Even after 13 years of training, Skip La Cour was still able to make some extraordinary improvements to his physique during the 12-month period leading up to his win at the ’02 NPC Team Universe. Here he reveals the strategies that helped him to his second Overall title and his fourth Heavyweight Championship.
1) Raise Your Standards
The word standard is defined as a means of determining what a thing should be. In terms of your performance in the gym, it’s the level of effort that you demand of yourself, where you won’t settle for anything less under any circumstances. The standards we set for ourselves determine the level of success we enjoy. Many people may feel they are dedicated and hardworking, but everyone has different ideas of what dedicated and hardworking mean. If you want to make significant improvements to your physique sooner rather than later, you’ll probably need to raise the standards of what you expect from yourself’both in and out of the gym.
What do I mean by raise your standards? Let’s talk about eating to build more muscle mass, for example. We all know how important it is to eat six meals every day as we strive to pack on more muscle, right? If you’re eating six meals a day right now, however, you may need to fit another one into your schedule. You must do that despite any challenges you may face because of an overloaded work or school schedule. By eating six meals a day, you may be doing better than most of your friends, but eating a seventh meal every single day might be the strategy that finally helps you achieve greater gains.
If you want to carry less bodyfat and your current standard is to adhere to a structured, disciplined diet five days a week, you may need to become a little stricter. Instead of allowing yourself to be a little lax on the weekends, you may have to eliminate one of your cheat days to lose that extra bodyfat.
Nothing in life that’s really worth achieving comes easily. It doesn’t matter what you think other people can get away with and still reach their goals. The difference between a person who has earned an outstanding physique and one who has an average body almost always comes down to the standards they’ve set for themselves. Although they both maintain those standards, the people with the best physiques simply expect more of themselves.
It’s their higher standards that have led to their success’not because they are lucky or were blessed with amazing genetics. Whatever you do, please don’t listen to the disgruntled, negative, mediocre people in your gym who want you to believe that nonsense. You’ll be destined for stagnation’just as they are.
This past year the NPC considered implementing a rule change that would keep past class winners from reentering the Team Universe competition. The fierce competitor inside me couldn’t go a year without competing in a bodybuilding show. No way! I immediately set my sights on the much more competitive NPC USA. As I hadn’t even placed in the top 15 the only time I’d entered the USA several years before, I understood that the challenge was formidable.
What I had done in the past to be successful at the Team Universe would not necessarily ensure that I would be even remotely successful at the USA, a show that features the best amateur bodybuilders in the country. I knew that I would have to be significantly better than I’d been in previous years just to make the cut.
I analyzed just about everything I’d done in the past both in and out of the gym. I took that foundation and demanded just a little bit more of myself in the areas of training, nutrition, supplementation and mental attitude. I raised my standards and demanded that I follow through on them much earlier in the year than I’d done in the past to prepare for the Team Universe.
That extra effort’and the effort put forth for a longer period of time’enabled me to make gains after 13 years of training that were so significant, they surprised even me.
I placed 11th in an ultracompetitive USA Heavyweight class (just two points out of the top 10). And when the restrictions at the Team U were lifted, I was able to coast to a convincing Overall victory just two weeks later.
2) Make Yourself Accountable for Everything You Do
Putting added pressure on yourself in order to make improvements can sometimes be a double-edged sword. It can be just the right mental strategy to propel your bodybuilding efforts, an extraordinary force that helps you dig deep within yourself and put forth your very best effort day in and day out. On the other hand, pressure can be so emotionally draining that it robs you of the energy you need to follow through on what you need to do. The choice is yours to make pressure your foe or your friend.
There are many steps that you must take every day in order to achieve your ambitious bodybuilding goals. When times are good and you’re feeling optimistic, following through on those daily disciplines can seem effortless. But when times become challenging and you’re not so sure if all your hard work and discipline are going to pay off, getting yourself to do what you must to succeed can be overwhelming.
Keeping the heat on yourself can help you become your very best over time. You need to make yourself accountable for your actions. How do you do that? Start by making a short checklist of the key tasks that you already know you must do every day in order to create your ideal physique. That list makes up what I call ‘baseline standards.’
Baseline standards can be simple actions like eating your meals on time, drinking a gallon of water a day, completing the number of cardio sessions you’ve planned every week and taking your nutritional supplements. If getting to the gym to do your workouts is difficult for you, then by all means, include that on your list of baseline standards. But if it’s automatic for you, don’t bother.
Don’t make those baseline standards so complex and so difficult that you’ll have trouble following through. At the same time you don’t need to list extremely simple tasks (everybody wakes up’usually). Begin with about five or six basic tasks that you sometimes need a little extra push to get yourself to do.
At the beginning of your day, invest about 60 seconds in reviewing the baseline standards you’ve established. That simple review will work its way into your subconscious and help you follow through during the rest of the day. At the end of your day spend another 60 seconds assessing how well you executed your baseline standards.
Trust me: Those two minutes will have a tremendous impact on your bodybuilding efforts. Once you’ve created the target, the winner inside you will work as effectively as a guided missile at annihilating those daily duties. When you’re forced to admit that you’ve fallen short after assessing your performance at the end of your day, the battler inside won’t let more than a few days of that go by. That’s how you make pressure work for you. When you’ve built up a certain level of confidence by following through on your baseline standards for a significant period, it’s time to raise your standards. Be sure that you don’t get too ambitious and add too many new tasks at one time. Often it’s only a slight change executed over an extended period of time that creates substantial improvements.
This past year I added a ‘Members Only’ section to my Web site, skiplacour.com, in which I posted my own personal baseline standards. At the end of every day I honestly assessed how well I executed my plans that day. Talk about accountability! Not only did I have to live up to my own self-imposed standards, but I also put myself in a position where the members of my club were evaluating my daily performance as well. That added pressure helped me to follow through on a more consistent basis all year long. It was uncomfortable a lot of the time, but whenever I even thought about not doing what I knew I should do, I considered the repercussions.
Being tougher on myself over such a long period helped me make the extraordinary improvements that I needed to win’and gave me a sense of accomplishment that will last my entire life. The sense of accomplishment that you, too, will feel when you step up to the challenge of the baseline standards you’ve created is priceless.
Step up to the challenge of making yourself accountable for everything you do.
3) Control Your Emotions
No matter what you’ve accomplished in the past, developing the certainty and confidence needed to take your achievements and build on them can be challenging. Believe me, everyone battles self-doubt from time to time. That angst you feel can tempt you to settle for the development you’ve already achieved. You may want to cash in your chips and make yourself believe you’re satisfied with where you are right now.
Settling isn’t going to get you to that higher level, however, and because you’re the type of person who would read this article, I don’t believe you’ll be satisfied until you make improvements’no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that what you’ve done in the past is good enough. In order to gain the certainty and confidence to take your efforts to a higher level, you must learn how to deal effectively with the angst inside your head.
First of all, you need to realize that you’re not alone. Even the greatest champions question their abilities from time to time. It comes with the territory when you demand constant improvement from yourself. So, if you’re afraid to push yourself beyond what you think you might be capable of, you’re in good company.
Courage is the trait that will overcome fear and angst. Successful people instinctively exhibit courage the instant they feel fear. But courage is an acquired skill’just like strength in the gym and endurance while doing cardiovascular training. The only way to develop courage is by using it. The only way to make courage a prominent part of your character is by using it often.
Whatever you do, resist the temptation to make excuses when things don’t happen the way you want. Don’t let fear, angst and disappointment dictate what you expect out of your life. Don’t let rationalization become what you call on when fear presents itself. Instead, develop your courage. After walking off the Team Universe stage following a disappointing second-place finish in 2001, I had many questions that might have caused me to doubt myself and my ability to make improvements. How many more improvements could I possibly make after 13 years of training? How long could I keep going? What exactly was all of that effort, dedication and discipline doing for me? When was it going to be time for me to grow up and get a real job?
That was the mind-set I found myself experiencing. There were more questions than I had answers for. Fear was challenging me to a duel, and for a little while I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to face the battle.
I mustered up the courage to think big once again. My strategy was simple. Instead of focusing on what would happen if I failed, I got myself to start focusing on what I could gain if I was fortunate enough to succeed. I created a list of the tremendous benefits that I’d experience if I could take my efforts and physique to a higher level. It started off rather short, but then my confidence began to build. I included all of the physical, emotional and even indirect financial benefits that would come to me if I succeeded.
I envisioned what my physique would look like after a year of intelligent and hard work. I thought about how great it would feel to step up, conquer my limitations and establish higher standards for myself. I even imagined this very article being published and all of the people I’d be able to help achieve their own goals with the lessons I’ve learned and by the example I set.
If you’re determined to achieve great gains, you’ll undoubtedly face self-doubts along the way’and that’s okay. Control your emotions. Deal with the angst inside. Face your fears head-on, and muster up the courage to overcome them.
4) Be Willing to Try Different Strategies
I’m amazed by the number of bodybuilders who do the same old things week after week, month after month and year after year’if they last that long’and then expect to produce results superior to the ones they’ve achieved in the past. They’re comfortable with what they’re doing, but how can anyone realistically expect a significantly better outcome than he or she achieved in the past if the factors contributing to that outcome are the same?
I know the saying, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But you’ll never make the adjustments you need in order to improve if you’re not willing to try different strategies.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you try new strategies just for the sake of novelty; however, if you’re not completely satisfied with the results you’re getting and you want to make improvements, you may need to modify your plan of attack. I’m also not talking about making wholesale changes to your entire approach to bodybuilding. Sometimes all it takes to propel yourself to a higher level is a few slight adjustments in one or two areas. Drastic changes are called for only when you’re experiencing miserable results and are desperate for improvements. That probably isn’t your situation. You’re probably doing quite well’but you want to do even better. That was certainly my situation during the past year.
There will be times when a new strategy won’t lead to the improvements you hoped for. Unfortunately, that’s just part of the learning process. There have been many times when I optimistically tried a new diet or training strategy that sent me in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, I’ve always learned some valuable lesson from my experiences.
Many people felt that, as a drug-free bodybuilder, I couldn’t possibly look any better than I did when I won the Team Universe Overall in 1998. I refused to believe that was true. When assessing my physique last year, I knew that I could be much better. I realized, however, that I’d have to do a few things a little differently from the way I’d done them in the past. I’ve always preached to others that you should never stop learning if you want to continually improve. Well, this past year was my chance to practice what I preach.
What changes did I make in 2002? To begin with, I made considerable changes to my eating habits. For the first time in my career I started eating before my 4:30 a.m. weight-training sessions. I also learned about the importance of eating the right foods at the right times of day and scheduled more meals within the three-hour window after my workout. Instead of spreading out my calories so they were about even throughout the day, I started pounding down about 75 percent of them during the first half of the day. I even changed the way I incorporate carbohydrates into my diet. I started eating high-glycemic carbohydrates during the three-hour window after training and lower-calorie, lower-glycemic carbs during the rest of the day.
I also changed some of my training habits. I reduced my training volume by about one-third. I put less importance on superheavy training and instead made proper execution of each exercise my number-one priority. As far as my cardiovascular training was concerned, I intensified each session and shortened the duration.
Doing things the way you’ve always done them won’t get you to that next level. The bottom line is that you’ll have to keep an open mind and try different strategies from time to time if you want better results.
5) Don’t Become Overly Concerned With How Big You Are
One of the most difficult lessons a bodybuilder must learn is that more size doesn’t necessarily equal a better physique. Have you ever seen men wearing ill-fitting, flamboyant toupees? Or even worse, those who sport comb-overs to hide the fact that they’re balding? How can you not notice, right? Why doesn’t anyone tell them how terrible it looks?
Well, that’s how a lot of big bodybuilders look. Instead of appearing huge, powerful and healthy, they look big, fat and sloppy. They confuse being ‘big’ with quality size in the form of dense muscle mass. They’re overly concerned with how much they weigh and neglect the fact that they’re ruining their aesthetic appeal.
Bodybuilding is like sculpting a beautiful statue’or at least it should be. Just because you have the ability to carry more size doesn’t mean you’ll look your absolute best. Because many of us start training with weights in order to get bigger, it’s a difficult lesson to learn. The perception we have of ourselves becomes a little fuzzy, and when it comes to our own physiques, we may not see what others see.
Often when you shed that extra 10 pounds of bodyfat, you appear 20 pounds larger. That illusion has been demonstrated to me on many occasions. When I begin dieting for a contest and lose my first five to 10 pounds of bodyfat, it’s not uncommon for people to approach me and say, ‘Man! You’re getting huge all of a sudden!’ I’ve even heard’secondhand, of course’that some guys think I must have started ‘taking something’ because I got so big so fast. That’s how dramatic an illusion quality size can create.
I made the decision right after I stepped off the stage in 2001 that I would never again try to compete at more than 215 pounds. Although I’ve looked very good competing at 230, I have certain genetic limitations that prevent me from looking my best when I carry that much weight. Intelligent bodybuilding is all about enhancing your physical gifts and camouflaging your weaknesses. Carrying more mass just accentuated my genetic flaws, while coming in lighter enabled me to become the most aesthetically pleasing Skip La Cour possible. I only wish it hadn’t take me so long to realize that undisputable fact. I hope it doesn’t take you as long.
6) Eat Before Your Workouts
It’s extremely important to feed your muscles the nutrients they need to repair and grow. In fact, your nutritional habits actually have more of an impact on your bodybuilding efforts than how hard you train in the gym. Training with weights only initiates the muscle-building process. Muscle repair and growth occur outside the gym. Feeding your body a steady stream of the high-quality nutrients that it absolutely must have to effectively repair and nurture muscle is an essential ingredient in your overall success. In my years of experience coaching others, I’ve discovered that when people aren’t experiencing the results they want from their bodybuilding efforts, nine out of 10 times their nutritional habits are the culprit.
Until recently I never ate anything before my workouts. One reason was that I preferred to train on an empty stomach. Another reason was that I read somewhere that the body burns more of its fat stores when you train on an empty stomach’especially cardiovascular training.
I’ve always appreciated the importance of eating properly. Over the years I’ve put a high priority on the way I ate and made sure I fed myself every two hours throughout the day. I just never realized how important it was to feed my body properly before my weight-training and cardio workouts as well. I didn’t understand that preworkout nutrition was critical.
Intense weight training and cardio drain the limited protein stores. Within a very short time after you start training, you’ll be running on empty. That’s incredibly detrimental to muscle growth and repair, and the more intensely you train, the more those harmful effects are magnified. It’s important that you have a source of protein in your body that can be quickly accessed during workouts. You should eat the protein with high-glycemic carbohydrates. Training, whether it’s cardiovascular or weight work, lowers your blood sugar levels, which makes it difficult for your muscles to get the protein they need to maintain their size. Taking in high-glycemic carbohydrates spikes your blood sugar levels and actually forces the high-quality protein you eat with those high-glycemic carbohydrates into your ravenous muscles. I took my nutritional habits to the next level when I started using an intelligent preworkout plan. If you want to make sure you preserve as much muscle mass as possible, start eating a small protein-based meal with high-glycemic carbohydrates before every one of your weight-training and cardio sessions. AST Sports Science’s VP2 Whey Isolate does an outstanding job of taking care of my protein requirements, and AST’s Creatine HSC takes care of the insulin-spiking high-glycemic carbs. I have one scoop (24 grams) of VP2 Whey Isolate and one scoop of Creatine HSC. The combination ensures that my muscles remain in a positive protein state while I get a good source of sustained energy to fuel my training sessions and force the fast-burning whey protein into the muscles.
What about the uncomfortable feeling I used to get in my stomach? Heck! I easily got used to it. The benefits of supplying my muscles with the protein that’s depleted when I train is far too important to building new muscle and protecting the muscle I’ve already earned to let that minor inconvenience get in the way.
Besides, you don’t need to eat a large, high-calorie meal to take care of your body’s preworkout nutritional needs. My preworkout combo only takes up a little room in my stomach, digests quickly and totals just 236 calories. It never hampered my workouts.
Many people feel that the most significant benefit of training is that it burns bodyfat while you’re working out. Although some of the body’s fat stores can be used as energy during cardiovascular training, the greatest benefit of a cardio workout is its effect on your body’s metabolism throughout the rest of the day.
Next month: More nutrition, diet and cardio strategies for great gains.
Editor’s note: You can order Skip La Cour’s new training and instructional video, Mass Machine II (two tapes; two hours’ running time) for only $49.99 plus $7.50 for shipping and handling, a total of $57.49; for international orders add $15, a total of $64.99. To order online go to www.skiplacour.com; for credit card order call 1-800-655-0986; or send a check or money order to Skip La Cour, 712 Bancroft Road, #259, Walnut Creek, CA 94598. IM
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