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No Aerobics for Power?

Squatting with your heels elevated can help stretch your Achilles tendon so you can eventually squat flat-footed.

Q: I’ve heard that you believe aerobic training is overrated for most athletes. Is that true, and if so, why?

A: That’s correct. For example, the average VO2 max in the NBA is only about 47, compared to about 42 for the average couch potato and about 80 for a world-class rower. If you look at the research, studies show that the higher your aerobic power, the lower your vertical jump. To make a basketball player—or, for that matter, any athlete who needs speed and power—perform a lot of aerobic work would be counterproductive.

Now, a small amount of aerobic training can be used as a warmup, but the best warmup is the weight-training exercises in your program. Do about two sets of five, using increasingly heavy weight. If your first exercise is the deadlift and you expect to use 150 for your primary training weight, you could start with 95×5, followed by 135×5.

Q: I read that you majored in kinesiology and did graduate work in exercise physiology, but how did you get started in bodybuilding and then coaching?

A: I was Canada’s second-youngest black belt in karate at age 14. One day when I was 14, I was the only one who showed up at the dojo because of a snowstorm, and my sensei said, “Well, there’s no one here. I’m going to go lift weights.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll do that too!” That was the first time I ever lifted weights.

The first athlete I ever coached was a volleyball player. That was in 1980, and I was an undergrad at the time. He was a national team volleyball player—the Wayne Gretzsky of volleyball and the first foreigner to play in the Japanese professional league.

Then I got some cyclists, and I’ve worked with athletes in Olympic sports since then.

Q: My dad has been training for four or five years. He’s got a great physique, but he’s not getting any better. He’s hit a plateau. He makes changes to his nutrition and supplements, but not much really happens. He can get leaner but not more muscular. Most lifters go through that type of thing. What do you recommend?

A: When people fail to make gains, I usually have them get a hormone-profile test to see if IGF-1 is low. They could have the testosterone count of six wolves, and it wouldn’t matter much. There’s more than testosterone involved in building muscle.

I had a guy who weighed 260 pounds lose bodyfat and put on 28 pounds of muscle in 50 days with a testosterone count of 190. Training strategy also has a lot to do with it. People don’t know how to knock off as many motor units as possible. The other thing that happens is that they usually have structural imbalances. If you have a very weak trapezius 3 or trapezius 2, it could throw off your whole chain, and unless you strengthen it, you’re not going to make any gains. 

I work with a kid who’s been bodybuilding for seven years, and after I assessed which muscles were weak links in the chain, he gained seven pounds of muscle and lost seven pounds of fat in 25 days. He said that those were the best gains he’d ever made. On average the individuals I work with in the summer, for about 11 weeks, gain 18 pounds of muscle.

Q: Are superhigh-volume routines useful at all, or will they lead to overtraining?

A: If you’re asking whether people can grow on 20 sets per bodypart, no. For most bodyparts 10 to 12 sets is the upper limit. I don’t see any point in training for longer than an hour. If you can actually train longer than that, it may be counterproductive. You’re probably making a lot of friends, though.

Q: What do you think of creatine? I’ve heard the gains are just water weight.

A: Creatine works for about 78 percent of the population, and the gains aren’t just water. Studies have shown it actually accelerates protein synthesis.

A lot of the things you hear about water retention are crap. I think those people are just getting fat from taking fast carbs with the creatine. Guys who come into a contest with a gut and say they’re retaining water from the creatine—they’re just fat.

Q: What’s your opinion of Mike Mentzer and his Heavy Duty approach to bodybuilding?

A: I think Mentzer’s contribution is that he got bodybuilders to do less work and get away from 20 sets per bodypart. The problem is that he was too dogmatic. Many approaches work, and to say that one approach works for everybody all the time and forever is ridiculous.

IM: When doing squats, is it advantageous to place a small board under your heels for balance, and is the Manta Ray balancing apparatus any good for squats?

CP: A board under the heels has the advantage of taking a percentage of the recruitment from the glutes and transferring it to the quads. It’s useful for athletes who have a tight Achilles tendon and can’t squat. Theoretically, you should be able to squat down to the floor in running shoes. Very few people are that flexible, so one of the advantages of using a board is that it can stretch the Achilles tendon to a point where you’ll be able to squat with your heels close to the ground within a few workouts.

The Manta Ray is a good product for people who have a hard time tolerating the bar pinching their upper back. Also, it shifts the center of mass of the bar in relation to the center of gravity, so it becomes an exercise variation in itself. Louis Simmons’ group uses it just for a variation of the squat because the load isn’t the same.

IM: On squats, if I go all the way down to the point where I feel it in my hips, won’t my butt grow?

CP: No. Look at the physique development of powerlifters vs. that of Olympic lifters: Powerlifters have huge glutes, while Olympic lifters’ glute development is not as prominent, and their legs are bigger. Research done with EMGs shows that people who go all the way down on squats have more leg development, like Olympic lifters.

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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