The phenomenon I’m about to describe to you has been repeated countless times in gyms throughout the country. Most bodybuilders who train diligently on traditional routines and modify their diets make fair-to-excellent gains in strength and muscle size for one to three years. From that point on the gains in lean muscle mass may be so minimal they can hardly be classified as gains at all. Those who remain on conventional routines and nutritional schedules and continue to make good gains can best be described as genetically superior. The countless hours of training that others put in enables them to maintain excellent physical condition, but I believe the time and energy may be overspent.
First, let’s look at the ways commonly used to counteract the nonproductive stage. Many trainees do longer, more frequent workouts. Without doubt, that’s the worst possible approach. It depletes the system of energy and makes it difficult for the muscles to recuperate and rebuild between workouts. Some trainees attempt to solve their problems with huge amounts of food and supplements, thus slowing the digestive system. Another option is to start taking anabolic steroids. After all my years of being deeply involved in the sport, I don’t consider that a sane solution. I’ve personally known a number of steroid bodybuilders who developed serious medical problems. My unequivocal advice is: Don’t. The increasing use of steroids was one factor in my decision to abandon competition for nearly 20 years. I’ve never regretted the decision not to take steroids.
It’s necessary to look at why the conventional three-sets-of-10, three-total-body-workouts-per-week program’and its many variations’stop being productive after a certain period. If you’ve been training for a number of years, you’ve experienced it. You’ve also probably noticed others in the gym who look about the same after a few years. The first thing to realize is that the sport of bodybuilding is an offshoot of Olympic lifting. Early Mr. Americas such as Steve Stanko and John Grimek were competitive lifters who were blessed with symmetrical physiques.
Those lifters-turned-bodybuilders established the way we do our sets and reps. They modified competitive-lifting training methods to emphasize the development of muscle mass rather than strength. Over the years those methods have changed somewhat with forced reps, negatives, preexhaust, split routines and so forth.
The rep is bodybuilding’s basic component. Just about all trainees accomplish it the same way. For example, to perform a curl, you move the weight in a smooth, somewhat rapid motion from a hanging position near your thighs until your biceps is completely contracted, with your hand near your shoulder. You then lower it quite rapidly to the same hanging position, repeating the rep until you complete the set. Almost all trainees do similar reps and sets in every exercise from the curl to the squat.
Progressive-weight training is still the best method of producing increases in strength and muscle mass. Those who train hard, intelligently and regularly make the desired gains. The gains, of course, are enhanced by proper diet, which results in a more efficient digestive system, and rest. As stated above, however, for many trainees mass gains start to wane after one to three years. Others go on to record gains in strength after they stop making gains in muscle production. Why?
The human body is such a marvelous creation that it can adapt to any reasonable amount of stress placed on it. Progressive-weight training is, in the final analysis, a form of physical stress the body is capable of adjusting to. Another reason is the type of muscle fiber the conventional rep-and-set method described above stimulates to grow. All muscle tissue is made up of two types of muscle fiber’fast twitch and slow twitch. The fast fibers respond most readily to the conventional weight repetition with more rapid movement.
When bodybuilders reach that inescapable point where they can make little or no gain in lean muscle mass, two factors are coming into play: the human body’s marvelous adaptability to physical stress and the exhaustion of the potential fast-twitch muscle fiber’s ability to record additional growth. What’s needed at that point is a method of performing the rep that will tap the relatively unused growth capacity of the slower-twitch muscle fibers.
Here are some basic concepts that have worked for me and the people I’ve trained. Keep an open mind about unconventional training methods.
‘Bodybuilding, in the strictest sense, takes place at the cellular level. What we accomplish in the gym, the foods we eat and when, the amount and quality of sleep and all other aspects of lifestyle make this cellular phenomenon more or less efficient.
‘Any single exercise affects not only the bodypart being worked but also the entire body. That rule has strong implications for weight reduction and final precontest training. ALL ‘The negative aspect of the rep is just as important as the positive. In fact, once you reach the no-gain stage, it’s more important.
‘Recovery time is just as precious as training time. Training too long and too frequently is the cardinal sin of bodybuilding.
‘Gravity and momentum are a boon to the Olympic and powerlifter but a bane to the bodybuilder.
‘No other sport is more replete with myth than bodybuilding. The perpetuation of bodybuilding myth is a major factor in some people’s failure to ever reach their maximum muscular potential.
‘In the quest to maximize the production of lean muscle mass, you can never dissociate exercise from diet, nutrition, supplementation and lifestyle. Too many trainees are fanatical about their workouts but neglect one or more of the other prerequisites of bodybuilding success.
‘What we refer to as sticking points aren’t bodybuilding nightmares. In reality, they’re the body’s normal reactions and adaptability to physical stress. They should be considered positive milestones on the trainee’s road to success. He should become knowledgeable enough to recognize them as the body’s signals to change training methods.
The Slow Rep
The bodybuilder’s primary objective in lifting weights is to produce additional lean muscle mass. In order to accomplish that task, he should be searching for ways to maximize the stress placed on the muscle he’s working, not using methods that minimize stress. Let’s examine the way squats are normally done. You take the weight off the rack, take a deep breath, drop to the bottom limit of the exercise with as little resistance as possible and explode to the standing position. That explosive positive movement uses the principle of momentum. You repeat the movements until you’ve accomplished the required number of reps to complete the set. You then complete two to four more sets. Just how much time did you spend during the set on placing stress on the muscles of the thighs, hips and glutes? Less than 50 percent.
You used gravity to go from the standing to the bottom position. You also employed as much momentum as possible to enable you to raise the weight back to the starting position. In effect, you placed as little stress as possible on your thigh muscles. The only time during the entire set that extreme stress was placed on them was on the last rep or two, when you could still use gravity to get to the bottom position but were so fatigued that you could apply little momentum to get back to the upright position. You’ve heard training partners encouraging trainees to ‘get one or two more.’ After all, those are the reps that’ll make you grow. The first eight to 10 reps do little to produce additional muscle mass. It’s the last couple of reps that produce the desired results.
Every recognized authority in the sport agrees that the key element in maximizing bodybuilding success is intensity. Let’s look at just how intense the conventional grueling three-hour workout is.
I’ve held a stopwatch on bodybuilders with reputations as the hardest workers in the gym. Their workouts lasted a minimum of three hours. But the real intensity is limited to just over one hour, after allowing for rest between sets, looking for weights, setting up weights, positioning and a certain amount of socializing. (Strictly speaking, you could subtract the time spent using gravity to lower the weight in the negative part of the rep too.)
Over the past few years the most popular approach to intensifying the workout has been the use of forced and negative reps. After you become too tired to do another rep, your training partner helps you accomplish a few additional reps, plus a few on which your partner does much of the work to lift the weight and you fight gravity to perform the lowering portion. I agree that it’s a step in the right direction, but why not have a workout in which just about every rep places extreme stress on the muscle during both the positive and negative movements?
The first step toward achieving that goal is the slow rep. When should you start using slow reps instead of conventional training methods? Only after you’ve completely exhausted your ability to produce gains in lean muscle by using regular reps and sets. Then change the way you do about half of the exercises in your workout. Do your sets with ultraslow reps. The negative aspect should be done in such a slow, controlled fashion as to fight not only the weight being lowered but also gravity because you’re battling it every inch of the way. The positive part of the rep should minimize momentum. Explosive reps are, in fact, excessive use of momentum and place little stress on muscle fiber.
Let’s mentally do a set of incline dumbbell presses together using the slow-rep principle. You clean the dumbbells to the locked, straight-arm position. Now, in an exaggerated slow-motion fashion, fight the weights down to the superstretch position. You must resist them every inch of the way. The negative battle should take about seven seconds. Instead of bouncing the weights to begin the positive pushing motion, hold the stretch position for two full seconds and then slowly, steadily push the dumbbells to the starting position, using as little momentum as possible. Repeat the procedure for eight to 10 reps.
If you’re using the correct form, you’ll notice that your pecs will be pumped as never before after three sets. Almost all trainees experience a level of soreness they haven’t felt since they began bodybuilding or resumed training after a prolonged layoff. You’ll be forced to make a few mental adjustments when you start using the slow-rep system. First, you’ll have to change your entire concept of bodybuilding. You can no longer think of yourself as a high-rep powerlifter. Quite frankly, from a technical point of view, that’s what most bodybuilders are.
You’ll also have to dispense with the vanity of lifting heavy weights. If you’re accustomed to doing 250-pound bench presses and 350-pound squats, you’re in for a shock. With slow reps most trainees find they can use only 50 to 60 percent of the weight they have been using on any given exercise; however, the muscular gains are well worth the sacrifice. Let’s mentally do another slow-rep set of a different exercise to make certain you’re using the system properly’barbell curls. With the barbell at your thighs slowly but steadily curl it up to your shoulders or under your chin until your biceps are completely contracted. Again, emphasize ultrastrict slow form, where momentum is minimized. Now, slowly fight the weight back down so you’re placing stress on the biceps every inch of the way. Remember, gravity is the enemy. Make certain that your elbows aren’t cocked away from your torso, as that prevents the biceps from being completely stretched and causes you to subconsciously apply momentum when you start the next rep. Do about eight of those slow reps. When setting up a routine, I advise using the purest exercise first, similar to preexhaust. Essentially, you want to isolate the target muscle. You want to apply the stress in its purest physical form, tire the muscle, then move on to more compound exercises that involve adjacent muscles. The primary idea is to exhaust the target muscle so it will have to work even harder to keep up with bordering muscles. For instance, do flyes before bench presses and dips when you work pecs. Do leg extensions before squats and leg presses. Try concentration curls before barbell curls. How long should you stay on the slow-rep routine? For as long as you make gains on it. What’s an acceptable gain? About one pound of lean muscle mass a month. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but think of it in terms of 12 pounds of additional muscle in a year. That’s usually more than enough to take a competitor from a fifth-place finish one year to the overall the next.
Note: Next month will be IRON MAN’s high-intensity issue, and along with a feature on static-contraction training from John Little, we’ll have an article from Schauer on his stop-rep system, the next phase after slow reps.
Editor’s note: Egan C. Schauer won many bodybuilding titles throughout his competitive career, including Mr. Milwaukee, Mr. Wisconsin, Masters Mr. Midwest and Over-40 Mr. USA. IM
Go-Slow-to-Grow Training Twist
Egan Schauer’s slow-rep concept probably got you thinking about your workouts and perhaps even modifying some of your rep cadences. Most bodybuilders, however, won’t opt to try slow reps because they require a significant reduction in training poundages. That’s too bad because to get a muscle as large as possible, you have to subject it to many different stresses in order to trigger hypertrophy in as many fibers as possible’fast twitch, slow twitch and those in between.
One way to use slow reps without slicing your ego to shreds is to incorporate them into a heavy/light system. For example, on heavy days you train with conventional sets and reps, using one to two seconds up and one to two seconds down on every exercise and performing your big compound exercises first. On legs, for instance, you do squats first for a few sets of six to 10 reps in conventional style. No weight reduction necessary, and your ego remains intact. Follow with a few other quad exercises, such as sissy squats and leg extensions, in standard style for six-to-10-rep sets.
Your next quad workout is light day, and that’s when you work in Schauer’s slow-rep suggestions. Start with leg extensions and do six-second positives and six-second negatives for six to 10 reps. That will provide an extended tension time for your quads and stimulate the muscles in a unique way’as well as bring in different fiber types. After two to three sets of slo-mo leg extensions you can move to squats. Do them in slow-motion style as well, or, if you’ve had your fill of slow-motion reps with leg extensions, do your squats in regular style. Because you’ve preehausted your quads with extensions, your squat poundage will be lighter anyway, which is precisely what you want on light day. And on top of that, you’ve shuffled the order of your exercises, which provides your muscles with yet another new stress.
To reiterate, use heavy conventional sets at the first workout for a bodypart, performing a compound exercise first, and at your next workout for that bodypart shift an isolation exercise to the lead position and use slow-motion reps. That strategy can produce some incredible gains. It’s a new twist on the heavy/light concept that makes intense muscle-building sense.
Editor’s note: For a heavy/light program on which you can apply the above concepts, see the TEG Phase 3 four-days-per-week routine on pages 106 and 107 of Train, Eat, Grow: The Positions-of-Flexion Muscle-Training Manual. It’s available from Home Gym Warehouse for $19.95 plus shipping and handling. To order, call 1-800-447-0008 or visit www.home-gym.com.