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Lock and Load

Expanding Workload Sensibly to Trigger Growth

I picked up Uncle Buddy at BWI airport just after noon. He was flying in from an extended stay in Iceland. I’d been stationed there with the Air Force and was curious to find out what he thought about the country and its people.

‘Hey, I liked it,’ he said. ‘More than I thought I would. Went hiking in the mountains a couple of times and saw some of the most impressive scenery I’ve ever encountered in all my travels. Reykjavik is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been in: Even the air is clean. Went swimming in a huge pool heated by hot springs. The people were nice, at least to me. Drinking seems to be their favorite pastime, so I fit right in. Never saw people read so much. They read while they’re eating, riding in cars and buses’even when they’re walking. Bookstores on every corner. Everyone I met could speak at least three languages and some of them even more. Amazing.’

‘What did you think of the women?’ Iceland is renowned for its beautiful women. I certainly saw plenty of stunning blondes on my trips to the capital, and Uncle Buddy has an eye for the ladies.

‘They’re fabulous,’ he muttered in honest appreciation. ‘Kinda sorry I had to stay with just one of them.’

I chuckled under my breath. His Icelandic sweetheart was a vision. I’d met her the year before when she came to Maryland for a visit. Face of a goddess, flawless milk-colored skin, golden hair and athletic legs that ran up to her neck. A walking dream. Her first name was Anna, and her last I didn’t even try to pronounce.

‘Yeah,’ I said with a laugh, ‘that must have been tough, having to spend all your time with someone who just stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.’

That brought a hearty laugh from Uncle Buddy. ‘Guess it wasn’t all that bad, now that you mention it. The only drawback to the place was the price of food. A decent meal cost double what it would here.’

‘Is that why you lost weight?’

He grinned. ‘Well, that and Anna. She sure is spunky. By the way, she has a sister who wants to meet you. I told her all about you. You’ll like her, trust me. She may be even prettier than Anna. Next time I go over there, why don’t you tag along?’

My vivid imagination was working overtime. ‘How old is she?’

‘Kat, short for Katerina, is in her mid-40s, I think, but she looks more like she’s 30. A young 30.’

‘I’ll think about it,’ I told him. In truth, I was ready to call my travel agent right away.

‘Planning on training today?’ he asked as we neared Aberdeen.

‘I was, but if you want, I can wait until tomorrow. In case you’re worn out from traveling.’

‘Nah, I’m fine. Training helps get the kinks out from sitting for so long. Let’s drop my stuff off at your place, coffee up and get to the gym before it gets packed. I wanna take you to the neat restaurant in Chesapeake City that looks out over the canal. They make great crab cakes, and I know that I won’t be getting any on the ship.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’

At my apartment while the coffee brewed, Uncle Buddy presented me with a flag of Iceland for my collection and a handsome sweater of Icelandic wool. He was extremely generous, except for one thing’he hated to pay to train. He’d drive 50 miles and spend more on gas than the gym fee in order to lift for free. That was part of the reason he stayed with me when he was passing through. He knew that I had a key to the weight room in the old Aberdeen High School. ALL Carrying mugs of extra-strong Chock Full o’Nuts, we were pleased to find the gym empty. ‘Good,’ Uncle Buddy declared, and we set to work. If we hurried, we could finish before the crowd arrived at four o’clock. There was only one bench press, incline bench, squat rack and pulling station, and when the gym got busy, there were long waits between sets. Our elation at having the gym all to ourselves was short-lived. Before I finished my warm-ups, Lonnie came in.

Uncle Buddy was delighted. On his last visit he’d given Lonnie a ton of information on how to get a six-pack. After shaking Uncle Buddy’s hand, Lonnie lifted his shirt and proudly displayed the results of his efforts. ‘Could wash clothes on those abs,’ Uncle Buddy commented. Lonnie beamed.

I just shook my head and loaded the bar on the squat rack. It was what Tommy Suggs and I dub the outside-expert syndrome. Even though I’d given Lonnie precisely the same ab routine, he’d listened to my uncle because he was an outsider. Not that I am complaining. I’ve made a decent amount of money holding clinics for coaches in high schools over the years. In almost every case they brought me in not so much to educate their athletes as to reinforce what they’d been preaching for some time.

Lonnie saw Uncle Buddy’s visit as a golden opportunity and started bombarding him with training questions. My uncle did relish being the center of attention. He’d do a set and then answer Lonnie, which was to my advantage. Not having to deal with questions enabled me to concentrate on my training.

‘I’ve been working out really hard for the past four months,’ Lonnie told him, ‘and things were moving along really well. But these last three weeks have been awful. My squat and bench have dropped back down, and I haven’t moved any of my top-end numbers up at all. Kenny’s been training with me and has the same problem. Any words of wisdom?’

‘Have you been increasing your workload?’ Uncle Buddy asked.

‘Yeah, and that’s our main problem. Every time we try to add more work, our lifts start to suffer. We just can’t recover from the added work.’ ‘How’re you going about increasing your workload?’

‘By doing more heavy sets,’ Lonnie answered. ‘On our squats and benches, instead of doing three heavy work sets, we tried doing five, but it was too much. We were so fatigued that we decided it would be best if we took a few days off to help us recover.

‘Okay,’ Uncle Buddy began in a stern tone, ‘here’s lesson number one. You don’t lay off just because you’re tired. If you start skipping workouts every time you’re droopy, you’re never going to make any significant strength gains. When you determine that you’re really fatigued from a workout, don’t skip the next one. Just make some adjustments. Missing workouts can turn into a bad habit. A cornerstone of success in strength training and bodybuilding is consistency. Nothing is more important. You’ll make more progress using a poor routine and being consistent than using a great routine and being inconsistent. Of course, the best deal is to be consistent with an excellent program, but you get the idea.’

‘What adjustments?’

‘When you come to the gym and know you’re off, make that workout a light day. Another good idea is to set up a circuit, rip through it and get on out of here. Lots of times it’s the length of time you hang around a gym that’s causing the tiredness, not your program itself. All trainees of every strength level have days when they feel like something the cat dragged in, but those who make steady gains know how to deal with the situation. ‘If you’re planning to hit the gym three times a week, do whatever it takes to get in here. Keep in mind that you don’t have to take a day off between workouts. On more than one occasion I’ve done three workouts back-to-back on three consecutive days.’ ‘Didn’t that wear you out?’

‘Not as much as you might think. The middle day was always a light day.’

‘Well, when we do skip a workout, it’s always a light day, never a heavy one. I’m not sold on how important a light day is anyhow.’ ‘Whoa! You’re wrong about that big time. The light day is what makes the program work.’

‘How’s that?’ asked Lonnie, frowning darkly.

‘Light days help the body recuperate. The exercise flushes blood through the body, carrying nutrients to the muscles, tendons and ligaments as well as the vital organs’not to the same extent as a strenuous workout but a lot more than laying off would. How many times have you walked in here sore to the touch, gone through a light workout and left feeling great?’

‘More times than I can remember,’ Lonnie admitted.

‘That light day adds to your weekly workload, and that’s what you have to keep track of if you want to get stronger. On my light day, for example, I go up to 257 for three sets of five on the squat. That’s considerably less than what I use on my other two days, yet those three sets’along with my warm-ups’add up to more than two tons. If I skipped the light day and tried to make up that lost tonnage on my heavy and medium days, it’d be too much.’

‘I see what you mean. Makes sense. I know that when I miss a workout, the next time I come in here the weights feel heavier, and I can’t seem to get in a rhythm nearly as well. So how can we keep adding to our workload if we can’t deal with those extra sets?’

‘There are several ways. Back-off sets are good. They aren’t nearly as stressful as heavy top-end sets, and since you’ve already handled heavier poundages, the bar feels relatively light. You can knock out lots of reps, and they really do add up.’

‘Start with just one back-off set of 10 to 12 reps. Slowly increase them, staying with the same weight until you reach 20. Then add a small amount of weight. The reps, not the weight, are what you’re after. Reps are a good way of increasing workload without putting too much stress on your joints. What’s your best five in the squat right now?’

‘I was up to 415, but it’s dropped back to 400.’

‘All right, after you do your top weight for five, drop back to 315 or even 295 and knock out as many reps as you can. If you can do a dozen with 295, which shouldn’t be that hard, you’ve added a ton and a half to your workload. I think one set is enough. More is usually too much, except for very advanced lifters.’ ‘Should I add back-off sets at every workout?’

‘Not on your light day. Just on the medium and heavy days.’

‘What if the back-off sets start tapping into our next squat sessions?’

‘Trust me,’ Uncle Buddy told Lonnie. ‘They won’t because your muscles are doing the bulk of the work on the high-rep sets. When you do lower reps, fives or less, your attachments, rather than the muscles, perform most of the effort. The tendons and ligaments take longer than muscles to recover. Besides, if you keep pounding away at the attachments with multiple heavy sets, they’re not going to get any stronger. They just get more fatigued, and you don’t want that. That is, of course, until you’ve built a really strong base. Advanced strength athletes like international Olympic and powerlifters can get away with doing multiple sets with heavy weights, but you’re not in that class yet.’

‘You said there were several ways to add to our workloads without getting overtrained.’

‘Another way,’ Uncle Buddy answered, ‘is to do a fourth workout during the week. That will be a really light day, short and sweet. You should be in and out of here in 20 minutes’30, tops.’

‘You’re not saying that we should squat four days a week, are you?’

‘No, but you can work your legs on the machines and add to your weekly load. Come in on Tuesdays and do calf raises, adductors and maybe leg extensions and leg curls. Three sets of 30 on the calf machines and a couple of sets of 20 on the others aren’t going to tap into your reserves. In fact, the light exercises will take the soreness out of your legs after the heavy session the day before. You could also use the extra day to hit some muscle groups that you’ve been wanting to hit but can’t include in your regular workouts.’

‘I’ve been wanting to do some biceps and triceps exercises, but I’m always out of gas after I do the basic stuff.’

‘Even though it’s a very short session, the numbers add up. It’s like runners who want to add to their weekly mileage but know that extending their training runs will be too much. So they slip in a half mile run on their off days. A half mile isn’t at all taxing and sets them up nicely for their next serious run.’

Uncle Buddy did a set of inclines. ‘It’s not always easy for me to make it in here four times a week,’ Lonnie said. ‘I have some equipment in my garage. Couldn’t I just do the extra workout there?’

Since Uncle Buddy was straining to get a few more reps, I answered the question. ‘That’s a good idea. That’s what Dr. John Gourgott used to do. On his off days he’d do a series of deltoid and triceps exercises with dumbbells at home. Over the course of a month he added thousands of pounds to his workload.’

Finishing his set, Uncle Buddy concurred. ‘Training at home on off days is an excellent way to up your volume. Just be sure to keep the workouts short. One other thing you need to realize as you get stronger: It’s all right to become overtrained. In fact, it’s necessary. Otherwise you’ll never know your limitations. Being overtrained for a short period is okay, just not for an extended period of time. When you decide you’re overtrained, pull back a bit, and move your workload back up slowly.

‘I’ve found that it’s helpful in the long run for me to pull back on my workload every few months, even when I don’t think I’m doing too much. I don’t pull back much, though, and not for very long. Still, the brief change helps.’ Uncle Buddy looked my way. ‘I’m finished,’ he announced. ‘I lifted heavy yesterday. Just wanted to get some blood flowing.’

‘Anything else?’ Lonnie asked anxiously, seeing that Uncle Buddy was about to leave.

‘Think of anything else, nephew?’ ‘Overtraining means you’re not recovering properly,’ I said. ‘When that happens, start drinking a protein milk shake right after you finish working out. Protein does wonders for recovery. Up your intake of vitamins C and E, and pop a few high-potency B-vitamins an hour before you train. With some coffee, you’ll have plenty of juice for a good workout. And get some extra rest when you’re feeling overly tired. Sometimes the only reason people get overtrained is that they’re not getting enough sleep.’

Members started arriving. We said quick good-byes so as not to get caught up in extended conversation.

On the ride to my apartment Uncle Buddy was charged up from the exercise and his spirited lecture to Lonnie. He loved being the expert. My thoughts weren’t on training but rather on an island in the North Atlantic. ‘When do you think you’ll be going back to Iceland?’ I asked.

In response, Uncle Buddy let out a booming laugh.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM

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