I enjoy it when Uncle Buddy visits. He brings me gifts, buys meals at nice restaurants and is fun to be around, but I confess that I much prefer short visits to longer ones. Uncle Buddy has too much energy for my torpid personality. After two days of trying to keep up with him, I’m flat worn out. He gets up early and stays up late, only needing a few hours’ rest. I, on the other hand, require lots of sleep, so by day three of his most recent visit I was groggy, wishing that his lady friend would get here and he’d leave me in peace.
Uncle Buddy’s latest conquest was an Icelander named Christina. She’d been due in two days ago, but bad weather had socked in the airport at Reykjavik, which is why I got stuck with Uncle Buddy for so long. I was anxious to meet Christina, since Icelandic women are among the most beautiful in the world. I know that because I lived on the island for more than a year and made it my business to check out the local talent. I never saw one below an eight, and most were nines and 10s.
Luckily, I remembered that Uncle Buddy was a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson. I showed him a book that Kenny Leistner had sent me, a collection of Thompson’s letters, and that solved my problem. He never put it down, and I took a long nap.
Eventually, we went to work out with a former trainee of mine named Paul. The day before, while grocery shopping, we’d run into him, and he invited us to train in his new home gym. We gladly accepted; it was close and free. Uncle Buddy staunchly refuses to pay to work out, and I’m spoiled in that regard myself.
Of course, nothing in life is really free. Paul’s motive, other than to show off the well-equipped weight room in his garage, was to obtain some training information from me. As it turned out, he got most of it from Uncle Buddy. When Uncle Buddy is in a weight room, he is the resident authority, which is fine with me.
We expressed our admiration for Paul’s having such a great facility at home, and Paul was pleased. It had all the equipment for serious training, and the place was neat, clean and decorated with posters of fitness models. Brandy Dahl, Monica Brant and Amy Fadhli dominated the walls, which was great for me because they’re also my favorites.
‘My kinda gym,’ said Uncle Buddy with a grin, and we started training.
When I finished my situps, Paul said, ‘Mind if I ask you a few questions while we train?’
‘No, ask away.’
‘I read the article you did for IRONMAN a few months ago on changing the program around every so often to keep from getting in a rut. I did that, and it worked, but I’m sorta stale again. The thing is, I really don’t want to totally revamp my program like I did the last time. I like what I’m doing now, plus, I’m a bit limited on what I can do with the equipment I have in here. Any ideas on what I can do without making any major changes?’
‘Sure,’ Uncle Buddy answered for me. ‘Why don’t you try altering your tempo?’ Uncle Buddy has a deep, gruff voice that’s intimidating to most people until they get to know him.
Paul blinked twice and mumbled, ‘I don’t follow.’
‘Do your exercises and workouts at different speeds,’ growled Uncle Buddy. Patience is not one of his strong points.
‘Oh, okay. Could you show me exactly what you mean?’
‘All right. What’s the first exercise you plan on doing today?’
‘Squats. Your nephew taught me that. He always made me squat first in my routine, and it stuck.’
‘He’s right about that. I would guess that you always do your squats at the same pace every time. I mean you do your reps at a certain speed and do all your sets in about the same length of time. That right?’
‘Sure, doesn’t everybody?’
‘No,’ replied Uncle Buddy brusquely. ‘An effective way to jar your body out of a state of complacency is to change the speed of the exercise and also to move through your sessions at different speeds. Some exercises, like stiff-legged deadlifts and good mornings, shouldn’t be done fast, and some, like power cleans and other dynamic lifts, can’t really be done slowly, but most can. Go ahead and do a couple of warmup sets on the squat like you normally do them.’
Paul did 135 and 225 for five reps, and Uncle Buddy said, ‘Here’s what I want you to do on your next set. I want you to follow my hand’go down and recover at the speed I lower and raise my hand. You can use that same 225 again if you want. Got that?’
Uncle Buddy had him squat at half his normal speed. When he completed the five tough reps and racked the bar, Uncle Buddy asked him, ‘Feel the difference?’
Through labored breaths, Paul grunted, ‘I should say so.’
‘You’re gonna go again in two minutes,’ Uncle Buddy told him, checking the clock on the wall. ‘Want that again, or can you handle more weight?’ ‘I think I can handle 275.’ Paul worked up to a set of five with 365 and said he’d had enough.
‘How heavy do you usually go?’ I asked as he was panting for air.
When he got his breathing under control, he replied, ‘Depending on how I feel, between 425 and 450, but that was a lot harder.’
‘Harder is a good thing if you’re trying to get stronger. I had you do a combination of slow tempo and faster pace through your sets to show you how they worked, but you might not want to do them like that. A slow tempo at your regular pace would work too.’
‘I understand. How did you come up with these ideas?’
‘Out of necessity,’ Uncle Buddy told him. ‘I’m a merchant seaman, and I’ve been stuck on ships where I only had a couple hundred pounds of iron to train with. For a while I did real high reps, but sometimes that got boring, and on certain exercises the high reps started bothering my joints, so I tried this slow method. I know it worked because it made me sore. It’s a good thing to know for someone who might be training with a limited number of weights, like a person living in an apartment.’
‘Should I do this slow tempo all the time, say for six weeks straight?’
‘I wouldn’t, unless you have to because of a lack of weights. It’s the change that’s useful. If you do it all the time, you’ll end up getting into another kind of rut. Plus, you want to handle bigger weights on a regular basis, and you can do that at your normal pace. Now, if you want, I’ll show you how to jar your system by moving at a faster pace, doing the exercise more explosively.’
‘Isn’t that bad, to squat fast? I mean, isn’t it harmful to the knees and hips?’
‘Well, if you’re talking about crashing down into the bottom, yeah, it is dangerous, especially to your knees, but I’m talking about using a relatively light weight and doing what some call jump squats. I prefer speed squats, but the name don’t matter. Use 135, since your legs are already tired. I just want to show you how to do them.’
Paul stepped out of the rack with the bar at his back and looked at Uncle Buddy for direction. ‘Go to the bottom at your normal speed and go as deep as you can. When you hit the deep position, pause, make sure everything is tight, and then come up just as fast as you can. When you get to the top, extend high on your toes. Think about jumping at the finish.’
Paul exploded upward, and the bar left his shoulders at the top.
‘Lock the bar on your back tighter,’ Uncle Buddy instructed. ‘The main thing to keep in mind when you do these is to be really tight in the bottom before you start up. I’ve heard some coaches tell their lifters to drop into the hole. That’s bad because if the knees and hips are relaxed, they can be injured. If you’re real tight in the bottom, you’ll be all right, and these stimulate a different kind of strength.’
‘Some of my basketball players and long jumpers had a lot of success doing these,’ I added.
Paul did five reps, put the bar back in the rack and said, ‘I always wanted to try these but was afraid they’d hurt my knees. They felt good. My neighbor’s kid plays basketball and trains with me sometimes. I’m gonna show him these. When should I do them, and are the sets and reps the same as with regular squats?’
‘I’d do them on your light day, since you aren’t going to pile on the weights. Keep the weights light to moderate and run the reps up to eights or 10s. But, if you find that your form gets sloppy when you start getting tired, stop. One sloppy rep can be harmful, so pay attention to every single one. After you’ve been doing them for a while, you don’t have to pause at the bottom. Just as long as you stay tight, you can pull yourself down into the hole and in a fluid motion, leap out of the hole.’
‘If you want a good cardio workout, do these in quick succession,’ I interjected, ‘or do your regular pace of squatting with very little rest between sets like he had you do with the slow squats. People who contend that you can’t get any cardio work using weights have never tried either of those.’
‘So,’ Paul said, ‘I could do my regular squats on Monday, my heavy day, speed squats on Wednesday, my light day, and the slow ones on Friday, my medium day?’
‘That sounds like a good plan,’ I remarked.
‘Can I use this same idea on deadlifts, benches and inclines?’
‘Sure,’ Uncle Buddy answered. ‘It really works well for deadlifts, especially the slow ones. I’ve even done them where I stopped on the way up, once below the knees and again at midthigh. I pause for a five-second count and try to lower the bar real slow so it takes me about 30 seconds to complete one full rep. Do a set, and I’ll show you what I’m talking about.’
I knew Uncle Buddy was holding him much longer than five seconds at each pause to get his point across, and he succeeded. When Paul set the bar back on the platform, his face was beet red and he flopped back on his seat. ‘Good grief,’ he said hoarsely. ‘That was harder than doing 405 for five, and it was only 135 for one rep.’
‘Which makes it an ideal way to train for someone who has a limited amount of weight. You can make the muscles work harder by moving the resistance more slowly and make improvements, which I think is great.’
Paul got to his feet and said, ‘I think I can figure out how to deadlift at a faster speed, but tell me how you would do it.’
‘You don’t really deadlift; you do a fast high pull. If you do clean- or snatch-grip high pulls and work them heavy, you’ll hit your pulling muscles in a different manner, and the strength you gain will carry over to your deadlift. In fact, many strength athletes have made impressive gains on their deadlifts without doing any in their routines. They substituted high pulls, and the dynamic movements provided them with lots of new strength.’
‘I see. And this idea also applies to benching and inclining?’
‘It can, but like with the speed squats, the downward movement has to be controlled. You don’t want the bar to crash down on your chest in either the bench or incline. You have to pull it into your chest deliberately, pause, then explode it upward. And all your muscles have to stay tight. If you can’t do that, skip them. In my opinion, the slow ones are better anyway. Lowering the bar very slowly acts like a negative.’
Paul nodded and said, ‘I can see where changing speed would work well for exercises like curls and triceps pushdowns too.’
‘You’re right,’ Uncle Buddy agreed. ‘Any small-muscle stuff, like curls, dumbbell raises, dumbbell rows and calf raises. Once, all I had for arm work was a pair of 10-pound dumbbells. I ran my reps up on the curls to 125, and they started bothering my elbows, so I tried the slow movement idea. I would halt midway, hold it at lockout and halt again going down. I only did 25 reps for three sets and got sore. I did the same thing on calf raises when I did them freehand. When I hit 125 reps, my knees checked in, so I switched over to a slower tempo and could tell the next morning that they had worked.’
While Uncle Buddy did a set, I told Paul, ‘I had the opportunity to train with Jack LaLanne in his home a couple of times, and he used this concept way back then. He did his triceps and biceps work on a wall pulley machine that he had invented and did his sets and reps at different speeds to keep jarring the muscles. It worked, and from the shots I’ve seen of him on TV lately, it looks like it still does.’
‘Okay,’ Paul said, ‘I got this down pretty good about changing the speed of doing my exercises, but I’m not sure I understand about changing the speed of my workouts. Same idea’do one fast, another at a medium tempo and another real slow?’
‘That’s right,’ I replied. ‘The fast one fits on the light day nicely or on days where you don’t have much time to train. I like to set up a three-station circuit and move from one exercise to the other without any rest in between.’
‘But you don’t recommend ever taking a long time, like 10 minutes, between sets, do you?’
‘Not usually, but if an athlete is planning on entering a weightlifting contest, I do. Sometimes there are long waits between attempts if a lot of the lifters are taking the same weight and a few miss and have to do it again. If he has never practiced doing heavy attempts after long waits, it will throw him off completely. And he also needs to learn how to take heavy lifts back to back with hardly any rest in case that happens as well.
‘I suggest a slight change of pace. If you’re used to waiting about four minutes between sets, try waiting six or seven and see what happens. If you’re able to move heavier poundages doing this or get sore the following day, then you know it’s beneficial. What you’re trying to do is keep your body from settling into a comfortable pattern. The change in tempo will always stimulate some new muscles in a different manner, and that is desirable in strength training.’
The rest of the workout took place without much conversation because Uncle Buddy and I needed to get back to my apartment to see if Christina had left a message.
Pulling into the apartment parking lot, I saw this gorgeous blonde sitting on the porch steps next to two suitcases. She had the face and body of a young Marilyn Monroe. I whistled in admiration.
Uncle Buddy remarked casually, ‘Good, she made it. She always seems to be able to hitch a ride.’
‘I guess so,’ I asserted, then added, ‘You know, you can hang around a few more days if you want to.’
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM