I enjoyed watching the Summer Olympics. Thanks to NBC’s additional coverage via Internet streaming video, for the first time ever I was able to watch hours and hours of Olympic lifting and the other sports I prefer over what airs in prime time. I’m 35, and I noticed that a lot of the competitors were a decade or more younger than I was and that most of the athletes who are about my age were described by the commentators as being in the twilight of their peak-performance years. That made me think about how rare it is to find a sports practitioner beyond the age of 40 who’s impressive not only in the masters division but in the open class as well. And when you come across one who’s still swinging for the fences in his 60s, it’s truly an inspiration. Jay Papish is such an athlete.
Jay spent the first half of his life as a jogger. In the 1980s and ’90s jogging was very much in vogue. Heart disease runs in Jay’s family, so he felt that as long as he ran and kept his bodyweight down, he would be fine. Consequently, he diligently put in his seven miles a day and only casually exercised in the weight room.
“Distance runners are cardiovascular dynamos, but other than that they don’t have the look I decided I wanted to create for myself,” recalls Papish.
With that new realization, Jay, a respiratory therapist by profession, joined the Sunset Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon, and began his transition from runner to lifter. “I met a fellow who was a huge guy, a powerlifter,” Jay explains. “He got me involved, and it happened quickly. The next thing I know, I’m competing in the WABDL powerlifting federation in the 54-to-60-year-old deadlifting division.”
Jay would go on to compete four times over the course of three years, and his 501.5-pound pull is still ranked as the ninth best of all time in the 181-pound 54-to-60 division. “I loved powerlifting,” Jay proclaims, “and the people I met were fascinating. It was great to break through the 500-pound barrier, but when I went for 600 at a particular show, I bent my arm during the lift, and that technical error cost me a biceps tendon. I thoroughly enjoyed powerlifting, but tendons and ligaments don’t enjoy the heavy weights when you’re in your late 50s and older.”
Papish ended up moving to downtown Portland, a move that inspired him to join Maverick’s Gym, which later became Gold’s and then LA Fitness, the company that owns it to this day. Back when it was still Gold’s, the franchise allowed independent personal trainers to work out of the club, and one trainer in particular began encouraging Jay to try his hand at bodybuilding.
“At the time I thought that the idea was absurd because I didn’t see myself as a bodybuilder. I was just a 60-year-old guy who liked to lift weights,” Papish explains.
It took some time and additional encouragement, but Jay finally gave in and made the commitment to try out the sport of bodybuilding by entering the NPC Emerald Cup.
“I thought maybe I’d do pretty well,” Jay recollects. “At that stage in my training, I was pretty muscular but also on the bulky side. When I was powerlifting, a lot of the other lifters made the remark that I looked more like a bodybuilder. So I guess I had the genetics for it. I started training with much younger guys and trying to be competitive; I let them push me, and that was really to my benefit. So I switched to bodybuilding, and my training changed to some degree. I still wanted to stay strong and I still wanted to lift heavy weights, but I had to do it with some forethought and with stricter form. Talking with really good bodybuilders, you learn that form in lifting is everything. Powerlifters, though, will do whatever it takes to get the lift. They’d use their eyebrows if they could. The bodybuilders told me not to worry about the weight and to focus on getting the proper form down.”
Over the course of a person’s competitive years, he’s bound to suffer from illness and injury if he’s pushing the pace as hard as he can. Jay’s no different; he’s had some serious obstacles to conquer in order to remain in the game.
“The biggest injury I had to overcome was my bypass surgery,” he relates. “Looking back, I think my heart problem was genetic and unavoidable even in this day and age. My father had a heart condition, and my brother died at 44 of a heart attack in New York. Mine happened when I was in the gym working out. I was starting to feel tightness here and there but not during training sessions, so I tried to look past it. I kept telling myself that it was something else, that the heart problem that plagued the other guys in my family wasn’t happening.
“Then I mentioned the symptom to one of the cardiac surgeons at work, and I asked him what he thought it was. He said that he wasn’t sure, but the next thing I knew he made an appointment for me, and I got a call from one of the cardiologists from our hospital saying that I needed to come in and see her. I recall being very nervous because I dreaded being told what I already suspected.
“They ran a whole battery of tests on me from a treadmill stress test to an angiogram. They wanted to do a bypass because it was a difficult part of the heart to get to, but I insisted on a stent. It was a high-risk procedure, but I didn’t want to have my chest cracked open. My cardiologist warned me that trying a stent would really be nip and tuck, and so she had the open-heart team on standby. I was nervous as hell until they administered the sedatives, and then I was the happiest guy in the room and I couldn’t figure out why everyone else was so serious.
“So they were doing the stent, and everything was going well, and then the last thing I heard the cardiologist say was, ‘Oh, my God, Jay, I’m so sorry.’ The next thing I knew, I was waking up on a ventilator. Even though I was still heavily sedated, I realized that one of my worst nightmares had come to pass. I was really sick, and I had a hard time dealing with my situation. I had this new scar down the middle of my chest, and I was really, really weak. I’d get exhausted walking up a flight of steps, and I thought to myself that it was all over.
“Luckily, my weightlifting buddies came to see me every day at my home, and they’d either take me to the movies or to the gym, where they’d put five-pound weights in my hand. There were times when I’d say I was too weak to train, and still they made me go. I went from being able to deadlift 500 pounds to having a hard time working with 10 pounds, but thanks to my friends’ encouragement and insistence, I slowly came back.
“When I had my surgery, the doctor was wise enough to put me on an antidepressant for three months to help me deal with the disaster and slow healing process. It was a quadruple bypass. Really, though, I’m lucky that the open-heart surgery team was there and that they were able to perform the procedure that saved my life. That happened on New Year’s Eve of 2001. I ruined everybody’s New Year’s Eve, including the surgeon, whom I apologized to.”
In life we start out with what our genetics give us and we each begin with a physical baseline from where we must work. Some people elect to let their physical gifts and shortcomings greatly affect their lives and some choose to focus instead on improving and maximizing as much as possible while maintaining a positive but realistic self image. I asked Jay about his thoughts on genetics and the role they play in bodybuilding.
“I think that genetics is a huge part of the sport. The factors that contribute to a person’s bodybuilding success are genetics, mind-set, diet and work ethic in the gym. What fascinates me about bodybuilding is the muscle size. It’s the most impressive aspect of bodybuilding. Sixteen weeks out from a contest you can rip it all up, but, basically, that dieting phase is where the genetics come into play. That’s what separates the Nasser El Sonbatys from the regular big guys in the gym who only think they’re at the level of a pro. Very few people can obtain a top level of size, shape and symmetry.
“You can make a muscle larger, smaller, dryer and tighter, but you can’t change the overall shape of it—just the size. Another important role genetics play is a person’s waist size. A guy with a 28-inch waist and a 56-inch chest has an advantage over the guy with a 34-inch waist and a 56-inch chest. There’s not a lot you can do about it because dieting will bring your waist down a bunch, but your skeletal structure, hip size, etc., are not affected by diet.”
I ask about Jay’s thoughts on hormones and hormone-replacement therapy for masters lifters and builders.
“That’s a great question,” he says, “because every time I meet with athletes who are in their 40s or older, that’s the first thing I tell them—to get in to see their doctor and to have their levels checked. If your doctor won’t work with you, you need to find another doctor.
“There’s such an unfounded bad rap on hormone therapy. It’s bizarre at this point. They’ll prescribe a drug for osteoporosis that is laced with side effects, but nobody wants to give you a steroid, which mimics naturally occurring hormones, to treat low hormone levels. This advice is for the average guy on the street who’s just looking to optimize the way he feels and performs.
“Your body stops producing growth hormone and slows down its production of testosterone as you age. A good doctor will be willing to work with you to get your hormones back up to normal levels, where you were in your 20s. That advice has nothing to do with competition. It’s about life and the quality of it. I believe in HRT wholeheartedly. I competed against an oncologist at the Nationals, so that shows that other medical professionals believe in it too.
“Getting your levels back up to optimum makes a huge difference. I tell people that when you’re my age, getting out of bed in the morning hurts whether you’re training or not. When I’m at the store and they ask me if I need help carrying out my purchases, I say, ‘No, but keep asking.’” Papish laughs when he says that.
“I try and stay in condition all year round,” he continues. “I have a workout ethic, so I’m in the gym quite a bit. I don’t do a lot of cardiovascular training. Instead, what I think works for me is maintaining a high-protein, high-fat, low-carb diet. My fats come from healthy sources like organic peanut butter and fish oils. When I choose my cuts of beef at the butcher, I go for the leaner cuts, and then I trim off any additional fat when I get home. I try and stay clean, and I try and stay within five to 10 pounds of my class weight.
“I eat six smalls meals per day. The first thing I do in the morning when I get up is have a protein shake and then a cup of coffee. Sometimes I may have some oatmeal, too, and a spoonful of peanut butter. I prepare my food to take to work, so I’ll have maybe 10 hard-boiled eggs, then some chicken breasts and then some tuna. I keep my carbs low all day long, but I’m not too concerned over the source of those limited carbs. I’m not hung up on whole-grain this or that. I often use fruit as my carb source. I have no problem with eating whatever I want to when I go out to dinner. Otherwise, I’d go mad. I want to live my life.
“Dieting in a fashion stricter than what I outlined is too much for me. I have a life outside of bodybuilding, and working with a nutritionist who would have me on carb wave cycles and such is just too much. I try and take in about 300 grams of protein per day, but I don’t count my fat and carb calories. One does need a balance of fats, carbs and proteins for optimal health and performance. At the very least people should be aware of what they’re eating on a day-to-day basis and they should take some time to research basic sports nutrition.
“Regarding nutritional supplements, I use MHP’s line of products. Along with my HRT and basic nutritional program, I rely on MHP’s products to give me an additional performance and recovery boost. Their Secretagogue-One is a natural HGH booster, and I stack it with their T-Bomb II to further optimize my hormone production and base levels. For protein powder I go with their Probolic-SR because of its high arginine, glutamine and BCAA content. Probolic also has a patented 12-hour timed-release factor, which makes it a very effective anticatabolic. A person has to maintain a positive nitrogen balance in order to build and retain muscle.
“Perhaps my favorite supplement is MHP’s A-Bomb because it has the best combination of actives I’ve ever seen in one formula. It’s got HMB, BCAAs, alanine, AKG, GKG and ABCDEFG, ha! Seriously, A-Bomb supplies me with everything I need to maximize my workouts and to fuel my muscles for growth. MHP’s line is by far the best I’ve used, and I’m very happy to be working with them in my quest to obtain my bodybuilding pro card. I’ve got the financial resources to go out and buy whatever I choose, and I choose MHP products because I’m results driven and they help me to meet my progress goals.”
When asked about sharing his iron wisdom with lifters just starting out, Jay muses, “My advice to younger gym athletes is to be aware of how they affect the people around them. Bodybuilding and powerlifting can become very self-consuming, which can be very stressful for a person’s friends, girlfriend or boyfriend and family. Marriages can come apart because of bodybuilding. You need to find a balance between your bodybuilding and the rest of your life, and you need to fight the urge to become too obsessed with your training and diet. That’s hard advice for me to give because I don’t always practice what I preach.
“The other piece of advice I have is that lifters should try and stay injury free for as long as possible. Don’t take jumps in weight that you’re not very confident you can make, and really learn proper lifting techniques. Try and keep a handle on who you are and where you’re going, and when you train, train with a focus and be intelligent and self-aware.
“It’s also a very smart move to develop your base through old-school powerlifting. Powerlifting builds tremendous core strength—it’s like building a cement foundation on your bodybuilding physique house. If you don’t have that foundation built properly, then you aren’t going to go anywhere in pro bodybuilding. You may be able to be the most buff guy at your school or college or be impressive walking around the swimming pool, but you won’t have the raw materials you’ll need to get your pro card. World-class bodybuilding is more easily attained after a few years of focused, concentrated powerlifting training as a base. Olympic lifting is also a good starting point if a person has access to a good instructor—lots of deep front squats, close-stance squats, clean and jerks, etc.
“Organize yourself and map out a plan that sets you on the right path,” Papish advises. “Meet with your doctor, work with an experienced bodybuilder or powerlifter, learn proper lifting form, and figure out a successful diet plan. Don’t sacrifice form for bigger weights.
“I like to use a mix of machines and free weights. Free weights are best for mass and power building, but machines are good for detail work and for rehab or working around problems you’re recovering from. Build your base with squats and deadlifts. If I could only do three exercises, it would be squats, deadlifts and dumbbell presses.”
When asked about what the future holds for him, Jay predicts, “I’ll do my next show in six to 12 months, and I’m going for my pro card. I think I’ve got two more years of competing left in me. Two more good years and then I’d like to get into training older athletes, bodybuilders and masters lifters who are serious about getting back into shape. I want to see people elevate themselves. I don’t see myself as retiring but, rather, morphing from competitor to coach. I love being in the gym. I love the people I meet in the gym. I have a passion for it. I hope to be making some money from it someday.”
As a final piece of wisdom Jay advises, “When you go into the gym, don’t worry about who’s to the left and right of you. Focus on improving yourself, and make it a meditation and enjoy your time there. A whole world will open up for you.” IM
Jay Papish’s Masters Training Plan
Monday: Chest, rear delts and triceps
Dumbbell bench presses 3 x warmup; 4 x 10, 8, 6, 20
Incline dumbbell presses 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Machine flyes 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Pushdowns 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Machine rear-delt flyes 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Close-grip bench presses 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Cable kickbacks 1 x max
Wednesday: Back and biceps
Pullups 1 x 20, 3 x 12, 1 x 20
Close-grip pulldowns 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
T-bar or barbell rows 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Wide-grip cable rows 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Dumbbell curls 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
EZ-curl-bar preacher curls 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Concentration curls 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Friday: Shoulders, traps and rear delts
Dumbbell presses 2 x warmup; 2 x 12-15
Dumbbell front raises 2 x 12-15
Dumbbell bent-over lateral raises 2 x 12-15
Machine rear-delt flyes 2 x 12-15
Leg extensions 2-3 x 20-30
Squats 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 20
Leg presses (one set narrow, medium, wide) 3 x 15-20
Leg curls 3 x 12-15
Standing or seated calf raises 3 x 20-30
• This is a meat-and-potatoes bodybuilding routine. Of course, you should vary it at appropriate times and always listen to your body to avoid overtraining and injuries. Use weights that will keep you in good form while you rep out—don’t cheat too much when the weight gets heavy!
• I also train my abs three times per week. I add cardio whenever I feel like it and depending on what I’m trying to accomplish. Cardio is usually for a half hour, and I warm up and then go for it at a fast pace on the exercise bike, stepper or treadmill.
• It’s important to eat an hour prior to training and immediately following training and to make healthful food and supplement choices when you do. Most of us are really busy these days, but you should try to always get eight to 10 hours of sleep every 24 hours or at least to be lying down and relaxing during that time—reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music, etc.