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Muscle-Building Myths Exposed! Part 1

Every so often you run into someone who is a gold mine of information—and it’s stuff you’re so passionate about that you keep firing off questions and lap up every word of every answer like a dehydrated Saint Bernard (okay, in my case maybe an aging Labradoodle). I’m calling my interviewee Bodybuilder X because he reveals some startling facts from times past that could get him into deep dog doo-doo.

Regarding his creds, you should know that he trained with Giant Killer Danny Padilla, Bill “Guns” Grant and Jerry Brainum—yes, our own resident research master—as well as Mr. Olympia Samir Bannout, Mike and Ray Mentzer and Mr. Symmetry Rory Leidelmeyer. That’s quite a pedigree, one that gives him the hardcore-training clout to be a full-blown expert on this bodybuilding stuff. He’s also trained on and off drugs, so he can make a true comparison of training modalities.

You should be getting very excited about the info that’s forthcoming, so let’s get to the down-and-dirty truth with Bodybuilder X.

IM: You’ve trained with and know a lot of pro bodybuilders. How did that all come about?

BBX: I wasn’t genetically gifted, so I knew if I was going to have any success in bodybuilding, I needed to learn from the best. Most people think that the pros are unapproachable or that they don’t have anything to offer. I learned early on that most of the pros are very friendly and approachable. And like the rest of us, they like to be encouraged and have people around them who train hard and are upbeat. Most often when I’d meet them, I was training nearby. I’d train hard and encourage them during a set. The next thing I knew, they’d ask, “What time are you training tomorrow?” Then they’d invite me to train, and I’d become a regular workout partner.

IM: Who was the first pro you ever trained with?

BBX: Danny Padilla. In fact, it was Danny who first inspired me. He was the first bodybuilder I met in person. When I walked into the gym, he had just finished training arms. He was wearing a tank top. I took one look and thought, “That’s what I want to look like!” It wasn’t until about six years later that I actually got the opportunity to train with him for about six weeks. In that time my physique literally transformed.

IM: What was it about Danny’s methods that worked?

BBX: First and foremost, Danny loved to train, but he also loved to have fun in the gym. We trained hard with little rest. I think that’s the one common denominator I’ve seen from every pro of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. There was a lot of work being done in a short amount of time. We challenged each other. The workouts became a game of who is going to beat their workout from the last one.

The biggest difference with Danny’s workout was the increased volume. I had been following high-intensity, abbreviated-training programs, and they just didn’t work for me long term. By the way, I run into Danny once or twice a year now, and he still follows the same methods. Danny would take weeks and even months off from training, but when he got serious for a contest, it was six days a week and 15 to 20 sets per bodypart for 12 reps a set.

And Danny always had a twist to an exercise that I hadn’t seen. He’d have me adjust my grip or twist my hand or bring the bar here, not there. But it always brought a better contraction in the muscle.

That’s another thing I found common among all the pros—they change movements or angles to contract the muscle better or get a better feel. For most of them that was more important than just moving the weight from point A to point B.

IM: I’ve noticed that too. Many vary almost every set. So what was Danny like outside the gym?

BBX: Danny was not a big party animal. He kept a pretty quiet life, but his one vice was the horse races. He loved the track. He’d often be late for a workout because he had been at the track. He also loved hanging out after a workout and telling stories of Joe Weider, Arnold, Ken Waller and others. Danny loves an audience. He’s a great guy and will help anyone who asks.

IM: Who among the people you’ve known had the most unique approach to training?

BBX: Well, I never trained with Tom Platz, but he trained at the same time Samir Bannout, Steve White and myself trained together. Most people don’t know that Platz spent 45 minutes to an hour stretching at every workout. He was superflexible. Not just his legs—he stretched everything. But he could do full splits and hurdler splits while touching his head to the floor.

IM: I’m a big believer in stretch-position exercises for muscles, like incline curls for biceps, overhead extensions for tri’s and so on, because I’ve seen research that correlates stretch overload to dramatic increases in muscle mass. I think Arnold and Platz were in tune to that instinctively. What about training to failure?

BBX: I found interesting tidbits from Dr. Ellington Darden that explain a lot. He has had quite a bit of success using subfailure training on some of his clients. He actually had one guy gain 39 pounds of muscle training like that. He says Arthur Jones actually experimented quite a bit with it as well and got very good results, but they never wrote about it.

When I trained with Mike and Ray Mentzer, we did 12 sets for chest, but they counted only four sets. We did seven sets for triceps, but they counted four sets. HIT proponents would say that several of those sets were warmups and were not productive sets. I know they sure pushed pretty close to the edge on those so-called warmups, but if Jones actually proved that sets completed not to failure build muscle, why would we assume that warm-ups are not productive sets? Am I missing something?

IM: No, you’re right. According to muscle-fiber physiology, the all-or-none principle states that a fiber either fires completely or not at all. So from that standpoint a lot of fibers are firing all out even with light weights and not going to failure. Did most of the pros you trained with go to failure on their work sets? What about Padilla?

BBX: The truth is that most of the pros I trained with and that I knew did not go to failure on work sets all the time. They seemed to all believe in “leaving a little bit of gas in the tank” for the next set or the next workout. That does not mean they never went to failure. Of course they did.

The consensus was that going to failure all the time puts too much strain on the adrenal glands and on recovery. Most of them I trained with—Danny, Bill Grant, Samir Bannout, Bob Cicherillo—often pushed very hard, but you could see that maybe one or two more reps were possible. On occasion they would push it to complete momentary muscular failure.

Samir actually taught me to hold back a little. I had been following all the high-intensity techniques for years, but when I started holding back a little, I had an incredible five-month growth spurt in size and in strength.

Danny had a really old-school method. He would not pyramid the weight he used on his exercises. He would use the same weight on all his sets and do five sets of 12 reps. That meant the first two sets were not-to-failure sets, but by set three he was close, and sets four and five were a fight to get the 12 reps, if he did. Once he could get 12 reps on all five sets, he would increase the weight at the next workout. That method was written about in the magazines back in the ’50s. Danny thrived on it and told me he got it from Arnold and Sergio [Oliva].

Mike Mentzer, Ray Mentzer and Benny Podda went to failure on warmup sets and beyond failure on work sets—but they didn’t count the warmups as sets. They went to failure but not beyond, so they reasoned that they were not really sets. In my view failure is a set.

Tom Platz was another story. That guy was in another galaxy with intensity.

IM: What was so special about Platz’s training?

BBX: During the summer of 1981, while I was training with Samir, Tom Platz and his training partner often trained at the same time. Because Tom did so much stretching before every workout, by the time he got into lifting weights, he was already pretty warmed up. Tom had a level of beyond-failure intensity that made everyone else, including the Mentzers, look like they were doing calisthenics! The guy was driven beyond anything I’ve ever seen.

IM: I’ve heard Tom’s squat workouts were insane.

BBX: As they say in New York, Fagedaboudit! Many people think that Platz trained hard on the squat, and yes he did, but the squat would be very dangerous, if not impossible, to train as hard as he did on other exercises that offered a little more control and safety.

For example, to see Tom Platz do hack squats was like watching something out of a Hollywood special-effects exposé. He would go all the way down and then roll his knees and hips forward until his knees touched the platform in from of him, then roll back and up. He’d do several reps of that until he couldn’t come up even with a complete amped-to-the-max, all-out effort. Tom was just getting friggen started!

I’m dead serious. Next, when he was in the full-squat down position, he would press the cage up with his arms and then stand up into the cage. From the top position it was slow negative down and then repeat the press, etc., for several reps. His life depended on those reps; when he failed there, he got help up, and then it was several partial reps, never locking out until he just couldn’t move the bar a fraction of an inch. After that he’d push and push and push in an isometric hold until he just collapsed. A set for Tom lasted several minutes—total, sheer, utter torture. He did five or six sets in that manner before moving on.

Then it was leg extensions, leg curls, standing calf raises and seated calf raises, all with the same intensity. The guy just mangled his muscles. He did that on every bodypart—not just legs. I don’t know how anyone could recover from that.

IM: That must have been something to witness.

BBX: It definitely was, and it brought the intensity of everyone in the gym up. I’m still not convinced that that level of punishment is needed or if it’s even desirable, but it certainly was as inspiring as anything I’ve ever witnessed. In fact, a lot of guys were getting amped up just to train in that atmosphere.

IM: I have to ask: What about the X factor: drugs. Weren’t all of the guys you’ve talked about taking steroids?

BBX: The biggest surprise to me was how prevalent amphetamines were around the gyms in Southern California in the early ’80s. Guys were getting amped up like crazy before their workouts. A few of the guys were into crystal meth.

But in my experience the more prevalent overuse and abuse was found in the amateurs. They were the ones who had convinced themselves that high dosages of steroids and amphetamines were needed to get results. Samir and I used to joke about one guy we trained with named Steve. The guy would be so amped, he couldn’t talk normally. He talked so fast it’d be like a machine gun going off. So we started doing this machine gun imitation “Dij, dij, dij, dij, dij.” Hilarious.

I’ve seen amphetamine usage lead to bizarre, self-destructive behavior more often than steroids, but I’d guess the combination to be more deadly than either class of drugs by itself. I know Mike Mentzer admitted to having trouble as a result of amphetamine use. If someone as intelligent as Mike can fall victim to addiction, think about how powerful those drugs must be.

I never saw anything real crazy concerning steroids with any of the pros—with only one or two exceptions. I expected to find rampant overdosages of steroids involved in pro bodybuilding. I personally think it’s more of a myth than reality.

Yes, the pros I trained with used drugs, but there was only one instance where I saw heavy dosages. Every pro I knew built a drug-free foundation first, then added drugs later. You’d see amateurs come into the gym using drugs from day one. That’s just moronic.

The pros back then seemed to stay with Dianabol, Anavar and Deca-Durabolin. Dosages ranged from 300 milligrams a week to about 700 milligrams a week total. Once in a while guys would throw in Anadrol 50, but most knew it was pretty toxic on the liver, so they avoided it. No one was really into testosterone or any of its esters, like Sustonon, yet. Those were considered a powerlifter’s choice back then and unsuitable for bodybuilding. That changed around the mid-’80s. Things like hGH, insulin, Parabolin, Equipoise, Winstrol V—a.k.a. Winny-V—and Halotestin didn’t catch on until then and into the early ’90s.

Oh, and one of the three prominent steroid doctors tried to put everyone on thyroid. He claimed everyone had low thyroid. He used a bovine thyroid compound that’s commonly used with hormone-replacement therapy today, so he might not have been far off.

IM: Were you on when you trained with them, and if so, what were you taking?

BBX: Yes I was taking what they were taking, and for me that meant 200 milligrams of Deca a week, 20 milligrams of Dianabol and 20 milligrams of Anavar for a total of 480 milligrams a week. I grew like a weed on that—I put on about 30 pounds of muscle in about six months and doubled my strength in several exercises.

Later I dropped the Dianabol and Anavar and added testosterone. So at that time I was just using Deca and test. The results were crazy, but I never went above 300 milligrams a week. I couldn’t see how higher dosages would have helped get me any further. Above that dosage I started to get acne, so I kept the dosages down. I do remember a few guys telling me that I wasn’t taking enough and that I could double my dosage. I just wasn’t willing to do it.

IM: Tell me about the guy who was the exception—the abuser?

BBX: Oh, my God. That guy was crazy! He loved being like the shock jock of bodybuilding. He’d take an entire bottle of Anavar—pour it into his mouth and wash it down—three times a day! Everybody’s jaw would drop. But sure enough, there were amateurs who followed suit, thinking they needed to do it as well. That’s how those high-dosage myths start—one guy doing it turns into they all take high dosages.

IM: What a maniac! Wouldn’t the drug issue mean that the training programs and techniques they used don’t apply to drug-free bodybuilders?

BBX: The thing is, I’ve also followed the same routines off drugs, and with a few adjustments I still made good gains. Not like when I was on drugs, of course, but still measurable. And again, I am not genetically gifted. Let’s face it, you can make good progress drug-free and build a very good physique, but someone using drugs is going to progress faster, further and better. Drugs work and they are part of the game, but I also believe that the routines followed by the pros are the same routines that drug-free bodybuilders need to follow with some adjustments.

IM: What adjustments would you make?

BBX: I think everyone needs to know their limits and their ability to recover. When using a volume approach like, say, Danny Padilla, who trained six days a week and 20 sets a bodypart, I’ve gotten good progress drug-free by taking one or two extra days off a week to recover. The same with Samir’s or Rory Leidelmeyer’s approaches, which were also high volume. It may mean training two days in a row followed by a rest day, then two more days of training followed by two rest days. The routines could still be high volume though. Finding the right combination of volume and rest for you can take time and experimentation, but the bottom line is that you have to find your individual formula.

High-intensity-training advocates who are drug-free need to walk a tightrope of training intensely without overdoing the beyond-failure techniques such as forced reps, negatives, X Reps, matrix reps and the like. In my experience, about two to three weeks using those techniques followed by a few weeks of training only to positive failure or even subfailure is about all anyone’s recovery can take drug-free.

I do think that drug-free bodybuilders have to be more disciplined with their diets, more consistent with their training, more diligent with adding weight and reps to their exercises. I’ve seen lazy guys use drugs and not get any appreciable gains, whereas I’ve seen drug-free guys train real hard and make damn good progress—but never like the progress a guy on steroids will make. Even with steroids, though, it still takes the right mind-set and discipline to become a pro and to carry the size of a pro.

Next month Bodybuilder X delves more into the high-intensity training of the Mentzer brothers, Casey Viator’s addiction to volume training and Rory Leidelmeyer’s brutal mega-heavy methods, and he wraps up with his recommendations for applying his experience to a drug-free bodybuilder’s mass-building program.

Editor’s note: For more on applying champ-style training to your drug-free workouts, see the new e-book The X-traordinary 4X Mass Workout, available at IM

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