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A Bodybuilder is Born 48

How do you define progress, exactly? It depends on the kind of progress you’re trying to define. In terms of social progress, you could easily point to civil rights and votes for women as significant changes that did not come quickly. (For those who don’t know their history, not so very long ago only white males could vote in the United States.) In terms of technology, progress has taken place at a dizzying rate over the past few decades.

When I was a child in the ’70s (the 1970s, not the 1870s, you wise-asses), computers were the size of a kitchen, were slower than molasses and had precious little storage capacity or memory. There were no cellular telephones, and when they did start showing up in the mid-’80s, they were as big as the clunky field radios the guys in World War II movies shouted into asking for air support when they were getting pounded by German mortars.

Televisions were huge and boxy as well when I was a kid, and they were often part of an “entertainment center” that also included a record player and an eight-track player.

Fast-forward to now. In the palm of your hand you can hold one device that is a personal computer with Internet access, a cell phone and a music player, and it lets you watch TV shows or play video games.

Not all progress is good, however. Take movies. Today’s movies are typically louder, faster and feature highly realistic digital special effects that will convince you that you’re actually watching rampaging dinosaurs or giant tsunamis or that Harrison Ford hasn’t aged in the past 20 years. But plots, acting and dialogue ain’t what they used to be, which is why remakes of the classics tend to suck more than the most powerful industrial-strength vacuum cleaner in the world.

Now we come to bodybuilding. The champions of today are certainly bigger and carry less bodyfat than those of yesteryear. For example, your average pro bodybuilder in 1976, though there were only a couple dozen at most in the whole world, was about 5’10”, 210 pounds and 8 percent bodyfat. Thirty years later a typical pro at the same height is 250 to 280 pounds with 3 percent bodyfat. That’s progress, right? It appears to be—until you factor in that the average waist is also much larger, that serious injuries and illnesses are far more common, and that 30-year-old pro bodybuilders often look as if they’re in their mid-40s.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about muscle growth and what causes it, mainly because, if I have to be perfectly honest, I have not grown much in recent years. I could be like most bodybuilders in my position and rationalize that perhaps I have reached my full genetic potential. After all, I have been weight training consistently since 1985—although I didn’t do anything for legs until the end of 1987—and I have come a long way in my development.

My weight has gone from 100 pounds to just under 230, and I am many times stronger. I’ve been working with Randy for 4 1/2 years now—how the time does fly! When we started, he was 22 years old, 170 pounds and not terribly mature. Now he’s 26, 225 pounds (however not as lean as when I met him) and still not terribly mature, though I have to give him a little credit.

His progress has not been a straight upward climb, as there have been little setbacks along the way, but overall it has been steady. There was a time in my life when I made steady progress like that, but about 10 years had gone by since I could say that. I decided that I could no longer let that situation stand, or I would be a hypocrite. The motto I sign off with in all my e-mail notes is, “Train hard, train smart, and never give up!” Whether I accepted it or not, I had given up.

Randy and I were training shoulders, and seated dumbbell presses were the main course, as usual. I finished with my heaviest set, 130s for eight reps. That never failed to impress Randy, who had been using 60s when I met him and now was up to 90s or 95s.

“Unbelievable,” he gushed as I set down the big ’bells with a clang of iron. I went to my workout journal on the floor behind me, a little spiral notebook. I had a few of them at home, going back at least 10 years; I’ve recorded just about every workout I have done. The one I’m using now was started almost two years ago. I flipped through it casually.

“What are you looking for?” Randy asked.

“Shoulder days,” I responded absently. “Huh. 120 for 10.” I turned a few more pages. “130 for eight.” I spoke out loud as I found more instances where I had performed the seated dumbbell press, using anywhere from 110-to-130-pound dumbbells at the very heaviest (not counting a couple dangerous and unproductive stunts with 140s), with reps ranging from six to 12.

“What are you looking for, exactly?” Randy’s brows were knit, and he was probably wondering if I’d finally gone off the deep end.

“Progress,” I answered, “and, frankly, I don’t see it. I go up in weights, then I go down, then back up, but I just don’t see real progress. My shoulders are big, but they aren’t any bigger than they’ve been for years.”

“What are you talking about? Look how freakin’ strong you are on this exercise! Nobody in this gym can press those overhead!”

I shook my head. “That’s not the point. I’ve been this strong for years, and I haven’t gotten any stronger. If I really think about it, I could say the same for just about every exercise I’ve been doing consistently for years. Look at that guy.” I nodded at Big Howard, a guy who stood about 5’6” and weighed maybe 180 pounds, most of it in his barrel chest, shoulders and triceps. It was chest day, as I think it usually was for him, and he had 405 on the bar. We watched as he pressed it for three reps on his own, and his burly spotter helped him with two more.

“He’s one strong bastard, isn’t he?” Randy marveled.

“Sure,” I agreed, “but he’s been exactly that strong since the day I first walked into this gym five years ago. He doesn’t look any different, either. I don’t really look so different from when you met me a few months later. Do you see a connection there?”

Randy shook his head, and I finally decided to include him in my little example.

“When I met you, I think once I corrected your crappy form on squats, you were only using 185 for 10 reps, roughly. What did you do on squats last week for your heaviest set?” He looked up and off to the side, recalling.

“315 for eight.”

“Do your thighs look different now from the way they did when you started training with me?”

He laughed. That was an understatement. Randy had added about three inches of circumference to his quads and hams, and they’d gone from not much better than chicken legs to very respectable—although Tom Platz had nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, Randy had made excellent progress relative to his own body, and that progress was easy to quantify.

“You squat a lot more weight now, and your legs are a lot bigger,” I explained. “You are stronger on rows and curls, and your back and biceps are bigger than they used to be too. As you’ve grown stronger overall, you’ve added muscle thickness and overall bodyweight. We can even look at your nutrition to show progress. When we met, you were eating about 2,000 calories a day, I think, and barely getting a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Through the use of certain supplements, protein powders and bars, we helped you get up to two grams of protein per pound. By eating more frequently, gradually working up to larger portions, you now eat around 5,000 calories a day. Which makes sense, because you have a hell of a lot more muscle on you than you used to.”

I could see it was all gelling for the young buck, who, I suppose, really wasn’t that young anymore. It was just that I kept getting older.

“So what are you going to do?” he asked.

“Simple,” I replied. “Today I am buying a new training journal for my new beginning. I will use the same exercises at every workout, and I will have to either use a little more weight or do more reps on my heaviest set than I did with the same weight the last time. I will have to get stronger because that’s the only way I can possibly get any bigger. Weight training is also known as progressive-resistance training, and there’s a reason for that. I just seem to have forgotten about the progressive part, which is why I haven’t made much progress at all since the Clinton administration.”

“Okay,” Randy said, “but aren’t you going to hit a plateau eventually? I mean, if you really added weight to your bench press every week for years, you’d be lifting over a thousand pounds.”

“When I stall out on an exercise and can’t make progress, I’ll switch to a different exercise and start over. Then a couple months later I’ll go back to the first exercise, take a while to get back to the top weight I was previously using and add from there. I know it’s not perfect, but at least it’s an actual plan, not just winging it the way I usually do.”

I went home, where I spent time trying to figure out how to copy all the pictures on my computer’s hard drive to a memory stick. Then I spent more time puzzling over my iPod. Apparently you can put pictures and video on it as well as music, but I was too much of a techno-idiot to figure it out, which was frustrating to my wife, who regretted not buying me the simple, less expensive model. Technology might have made a lot of progress, but I was still dealing with the same old brain of mine. That was okay, however. Soon I’d start making progress with the weights after a long time in limbo, and maybe I could coax just a little more muscle growth out of this beat-up body of mine.

Editor’s note: Ron Harris’ new book Real Bodybuilding is available at IM

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