A Bodybuilder is Born: Generations Episode 6
I had come out of retirement as a personal trainer to work with a teenage football player because, to paraphrase Bob Barker’s longtime game show proclamation, the price was right. I didn’t want or need any other clients and, frankly, didn’t have the time to work with anyone else on top of my writing schedule. Well, I suppose if I didn’t spend two hours a day training and another four hours eating, I could probably free up a few more minutes, but I put much too high a value on my physique and fitness to make such a sacrifice. I never saw the point in driving a $100,000 car while walking around in a 35-cent body. Notice I didn’t say, 50 cent, because that rapper dude is in pretty decent shape for a gangsta.
Since Jeff was forking over such a generous fee every week for me to train his son Jared, I didn’t mind the occasional consultation with him in the gym when he needed guidance. After all, I’d just added a large deck to my backyard, and those checks had certainly helped to offset the cost. Plus, Jeff had hooked me up with a local contractor who’d done an excellent job for a fair price.
Our recent home improvement efforts seemed to have taken on a life of their own. At times I feared we were becoming like Sarah Winchester, the widow of the man who developed the Winchester repeating rifle. Plagued by guilt over the many deaths caused by her late husband’s product and believing that she would die if construction on her home was ever completed, she kept building to calm the angry spirits, transforming an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California, into what is now the 160-room Winchester Mystery House. Of course, the only mystery involved in my home improvement plans was how the hell I was going to pay for them. So on this occasion I was more than happy to see what Jeff wanted.
"It’s my arms," he began. "I’ve just never been happy with them." I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Who did this man think he was talking to? I am the poster boy for dissatisfaction with arm size. Shoot, they almost had a telethon for arm-challenged bodybuilders, on which I was going to come out at the end looking sad in a tank top while Jerry Lewis choked back tears singing "You’ll Never Walk Alone."
All that said—and I may be exaggerating just a tad—I started training with 11-inch pipe cleaner arms and have managed to scratch and claw my way up to 18 inches. Granted, but that’s nothing special by bodybuilding standards—20-inch arms are the norm, and the bigger pros stretch the tape to 22 or 23 inches. Still, I have never given up and have forced myself to continue trying new methods in hopes that some would be effective. Along the way I’ve definitely learned a thing or two that I could pass on to others who are similarly afflicted with lagging biceps and triceps.
First, I had Jeff run down his exercises, which seemed like good choices. For biceps he usually picked three of the following: barbell curls, alternate dumbbell curls, preacher curls, hammer curls, machine curls and incline curls. He performed a warmup and then four progressively heavier sets of eight to 12 reps. Triceps got the same treatment from a choice of cable pushdowns, skull crushers, overhead dumbbell extensions, close-grip bench presses and weighted dips. I had worked with him a little bit on correct form and mind/muscle connection, but had him demonstrate a couple of exercises each for bi’s and tri’s just to make sure he was retaining what he’d learned. So far, so good. That led me to my next question, which turned out to be the key to his problem.
"What weight do you use for alternate dumbbell curls?" I asked.
Jeff thought a minute. "On a good day I can get the 45s for about six to eight reps with each arm in decent form. I could heave up the 60s, but I know that wouldn’t help my biceps too much."
"Right," I replied. "How much could you use two years ago?" He knit his brows as if it were a bizarre question.
"I don’t know—probably about the same."
"Okay, five years ago?" He shrugged his shoulders.
"I have no idea, but it must have been at least the 40s, probably the 45s. I’ve been able to do those for a long time." I quizzed him about a couple of his triceps exercises and determined that he’d been using roughly the same weights for a very long time, probably well over a decade.
"I’m pretty sure I know why your arms aren’t growing," I said. His eyes got wide. "You haven’t gotten any stronger in many years either. You have given your biceps no reason to adapt and grow in response to a heavier overload."
"What?" Jeff made a face like I was trying to sell him swampland in Florida. Now he was going to get all skeptical on my ass. "I always get a good pump, and every once in a while I get sore from my arm workouts. It shouldn’t matter that I don’t move the weights up."
"Oh, but it does," I replied. "Pumps are great and getting sore is a satisfying thing too, but there is not a shred of evidence that proves either one has a damn thing to do with stimulating muscle growth."
"You’re serious?" From the look on his face, you’d have thought he was a kid and I’d just told him that Santa Claus didn’t exist.
"Let’s take a trip in the way-back machine to when you were starting out lifting in the groovy days of free love and bell bottoms." He frowned at what he took as a derogatory reference to his age. "How much could you bench-press?" Jeff thought a minute.
"I had an old Weider bench and weights at home—the bar and a 25-pound plastic weight filled with cement on each side was my max. About 75, 80 pounds I guess that would be."
"Okay, and how developed were your chest, shoulders and triceps?" He laughed.
"Not very. I was about 120 pounds. The kids called me Ichabod Crane—you know, from that Sleepy Hollow story?"
"Yes, I am well aware of who Ichabod Crane is. What’s the most you ever got your bench up to?" He seemed to swell with pride.
"By the time I was 25 or 26, I could bench-press 365 and I weighed 210 with abs. Nothing compared to these giants today, but I was pretty happy with that. I had such a beefy chest and shoulders that I had to start buying bigger dress shirts."
"You got bigger because you got stronger. Your muscles had no choice except to grow because you were demanding that they keep up with the increasing loads you were forcing them to lift. The problem is, you haven’t forced them to grow in a long time."
"Okay, I get it, but how do I apply that to my arm training? How do I get stronger on everything?"
"You don’t. You pick just one basic exercise for biceps and one for triceps. Every time you work bi’s or tri’s, you start with that exercise and either do more reps or a little more weight than last time. If you’re using barbells for exercises like curls or preacher curls or doing skull crushers or close-grip presses, make use of those little 2 1/2-pound plates so you don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to jump up in weight too fast. Focus on that exercise for about a month, then switch to a different two exercises but follow the same principle. You’ll come back to those first exercises later and try to get a bit stronger on them again."
"But can I really get any stronger at my age?" Jeff asked.
"That’s up to you. If you want to succumb to the belief that you can’t make any improvements in size or strength once you’ve passed your 20s and 30s, then you’re done for. But I’ve known plenty of guys in their 40s and 50s who continued getting better with age. That’s why the masters classes at shows have been getting more and more competitive these days. Bottom line: If you want your arms to grow, you have to give ’em a damn good reason." Jeff nodded, and I knew that he got it.
When I got home, my wife Janet had a bunch of colorful flyers spread out before her on the kitchen table. She spoke without even looking up.
"What do you think about one of these glass-enclosed Four Seasons rooms? We could put it out in back—you know, to the left of the deck, so we could enter from the family room."
When I replied, I did not address her. Instead, I looked up at the unseen spirits that were surely feeding her frenzy to build and appease their rage, and I turned up my middle finger.
"Angry ghosts, screw you!"
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding, available at RonHarrisMuscle.com. IM