That night I thought about how I’d been wrong whenever I was absolutely sure that one training technique was better than another. Now I wondered whether strict form was the only viable way to train. Perhaps cheating reps, with constant, pistonlike motion, had value as well.

As it happened, back day was the next morning for me. Randy had the day off from work and was waiting by the chinup bar between the cable crossover pulleys. It had been at least a month since we’d trained back together, but starting with chins was fairly standard for us. My feeling was that because it was such a demanding exercise, it made a lot of sense to hit it while you were fresh. Today, I had a surprise for young Randy.

“We’re going to use crappy form on chins today,” I announced.

“What?” he reacted as if I’d told him I’d discovered a cardio technique that involved taking turns kicking each other in the groin for 30 minutes.

“Yup, that’s right. I just want to try something, if you’ll indulge me.” Stepping up on the plastic milk crate that us 5’8″ dudes require to reach the bar, I took a wide grip and proceeded to knock out 18 reps in the same herky-jerky form that Tom had used. Indeed, my lats were starting to get a very decent pump.

“You’re up, same thing,” I told Randy. For a moment he eyed me as if this were some sort of test and I was just waiting to punish him should he actually go through with cheating on form. Then he grabbed the bar and got 15 reps himself.

As soon as he dropped down, I stepped up and did another 16 reps. The last time I’d done more than 15 reps on chinups had been in ninth grade Junior Marine Corps ROTC. Back then I’d stood 5’1″ and weighed 110 pounds soaking wet and with two pocketfuls of change-suitable only for Operation Munchkin Land.

When we’d each completed three sets, I made my assessment. Even though what I’d just done went against everything I believed in with regard to exercise form, I could not deny that a) I’d gotten significantly more reps than usual, and b) the cheating style had stimulated my back in a manner different from my standard perfect form. I decided that from then on I’d experiment with incorporating “cheating” form here and there, or at least loosen up from strict form at times.

I’d been deriding pros like Ronnie Coleman for years for their horrible form, all the while denying that perhaps loose form had a legitimate place in a bodybuilder’s training regimen. Two-time Team Universe Overall champion Skip La Cour has written about the importance of striking a balance between perfectly strict form, which can severely limit the amount of weight you use, and loose form, which can take the stress away from the target muscle as well as increase your risk of injury. Once you find that balance, as he did, muscle growth is almost unlimited in potential. I vowed to find that balance myself.

In my head I silently thanked Tom for providing the final piece in the puzzle that encouraged me to try something different. Gratitude, however, goes only so far. If he hits on my daughter in a couple of years, all bets are off. As the overprotective father in the classic teenage comedy “Clueless” tells his daughter’s would-be suitor, “I’ve got a .45 and a shovel-I doubt anyone would miss you.” IM

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