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Train Like You, Not Your Favorite Pro

Things were really looking up. Late spring was bringing some serious heat and much-needed sunshine to Boston after months of dreary gray skies and pouring rain. I was 10 weeks out from a competition and leaning out very nicely, ahead of schedule in fact. That in itself was a relief. In the past I’d been guilty of overdieting and overdoing my cardio to the point where I lost significant amounts of muscle by the time I got to the show.

That isn’t as uncommon as you might think. Certain pro bodybuilders are notorious for posting on the Internet progress pictures that show them to be the second coming of Ronnie Coleman just a couple of weeks out from a contest, only to show up looking far less impressive onstage. One guy was known for posing in a string tank top and his lifting belt, while another always took the photos in a certain spot in his kitchen that seemed to have the most complimentary lighting on earth. Suffice it to say that if the Mr. Olympia had a tank-top-and-belt division, or if it took place in the second guy’s kitchen, they would have a few Sandow trophies between them by now.

I walked into the gym, scanned my key card and proceeded to slam my hip into the unmoving turnstile. The stupid thing was meant to keep out nonmembers who were sneaking in, as well as catching those whose membership had expired. I suppose if people were really desperate to get into the gym, they could fold themselves up like magician David Blaine and have someone smuggle them in inside a big gym bag. Half the time the turnstile was out of commission anyway, and the gym’s maintenance man was always trying to fix it.

As I scanned my card a second time, cursing under my breath, I saw Jeff sprawled out on a mat in the little room off to the right where the ab-training equipment was located. Just when I was thinking that was a good thing—I hardly ever saw him do anything for abs—I realized that he wasn’t moving and his eyes weren’t open. The only indication that he was still alive was the rise and fall of his downsized potbelly. I walked over.

“Jeff? You okay, buddy?”

“Legs,” he replied in a hoarse whisper.

“Legs? What about legs?”

“Leg workout.”

“Oh, I get it. You had an intense leg workout. That’s awesome—that’s what I like to hear!”

If you’ll recall, I had given Jeff a big talk about the importance of training all his muscle groups equally. I was happy to see he was actually putting my advice into action.

“Not done yet,” he said, his eyes fluttering open. “Still a few more exercises to go.” He turned his head and nodded, and that’s when I noticed the magazine a few feet away by his towel and water bottle. I recognized it immediately, because I wrote a lot of stuff for it. A yellow Post-it was marking a page about halfway through. Suspecting I would find something I had written, I picked it up.

It was a leg-training article that detailed the workout regimen of a top pro known for having the biggest, freakiest wheels in the sport today. At 5’7” and 245 pounds in contest condition, he had Platz-like thighs that stretched the tape to a circumference greater than the average American male’s waist—and we’re not the slimmest folks on the globe, either.

The page Jeff had marked for easy reference had this leg monster’s workout listed in a box, while a full-page photo of those tree-trunk-like quads towered above. If you didn’t know they were a human being’s legs, you could easily mistake them for a horrible alien creature that had burst from an unlucky space traveler’s chest. All it really needed to complete the look were some razor-sharp stainless steel teeth— and maybe a little slime.

This was the workout:

Leg extensions (light) 5 x 20, 25, 50, 50, 100
Squats 5 x 10-12
Leg presses 5 x 15-20
Hack squats 5 x 12-15
Leg extensions (heavy) 4 x 10-12
Walking lunges 4 x across parking lot and back
Lying leg curls 5 x 12-15
Standing leg curls 5 x 12-15
Seated leg curls 5 x 12-15
Standing calf raises 5 x 15-25
Seated calf raises 5 x 20

I shook my head and gave Jeff his water bottle. He sat up, and I gave him a hand to help him stand on his shaky legs. He was pale, almost green. I bet he had come close to throwing up.

“How far did you get?” I asked.

“I made it to the last set of leg presses before I started feeling really dizzy and came in here.”

I sighed and shook my head once again.

“What?” he demanded. “You told me to start training legs. I figured I would try this guy’s workout. I mean, look at his damn legs.”

“Jeff, that workout is almost 50 sets. You don’t go from not training legs to doing that much for them all at once. Actually, there is no reason you would ever need to do that much for legs.”

“But that’s what he does.” Jeff’s eyes were fully open now, so I looked right into them.

“Jeff, that guy has about as much trouble building legs as you do making money. The pros aren’t like regular human beings.”

“Why, the drugs?”

Always with the drugs, I thought wearily. It’s what everyone focuses on.

“Certainly they play a part, but these guys are almost a different species. They can put up with, and even thrive on, a very high volume of training. I’m sure that back in the day you tried to follow Arnold’s workouts, right?”

“Yeah, a couple times,” he admitted.

“How did that work out?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Not so well, but I figured that was Arnold. He was one of a kind.”

“Yes, he sure was. Most of the guys who trained with him couldn’t keep up without burning out. It’s the same with the pros today. They have such incredible genetics that almost anything they do produces results. I bet that guy could do half of what he does for legs and still look the same. That’s hard for me to say because I make my living writing training articles about the pros, but those workouts usually aren’t suited to the average person.”

“So what do you suggest?” he asked, toweling the clammy sweat from his face. We were right under an air-conditioning vent. I took a pen from my fanny pack—and please, no jokes about how lame fanny packs are—and crossed out more than half of the exercises in the routine.

“Do four sets of squats and just three sets of everything else. Work hard on those exercises, and don’t add anything else to the routine.”

He agreed and thanked me. I felt a twinge of guilt. There were plenty of other guys out there following the training routines of the pros, and it was partly my fault—but at least I often reminded readers that they should reduce the volume and definitely not attempt to use the same weights as some of those freaks of nature I was writing about. It’s all about doing what works for you, and not trying to follow the lead of someone who’s very, very different from you.

A muffled cry came from my gym bag. I peered inside. It was Joey, a young guy who was in between jobs and couldn’t afford to renew his membership. I felt bad for him and was doing him a favor so he could keep working out. Poor little guy. I knew it had to be pretty crowded in there with my belt, iPod, lifting straps and other assorted workout paraphernalia.

“Keep it down. We’ll be in the locker room in a minute!” I hissed at him. I really am such a nice guy. He’s lucky I didn’t have him hide inside the fanny pack.

Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding, available at IM

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