Q: I know that if I want to get big, I need to train heavy and hard with the basic exercises. My question is, How long can I do that before I burn out? Every time I try to train that hard all the time, I end up either injured or mentally worn down.
A: You bring up an excellent point. No one can train superheavy and hard all the time. As you’ve already discovered, it’s physically and mentally impossible. It’s also not necessary.
The best way to improve your physique from year to year is to cycle your training. Bodybuilders like Arnold and Frank Zane did that when they were competing at the Mr. Olympia. They would train all year to peak on the day of the competition, increasing their intensity each month as the big day got closer.
Cycling your training allows you to prepare your body gradually for greater challenges by slowly building the intensity as the year progresses. That does not mean you train with high intensity at each and every workout. The body cannot take that kind of punishment without eventually breaking down.
In order to reach a peak, you should divide the year into cycles. Each cycle, or phase, typically lasts about two to three months before you move to the next one. It’s not uncommon to take a short layoff after you complete each cycle. You should look at a training cycle as reaching a physical peak every couple of months. That will keep you motivated to train hard all year while achieving your goal at the end of the training year.
I remember reading an article about how Arnold planned out his training year. He would begin planning for next year’s competition immediately after the Mr. O was finished. He’d start with a short layoff and then, when he came back to the gym, he’d begin training very slowly, perhaps only three to four days a week. At that point he’d use the basic exercises for a limited number of sets with the overall goal of increasing his muscle mass and getting his body accustomed to heavy training again.
Arnold followed that training cycle for about three months, during which time he also concentrated on any bodyparts he wanted to specialize on. He realized that it’s almost impossible to improve weak points during precontest training. Those changes need to be made during the off-season, when you’re getting plenty of rest and recuperation.
After his mass-building cycle, Arnold increased the intensity and frequency of his workouts. Instead of training only four days per week, he trained six days per week, but he continued to train heavy. He was now doing more of an overall program, gradually stepping up the intensity of his workouts. That cycle also lasted about three months, after which it was time to begin his precontest training for the upcoming Mr. Olympia. Arnold started training twice a day, six days per week, a regimen designed to refine his physique for the big day. Arnold obviously did not follow that type of intense training program all year long. If he had, he never would have made it to the Olympia stage.
Frank Zane structured his program in a similar fashion. He kept detailed training logs every year and referred to the previous year’s log while he was in training for each Olympia contest. If it was May 15, 1977, Frank would look back in his training log to May 15, 1976, to make sure that he was using heavier poundages and/or doing more reps than the year before. That way he would be assured that his physique was better than the previous year.
Just as Arnold did, Frank gradually increased his training intensity as the year progressed. He had a definite idea of how he wanted to look the next time he stepped onstage and would plot out the year to achieve his goal.
I remember back in 1977, when all the magazines were predicting that Robby Robinson was going to be the Mr. Olympia winner that year. Robby was training and dieting very seriously from January 1 all the way up to the competition on October 1. Every month the magazines would publish photos of Robby looking bigger and harder. It looked as if Robby would be unbeatable by the time the Olympia rolled around.
But even a genetic freak like Robby couldn’t train that hard all year without giving out. By the time Robby stepped onstage at the ’77 Mr. Olympia, he was not as impressive as he had been earlier. He had peaked too soon.
Frank, on the other hand, was at his absolute physical peak on the day it counted. Although he hadn’t created the stir in the magazines that Robby had, Zane stuck to his original goal of reaching his peak on the day of the contest. As a result, Frank Zane, not Robby Robinson, was crowned the ’77 Mr. Olympia.
Take a lesson from Frank and Arnold and structure your annual training routine as a series of cycles that lead to a final peak. You can use one cycle to specialize on any weak bodyparts you have, use another to build overall size and power and so on. Look at the year as a series of steps that build in intensity toward your ultimate physique.
Q: What exercises do you recommend for triceps? I know that skull crushers are supposed to be the best for building size, but they kill my elbows.
A: Skull crushers, or lying triceps extensions, are one of the best mass-building triceps exercises around, but they do place a lot of stress on the tendons and elbow joints. Perform them only after your triceps are warmed up.
I usually work my triceps immediately after my chest work. Many of the basic exercises that I use for my chest routine strongly involve the triceps. As a result, by the time I’m ready to train triceps, my elbow and triceps tendons are warmed up and less likely to be strained.
Dumbbell pullovers, for example, are a great movement for indirectly pumping up the triceps as well as building the upper inner pecs and the serratus muscles. I usually finish my chest routine with dumbbell pullovers so my triceps are pumped and ready to go when I commence my triceps routine.
I group triceps exercises into two categories: mass builders and shape-and-separation developers. The movements I find most effective for building size and thickness are parallel-bar dips, lying extensions, seated overhead extensions and close-grip bench presses. They focus on the belly of the triceps muscle, specifically the medial head. As with any other bodypart, developing the belly of the muscle will create a look of size and thickness. Many of those mass-building exercises also place a lot of stress on the tendons in the elbow joint. For that reason I usually begin my triceps routine with pushdowns to warm up my elbows and get a good pump in the muscle. After pushdowns I’m ready to tackle some heavy poundages on lying extensions or close-grip bench presses.
When I’m done with the mass-building exercise, I finish my triceps workout with a shaping exercise such as lying dumbbell extensions, for the outer head of the triceps; bench dips, for the long head of the triceps; or overhead cable extensions, also for the long head. That exercise order allows me to build size as well as shape into the muscle without experiencing any elbow pain.
Editor’s note: John Hansen is the ’98 Natural Mr. Olympia and a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Visit his Web site at www.naturalolympia .com. You can write to him at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call toll-free 1-800-900-UNIV (8648). IM