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Naturally Huge: Curls, Calves and Getting Sore for Mass

Doing only one set to failure may not be the best route to size and strength for the intermediate bodybuilder.

Q: I need some serious help. I’ve been put on an advanced volume-training program where I do 65 percent, 75 percent and 85 percent of my one rep max for various bodyparts twice per week per bodypart. I train six times per week and the program is for seven weeks. I also use three supplements: creatine, HMB and tribulus. The first problem is with my biceps. The exercise I was given is the standing barbell curl and now this is my second week of training and I’m doing 75 percent of my max. The thing is that I either feel very little or no pain after performing that exercise. I was starting to wonder if my biceps are really growing or not because I felt my other bodyparts and they got really sore the first week of training’but not my biceps. The second problem is with my calves. I do standing calf raises and using 270 kilograms. This exercise is not part of my one-rep max but I was wondering what I can do to make my calves grow more because I’ve reached a plateau at that weight, and my calves still look small despite being bigger than when I started. Is there any other exercise or program I can use to put some serious muscle mass on my biceps or calves?’

A: You didn’t say how many repetitions you’re doing for each of your three working sets, but since this looks like a progressive program for a seven-week period, I assume that you’re supposed to increase either the weights or reps each week. If you’re training very intensely each workout, I think that six days a week of training is too much, as your body never has time to recuperate. Nevertheless, give the routine a try and see what kind of gains you get.

As for the biceps soreness, sometimes muscles can still grow even though they don’t get sore. I personally like the feeling of my muscles being sore because I feel like I had a good workout and I’m going to grow from that training session; however, that’s not necessarily always the case. You may be doing the exercise with incorrect form by bringing your elbows forward as you curl the bar. That will activate your front deltoids more than your biceps. Try watching yourself in the mirror or have an experienced lifter watch you as you do the exercise to detect any signs of improper technique. Keeping your elbows pulled back with your back arched and chest out will help you to feel the exercise more in your biceps. It’s also a possibility that you’re using too much weight to do the exercise with good form. You use 85 percent of your one-rep max, which is pretty heavy. If you’re having difficulty keeping good form with a light weight, it will be nearly impossible to do the same movement with a heavier poundage using textbook form.

Another idea is that the standing barbell curl is not the best biceps exercise for you. Perhaps you will feel your biceps working more with standing or seated dumbbell curls, incline curls or preacher curls. Every exercise is not right for every body.

As for calves, you didn’t mention how many reps you’re doing on standing calf raises. I’ve always found that the calves respond better to higher repetitions due to their fiber composition. If you’re only doing six to 10 repetitions for calves, that’s probably not enough reps to get your calves to grow. Try increasing the reps to 12 to 20 to pump the blood into this stubborn bodypart and watch those calves grow.

My experience has taught me that donkey calf raises are the best exercise for building calves. The resistance is directly over the hips and you can do a lot of repetitions while still using substantial weights. I like to use either two training partners on my back or one partner plus extra weight strapped on a weight belt. I do 20 to 30 reps with the full weight and then an additional 15 reps with just the weight on my weight belt after my partner jumps off. That makes the calves burn like you won’t believe. Do this exercise consistently and even the most stubborn calves will grow.

Q: I’m 17 years old and weigh 150 pounds at 5’7′ with 14 1/2′ arms, 42′ chest and 21′ legs. That’s too small. I want to build strength and mass. I really want a program that can build strength. I’ve come across a program on a Web site that I was checking out. I’ve been training for four years, and I know quite a bit about lifting, but this program looks weird. They said it would work due to the fact that it’s a natural lifter’s program and the programs the pros use aren’t for natural builders. I would really appreciate it if you could tell me if this program will work and if you have any other info on any strength and mass programs that you could tell me about. Here is the program:

Tuesday: Workout; Wednesday: Cardio (20 min.); Thursday: Workout; Friday: Cardio (20 min.); Saturday: Workout; Sunday: Off; Monday: Off

The Workout (go to failure on every set)
Squats 1 x 8-10
Leg extensions 1 x 8-10
Leg curls 1 x 8-10
Dumbbell pullovers 1 x 8-10
Barbell overhead presses 1 x 8-10
Seated rows 1 x 8-10
Bench presses 1 x 8-10
Barbell curls 1 x 8-10
Triceps extensions 1 x 8-10
Weighted pullups 1 x 8-10
Weighted dips 1 x 8-10
Standing calf raises 1 x 8-12
Weighted crunches 1 x 10-15

A: In my opinion, doing one set of eight to 10 repetitions using a full-body workout three days a week is not the best way to gain size or strength for an intermediate bodybuilder such as yourself. The routine recommends taking each set to failure, which will most likely lead to a plateau if you do each exercise three days per week.

It sounds like you’re looking for a routine that will build both size and strength. The best program for those two compatible goals is one that will progressively increase the resistance upon the muscles along with an adequate amount of volume. Doing only one set to failure can possibly lead to injury, as you will not be doing anything to warmup the muscles.

I recommend adding more volume to your routine by including more than one exercise per bodypart and doing more than one set for each exercise. You need to use a split routine to adequately do that type of program. This involves splitting up the body by training some bodyparts on one day and the remaining bodyparts on another training day. ALL There can be some value in performing a full-body routine but at your stage of the game (four years of training experience) plus your goal of adding more size and strength, I think you need to modify this routine. Start by cutting out the exercises that are not the best for building mass and doing more sets for the real size-building movements. Here’s an example:

Squats 5 x 10, 8, 6, 6, 6
Dumbbell pullovers 3 x 10-12
Barbell rows 4 x 10, 8, 6, 6
Barbell shrugs 3 x 10, 8, 6
Bench presses 4 x 10, 8, 6, 6
Standing military presses 3 x 8, 8, 6
Lying extensions 3 x 8, 8, 6
Barbell curls 3 x 8, 8, 6
Standing calf raises 3 x 15, 12, 10

That can be a great mass-building routine if you perform it no more than twice a week, but it will be very demanding to do that much work in one training session. It may also be beneficial to use lighter weights and do more reps on the second workout of the week instead of trying to go heavy twice a week. You can experiment with both methods (heavy twice a week as opposed to heavy one day and moderate the next) and see which one works best for promoting size and strength gains.

For an intermediate bodybuilder such as yourself, I think you would get more benefit from training each bodypart twice a week but splitting the body up over two workouts instead of doing everything in one day. I used the push/pull method of splitting up my body when I was trying to put on size and get bigger. Here is an example of the routine I used:

Monday and Thursday
Bench presses 4 x 10, 8, 6, 6
Incline presses 3 x 8, 6, 6
Flyes 3 x 8, 8, 6
Standing military presses 4 x 10, 8, 6, 6
Lateral raises 3 x 10, 8, 6
Barbell shrugs 3 x 10, 8, 6
Pushdowns 3 x 10, 8, 6
Weighted dips 3 x 8, 6, 6
Standing calf raises 3 x 12, 10, 8
Donkey calf raises 3 x 15-25

Tuesday and Friday
Incline situps 2 x 30
Incline knee raises 2 x 30
Squats 5 x 12, 10, 8, 6, 6
Leg presses 4 x 12, 10, 8, 6
Leg curls 4 x 10, 8, 6, 6
Wide-grip chins 4 x 12, 10, 8, 6
Barbell rows 4 x 10, 8, 6, 6
Deadlifts 3 x 10, 8, 6
Incline curls 3 x 10, 8, 6
Barbell curls 3 x 8, 6, 6

Increase the weights each set and always push yourself to train heavier each week. This is the type of training routine that most bodybuilders, even the professionals, used to develop their initial size and strength. It focuses on the basic exercises, which, when used with heavy resistance and enough intensity, will give you the size and strength you’re looking for.

If you decide to do the four-days-a-week push/pull split routine, you could also cut out the cardio. You’ll be burning enough calories in the gym during your weight-training workouts, so there’s no reason to burn yourself out doing two extra days of cardiovascular work. You’re trying to increase your muscle mass and strength so you will need all the rest you can get on your off days. Eat good and get plenty of rest when you’re not training at the gym.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Natural Mr. Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Visit his Web site at You can write to him at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call toll-free 1-800-900-UNIV (8648). IM

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