Q: I’m 36 years old and have been lifting for two months. I’m 5’11’ and weigh 275 pounds. Most of that is beer belly, but I still have the widest shoulders in my gym, and that includes the guys with wicked delts, so I think I have some real potential. I started lifting twice a week, but lately it’s been three or four. I feel like going every day, even when I’m sore all over. I don’t, though, because I don’t want to destroy myself. I’ve noticed that so-called natural bodybuilders on Web sites and in magazines never seem to be anywhere near as big as guys like Jay Cutler, Ronnie Coleman and so on. I’ve done some research, and if being smaller is the price to pay for not dying early, growing boobs or shriveling up my testes, I’ll go smaller. Arnold, in his bodybuilding encyclopedia, speaks out strongly against steroids, but I believe he did use them. I’ve heard that steroids don’t increase your maximum potential but just speed things up. I’d like to know why natural bodybuilders are smaller. I also read somewhere that the benefits of increased muscle mass offset the side effects of steroids if you use and stack the drugs properly. What gives? Also, nobody can agree on how often a guy should work out. I’ve heard that any more than three hours a week is overtraining and that if you have any residual muscle stiffness, you should rest. But the book Serious Strength Training says that protein synthesis is complete after 48 hours anyway, so why wait longer? Even nutrition is nuts. Eat more fat and fewer carbs, eat less fat and so on. I keep reading and noticing conflicting opinions. I’m just going to keep eating what I enjoy, which is basically anything involving cheese’pizza, omelettes, cheeseburgers, cottage cheese, lasagna and so forth. I’ve started eating more apples and carrots, and luckily stuff like potato chips, cakes and cookies have never appealed to me. The only thing I know for sure is that I need to quit smoking and cut back on beer. How about training frequency? Should I follow Arnold’s routines (he has easier ones for beginners)? I mean, did he succeed because he’s an expert, or did he, as Mike Mentzer has suggested, succeed despite his overtraining? I want to be a mountain of muscle, but I also want to live a long, long time.
A: First of all, if you’re really serious about building muscle (not to mention living a long life), you need to give up the smoking and drinking. Neither is going to help you in bodybuilding or in living a healthy life.
That said, let me address your questions concerning steroids and natural bodybuilders. The reason natural bodybuilders aren’t as big as their top professional counterparts is that drugs’such as steroids, growth hormone and insulin’help the body develop much further than it ever could on its own (naturally). Steroids don’t just speed things up; they increase the levels of hormones necessary for building muscle. Although the body does secrete muscle-building hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone on its own, that can’t compare to the unnatural amounts of testosterone and growth hormone taken by the pros.
I don’t know where the idea that the benefits of increased muscle mass offset the side effects of steroids comes from. The benefits of more muscle mass could be a metabolic rate increase; more strength; stronger tendons, ligaments and bones; and bigger muscles. Detrimental side effects of steroids include high blood pressure, acne, water retention and decreased tendon strength. Long-term effects could be impaired kidney function, heart disease and liver damage. I don’t see how the two equate. The side effects of steroid use come from the imbalance of growth-enhancing hormones on the rest of the body.
As for exercise frequency, you should train as often as your body will allow in order for growth to occur. In the beginning it takes very little training to stimulate the muscles to grow. A beginner could do as little as three sets per bodypart and still get stronger and bigger; however, the body adapts pretty quickly, and it soon becomes necessary to do more’as in more resistance, more sets and more reps’for the muscles to continue to grow.
When the beginner starts to get stronger and uses increasing amounts of resistance for the exercises, as well as more exercises and sets for each bodypart, the muscles require longer periods of rest before they’re ready for another training bout. At that point you can’t train the muscles three days per week (as in most beginning routines), because of the increased volume (additional sets) and intensity (additional resistance).
When you get to the advanced level, you need to determine the right number of sets for each bodypart and how often to train. I believe that advanced natural bodybuilders should train each muscle group every six or seven days (except for smaller bodyparts like calves and abs) and use an average of eight to 12 sets for each bodypart.
Arnold could train more frequently while training for competition because he was using steroids. Anabolic steroids help bodybuilders recuperate much faster, and they actually work better when you train more frequently. If you’re a natural bodybuilder, you’ll have to schedule more down time in order for your body to recuperate without the help of drugs. I never train more than four days per week if I’m trying to build muscle mass.
Mike Mentzer believed in training very infrequently and with very limited volume. He believed in training very intensely in order to stimulate the muscle tissue. I don’t know how many bodybuilders currently follow Mentzer’s method of training, but I do know that the bodybuilding world changed forever thanks to the Mentzer philosophy. Bodybuilders worldwide have cut back on their training volume and now attempt to get the most out of a moderate number of sets. It’s very rare to see a bodybuilder using 25 to 30 sets for each bodypart nowadays.
As for your diet, I can sympathize with your confusion; however, it’s really pretty easy. Protein foods build muscle tissue; carbohydrates and fats are energy sources. If you eat too many calories, you can accumulate excess bodyfat. If you get too few calories (or not enough of the necessary macronutrients), your muscle growth may slow down.
Your idea of eating only foods that have cheese in them is a little too simplistic. Start by eating five to six small meals per day, one every three hours. Each meal should have some form of complete protein’eggs, egg whites, chicken, turkey, fish, lean meat or protein powder. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, but you should stick with complex carbs that have plenty of fiber’such as oatmeal, brown rice, vegetables and sweet potatoes. They’re digested much more slowly and provide the body with a sustained energy source. As for fats, you want to limit them, since each gram of fat contains nine calories (twice as much as a gram of protein and a gram of of carbohydrate combined). Even so, monosaturated fats that contain omega-3 fatty acids are essential, so make an effort to get some flaxseed oil or eat salmon or mackerel frequently.
If you’re trying to increase muscle size and lose bodyfat, keep your protein high’one to 1.5 grams for each pound of lean bodyweight’and your carbs and fats moderate. I don’t believe in low or no carbs, since carbohydrates are necessary for energy output and help rebuild damaged muscle tissue. Just be sure to concentrate on fibrous, complex carbohydrates to avoid fat deposition, and don’t forget about the essential fats. Keep your daily fat intake at around 15 percent of your total calories.
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 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