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Success Through Failure

I wasted years of my bodybuilding youth by persisting with exercises, routines and methods that didn’t help me much, if at all. I’ve seen the same fundamental error being made by most bodybuilders in all the gyms I’ve ever been to. Some trial and error is part of bodybuilding, so short periods of failure are inevitable, but if you don’t make progress for a long time, change is needed.

To succeed in bodybuilding, learn pronto from your failures.

Squats and bench presses. I’ve seen many bodybuilders do squats even though they could never master them. That especially applies to tall, lanky bodybuilders or to those of average height but with long legs relative to their height. Rather than grasping early on that their body proportions weren’t well suited to the squat, they persisted in doing them because so many people rave about the squat.

Sure, it can be a fantastic exercise for many bodybuilders, but not for all. Many bodybuilders who aren’t suited to the barbell squat are suited to the parallel-grip deadlift, and when they change to the latter, they start to make terrific gains.

I’ve seen many bodybuilders who were never able to bench-press well despite great effort and dedication. When the open-minded ones substituted the parallel-bar dip, however, they made far better progress.

Joan. I’ve been treating Joan, a former competitive bodybuilder, for elbow injuries. In her 50s, she still trains regularly and retains the mind-set she had in her prime about 20 years ago. Her elbow problems originated in the muscles that are connected to her elbows. Once I’d treated her arm flexors and extensors and some of her forearm muscles, her elbows were transformed.

With “new” elbows, Joan was charged up to train her arms. She hadn’t been able to train her arms hard for many years, so they were lagging behind the rest of her physique. I didn’t have a problem with Joan training her arms hard, but did with the exercises she wanted to return to: very-close-grip bench presses, triceps extensions to her forehead with a straight bar and close-grip and wide-grip barbell curls with a straight bar. Those exercises had contributed to her elbow problems in the first place. For wrist and elbow comfort I persuaded her to use a shoulder-width close-grip bench press, parallel-grip pushdowns with a rope attachment and dumbbell rather than barbell curls.

She wasn’t doing any cardio or stretching. She was still locked into a weights-only mentality. Cardio and stretching weren’t common in bodybuilding programs when Joan got started, and she hadn’t moved on. She was stuck in the past. While she’d maintained enough of her competitive physique to make her a standout in the gym, she was overly focused on appearances, to the neglect of well-being. Well-being is always more important than appearance, especially in middle age and beyond.

The college crowd. Also at the gym are many young men from local colleges, who follow four- and six-day-split routines, with three or four exercises per bodypart and at least three work sets for each exercise. Their intensity is only moderate, their poundage progression nonexistent—and their bodybuilding progress nonexistent too. That their routines are clearly not working doesn’t seem to register with them. They continue month after month and make no progress, apparently thinking that something that hasn’t worked for a long time will suddenly rev up. It won’t.

Middle-aged beginners. These are middle-aged men trying to train like the college crowd. Overweight, out-of-condition, middle-aged beginners following four- and six-day-split routines are a recipe for failure. Yet month after month they persist with that approach. Eventually, most of them get so frustrated and perhaps injured that they give up training. Rather than recognize the ineffectiveness of the approach early on and do something about it, they persist in failing.

Don’t persist in doing exercises, routines or methods that don’t help you. If your training hasn’t yielded progress over the past two months, it’s unlikely to yield any progress over the next two months. Make changes.

Training failures can be valuable learning experiences that help you succeed with subsequent efforts. What could you have done differently that would have improved the outcome? What did you learn that you can put to good use next time? If you approach your training failures and setbacks with a positive attitude, you’ll use them to improve your chance of success in the future.

Use your gym time wisely. Train hard but briefly, use exercises suited to you, and strive to add a little iron every week or two to each exercise. Use a balanced program that includes cardio and stretching. Even if you do train well, if you don’t fully satisfy all the components of recuperation, you won’t make much bodybuilding progress.

It’s amazing that so many bodybuilders are negligent in their nutrition and sleep. Every day you must eat and sleep well if you want to optimize your recuperation. Don’t undermine your training by cutting corners outside the gym.

—Stuart McRobert

Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new 638-page opus on bodybuilding Build Muscle, Lose Fat, Look Great, available from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or

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