Would you like to greatly increase your overall muscle size and strength? And would you like to achieve those goals in a way that’s extremely enjoyable? If you said yes to both questions, read on because the advice I’ve got will have you racking up big gains in no time. In case you missed my arm-training feature in last month’s IRON MAN (‘Guns & Ammo’), let me tell you a little about my training credentials.
I’ve been involved in the wonderful activity of weight training for many years. I’ve been a weightlifting competitor, a strength coach, a personal trainer and an instructor at numerous health clubs. I also have a well-equipped home gym, where I’ve trained many people.
In addition, I’ve had the privilege of training with some very good athletes in the strength world, including international- and national-level powerlifters, weightlifters and bodybuilders as well as many professional wrestlers. At one time I lived with my cousin Bill Watts, a former WWF Heavyweight World champion who wrestled under the name of Cowboy Bill Watts. Bill used to be the tag-team partner of Bruno Sammartino, an Italian wrestler who was very big and very strong. Of course, Bill was also very big and very strong. He could bench-press 590 pounds and usually wrestled at a bodyweight of around 290. He was 6’4′.
Oh, and he was strong in a functional sense too. I remember being with him when he wrestled Gorilla Monsoon, a huge man-mountain who weighed 425 pounds and boasted that no one could throw him over the top rope of the wrestling ring. Well, during the match, Bill picked Monsoon up and threw him over the top rope into the audience. Monsoon got up, snuck around to the other side of the ring while his manager was distracting Bill, picked up the 35-pound ring bell and hit Bill over the head with it from behind. Bill hit the mat and went into convulsions. An ambulance took him to a hospital, where he spent the night with a concussion. The next day Bill left the hospital and came over to my house for a workout. He worked up to 410 pounds on the bench, did a few reps with that weight and then he put down the bar and said he couldn’t finish the workout because his head hurt too much.
So I’ve observed many different types of weight training and many different weight-training philosophies. I’ve tried a lot of them too. You know the old saying, ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat.’ Well, the same holds true for training. There are many ways to work out with weights’but they don’t all have the same merit. Some approaches to training are much more effective at producing muscle size and strength than others.
Power rack training is one of the most effective and enjoyable approaches to building huge muscles and great strength. I gained 100 pounds of bodyweight in nine months while using the power rack, going from 158 to 260’and I used no bodybuilding drugs whatsoever, just solid nutrition and training.
The power rack is a fascinating piece of equipment. I doubt if anyone really knows for sure where it first originated, but I heard a story from Peary Rader, the founder of this magazine, about its origin. Many years ago isometric training became popular among strength athletes. That’s where you push or pull against an immovable bar, which is usually set in place in an isometric rack.
The story goes that an American weightlifter by the name of Frank Spellman was performing an isometric workout in an isometric rack that was constructed out of wood with holes drilled every six inches up and down the rack. Frank would insert an empty bar into a pair of matching holes on the uprights and push or pull against the bar, with absolutely no movement being possible. That way he could set the bar at whatever height he wanted in order to work whichever part of a lift he felt needed work. Being an Olympic lifter, he usually performed presses, pulls and squats. In time Frank’s wooden rack started to wear out from all the force he was applying. The holes were weakening and expanding due to pressure from the bar’s being pulled and pushed inside them. Eventually, the wood between some of the holes busted out completely, which meant that the bar could move up or down for six inches or so. That gave Frank the idea of putting plates on the ends of the bar and then lifting it in very short movements. Frank found that he could use extremely heavy weights for those short-range movements. Thus partial-rep training in a power rack was born.
News of Frank’s discovery traveled fast. Soon Bob Hoffman of York Barbell started building and selling metal power racks, and a whole new training philosophy was born: isometronic training. It combined short-range movement with isometric holds. Mark Nord, one of my weight-training buddies, still has one of those original York power racks.
Many great lifters over the years used partial movements in their training and experienced great gains in size and strength from it.
Peter Sisco and John Little wrote Power Factor Training, which is based on partials. They tell about how such greats as George F. Jowett, Paul Anderson, Ronald Walker, Anthony Clark, Bill Kazmaier, John Grimek, Mike Mentzer, Lou Ferrigno, Paul DeMayo and Dorian Yates used partial movements in their training. ALL Although it was popular in the past, the power rack doesn’t get much use these days. In fact, most of today’s trainees don’t know much about the proper way to train in a power rack. In all the gyms I’ve worked in or visited, I’ve made the same two sad observations: 1) A lot of fellows training in those gyms are still very thin and not very strong, and 2) in many gyms there’s a power rack standing in a corner gathering dust. That’s a real shame because that very rack could help every one of those trainees get much bigger and stronger if they’d just use it. The power rack is truly a magical bodybuilding tool. There are three primary advantages to training in a rack:
1) You don’t need a spotter.
That alone is the reason every home gym should have a power rack. You can perform bench presses and squats in complete safety, even if you train alone. Obviously, it’s great to have a partner who shares your interests and drive and who will push you and encourage you to really put out on each set; however, not everyone is able to train with a like-minded partner, and many trainees simply prefer to train alone. So for those of you who train alone, the power rack definitely solves the safety problem. You simply set the bottom pins in the rack at a point where the barbell will rest on them if you get stuck on the exercise at hand. Then you can safely get out from under the bar.
2) You can break down an exercise into sectors.
Everyone is stronger at some points in an exercise than others. Take the bench press. Anyone who has performed bench presses for any length of time realizes that he or she has a weak point somewhere along the possible range of movement. Your weak point is where you usually fail on the last rep; that is, it’s where the barbell stalls along the range of motion.
Not everyone has the same weak point, and simply changing your grip width can change your weak point. If you use a wide grip on benches, you may stall when the bar is just a few inches off your chest. If you use a narrow grip, you’ll probably stall just a few inches short of lockout.
The advantage of taking a lift and dividing it into sectors is that it enables you to use the weight that’s perfect for each particular sector. If you perform only the complete stroke, you’re limited to the weight that you can move through the weakest part of your range. Let’s say it’s 200 pounds. If you use only the 200 pounds, you won’t activate as many of the chest, shoulder and triceps fibers as you would if you used 300 pounds and performed only the final six inches of the stroke. After all, the main factor that determines the number of muscle fibers involved in any movement is the amount of weight. The more weight you use, the more muscle fibers you bring into play. And the more muscle fibers you bring into play, the more muscle fibers you stimulate to increase size. Remember, big weights build big muscles.
That’s the reason Arthur Jones used a spiral-shaped pulley, or cam, on his Nautilus machines. He knew that varying the resistance to match the strength curve of the target muscle was essential to optimal progress. In other words, the resistance should be greater where you are stronger and lesser where you are weaker. His theory definitely had merit.
You can accomplish the same thing on the power rack by breaking up each exercise into sectors and using a weight that’s perfect for that particular sector. Or you can just train the sector where you are the strongest so you can use a heavier-than-normal weight and activate many more muscle fibers.
When I worked out with Russ Knipp, a former world-record holder in the standing press, he trained his presses in the power rack, breaking down the movement into sectors. Obviously short-range movements worked for him, since he became the best presser in the world in his weight class.
3) You don’t need to perform a lot of exercises during any one workout.
In fact, to do so would be a mistake. If done properly, power rack training is extremely taxing to your muscles and your recovery system. If you do the correct amount of training, the rack will produce tremendous gains in size and strength. If you do too much, you won’t make gains, and, in fact, you may actually experience losses. Power rack training is very concentrated, so you don’t need a lot of it. Okay, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of the program. You perform it two nonconsecutive days per week; for example, Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday. The main consideration is that you want to space out the two training days as evenly as possible.
Parallel rack squats.
Vern Weaver, ’63 Mr. America, used these as one of his main movements for building mass, and it works! Vern was massive. It was also my main exercise when I gained 100 pounds of bodyweight in nine months.
It amazes me that many fellows who train with weights don’t perform any type of squat. Doing heavy squats for eight to 12 reps will do more for someone who wants to gain weight than any other exercise, period. Leg presses won’t be anywhere near as effective. If you want to get big and strong, make up your mind that squats are an absolute necessity and that you must make every effort to keep pushing up the poundage on them. Heavy squats not only develop large thighs and spinal erectors but also act as a very strong anabolic stimulant for your whole body.
Set the bottom long pins at a height where, when you’re in the low position of your squat, your thighs are just above parallel to the ground. With the barbell on the backs of your shoulders, lower yourself to the point where the barbell touches the pins, and then power back up to lockout. It’s very important to perform two or three warmup sets, progressively going up in weight until you arrive at the poundage you can get eight reps with. Do two sets of eight reps with that work weight, using the hold principle at the end of each set. After completing the eighth rep, squat down to where the barbell is just one inch above the rack pins and hold there for 12 seconds. It’s a killer, but it will greatly add to the growth stimulation your muscles receive. Immediately after each set of squats perform a 20-rep set of stiff-arm pullovers on an exercise bench. Use a light dumbbell and breathe in deeply as you lower the dumbbell behind your head. That stretches your rib cage, which will cause it to get larger and your chest to expand.
I know that some so-called experts say that rib cage stretching won’t cause your rib cage to get any bigger, but they’re wrong. It gave me great gains in chest size, to the point where I had to wear a size 60 sports coat. Peary Rader constantly pushed the importance of stretching the rib cage between squat sets, as did many other authorities, including Reg Park, who had a huge rib cage. Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely felt it helped him achieve his huge chest, and in my opinion, nobody has ever matched Arnold’s incredible side-chest pose.
This exercise will develop a tremendous back. It strongly works the traps, the lats and the spinal erectors. Vern Weaver did a lot of pulling exercises in his career, and he had absolutely the best back development of any Mr. America of his era. It was very wide, very thick and very strong, as he could perform reps in the power clean with 360 pounds.
To perform rack pulls, set the rack pins at a height at which the barbell is just below your knees when it’s resting on the pins. Bend forward over the bar and grab it with your hands about shoulder width apart. Pull the bar up as high as you can while straightening your body. Continue pulling the bar and try to get it an inch or two above your belly button. When you’ve pulled the bar as high as you can, your arms will be somewhat bent. Again, do the usual two or three warmup sets, working up to a weight that you can perform two sets of five reps with. On both heavy sets hold the barbell at a point that’s even with your belly button for 12 seconds after you’ve completed the fifth rep.
Use a shoulder-width grip on these. If you go too wide, you take some of the work away from your triceps. A lot of big benchers use a wide grip in order to elevate heavier poundages, and that’s fine, but you’re using this exercise to build pecs and triceps, and you won’t get as much growth stimulation for the triceps if you use a wider grip. (You’ll get more direct pec work on the last exercise in this program, dips.) Set the pins in the rack so that when you’re lying on the bench, gripping the bar, ready to start benching, your upper arms are a little above parallel to the ground. You press from that position’with the bar above your chest.
You’ll love this exercise. You’ll be able to use quite a bit more weight on it than you can on regular full-range bench presses, and that will help you build larger pecs, delts and triceps. If you continually make the effort to keep going up in weight, I guarantee that you’ll get great results. Again, do two or three warmup sets, progressively working up in weight, and then two sets of five reps. Add a 12-second hold to the end of each work set, holding the bar an inch above the rack pins. You’ll really feel that in the target muscles and experience a deep muscle ache. Wide-grip presses.
You use a wider-than-usual grip on this one, as you’re primarily concerned with stimulating the deltoids, not the triceps. Grip the bar about six inches out from your shoulders. That will work both front and side heads. Set the long pins in the rack so that when the bar is resting on them, your upper arms are parallel to the ground. Again, perform two or three warmup sets, then do two sets of five reps with a 12-second hold at the end of each, stopping at a point where the bar is just one inch above the rack pins. You’re guaranteed a great ache and burn in your deltoids. The biggest problem with overhead presses is that most trainees don’t work them anywhere near as hard as they should and don’t have anywhere near the determination to go up in weight as they do when they bench. Overhead presses are a great exercise, but you’ve got to work them hard.
This is a great biceps developer, and many bodybuilders of the ’50s used it as their main biceps exercise. If trainees worked very hard and progressively on this exercise, they’d never need to do curls.
Use a grip that sets your hands six to eight inches apart, and be sure that your palms are facing you, as in a curl grip. Only perform one set, but take it to muscular failure, and at each successive workout try to get at least one rep more than you got at the last one. When you hit failure, immediately jump or climb back up to the top position and hold there for 12 seconds, then lower yourself very slowly back to the ground, resisting with your biceps all the way down. When you can perform 12 reps, tie a five-pound plate around your waist for your next session.
As I mentioned above, this exercise provides great growth stimulation for the pectoral muscles. It also provides growth stimulation for the triceps. As with close-grip chins, you only perform one set, and you take it to muscular failure. When you hit failure, get back up to the lockout position, unlock your arms an inch or so and hold for 12 seconds. When you can perform 12 reps, add weight to your waist.
That’s the program, and I assure you that it’s an extremely effective one for increasing muscular size and strength over the whole body. Here are a few tips to ensure your success:
1) The program will work as long as you do.
I want you to be absolutely convinced of the tremendous effectiveness of this program if you apply it properly. That means you must put forth some very serious effort in order for this program to produce the growth stimulation that will give you great gains in muscle size and strength. But I doubt you’d have read this far if you weren’t extremely interested in those goals. Rest assured that this program will work if you do. Give every heavy set all that you can, push as hard as you can to make the required reps, and give your all to complete the 12-second holds.
2) Big weights build big muscles.
This motto should be painted in bold letters on the wall of every commercial and home gym in America. When my arms were at their largest, 21 3/4 inches, I was using 195 pounds for six reps on barbell curls, a 115-pound dumbbell for six reps on one-arm concentration curls and 320 pounds for six reps on lying triceps extensions. Obviously, my triceps were much stronger than my biceps, but my triceps have always been my best bodypart. 3) Keep it progressive.
If your weight-training goals are to build size and strength, your main workout goal must be to keep getting stronger. Mike Mentzer always said that the goal of your training should be to keep getting stronger. A muscle grows to meet its workload. If you keep using the same amount of weight at every workout and make no new demands on your muscles, your muscles will have no reason to grow. Keep going up in weight on each exercise, and your muscles will keep getting bigger.
4) Stay on target.
Use the target-training approach, which calls for a target number of reps for each work set. Let’s say it’s six reps. It’s vital that you push (or pull, depending on the exercise) with all you’ve got to make that sixth rep every time. When you can get those six reps, you increase the weight at the next workout.
Say you’re using 150 pounds on that set. When you make six reps with the 150 pounds, go up to 155 at the next workout. When you can complete six reps with 155 pounds on every work set, use 160 at the next workout. As you keep going up in weight on each exercise, you’ll keep going up in size on the target muscles. That’s one of the reasons that you don’t want to do too many exercises. You won’t be able to apply the amount of effort that’s needed on each exercise if you’re doing too many.
With my many years of training experience, I can honestly tell you that you don’t need a lot of exercises to make great gains, but you do need a lot of effort. You can get very big and very strong while using just a few exercises if they’re compound movements, each of which works a number of major muscle groups. Believe it or not, one of the fellows I trained built arms that taped more than 20 inches, and he did absolutely no curls or direct triceps exercises.
It’s also very important to your progress that you follow a good nutrition program. In fact, it’s critical. I won’t go into the nutritional aspect of gaining size, except to say that you need to be sure to eat enough calories for your body to put on muscular weight, and those calories must come from quality foods such as chicken, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, cottage cheese, yogurt and skim milk. You also need to drink plenty of water and use a vitamin-and-mineral supplement and a good protein powder. There’s a lot of great information on nutrition in IRON MAN, so be sure you continue to read each issue and learn about all the latest research. Most of it is very important, not only to your muscle gains but also to your health. IM