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Variations for Size and Strength

Training variations, such as altering hand and foot positions, build more size and strength and also help prevent injuries.

Q: Why is variety so important for strength development?

A: In addition to stimulating growth, variety helps prevent repetitive-strain injuries. Carpal tunnel syndrome is epidemic in this country, but it’s not because typing is such a strenuous task—it’s because typing in the same manner for long periods is stressful. One physical therapist in California said that when he treated bodybuilders for biceps tendinitis, one common denominator he found was that they had been performing the same biceps exercises for months without change.

The changes you make don’t have to be extreme. About 20 years ago at an NSCA convention I bought a pair of Pignatti lifting shoes, which had a slightly lower heel than the Adidas I’d always used. Once I got home, like a kid with a new Christmas toy, I couldn’t wait to try out my Pignattis on 10 sets of triples in the squat. When I got out of bed the next day, I was so stiff that I thought I’d been whacked on the legs with bamboo sticks by a crowd of Kendo practitioners. The only difference was the lower heel height of the shoes.

If a change as minor as that can cause a major response, it’s easy to understand how effective you can make a workout by simply alternating your grip or foot stance. To prove it, try an omni squat workout. That means you vary the type of squat you perform over the sets. I have more than 25 workout variations in my computerized program; here’s one of them:

Omni Squats Mode 1

Set 1: Back squats, medium stance, elbows under the bar, 6 reps

Set 2: Back squats, wide stance, hands to the ends of the collars; lean forward 15 degrees, and keep the trunk angle constant through the entire set, 6 reps

Set 3: Cyclist squats, heels 4 inches apart, elevated 6 inches or so, 6 reps

Set 4: Back squats, medium stance, elbows under the bar, 8 reps

Set 5: Back squats, wide, hands to the ends of the collars; lean forward 15 degrees, and keep the trunk angle constant through the entire set, 8 reps

Set 6: Cyclist squats, heels 4 inches apart, elevated 6 inches or so, 8 reps

Set 7: Back squats, medium stance, elbows under the bar, 12 reps

Set 8: Back squats, wide stance, hands to the ends of the collars; lean forward 15 degrees, and keep the trunk angle constant through the entire set, 12 reps

Set 9: Cyclist squats, heels 4 inches apart, elevated 6 inches or so, 20 reps (yes, 20 reps; do not write in to ask if I really mean 20 reps)

Do that routine, and see how well you can tango for the next few days. It may not enable you to lift a full-grown bull the way Milo did, but you’ll achieve gains you never thought possible.

Q: You’ve been a strength coach for more than 28 years, so what do you consider strong?

A: What really impress me are big lifts made by athletes who use weight training to help them perform in their primary sports. For example, I saw an East German javelin thrower, a woman weighing about 130 pounds, split-snatch 242 pounds. And I saw a Russian wrestler bench-press 540 pounds for eight reps at a 4/2/1/0 tempo, which means he lowered the bar to his chest in four seconds and then paused two seconds on his chest before pressing it to arm’s length! Now, a powerlifter, wearing supportive gear, might not raise his eyebrows at that particular press, but the Russian was a wrestler who probably thought that supportive gear for strength training was a jockstrap.

I’d like to share with you a few strength feats that I’ve witnessed. In the past bodybuilders often competed in weightlifting because they were as strong as they looked. John C. Grimek, for example, was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic weightlifting team and also a winner of the Mr. America, the most prestigious bodybuilding title at the time. Strongman Mike Dayton trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger and said Arnold could bench-press more than 500 pounds; and Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu, at only 5’5”, could challenge the best powerlifters in the deadlift, claiming a personal best of 750 pounds.

Times have changed. Many bodybuilders have abandoned basic compound strength lifts and prefer machines—some don’t even bench-press. I recall one Mr. Olympia finalist whose best bench press was only about 300 pounds, a lift that many high school football players can accomplish. That’s just sad.

Back strength. One bodybuilder, in fact the best bodybuilder ever, has honored the old-school tradition of being as strong as you look: eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman. You may have seen video clips of his amazing feats of strength, such as dumbbell presses with 200 pounds for 12 reps, but it was something else to watch one of his workouts in person.

When I saw him, Ronnie was training at Milos Sarcev’s gym after a two-hour photo shoot. Unlike a fashion shoot with anorexic coat hangers, bodybuilding photo shoots are grueling endeavors, as you’re performing nonstop isometric contractions often in a dehydrated—and hungry—state. You may look as strong as a tiger, but you feel as weak as a kitten.

Instead of going through the motions, though, Ronnie proceeded to perform T-bar rows with 720 pounds—that’s 16 plates, folks—and, on his fourth exercise of the day, did five sets of eight reps with 495 pounds on the bent-over row. Can you imagine the lower-back strength needed just to maintain proper position during those exercises? When people tell me he deadlifted 800 pounds for reps, I believe them.

One of the standards of upper-back strength is the pull-up. I like that strength feat because, unlike with the pulldown, you can’t cheat—in fact, you often see guys in the gym handle the entire weight stack on a pulldown machine but struggle mightily trying to perform a single pullup. The pullup is a standard, and one athlete who has set the standard in pulling himself over a bar is André Benoît.

A PICP level 5 coach, André is a luger who has competed in the Olympics and many world championships. Weighing 170 pounds and making the exercise even more difficult by using a wide grip, André did three pullups with 120 pounds strapped around his waist. If you have any doubts about how difficult that is, try performing just one repetition—but first sign a waiver stating that performance of the exercise can result in serious injury or even death and releasing me from any liability.

Chest strength. I like the incline-bench press even more than the flat-bench press for training athletes. In fact, one poll of top coaches and exercise scientists identified the three most effective exercises for athletes as the power snatch, front squat and incline-bench press.

One of the most impressive incline press performances I ever saw was by Dennis “the Menace” James, a bodybuilder from Heidelberg, Germany, who placed fourth in the ’03 Mr. Olympia and who was trained by Milos Sarcev. Dennis’ competition bodyweight is around 255 pounds, and I saw him perform several sets of multiple reps in the incline press with 495 pounds. Again, no bench suit or other special supportive gear—just raw power and lots of it.

Upper-arm strength. Often bodybuilders with large arms are surprisingly weak in curling exercises. Many of the best wrist wrestlers don’t lift weights and have relatively small arm size, relying on speed and technique to get an edge. However, I saw three bodybuilders who certainly didn’t have the problem:

• Amateur bodybuilder Gabe McLure performing one-arm Scott curls with 112 1/2 pounds for reps.

• Mr. Universe André Maillé performing six strict reps with 225 pounds on standing barbell curls before stepping out onstage to guest pose.

• Mr. Universe André Charette doing decline triceps extensions with 120-pound dumbbells

Leg strength. Earlier I mentioned front squats. One reason I like and respect them is that they force you to squat deeper than back squats. When I worked with Olympic bobsledder Ian Danney, another PICP level 5 coach, I made certain he squatted deep—“leave-a-stain-on-the-platform” deep. So how strong was he? At a bodyweight of just 172 pounds, Ian squatted 440 pounds for two reps. Then there was two-man bobsledder Pierre Lueders, an Olympic medalist, who weighed 220 pounds and could front-squat 462 pounds. Finally, Felix Belczyk and Cary Mullen were World Cup medalists in downhill skiing. Felix weighed 191 pounds and Cary 200 pounds, and both front-squatted 352 pounds.

Another was David Boston, nicknamed “the Machine!” The NFL’s leading receiver in 2001, David lifted weights that even the strongest linemen would struggle with. In one workout he demonstrated one of the most amazing feats of hamstring strength I’ve ever seen, lifting the entire weight stack on a heavy-duty Atlantis leg curl machine.

Finally, there is Nathalie Lambert, a world champion in short-track speed skating I coached. Nathalie could do front split squats with 198 pounds for five reps. There was a guy at our gym who desperately wanted to know when I was training Nathalie. I asked if he wanted to meet her, and he said no, he just didn’t want to work out at the same time because she intimidated him.

It’s been my honor to see so many of these extraordinary athletes in action. Many more are coming up, and I’ll be watching for the next great feat of strength.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists 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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