The sport of bodybuilding is not what it once was. The modern era of bloated, steroid-induced pump artists who’ll do anything for an extra inch of muscle has almost killed off old-time bodybuilding. I think it’s a shame. There was a time when bodybuilders cared about being strong. A time when, if you were going to have muscles, you’d better have the strength to back them up as well.
Recently, some bodybuilders I know have accused me of bad-mouthing their sport, but the fact is, I love bodybuilding. I just love it the way it used to be practiced. In today’s world of posing artists, however, I feel left out’someone whose views are no longer heard. Instead, I’ve found solace in powerlifting and other strength sports. Occasionally, though, I still find myself looking in the mirror, never quite able to forget my bodybuilding roots.
Not long ago some fellow lifters at the gym asked me who I thought was the greatest strength athlete of all time. It didn’t take me long to answer, for I’ve always believed that there was none greater than Marvin Eder. Then I realized something: Eder was a bodybuilder. What’s more, in the presteroid era, not only was he the strongest man walking the planet, but he also had a great physique, including the best chest in bodybuilding until Arnold came on the scene.
So all is not lost’or certainly doesn’t have to be. There’s no reason today’s bodybuilders can’t use methods like the ones Eder used to build phenomenal physiques and the strength to go with them. Here are some of the (almost) forgotten techniques that can help you get big’and strong today.
Tactic 1: Don’t go by the mirror; go by the weight on the bar.
One of the major mistakes bodybuilders make is to assess their progress based on what they see in the mirror. A lot of it has to do with the way they lift. When you train for the pump, you often go by feel’and never make strides toward increasing the load. There are a lot of problems with that. Often, your memory lies to you. You think you look better than you did three months ago when, actually, there isn’t any change’or you look worse.
While bodybuilders of the past enjoyed the benefits of getting a good pump, they worried much more about increasing their strength. It’s the reason they used methods like five sets of five, a favorite of Reg Park’s; five sets of five, four, three, two and one; and heavy singles. Those techniques emphasize performance, although, if you stick with them, good looks will soon follow.
Tactic 2: Train through the soreness.
I know this one’s going to be a bit controversial, given all the emphasis we’ve seen in the muscle magazines over the past few years on giving your muscles enough time to recuperate and repair. But give it a chance, and maybe the results will change your mind.
Many bodybuilders mistakenly believe that the old-time bodybuilders trained very frequently’usually three times a week per bodypart’because they simply didn’t know any better. If, however, you were to ask the great Bill Pearl if he would do things differently considering how much we now know about recovery, he would tell you, flatly, no. The same goes for longtime IRONMAN contributor George Turner. He’s seen it all and done it all, and he still believes that frequent, volume-oriented training is better.
One of the reasons bodybuilders who work each bodypart once per week get so sore is that, well, they train everything only once per week. With a program like that you never have to increase your rate of recovery because you never place those kinds of demands on your body. Sure, if you start training everything two or even three times a week, you’re going to be sore, but after a couple of weeks the soreness will subside. Then look out, because it’s growth time.
Strength coach and IM contributor Bill Starr has trained a lot of lifters over the years, and he still believes in training each bodypart three times a week. Even if his lifters could get the same strength gains from once-a-week training, he wouldn’t let them do it. The reason? Athletes simply never get in good shape by doing once-a-week training. The old-time bodybuilders knew that.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you rush to the gym and start performing twice a week the same heavy all-out workout you’ve been doing once a week. Start off by adding an extra light workout for each bodypart 72 hours after your heavy session for it, no matter how sore you are. After about a month increase the frequency to three times per week, using a heavy/light/medium rotation. The longer you train that way, the harder you’ll be able to start training at each session. And remember, it does take years of training to work up to the type of regimen Bill Pearl used.
Tactic 3: Train long, not hard.
A popular quote ascribed to Arthur Jones goes something like this: You can train long, or you can train hard, but you can’t do both. The problem is, everyone seems to assume that the answer is to train hard. Is it possible that training long might be the better option? Bodybuilders from the past understood that well. It’s the reason Bill Pearl always advised taking sets to about two reps short of failure. That way you can perform more sets.
One of the greatest writers ever to grace the pages of this magazine was Anthony Ditillo, a name that, unfortunately, has been forgotten by many. Ditillo believed in training each bodypart three times per week, usually performing five to seven sets of three to seven reps. He stuck with the basics’squats, benches, deadlifts, barbell curls, behind-the-neck presses’and never took anything to failure. Ditillo was also freaky big and strong, and he helped a lot of other lifters get that way too.
The idea of training long doesn’t necessarily apply to the length of the workout; in fact, none of the lifters I train works out longer than 1 1/2 hours even on heavy days. It applies more to the time spent on an exercise. For instance, what’s the best set-and-rep scheme for squats? Is it three sets of 10 reps or 10 sets of three reps? Three sets of 10 is definitely the ‘hard’ method, even though both schemes involve the same total workload, and if you were to ask that question in today’s gyms, you’d undoubtedly get the answer that three sets of 10 is best. Any lifter who trains with me, however, would immediately know my answer, and Ditillo would have agreed: 10 sets of three is the better method. It’s the one that enables you to apply maximum force on every rep. It also ensures that you perform all reps with perfect form and take none to failure.
Tactic 4: Perform only one or two exercises per bodypart.
When Reg Park was preparing for a bodybuilding contest, he always performed multiple exercises per bodypart, sometimes as many as eight, but he never trained that way in the off-season. He was adamant about using only one or two exercises per bodypart, as were the vast majority of lifters from his era and before.
There are several benefits to the multiple-sets-of-one-exercise approach. One, it enables you to get really strong on your core exercises, such as benches, squats, deadlifts, curls and overhead presses. After all, you are worried about the weight on the bar. For example, performing multiple sets on bench presses allows you to improve your synaptic facilitation on the lift, or what Russian strength coaches would call ‘greasing your groove.’ Basically, the more you perform the exercise, the better’and, therefore, stronger’you get at it.
Another benefit is that using multiple sets of one exercise enables you to really focus on the target bodypart. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost focus’and pump and strength’when after a couple of sets on my first exercise I moved to something else.
George Turner once wrote that one of the most effective methods of working out was to train the bench press, the squat and the barbell curl’and only those exercises’for 10 sets apiece three days a week. He said everyone he knew who tried that method got very strong very quickly. But was that their goal? No. Their goal was to train as much muscle as possible, which they did because of the increase in strength.
Vince Gironda called one-exercise-per-bodypart training the ‘honest workout’ because he knew it worked like no other program.
Tactic 5: Stick with a two-way split.
Old-time bodybuilders either used full-body workouts or split their bodyparts over two days, usually an upper-body/lower-body split. If someone had suggested a five-, four- or even a three-way split, they would have thought that person was crazy. Strength athletes like Paul Anderson, Pat Casey, Doug Hepburn, and bodybuilders like Eder, Freddy Ortiz and even Arnold Schwarzenegger all used a two-way split.
I honestly believe a lifter could spend a lifetime using a full-body regimen and never have to deviate. Full-body workouts offer a ton of advantages over multiple-way splits. For one thing, they seem to stimulate greater amounts of hormones’and, therefore, growth. Whenever people come to me for advice about gaining more mass, I immediately put them on a full-body workout, and they all, without fail, gain muscle quickly.
Another benefit of not splitting up your workouts over several days is that you get in better condition. Old-timers knew that, and it was the reason so many of them favored full-body workouts. In other words, they cared about their overall health, not just strength and power. It’s one reason that all the powerlifters I work with perform full-body workouts. They’re in such good condition, it’s no problem for them to squat, bench and deadlift on the same day.
I’ve been training for a number of years and writing for IRONMAN about half that time, and when I first started out, I read the routines of many old-timers and scoffed. Surely, I thought, the current crop of bodybuilders knew better. During my years of training and writing, however, I have always searched for the best routines, the ones that would yield the most results. I’ve crossed an ocean of training methods’some good, some not’but when I finally reached my destination, where I thought I would find something new and revolutionary, I found the methods of the old-timers’and some of them had been around for almost a century. IM