I could have just as easily called this article ‘Get More Out of Each Repetition to Get More Out of Your Workouts,’ because that’s the basic premise’making individual repetitions more productive so sets are more productive and in turn workouts are more productive.
In many of his famous maxims, Benjamin Franklin advises readers to act with circumspection and care in even the smallest matters; for example, ‘For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; and for want of a horse, the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for want of care about a horseshoe nail.’ As an aspiring bodybuilder, you should also act with circumspection and care in even the smallest of details with regard to exercise form and muscle stimulation. Anything less than your best is not good enough if you want substantial muscle growth and effective fat loss.
As is my nature, I’m often long-winded and wordy in my articles. I’ve been accused of being overly analytical about training, nit-picking too much about the finer details of the different ways of lifting a weight instead of emphasizing the bottom line: that you need to get down and dirty, hot and sweaty, snorting, moaning and groaning while lifting the heaviest weights possible as intensely as possible.
My critics have a point. Killer workouts are a great way to induce growth and to build quality muscle’that is, as long as you also follow a killer high-protein diet and take large amounts of killer supplements to supply your body with enough calories, protein and nutrients to aid recovery and induce growth. You also have to get enough rest between workouts and keep a keen watch for the signs of overtraining’lethargy, aching muscles and joints, an aversion to training, insomnia, shakiness, to name but a few’and then on top of that to avoid injuries. That’s tough to do when every set of every workout is an all-out affair.
Still, even I, an odd-looking writer from the Great White North who champions strict training as the holy grail for muscle building, have to admit that some champs do train in what can only be called a very loose manner, heaving heavy weights about with little concern for even a modicum of strict form. Bertil Fox and John Brown come to mind as two top bodybuilders who trained with very heavy weights and little attention to form. They seemed to cheat everything’yet who can deny that it worked for them? Even Arnold Schwarzenegger cheated a lot early in his career. ‘So there, Zulak, stick that in your pipe and smoke it.’
That reminds me of a story about a young bodybuilder by the name of Vince Taylor, who early in his career was thrilled to be invited to come from his hometown of Baltimore to stay and train with Brown in California for a week. Unfortunately, Vince was so rattled after spotting John Brown through a six-rep set of 500-pound bench presses with no collars that he was absolutely convinced he could never become a pro bodybuilder if he had to go through what Brown did on a regular basis.
Ultimately, Taylor found his own way and developed his own training methods, which enabled him to win the Arnold Classic, the IRONMAN Pro, the Night of Champions and a host of grand prix events, make top six at the Mr. Olympia many times and earn three Masters Mr. Olympia crowns’far bigger titles than John Brown ever won. Still, if you get a chance, talk to Taylor about his experience training with Brown when he was a young bodybuilder. You’ll see fear in his eyes, and he’ll mumble something like, ‘I can still hear those big 45-pound plates banging and clanging and being terrified that if John got stuck, I would never be able to help him get the bar back to the rack because I couldn’t even budge it.’
In the old days bodybuilders were divided into two camps, pumpers and power trainers. That was before Heavy Duty. Pumpers like Steve Reeves, Freddy Ortiz, Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane and Serge Nubret used moderately heavy weights, high reps and lots of sets’20 or more per muscle group. Power guys like Fox and Brown used heavy weights, kept the reps low but did a fairly large number of sets. Then you had guys like Reg Park, Bill Pearl, Chuck Sipes, Marvin Eder, Franco Columbu and Casey Viator, who were very strong but could gain either way, heavy weights or pumping. You could put Larry Scott, Harold Poole, Dave Draper and Arnold Schwarzenegger in that latter group too.
As for the champs who cheat on nearly every exercise, you can either accept that they’re blessed with so much genetic potential for building muscle that they can train loosely on every rep of every set and still make fantastic gains or write them off as anomalies. You can also use them as proof that you don’t need strict form to build a great physique, but another way to look at it is that each of us must experiment and find the methods that work best for us. If that means training loosely and cheating a lot, so be it.
Many bodybuilders overestimate how strictly they lift weights and underestimate the amount of cheating they do because it’s so easy to cheat in order to get the weight up. The ego takes over, and rather than reduce the weight and do the repetitions in proper form, it’s easier to pile on the plates and do a bunch of sloppy reps. Granted, they really do very little to stimulate the target muscle group, but they make it seem as if you’re working out hard because you’re exerting a lot of effort pushing so much iron. On the other hand, some people are more interested in showing off how strong they are than in training a muscle group.
Only you can decide when a weight is too heavy or just heavy enough. I recall interviewing Vince Comerford about back training. He said his back development had really taken off only when he reduced the amount of weight on the bar and strove for purity of action and maximum muscle stimulation. ‘It’s much harder rowing 225 pounds properly for 10 reps than it is to snap the bar up with 315 pounds,’ Vince said. And, he might have added, with much less stress to the lower back and lumbar region.
The great Lee Labrada was another top bodybuilder whose back development improved only when he reduced the amount of weight he used, increased his concentration and learned how to properly innervate and stimulate his lat muscles. Lee also told me he’d never seen any bodybuilder do proper bent-over barbell rows with 400 pounds, and from what he observed, there was far too much cheating on that exercise’turning the row into a bent-over clean. Are guys who use 400 pounds on bent-over barbell rows working hard? You bet. Are they working their lats hard? Probably not. Tony Pearson, who had perhaps the best lat development of the late ’70s-to-mid-’80s era, found through trial and error that his optimal training weight for bent-over rowing was about 185 pounds. Notice I said optimal, not maximum, weight. Tony was strong enough to do bent-over rows with twice his working weight’but that forced him to bring in too many other muscle groups to assist in lifting the bar, losing lat isolation, innervation’or the ability to feel the muscle working’and stimulation. He learned from Robby Robinson that there’s a world of difference between a working weight you can use to stimulate a muscle properly and a maximum weight that takes every muscle in your body to lift.
I think the argument that strict form is unimportant doesn’t hold water’even when you’re talking about guys like Bertil Fox and John Brown. It’s like the kid who gets As on his report card without studying saying, ‘Why study?’ The comeback is that if he gets As without studying, imagine how much he’d learn if he studied. So, if a guy tells me he gets great results with a cheating style, I can only imagine what kind of results he’d get if he used strict form. Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a good case for that point.
When Arnold first came to America from Austria, he was big and strong and cheated a lot on most of his exercises’at the ’67 NABBA Mr. Universe he came onstage and cheat-curled a bar loaded with 275 pounds for three reps. Yet he lacked symmetry and refinement. As the years went by, he cheated less in the gym and his physique became much better.
Arnold learned to not be a slave to his ego. That’s partly what made him so great. He was very intelligent when it came to training. He used the weight that gave him the best results, not the heaviest weight he could use so he could brag he was the strongest guy in the gym. That’s why he used 70-pound dumbbells for curls and had the biggest arms at Gold’s Gym, while guys who used 90- and 100-pound dumbbells scratched their heads and wondered why their arms weren’t bigger than Arnold’s. Arnold used mostly his biceps to curl those 70-pound dumbbells, while the guys heaving the 100s were forced to use a lot of deltoid and trap to curl such heavy weights. Strict form won over cheating in the arms race at Gold’s Gym.
Of course, you can use ultrastrict form and still not isolate and stimulate a muscle properly if you don’t know how to target a specific section of a muscle group. Strict form doesn’t automatically guarantee muscle innervation, stimulation and growth.
Say what? Is it possible to train with perfect form and still not get great results? Yes. Many bodybuilders fail to realize that a lot of exercises aren’t straight-up-and-down motions, although that’s the common perception. In reality, every exercise for every muscle group has an optimal plane of motion, or arc, that’s best for isolating and stimulating a muscle group or a section of a muscle group. In fact, almost every exercise you can think of involves moving on a plane tilted at varying degrees, depending on the exercise, the muscle you’re training and your physical characteristics (a 6′ man, for example, will curl a barbell on a different plane from what a 5′ man would use).
Perhaps this is something you’ve never considered before, but I can assure you it makes an enormous difference in how you isolate and stimulate a working muscle group. The discovery isn’t the result of some genius on my part. My theories about exercise performance have evolved over many years, from personal-training experience, observations in the gym and discussions I’ve had with various champions and experts. I have a keen eye, especially for the little nuances. Much of my knowledge comes from people I consider authorities in bodybuilding, including John Parrillo, Gunnar Sikk, Vince Gironda, Scott Able and Chris Aceto.
It was Parillo who first got me really thinking about proper arcs, angles and planes of motions. John was explaining to me why I wasn’t building thick, full pectorals’including upper pecs’from the bench presses I performed as part of my chest routine, even though I was doing them in what I thought was a strict manner: I wasn’t arching my back off the bench, I wasn’t bouncing the bar off my chest, I was lowering the bar high on my chest and keeping my arms pulled back in line with my shoulders to put more stretch on my pectorals, and I was doing my reps fairly slowly, with control and deep concentration. Still, I knew my pecs weren’t responding as they should, and I couldn’t figure out why.
Meanwhile, my front deltoids and triceps were developing very nicely, but since my deltoids have always been my best bodypart, I didn’t need more shoulder size, I needed more pec growth. Any pectoral development I got from benching seemed to be all in the lower pecs, so my chest development could best be described as a doughnut: Two slabs of muscle with a hole in between. The bigger my deltoids and lower pecs got, the more obvious my underdeveloped upper pecs were.
Before I reveal Parrillo’s explanation, I want to point out that many exercises that seem at first glance to be simple are in fact complex and difficult to perform correctly and require special attention to details. The bench press is a good example. Most bodybuilders believe the bench press is one of the easiest exercises you can do. Hell, lie down on the bench, take the bar off the racks, lower it to your chest and push it back up for a number of reps. What could be simpler, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. If you do the bench press properly for building pectorals’not to see how much weight you can lift for a max single’it’s actually one of the most complicated exercises you can do.
Another point’and this was another eye-opener for me’I never realized you could activate the upper-pec muscles with flat-bench presses. John said that when you bench-press properly, you can train the total chest, upper pecs included.
John explained that in order to isolate and involve my pecs as I benched, I first had to set my pectoral girdle and rib cage correctly so I could place the mechanical advantage’the overload’squarely on my pecs and not my delts. In other words, I had to position my body and align my muscles properly before I began the exercise in order to isolate, innervate and stimulate my pecs.
Whoa! What a concept. My thousands of hours in the gym passed before my eyes, and I instantly grasped what John was saying to me. It was as though a lightbulb flashed on in my Homer Simpson’like brain (maybe I should have said ‘D’oh’ instead of ‘Whoa’). Without proper alignment of my muscles before I began the exercise, total pectoral isolation, innervation and stimulation were not only difficult’as I already knew from years of mistraining’but downright impossible. Despite doing what I thought were strict repetitions, I was in fact performing them in a way that builds deltoids and triceps, not pecs. Strictness of form had nothing to do with it. That wasn’t something I’d ever considered’that I could train without cheating and still get lousy results.
John said I was what he called a deltoid bench presser. I was dropping my chest and flattening out my pecs at the top of the movement and pushing up and through with my delts, so they got the majority of the stimulation and overload. In order to work my pecs, I had to learn to push my shoulders down and back under my body to set my position before I began my first repetition. And I had to keep them down and back throughout the entire set while at the same time thrusting my rib cage and sternum upward.
John suggested I imagine pushing my rear delts down hard toward my glutes as I benched. Doing that while thrusting my sternum, or breast bone, forward and upward properly set up my pectoral girdle so the mechanical advantage was placed directly on my pecs’upper pecs included’rather than on my deltoids. Once I started getting into that simple alignment before each set, pectoral isolation and stimulation became much easier. I was becoming a pectoral bench presser.
Once you take the bar from the rack, do the necessary setup moves: You sort of shuffle around to roll your rear delts down and back under your body. Then begin your set. At the top of each rep lock your elbows as you arch your sternum and press it up. Unless you lock out in that fashion, you cannot involve the upper pecs. Try to pinch your shoulder blades together in the lockout position to increase pectoral contractions.
Aligning my muscles and pectoral girdle before benching wasn’t the end of the story, however. John explained that the bar should not travel on a straight-up-and-down 90-degrees-to-the-torso plane, as I had wrongly assumed for years. It actually moves in a modified S-shaped arc. And you should touch the bar to your lower, not upper, chest in order to activate the upper fibers. I’d always assumed that lowering the bar to the lower chest involved the lower pecs, while lowering it high on the chest involved the upper chest. Wrong again.
As the bar leaves your chest, you should angle it toward your feet slightly’we’re talking about an inch or two. Keep in mind that your delts are pulled back and under your body, and the rib cage and sternum are thrust upward, so slightly forward movement occurs naturally in response to the set delt and chest positions. About halfway up you curve the bar back on a tilted plane toward your head. As pec contraction occurs, the bar should be approximately over your eyes. Then, just before complete lockout, you arc the bar ever so slightly back toward your feet. After tensing and squeezing your pecs, lower the bar slowly back to your lower chest (about nipple level).
That modified S-shaped plane of motion might be confusing, but you don’t have to sweat the details. As long as you touch the bar low on your chest and the bar finishes over your eyes at complete contraction, you get good pec stimulation, including some in the upper chest. The S-shaped arc is a subtle thing. If you feel your pecs cramping from top to bottom and you’re getting muscle ache and fatigue and a good pump, then your form is fine. You can’t totally eliminate the deltoids and triceps from the benching movement, of course, but as long as you feel the majority of the stimulation in your pecs, you’re doing okay.
I certainly felt a major difference when I started to bench that way. It just floored me to learn that all the things I considered essential for proper bench pressing were actually hindering my development. Lowering the bar high on the chest made prealigning the pectoral girdle more difficult. Pulling the arms back and wide to the sides so they were in line with my shoulders made pushing the bar on that modified S-shaped plane impossible. The only way the bar could travel was straight up and down. That’s fine for bench presses to the neck, a completely different exercise, but not for the basic bench press. And pulling the arms back and wide also made pushing through at the top with the pecs difficult. I never even thought about finishing my reps with the bar over my eyes because I thought lowering the bar high on the chest and pushing the bar straight up and down was the only road to pectoral nirvana.
To get an idea of what you should feel as you bench-press’and to teach yourself how to become a pec bench presser’stand with your back against a wall. Roll and work your rear deltoids back and under your shoulders while at the same time thrusting your rib cage and sternum upward, as if you’re trying to make it hit the ceiling. Those two things happen simultaneously, pushing your rear delts down and back hard toward your glutes and thrusting your chest upward. If you do them simultaneously and properly, your whole chest should feel coiled tight and under muscular tension, while the deltoids are taken almost completely out of the picture. Do you feel how the pecs are in a more advantageous position to receive stimulation now? Raise your arms as if you were going to push a barbell back and forth, simulating what you do while lying on your back. Notice how the arms naturally travel on an arc as your hands move from close to your chest to complete lockout.
Once you get a feel for aligning your chest and deltoids, take it to the gym and do a couple of sets with no weight on the bar. You just want to teach yourself how to stimulate and train your pecs, not build any muscle. Once you do a few light sets and make any adjustments in your setup, go ahead and do several sets with your normal bench press weight’or, say, 80 percent of it.
If you’re lucky, your gym may have some arched benches from the Parrillo Genetic Equalizer line of equipment. They’re built expressly for chest training and are designed to ensure proper alignment of the pectoral girdle and direct isolation of chest muscles during bench pressing. The arched benches come in inclined and flat models, and they make it almost impossible to bench incorrectly.
Remember that every repetition matters. The first two reps should be as hard as the last two. Your goal is not to see how quickly you can finish your set so you can look at the babe photos in the swimsuit section of this magazine. Your job is to work the target muscle to the max, do muscle-stimulating reps and hard sets and then psychologically prepare for the next set.
High intensity is a given, but keep in mind that you can train with high intensity and not stimulate the muscle if you don’t know how to do the exercise correctly. High intensity with correct form is what you want’along with the ability to innervate the targeted muscle group with purpose and deliberation.