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Negative Emphasis for Positive Muscle Gains

The problem with push/pull routines is that if, for example, you work triceps after chest, your triceps will be too fatigued to derive growth stimulation from the direct arm work.

Q: Which part of a weightlifting repetition builds more mass, the negative or the positive? How many seconds should each last?

A: The negative part is most responsible for building size and strength. Exercise physiologists call it the tissue-remodeling phase of the repetition cycle because lowering weights, not lifting them, is what causes muscle soreness, and that’s the stimulus for the biological adaptation of hypertrophying the muscle fibers.

The time taken to lift weights is referred to as tempo. Varying it is a great way to keep making gains in the gym. For general muscle-building purposes take one to three seconds for the positive phase and three to six seconds for the negative phase.

Q: Based on your recommendation, I’ve considered purchasing thick-handle dumbbells, but they are way out of my price range. Plus, I have space limitations. Is there an alternative?

A: At the Poliquin Strength Institute and in all the gyms I have consulted for, thick-handle dumbbells are a staple. They’re not cheap by any means, and you can find them only in top-notch training centers. There is, however, an alternative: Fat Gripz, the brainchild of one of my best students, PICP level 2 coach Werner Brüggeman.

They’re tough as hell and fit on any regular weight-training implement better than anything else I’ve seen. Now you have no excuse for sporting your weak 11-inch arms. To get your own pair, go to

Q: Can you explain your protein goal system for fat loss simply?

A: For losing fat quickly, I like what I call the protein goal diet. High protein (1.5 to two grams of animal protein per pound of bodyweight), high omega-3s (1.5 grams per pound of bodyfat in fish oils) and carbs limited to green veggies (but eaten in unlimited amounts).

To fit in that much protein, shoot for six to seven meals a day. Taking branched-chain amino acids during training can count as a seventh meal. A two-hour fast before bed is recommended, so if you screw up and hit only four or five meals one day, don’t try to cram in the last two. Hey, you messed up, but you still made 80 percent that day, and that’s okay. Start again the next day.

After a strict 14-day initial phase, add a cheat meal every five days until you’re at less than 10 percent bodyfat. Then you can have a full cheat day. As for the ladies, same thing; just multiply the protein goal by 0.6.

Most nutritionists advocate diets that have worked for them, which isn’t always a good thing if the coach is a carb-tolerant ectomorph. While I’m definitely a fan of low-carb diets for 75 percent of the population, I acknowledge that most people can still get results with a carb-based diet. It just requires more precision than the average Joe can usually commit to.

Need a handy way to calculate the amount of protein to eat per meal? Animal protein is roughly 22 percent protein; so 100 grams of chicken, beef or scallops would translate to around 22 grams of protein. If your daily protein intake is 400 grams and you eat six meals a day, shoot for 300 grams of animal protein at each meal (300 x 22 percent = 66 grams of protein, x 6 meals = 396 grams a day). It’s not ultra-exact, of course, but you don’t need to be obsessive to lose bodyfat.

All is not lost for the 75 percent of the population who don’t tolerate carbs well. I believe that by getting lean and staying lean for a solid 18 months, you can actually make yourself carb tolerant. Just watch the subscapular skinfold site—as the reading goes down, carbohydrate tolerance goes up.

Food rotation, especially varying your proteins, is very important, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. I suggest labeling the meats you usually cook at home as “home foods” and making a point of avoiding them when dining out or traveling. So, for example, chicken, salmon and bison at home; steak, eggs and halibut on the road. In a nutshell, that’s what the protein goal is all about.

Q: My friend, who is a personal trainer, says that it’s useless to do more than 20 minutes on the treadmill because you surpass your optimal fat-burning zone. Is there really an “optimal fat-burning zone”? Am I wasting my time running for 40 minutes?

A: Your friend’s knowledge of exercise physiology is rather limited. Did he get his certification from the back of a cereal box? He’s confusing fuel sources and physiological changes.

From a strict physiological standpoint, it takes your body 10 minutes after you start steady-state exercise to derive most of its energy from circulating free fatty acids. Free fatty acids will be the primary fuel burned for two to four hours, depending on your aerobic capacity. After that you’ll actually start going through your amino acid pool reserves—mainly the liver and muscles. At that point up to 30 percent of the energy comes from broken-down amino acids.

That’s why chronic aerobic exercisers look like concentration camp prisoners. Their protein stores are cannibalized to supply the energy demands of their training volume. That doesn’t mean you need to watch all episodes of “Band of Brothers” during your next aerobic workout. The source of fuel is only part of the equation for optimal composition changes.

Energy demands during exercise are important, but even more important are the energy demands postexercise and the hormone shifts during specific exercise regimens. If you’re interested in increasing lean body mass and decreasing fat tissue, interval programs of 20 to 40 minutes are best.

Q: What are the best muscle-building activities that don’t require setting foot in a gym?

A: According to research and basic observation, the best are mountain climbing and grappling sports, such as judo and wrestling. Your results, however, would be much slower to come than with weight training and with far greater risk of injury. Mountain climbing is great if you live in Aspen but not too accessible if you live in Omaha or Fort Lauderdale.

If you’re unskilled at grappling sports, there would be minimal training effect, as you would be spending more time on your back than the most desired red-light-district professional.

If you’re talking about at-home, no-equipment exercise and are very weak, you can always do pushups and dips, but that gets old fast. As you get stronger, you’ll have to do countless reps to get a training effect.

Q: I was brought up on the idea of push/pull—chest/triceps, back/biceps—training. Is that the most effective way to build mass? Also, would it be better to split my routine to one bodypart in the morning and another at night?

A: Actually, push/pull is one of the dumbest way to train. When you train chest and triceps together, for example, by the time you’ve finished training your chest—which almost always involves the triceps—your triceps are fried, and you end up using pansy weights that do little to stimulate triceps growth. The same goes for back exercises, which almost always involve the elbow flexors.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc­cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med­alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit IM

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