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A Bodybuilder is Born Episode 43

It was chest day. I love chest day, but not for the reason that most guys do. They look forward to it as a macho ritual and a chance to prove their manly mettle by cheating up a lot of weight with the generous help of a willing spotter, who invariably screams, “It’s all you, bro!” as encouragement. The most common question asked of any man who has a modicum of muscle is usually, “How much do you bench?”

I used to go into lengthy explanations of why I didn’t do the flat-bench barbell press anymore or tell them how much I used for dumbbell bench presses. Neither response ever seemed to satisfy the uninformed, so a few years ago I just started lying and saying “405.” It’s so much quicker and easier. I’m well aware that each time I do that, I’m breaking one of the 10 Commandments, but I’m fairly certain Moses and his buddies never had to deal with ignorant types in the desert demanding to know how many camels they could lift or some such nonsense.

I love chest day because I’ve always had a great mind/muscle connection with my pecs. My front delts or triceps never took over. It was always the muscle fibers of my chest that I felt straining against the resistance. My chest always gets a nice pump, it always gets sore for the next couple of days, and getting it to grow has never been a problem. I guess I just got it like that. It was on a recent chest day that I found out Randy hadn’t been entirely truthful about something for quite some time.

A quick update on Randy, who went to the after-hours New Year’s Eve party at a club that didn’t let out until eight in the morning, while my wife and I opted for a local place that closed at two. Randy had been so hung over and nauseous the next day that he didn’t eat a thing until he went to bed that night, though he did sip at a protein shake over the course of the day. To his horror, when he stepped on a scale the next day, his weight had dropped from 217 down to 212. That’s what happens when you have a fast metabolism, as that kid does, and miss a few meals. It took him more than a week to get those five pounds back.

It was now almost a month after New Year’s, and Randy’s weight was fluctuating between 217 and 220. On the days he was 217, he was miserable; on the days he was 220, he felt on top of the world. As I’ve said before, we bodybuilders are the antianorexics. Just as the noneaters cringe at gaining an ounce, we feel the world is coming to an end if we lose weight. Many a time I have stepped on the gym scale and cursed aloud if I had lost a pound or two, or even if I weighed the same when I was trying to gain. Some dude with a big old potbelly would often try to be sympathetic. “Put a couple pounds on, huh?”

“I wish!” I would fire back. “We all want to weigh 300 pounds, but maybe it’s just not meant to be.” The heavy guy would look puzzled, as if I had just told him my goal was to be half-man, half-dolphin, and live out the rest of my life performing at Sea World for buckets of dead fish.

So Randy and I were doing incline dumbbell presses when he announced, “You know, I feel these so much more than the barbell. I barely feel my chest doing anything when we do barbell inclines.”

“What?” I was shocked, mainly because I had been using the bar most of the time when we trained together only because I thought he liked it. “How long have you felt that way?”

He looked like a spouse getting ready to break the news that he didn’t love me anymore. “Pretty much since I started training,” he said.

Now I was starting to fume. I knew Randy wasn’t that dumb. “Why didn’t you say something, for God’s sake?” I demanded. “I’ll take dumbbells every time over barbells for chest!”

“Well,” he shrugged, “you know, barbells are supposed to be the best thing for mass, real basic and everything.”

My mind was reeling. “Anyone who says that is just repeating something they heard or read,” I said. “I defy anyone to tell me dumbbells aren’t as good at stimulating muscle growth as a barbell. In fact, I think that for a lot of people, they’re better. They have been for me. If you want to get into how hard the two are to control, balance, and master, dumbbells are much tougher.”

“Huh,” was Randy’s inspired retort. He thought a moment. “Maybe my upper chest would be even better if I’d been using dumbbells all this time.”

“Ya think? Look, just because a specific exercise is supposed to be the very best, that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for everyone. You know I haven’t done the flat-bench press since I was a teenager, back in the Johnson administration.”

“Huh? You mean when Magic Johnson was still playing for the Lakers?”

I should have just been grateful he knew about one historical figure, even if it was sports history. “Never mind,” I said. “Another good example is squats. For most people they’re simply incredible for building leg size and strength. For tall guys with long legs, though, they’re often a waste of time. They just don’t have the right leverage for the movement. They usually do much better on the leg press, especially if they can find one with a larger platforms so they can set their feet wider apart. Any other exercises you do that you shouldn’t be doing?”

He barely hesitated. “Straight-bar curls. They hurt my wrists so bad that I can never use enough weight to really hit my biceps right. I like the EZ-curl bar better. But every arm-training article says regular barbell curls are the best exercise, and you have to do them if you want big guns.”

“Don’t you see how crazy that is?” I asked.

“You wrote a lot of those articles,” he deadpanned.

Now he had me, the S.O.B. “Be that as it may, I have also written many times about how you need to try many different training methods and exercises and use the ones that work best for you. We’re not clones. We’re all different, with our own metabolisms, bone structures, muscle fiber makeup, energy levels, tolerance for volume, temperament, attention span, favorite soft drink, on and on. When it comes to exercises, especially, you really need to find the movements that work best for you and stick with them. Doing exercises that don’t feel right won’t help you at all. You won’t make progress, and you won’t enjoy training. It’s just an endless, vicious circle.”

We talked a little more, and Randy finally understood the need to customize his workouts to fit his particular needs and preferences rather than blindly doing what everyone else was doing or mimicking the routine of some pro bodybuilder who won his first contest the week after he started training (a pro named Dave Henry took home his first trophy a full two years before he began lifting weights—really). As always, the bottom line is results.

If something works for you, no matter how much it goes against convention, it can’t be “wrong.” So if you’re stuck in a rut and not making improvements, take a long, hard look at your workouts. Are you doing what’s best for you, just doing what you think is best or doing what someone else told you is best? Don’t be afraid to be your own person in the gym and break away from the crowd. Always remember, most of the people in that crowd don’t look that great anyway. And because most of them will never step back and question whether they’re doing what will work best for them, they never will. IM

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