The date was August 19th, 1989, and as I stood onstage at my second ever bodybuilding competition I listened with nervous anticipation as the announcer counted down the top five placements. I was only 20 years old at the time, weighing in at a skinny, but sharp and proportionate 171 lbs, wondering if after just three years of hard training I could actually go home as the winner of the Natural Mr. Eastern USA contest!
“In 5th place…! In 4th!” Wow, I am still standing! They have not called my name yet! Is this possible? Am I dreaming? “In 3rd place…!” Holy crap, I’m in the top two! The other guy looks pretty damn good. He is thicker than me, and just as hard, but I know I have a better overall look. It’s apples and oranges. Fingers, toes, and eyes crossed. “In second place…! And the winner of the men’s middleweight division is Eric Broser!”
The crowd goes absolutely wild, as it was packed with dozens of my friends and family members. My heart is beating wildly and I struggle to fight back the tears. As I grab the trophy and hold it over my head I realize right then and there that this will be one of the most memorable and satisfying moments of my life.
So here I am, 20 years later, and yes, that first win was still the sweetest!
I find myself reflecting upon this day pretty often, as it never fails to bring a smile to my face and a boost to my spirit. However, as I sit here now typing on my computer, just a few months away from my 40th birthday I can actually look in the mirror and see the reflection of a physique that is not just as good as it was on that winning day twenty years ago, but far superior! That’s right…I look bigger and better today at age 40 than I did at age 20 (albeit with a few extra aches and pains). That is the beautiful thing about the bodybuilding lifestyle…if you live it each and every day you can actually get better with age, just like a fine wine.
That said, there are significant differences in how I must approach my training and diet at my present age as compared to when “I was a kid.” Wait… did I just say that? Hold up a second, I still am a kid…and I have the Playstation and Wii to prove it! But I digress…
In order to achieve longevity in bodybuilding, especially if the goal is to continue to improve the physique over time, you must not only be consistent, dedicated and disciplined, but also intelligent and calculating in your efforts. In other words your entire program must evolve as you move along in order to keep pace with the changes in the body and it’s systems that naturally manifest as we get older. You simply cannot expect to be able to train and eat the same way you did 20 years ago and continue the achieve the same type of progress. In fact, in most cases this approach will cause regression, and more than likely, injuries to occur.
So, without further ado, and before I forget what points I want to get across (yes, the memory definitely takes a beating as we age), let me discuss with my fellow Iron Man readers how my physique-building strategy differs today vs. twenty years ago.
That was then:
My warm-ups were not what you would call “extensive” when I was a young buck. Basically all I would do is walk into the gym, decide what exercise was going to be first in the routine and then go ahead and do 2-3 progressively heavier sets of about 15, 12, and 8 reps before launching into my first “work” set. Perhaps I would do another quick warm-up set of each new exercise after the first one, just to show my joints and nervous system the new movement/angle that was about to be attacked. Yeah, that was pretty much it, and it worked out just fine. But that was then…
This is now:
These days the first thing I do is make my way over to a treadmill or stationary cycle for a 5-10 minute medium paced walk or ride. I do this to get some blood pumping through my system and to raise my core temperature. Luckily I live in a warm climate so getting my body into a light sweat does not take very long. Next I do some callisthenic-type exercises for my lower back, which include both side bends and twists. I have had some serious disk injuries in the past, so this is vital to my warm-up. From there I move onto various shoulder roll and rotation movements, as well as some direct rotator cuff exercises utilizing either dumbbells and/or cables. Once I have chosen where I am going to start my workout I will usually do 3-4 progressively heavier warm-up sets of that particular exercise, and at least 1-2 warm-ups for each new exercise thereafter. I never skip or rush through any portion of my warm-up, and I believe this is essential to staving off muscular and joint injuries.
That was then:
While I must say that compared to the average younger trainee my exercise performance was usually pretty darn good, oftentimes I still found myself getting somewhat sloppy in an attempt to move more weight then I was truly ready to handle. Yes, there was a little of the infamous bouncing the bar off the chest to claim a bigger bench press; some serious back arch on barbell curls; minor “body English” during my “power” side laterals; and more than a just a bit of jerking when trying to out lift Dorian on bent over rows (no, Dorian never had to worry much). Actually, I think this is something that almost all of the younger guys go through at one point or another, and that is ok…as long as the cheating is not so excessive that it causes a major injury. Of course, when you are young the body is quite resilient and can take a major pounding without falling apart. However, if this “loose” form is kept up for too many years I can tell you that it will eventually catch up to you (usually in the knees, shoulders, elbows, and/or lower lumbar). Still, I look back on those years with affection, and realize that the overload those extra heavy weights forced upon my muscles did effectively produce hypertrophy and also made me rather functionally strong. But that was then…
This is now:
One thing I can tell you is this: if I tried to lift with the same loose and explosive style today that I utilized in my early years of training I would probably end up a cripple! Now, that is not to say that I don’t lift heavy and intensely these days. Quite the contrary! In fact, I would say that the form and lifting tempo that I tend to use now is in many ways far more brutal and intense than ever before, but at the same time, also safer. On most exercises I would tend to say that my form is “textbook,” with a very full range of motion (until it’s X-rep time of course) and slower lifting speed, especially in the eccentric portion of each lift. This forces the resistance to be moved solely through muscular contraction rather than momentum, with the force falling squarely on the target muscles instead of the joints and connective tissues. Interestingly, when an exercise gets more difficult I will usually slow the movement down even more, although the natural tendency would be to speed it up. To me, this is when a set gets “down and dirty,” and it is really time to dig deep and make the muscles go to work. Bottom line is this…if you want to stay injury free as you train into your 40’s, you have to eventually tighten up your form and become very conscious of every movement you make when lifting weights. Go after the target muscle for sure, but at the same time keep the entire body tight and stable. Not only will your muscle growth be more efficient, but you will get to use more ice in your protein shakes and less on your joints.
That was then:
Unbelievably enough, when I was in my late teens and early 20’s I would train on a 3-day-on, 1-day-off schedule most of the year, and when I was about 12 weeks out from a competition, would step it up to a 4-day-on, 1-day-off program! Thinking about it now, I have no idea how I did it! Nevertheless, while it might not have been the optimal frequency for my body even back then (meaning that I believe I would have progressed more quickly with a bit more rest), not only did I do well on that schedule, I actually thrived on it. Between the ages of about 19-24 I gained about fifty lbs and was capable of tossing around some pretty big weights. At the time most of the pro bodybuilders that I looked up to trained at least six days per week, and I felt I had to do the same if I ever wanted to look anything like my “heroes.” So, with my natural hormone levels in full swing, very little pressure or stress in my life, a ton of eggs, red meat, milk, pasta, potatoes and fruit filling my belly, and upwards of ten hours of sleep per night, I was easily able to recover from such frequent “beatings.” But, that was then…
This is now:
At this point in my training career I have found that what works best for me is a 2-day-on, 1-day-off, 2-day-on, 2-day-off training routine. Any time I attempt to train more than two straight days I either have a poor workout on the 3rd day, become run down (maybe even catch a sniffle…pass the Kleenex please!), and/or begin to feel old injuries rear their ugly head. It’s almost as if my body is giving me a little “reminder” that after 2 days it wants a break from the weights…and that is fine by me! Most weeks I am in the gym on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, giving me weekends off…which works quite well into the social calendar (did I just say “social calendar?). While I might do some cardio work on my off days, depending on the time of year, this does not make inroads into my recovery ability like lifting weights does, and in fact has been shown in studies to actually augment the body’s healing process (from training). I have been making steady progress on my current routine, have minimized any nagging aches and pains, and feel rather energetic most of the time, leading me to believe that I have found the optimal training frequency for my soon-to-be 40-year-old physique!
That was then:
So, when I was around 20 years old not only did I train more frequently, as I described above, but also did many more sets per body part than I do today. Although I was never one for those crazy 4-hour, 30-40 sets per muscle, marathon-training sessions, I was still able to maintain a relatively high workload without negative repercussions. As I remember, I would perform anywhere from 15-18 work sets for the larger muscle groups like quads, chest, lats, and shoulders, and somewhere between 8-14 sets for the remainder of my body parts. However, because of my training frequency, this was done twice per week for each muscle, as opposed to today, where each body part only gets one beating per week (with the exception of abs and calves). Thinking about my training program from my early days, it’s a wonder I had time to do anything else…although I am pretty sure my only concerns at age 20 were getting big and getting girls! But that was then…
This is now:
As of this writing the body part I am currently prioritizing is my back. I feel that as compared to my chest it lacks thickness and depth, which gives me somewhat of a disproportionate look between these two opposing muscle groups. Thus I do more sets for my back complex than for any other muscle. So how many sets do I do for my back? Well, maybe ten. And trust me, that seems like a lot! Chest and quads are blasted in 7-8 sets; hamstrings and shoulders are beaten down in 6-7 sets; biceps and triceps are more than fried in just 5-6 sets; and the rest of the muscles will be hit in 4 or less total work sets! While that is not exactly Mentznarian (is that a word?), it certainly falls under the definition of low volume training as compared to most trainees out there. But the truth of the matter is, why do more if I don’t need more? Remember, I am currently in the best shape of my life, carrying more muscle than ever before with definition and density that matches my best competitive outings! It would seem that the longer one has been training, the more and more he/she would need to do in order to continue to improve, but this is not the case with bodybuilding…and there is a reason for this.
In next month’s installment I will talk about why less is more as we get older, as well as touch upon several other areas of my program, which have completely evolved over my many years in the gym. Until then, remember, you are not getting older, only better (and probably a little balder…Rogaine anyone?).