Bench Kings – Learn from the Pros

In high school weight rooms around the world, the bench press reigns supreme.  While the squat and deadlift have great athletic carry-over, the bench press has earned a spot as the definitive gauge of upper body strength.

Even though the bench seems like a deceptively simple “push a bar off your chest” exercise, BP specialists could spend weekends palavering about methods to improve their press.

I got on the phone with a half-dozen of the best benchers in the biz, picked their brains (they were surprisingly generous in sharing their secrets), and was rewarded with some useful tricks and techniques to help anyone go from benching a weight that weenies might use for curls to driving up a bar that rattles a bit.

Here’s our all-star line-up:

A.J. Roberts, one of the great lifters from Westside Barbell, is chasing after a 2800-lb total (with current lifts of a 1035 squat, 820 bench, and 760 deadlift). In just two years at Westside, he has seen his total climb by almost two hundred pounds, and his big bench is a large part of that.

Ryan Celli is a dangerously strong 198-pounder with an all-time record raw total of 1840. His best raw single lifts (not all at the same meet) include a 625 squat, 534 bench, and 685 pull. His single-ply total of one ton is comprised of a 705 squat, 622 bench, and 672 deadlift, built over his two decades of competition.

Having held the all-time world record total of 2605 (in the 275 class), Scott Yard has posted a 1050 squat, an 840 bench, and a 720 deadlift. Switching over to raw meets, he has boasts an equally impressive 750 squat, 505 bench, and 755 deadlift.

Travis Bell is another Westsider with a raw bench in the gym of 540 lbs (at a body weight around 250) and an amazing contest-equipped bench of 770 (weighing in at 258).

Vinnie Dizenzo considers himself a strength athlete cast in the old school definition of the term. His lifts of a 605-lb raw bench (as a super-heavy), shirted benches of 820 (in the 308-pound class) and 730 (at 242), a strict overhead press in competition of 405, and an 800-pound trapbar deadlift in competition validate this beyond dispute.

APF and WABDL lifter Adrian Larsen has numerous state, national, and world records to his credit and recently has benched an imposing 710 pounds (weighing 259).

If there were a United Nations of strength, these men would be the Warrior Kings of the bench press. The sum of their applied knowledge distilled here can help you make the leap to a higher level of bench press prowess.

Adrian Larsen – APF and WABDL lifter with a 710lbs bench to his name

TAKING STOCK

Anyone that has put in some time in the gym knows that genetics play a huge part in how strong you can get, and when we are talking about on specific lift, body mechanics and leverage are a major part of that. As Travis Bell shares, “I am five foot nine, have short arms, and I’m pretty thick, so my range-of-motion is a lot less than a lot of the full-power guys that have exceptional deadlifts.”

Adrian Larsen goes on to say, “I would have to rank my mechanics for the bench as definitely a ten. I do have some disadvantages. I was born with a dislocated hip so I can’t put my feet down on the ground. That is a huge disadvantage. I just put my feet straight out, but as far as how my body is built, I am pretty barrel-chested, and I can bench as wide as legal. I think I was built to be a big bencher.”

For those without the typical bencher’s build, the advice from our panel was universally echoed. Scott Yard says it best: “I’m 5’8” and have short arms, so my body mechanics are good for benching. When someone asks me how to increase their bench, I tell them to gain twenty pounds. That’s a sure-fire way to make your bench move.”

Ryan Celli concurs, “Someone with long arms is going to have to build up their arms to make them thicker and add some mass to their frame.” For the full meet lifters, of course, arm length has its pros and cons. “I don’t have excellent mechanics for any of the lifts,” says A.J. Roberts. “I just have good mechanics for all of them. I have good leverages for everything, which equals a good total.”

“As an adult, I have been as light as 190 pounds and as heavy as 329,” says Vinnie Dizenzo. “The leverages that I have now, I created for myself.” This speaks to the concept that you never know what you are capable of until you try. “Don’t use your body leverages as a cop out. When I look at a guy like Garry Frank, who is incredibly tall with very long arms but is still capable of benching huge numbers, it’s a reminder that people can overcome anything.”

“Mechanics help you to an extent,” Scott Yard adds, “but it comes down to how hard you are prepared to work to get better.”

Ryan Celli – Big Bencher

SETTING UP THE BENCH

The quickest way to increase your bench press is simply to start doing it right. Proper form, based on your specific needs, allows you to exert maximal strength while moving the bar a minimal distance. “Once guys get really strong using poor technique, it’s really hard to change that,” says Travis Bell. “It’s good to get really sound technique in the beginning stages, although it might slow the initial speed of your progress. Ryan Celli is a prime example of the payoff to this. If you watch ANY of his lifts, they are picture perfect. His strength is a production of that technique added to his training ethics.”

As Ryan Celli says, “For every lift, you have to start from your feet up”, but there is some variability in how lifters do this.

“There are two ways to set your feet. One is tucked up underneath you, which you see a lot of guys do. I used to do this, but what I found was that it was pretty unstable,” says A.J. Roberts. “If you get to rocking from side to side, it’s hard to keep your balance, so I have my feet out in front of me, basically creating a solid base with my feet. The whole part of the press starts with a foot drive, pushing the heels into the ground. Once you have that solid base, you shouldn’t be able to move anything. You should be rigid.”

Roberts goes on to say, “You have to create what I call a platform shelf that you bench off of. When you bench press, you need to squeeze your shoulders together and make sure your upper back is completely on the bench, otherwise you get a lot of shoulder rotation, so you can move your shoulders up and down. What that is going to do is make you lose force through the shoulder when you press the bar. If you have them pinched under you, giving you a solid base with no movement in your shoulders, there is no place for that force to go but through the bar.”

“You want a slight arch in your lower back,” Roberts continues. “Everyone is different as far as how much arch they can get. It really depends on how you are benching, if it is really beneficial. You really want to arch your mid to upper back if you can, but it takes a lot of practice.”

Scott Yard adds, “I have a very simple setup. Bench-only guys can afford the expense of a setup with an arch that is eight inches off the bench and having their feet back real far, but when it comes to full power, you can’t do that. I use more of a conservative bench setup because I still have to pull three deadlifts.”

A.J. Roberts goes on, “Once you have that set, the next is bar placement in your hand. You want to have it low in your hand, basically in a straight line, with your wrist as straight as possible. Thumb is always wrapped, otherwise you don’t activate all of the muscles you can, especially the bicep muscles. You want the forearm to be straight up, straight down. Basically, you bring the bar out and lower the bar down onto your lats. It’s kind of hard to explain but [in regards to] your wrists, you will notice that if you squeeze your pinkies, you elbows turn inwards, and that’s the position you are going to bench from.”

“Your grip should be the absolute widest you can go,” Travis Bell adds. “I very rarely have anyone use any less than index-on-the-rings, and the few individuals that had to were guys with very narrow shoulders. If some guys could just learn to go with the wider grip and then tuck their elbows a little bit more, forcing your shoulder to stay in tight, it will decrease your range of motion by two or three inches, and that can easily be the difference between making a lift and not finishing one.”

Vincent Dizenzo – Benching 605lbs RAW

PUTTING TOGETHER YOUR TRAINING PLAN

The amount of variability the lifters used in their training surprised me, probably driven primarily by their personality type. Some prefer a solidly constructed template while others (particularly Ryan Celli) train in a less organized manner. With two of the six (Travis Bell and A.J. Roberts) as members of Westside Barbell, most of the readers of this are very familiar with Louie Simmons’ proven techniques. Scott Yard and Adrian Larsen follow many of the WSB concepts but seem to find that they do better if they limit the amount of dynamic work. Vinnie Dizenzo has used a number of different protocols in the past but currently follows a block periodization plan.

“My bench workouts have run the gamut,” Dizenzo says. “I’ve done Westside. I’ve done block periodization. I’ve done Metal Militia. I think any program with a little science or thought behind it works if you implement it and follow it properly. I don’t rethink programs. If I decide I’m going to do Wendler’s 5/3/1, I do 5/3/1. If you think you know more about lifting than the people that have poured years of knowledge into these programs, then you are fooling yourself.”

“I train simple and based on feel,” Ryan Celli says. “I do my own thing, a combination of everything I have learned. I do speed squats and use bands and chains, which is sort of Westside, but it’s all modified to fit what works for me. I do more bodybuilding type stuff than the average powerlifter. I think it works all the stabilizing muscles and keeps everything in balance. I want to look like I lift too.”

For A.J. Roberts and Travis Bell though, they worship at the Westside altar as disciples of a church that has canonized more saints of power than any other gym in the world. As the man that most people in powerlifting consider their messiah (especially after the reverse hyper has rescued you from severe back pain), Louie Simmons has developed a system with four primary workouts each week divided evenly between squat/dead and bench sessions, with one session of each devoted to max effort (heavy near-limit poundages) and one devoted to dynamic training (lighter weights explosively pushed for speed).

AJ Roberts with his mentor Louie Simmons

A recent adjustment to the Westside protocol that is followed by both Bell and Roberts is greater variety in the max effort exercise. “We found that because of the level we are at, it keeps shocking the body and works better,” says A.J. Roberts. “Usually we rotate between full-range, a partial-range, and then a shirted bench. For example, week one might be hanging reverse blue band bench press. Week two might be a floor press, and during week three we would be in our shirts, pressing against bands or against chains.”

“A lot of the Westside techniques are individualized,” says Travis Bell. “On our max effort movement, we will hit a five-pound PR and then usually hit a second pressing movement, whether that is a couple of down set with the same setup and a little bit lighter weight, or we’ll do some shoulder pressing work. Then we will proceed on to our triceps work, which is usually something like Tate presses or rolling dumbbell extensions, or JM presses with different bars or with kettlebells hanging from them, perhaps using the football bar. We usually do two triceps exercises of four to six sets and six to eight reps. Then we move on to upper back and delt work with some rear delts. We usually do a rowing movement and then a pulldown movement and then something like band pull-aparts or reverse pec deck.”

“The whole thing takes 45 minutes to an hour,” Roberts says. “On shirted day it takes a little longer, but on other days we go pretty fast, back to back.”

Roberts continues, “On dynamic day, we start out with a speed movement; typically its 40-50% of our raw bench press and done with resistance, mini-bands, or chains. We rotate bars each week too, so we use a fat bar, skinny bar, football bar. For example, we might do a regular bar with mini-bands doubled on it and do nine sets of three there and go on to something high-rep, like an incline bench press. We finish up with a triceps compound exercise, which is three exercises together. We call it crazy eights. We use an ez-curl bar and do eight extensions, eight rollbacks, and eight close-grip presses. Then I do a little extra back work — some pulldowns and some shrugs.”

“For our dynamic effort day,” Travis Bell says, “Louie has had me cycling between eight sets of three and then seven to eight sets of five reps. We have been doing triples for so many years, we needed a change. We concern ourselves more with the speed that we are using to move the bar, not the weight, because we want to train that explosive response while keeping good form.”

Vinnie Dizenzo, however, has been training using a block periodization program. “I like the amount of volume. It has two bench days. Even though I am 41, I want to get bigger and more muscular, and I think the volume from block periodization will do that for me.”

When asked to describe it, Dizenzo says, “You train in blocks and it’s based on percentages, working off of Prilepin’s chart. The beginning month you do high volume, so the weight is going to be lower, with you doing a lot of sets, a lot of reps, and a lot of assistance work. Then you deload for a week to give your body a little bit of a break. Then you gradually train a bit more specifically to your competition lift. The volume will decrease as the weight gradually goes up. The assistance work is more tailored to the completion lifts you will be doing. You do a second deload week, and then for the last block you do very high percentages, near your max, for fewer sets and reps and very little assistance work. At the final stage, you just do assistance work that specifically assists you with recuperation from the heavy training.”

Vincent Dizenzo – Gearing up for a big bench

Showing the individuality of the athletes, Ryan Celli says, “I train heavy most of the time. I tease a lot of the guys about doing the deload thing. Everyone is deloading all the time, but I just go by feel. If I feel strong, I go heavy. I don’t know if that’s always the right thing to do.”

Celli does eight to ten sets of bench press, going almost entirely by feel. “After benching I will do one or two chest exercises, something at an incline, whether it’s a barbell, dumbbell or log, and then some kind of isolation exercise for the chest, like cable crossover, pec deck, and flyes.  Then we do shoulder work, which for me is just one movement for three to five sets, something overhead. Seated dumbbell presses are maybe 90% of my shoulder work. I do triceps also that day, which by that point don’t need too much. I will do at least one exercise, maybe two. For the first I might do five sets of something, for the second exercise I might do two sets.

“I’m not big on speed work on the bench,” Celli adds. “I might only do it once every three months for variety. It aggravates my elbows, even with band tension. For someone benching raw, I don’t see the benefit from it. If they are going to bench a second day, I think they would be better off doing three sets of eight with 50% of their max just to get the volume and some blood in there while working on their technique.”

Adrian Larsen has come to the same conclusion. “I am a firm believer in NOT doing a dynamic workout every week. I feel it’s really hard on your joints, so doing that every ten days to two weeks is preferable. I do feel quite a bit stronger on my max effort day following a dynamic session, but I think it’s very important to give yourself the time off. I also think people go too heavy on their dynamic days. I have yet to get injured since I made that adjustment. If you work out as hard as powerlifters work out, you need that rest.”

“My first day of the week will be my max effort day,” Larsen explains. “Two days from then, I will either do my dynamic day or a shoulder/back training day, and those two will just alternate. I change my assistance exercises every three weeks and do somewhere between four to seven movements after I’m done benching. Some of my regular choices include grip work, floor presses, JM presses, Tates, incline pressing, dumbbell pressing for reps, shoulder lockouts.”

Scott Yard follows a similar basic approach. “I only train twice a week because I tore my biceps tendon seven months ago, and that has limited the movements I can do. I had to modify things. I use a basic periodization because working with sub-maximal weights for higher reps allows me to train without tearing my body up. I believe in ‘train a little, rest a lot.’”

The average workout for Yard takes about fifty minutes and would start out with flat bench. “I don’t believe in a ton of warmup sets. I work up to one top set. It may be 425 for a set of six. I then switch to triceps. I might do a strict dumbbell triceps extension for a few sets, then do some lat pulldowns, and then finish up with shoulder work, which is front, side, and rear raises. For the assistance work I do three sets of about eight reps.”

FIND A MENTOR

Looking at the lifts accomplished by these champions, all applying similar methods in different ways, makes it obvious that in order to build a big bench, you must both become a student of powerlifting as well as find out exactly what works for you.

The next step for you is to find people in your area who you can learn from. “When I started to become a bench specialist, I was commuting about an average of eight hours a week to train with Bill Crawford and Glen Chabot,” says Vinnie Dizenzo. “If you are serious, find a coach.”

Adrian Larsen agrees, but adds a caveat, “Typically when people go in and start training with other lifters, they try to keep up. Work within your abilities and make goals for yourself.”

Scott Yard tells a similar tale. “I sought out the best people in the area. When I first started squatting, I would drive two hours to train with a guy that was a 1100-pound squatter, and it made my squat go up about two hundred pounds. You have to surround yourself with big, strong people that know what they are doing.”

WRAP UP

Take these lessons from Ryan Celli, Travis Bell, Scott Yard, A.J. Roberts, Adrian Larsen, and Vinnie Dizenzo and apply them to your bench training. See if you can build a bench press that has younger lifters asking you how you became a king of the bench!

Written by Steve Colescott

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Bench Kings – Learn from the Pros discussion thread.

About Steve Colescott

Known as the Guerrilla Journalist, Steve Colescott has written over a hundred published articles for many major bodybuilding publications, including Peak Training Journal, the innovative and well-respected magazine in which he served as Publishing Editor.

He is currently a staff writer for WannaBeBig.com and has been a consultant to a number of top sports nutrition companies.

With his company, Colescott Metabolic Solutions, he has transformed the physiques of scores of average businesspeople, weekend athletes and housewives beyond their wildest expectations. Steve lives in Akron, Ohio and trains at the ultra-hardcore Body Builders Gym, an Ohio musclehead landmark.

Complexes for Fat Loss

Note: Win AtLarge Nutrition Fat Burners Nitor & Thermocin – (see bottom of article)

Let’s cut the BS and get down to business: traditional cardio – running on the treadmill, sitting on a bike, riding on one of those stupid-looking elliptical machines – just doesn’t work that well if your main goal is to lose fat (now if your main goal is to watch TV or read a book and portray the illusion of hard training, then traditional cardio has you covered).

Traditional cardio bites the big one for one main reason:

It Doesn’t Burn That Many Calories

We all know that fat-loss is pretty simple: burn more calories than you consume. So riding on a bike seems logical since it burns calories while you do it: the longer you pedal, the more you burn. But how many calories do you burn once you step off the bike? The answer is not that many.

What if there was a way to burn calories not only while training but also after training? My friends, let me introduce you to the EPOC effect. It stands for Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption, which is just a fancy way of saying you burn more calories after training since you’re taking in more oxygen and expending more energy than normal.

Interval training like HIIT accomplishes this simply because it’s harder on your body and throws off your body’s natural homeostasis. More calories burned = more fat loss.

So Why Not Just Do Intervals?

Intervals are still great, but most people are already excessively tight in their hip flexors and anterior delts (front part of the shoulder) due to too much sitting and poor posture.  Do we really need to make it worse by riding an exercise bike? And what about running sprints? Truth be told, many of you (and probably me) have horrible, horrible running form. And it doesn’t just look ugly – it’s bad for our bodies, too.

Think about it: if you had poor bench-press form but decided to bench press anyway, you’d be setting yourself up for injury. Well, look at running the same way, except with hundreds (and possibly thousands) of reps. Every time your foot strikes the ground, it could be putting harmful stress on your joints. Kind of defeats the purpose of doing a “healthy” activity, huh?

Weight-lifters Rejoice! There Is a Better Way.

Fortunately for us, weight training is much more fun and challenging than intervals and, when done properly with “complexes”, will lead to the same EPOC effect. Also, if you set up your complexes properly, you’ll get more than just a lung-burning, feel-like-you’re-going-to-die feeling. You can hit all the main muscle groups and even have specific work for your abs, all while burning a ton of calories (and setting yourself up to burn a ton of calories after your workout).

Just What the Hell is a Complex, Anyway?

Good question. A complex is a series of exercises (usually compound movements) that flow into each other with no rest in between. You usually have to use lighter weights than you normally would, but a good complex will be challenging. Remember: we’re going for fat-loss here, not pure strength.

The Equipment

  • You.
  • A pair of dumbbells.
  • A barbell and some plates.

Three Complex Challenges

1. The Barbell Complex

3 sets of 8 reps with no rest between exercises.
Rest for 90 seconds after you complete the full circuit, then perform two more times.

Romanian Deadlift

Bent-over Row

Front squat


Push Press

Barbell Rollout

2. The Dumbbell Complex

4 sets of 6 reps with no rest between exercises.
Rest for 90 seconds after you complete the full circuit, then perform three more times.

Reverse Lunge

Alternating DB Row

Push-up

Burpee

Alternating DB Military Press

3. The Anywhere Bodyweight Complex

3 sets of 12 reps with no rest between exercises.
Rest for 90 seconds after you complete the full circuit, then perform two more times.

Squat

Spiderman pushup

Jumping lunges*

Pushup-to-Plank

Mountain Climbers*


* 6 reps each leg for a total of 12

When Should I Do Complexes?

Complexes are best performed directly after your regular weight training session or on an “off” day.

If you need to lose 15 pounds or more of fat, I’d recommend doing all three complexes, one for each day per week, on the days when you’re not doing your regular program.

If you want to use complexes to “tighten up” or just to become more athletic, I recommend you pick two or three complexes and perform them after your regular weight training session.

The Death of Traditional Cardio

Despite what hardcore bodybuilding magazines or traditional media try to tell you, training should be hard and rewarding. Traditional cardio doesn’t burn as many calories as complexes and can even lead to injury and overuse syndrome.

So wave goodbye to the soccer moms and skinny-fat guys on the treadmill, grab a barbell (or use just your bodyweight), and get one hell of a workout that actually strips the fat off.

Written by Riley Bestwick * All photos of Mike Scialabba were taken at MUST (Missoula Underground Strength Training Center)

Win AtLarge Nutrition Fat Burners Nitor & Thermocin – We’d love to see some videos of Wannabebig members performing the complexes either in this article or your own complexes.

Submit your video on the forums and we’ll pick a few random winners and hook you up with some AtLarge Nutrition Fat Burners, Thermocin or Nitor to help you with your fat loss!

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Complexes for Fat Loss discussion thread.

So You Wannabe a Bodybuilder?

Congratulations on your fine choice!

You have decided to become a bodybuilder and live the unique lifestyle it entails. Congratulations! You will look back at it as one of the best and most significant decisions you ever made.

From this day forward, many aspects of your life will improve. You will look better, have improved health and energy, and your self-confidence will soar!

While others may hope and wish they could “…have a better body”, you will be one of the few that actually makes it happen. In a world where most people forever search in vain for quick fixes and effortless success, you will stand out as one who actually achieves your goals through hard work and determination.

Three sides of a pyramid

To the outside observer, it might seem as if bodybuilding is all about training. In actuality, training is only one of three key factors to bodybuilding success.  You can liken these three factors to the three sides of a pyramid.  Training, nutrition, and recovery all share equal billing on the marquee of bodybuilding success. Each plays an integral part in achieving your physical goals.  Without training, you can’t stimulate muscle growth. Without proper nutritional support, you won’t be able to fuel productive workouts and your muscles won’t have the raw materials needed to repair damaged muscle tissue and synthesize new muscle mass. In the absence of ample rest, you will neither have the energy for great workouts, nor the ability to recover from them.

Training – you are not a powerlifter!

There are millions and millions of people that lift weights on a regular basis, but only a small percentage of them are true bodybuilders. What’s the main distinction? Most people go into the gym and move weights from point A to point B. Their exercise form may, or may not be correct. They may have vague goals of being able to lift a certain amount of weight in one or more exercises (the bench press being most popular), but that’s about it. In contrast, bodybuilders go to the gym to train their muscles. A bodybuilder wants to feel the target muscle(s) stretching and contracting as he performs his reps.  He wants the muscle(s) to feel pumped by the time he’s done training, and often prefers to feel some level of soreness the next day as an indication he hit the muscle(s) with enough intensity to stimulate growth. He doesn’t usually waste time trying to see how much weight he can use for a single maximum effort; instead, he does 8-12 reps per set for most upper body exercises, and 10-20 reps for legs.

With a proper understanding of what makes a bodybuilder different, we can now discuss the best training methods for the novice. Your first year or two of training are when you lay the foundation of your physique. If you talk to almost any bodybuilder who has been training more than a few years, he will tell you that he made his best gains when he first started. Our bodies are highly adaptive organisms, so the greatest adaptation to training occurs while that stimulation is still a fairly new phenomenon. As the years go by, the body becomes tougher and tougher to ‘trick’ into new growth, and that’s when workouts become more complicated. But in the beginning, complicated is the last thing you want.The secret to success in your first couple years of bodybuilding training is to keep it simple.Whatever you do, don’t pick up a bodybuilding magazine and copy the routine of your favorite pro. These are hereditarily superior men that have typically been training for at least a decade and have built all the size they will ever need. Though they may still be trying to improve a specific body part, usually their main goal is to refine and add detail to their existing muscle mass.
Author, Ron Harris

They employ many isolation exercises as well as plenty of machines and cables spending entire workouts on just one muscle group. In short, they don’t train like they did, or you should when you are first beginning your bodybuilding journey.

Your success as a beginner depends on getting progressively stronger on just a handful of very basic exercises most of which are done with raw iron (i.e. barbells and dumbbells). Isolation is not what you want at this stage. Instead, you will benefit most from compound movements that work several large muscle groups at once thus giving you the most ‘bang for the buck.’ Deadlifts hit the entire back, but also the legs, biceps, forearms, and abdomen. Bench presses are ostensibly for the chest, yet they heavily recruit the triceps and front delts as well.  There is a reason squats are known as the king of lower body exercises. The quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and even the calves all work hard during squats.  Full body routines are often recommended for beginners, but the workload required for such routines is prohibitively high in my opinion.  A program which stops short of a full body routine, but still targets most of the major body parts is optimal (see Beginner Workout at the end of this article).

Techniques such as supersets, drop sets, rest-pause, forced reps, and pre-exhaust are of value, but should be saved for the more advanced trainee.  Beginners should stick with straight sets, good form, and a high intensity of effort.  They should practice progressive resistance (as your strength increases so should the loads).

You will find that muscular size and strength are highly correlated at least for the individual.  In other words, as you get stronger you will also get bigger assuming you maintain good form and consume sufficient calories.  It’s a gradual process, but a powerfully effective one.

Nutrition – quality calories for quality gains

Several analogies have commonly been used to attempt to describe the importance of good nutrition in bodybuilding.  For example, food is often likened to gasoline.  My personal favorite has to do with construction sites.  The workers can show up every day to build, but without the proper raw materials they can’t build a sound structure no matter how hard they work.  As with the construction workers, you simply cannot build a great physique with poor nutrition irrespective of your efforts in the gym.

The old cliché, “You are what you eat” is an immutable truth in bodybuilding.  The higher the quality of the foods you consume, the better your bodybuilding results will be.  Most people don’t really put much thought into what they eat. They eat when they are hungry, and they eat for pleasure. If that’s your way of thinking, it needs to change immediately!

The standard three meals per day will not cut it in bodybuilding.  Muscles need a near constant, steady supply of nutrients which means that you must eat every two to three hours. Going longer between meals takes your body out of an ‘anabolic,’ or building state, and into a ‘catabolic,’ or wasting state. The truth is that there are plenty of guys out there that train hard and often enough to stimulate muscle growth, yet they never grow. The number one reason is insufficient nutrients.  Luckily, with the advent of protein supplements, we have a quick and easy way to provide our bodies the requisite fuel.  Not everyone has time to sit down and eat a solid meal every couple hours, but drinking a shake only takes a minute. Most successful bodybuilders eat about four solid meals and consume two or three protein shakes per day.

Ron Harris – in the gym cranking out some dips

There is a world of difference between the quality of a 99-cent hamburger from a fast-food joint and a grilled New York Strip steak. The burger contains far more saturated fat and less protein. The same can be said for the distinction between a bucket of fried chicken and grilled chicken breasts. Bodybuilders need to take in ‘clean’ calories for best results. The best clean protein sources are chicken or turkey breasts, lean red meats, egg whites, fish, and skim milk. All of these contain the correct ratio of amino acids the human body needs to repair and synthesize new muscle tissue. You also need complex carbohydrates to provide the fuel for your workouts. The best sources are rolled oats (oatmeal, but not the instant flavored type), yams, potatoes, and rice.  As with protein sources, never assume that a fast food order of french fries loaded with sodium and saturated fats is the bodybuilding dietary equivalent of a beaked potato, it isn’t.  Fibrous carbohydrates are raw vegetables and should be eaten for their fiber content as well as the many vitamins and minerals they provide. Good choices include broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and spinach. Finally, fats are an essential ingredient in the anabolic process, but you must be careful to selectively consume ‘good’ fats. Examples of good fats include those found in nuts, egg yolks, the omega acids in cold-water fish like salmon, and flax seed oil.

Just as eating the right foods is important, how you prepare them is also significant. Baking or grilling is better than frying in oil. Another area of concern is condiments. A baked potato is a clean carbohydrate, but not if you slather it with butter! A chicken breast is a clean protein source, but not if you drown it in sugary barbecue or teriyaki sauce. Salads are great, unless you dump a bunch of high-calorie dressing loaded with sugar and fat over them. Get the picture?

How ‘clean’ you need to eat and how many carbohydrates you should consume really depends on your metabolism. If you are a skinny guy who can eat all kinds of junk and never gain an ounce of fat, you can get away with not having to eat so clean all the time. You can have your occasional burger and fries, or few slices of pizza. In fact you may even benefit from it because your metabolism burns so many calories.  You should also consume complex carbohydrates at each meal.  Conversely, if you are overweight and have never been able to lose fat easily, your diet needs to be as clean as possible.  You should strive to have the majority of your daily carbohydrate intake directly before and after training.

Protein requirements are a bit easier to determine. Generally speaking, you should aim to consume a gram and a half per pound of bodyweight every day. For a 180-pound man, that’s 270 grams a day. If you eat six times a day (which includes shakes), that averages out to 45 grams per meal.

Nutrition is a subject you can and should learn a great deal more about, but hopefully this basic introduction has given you a rough idea of what is needed.

(see Perfect Bodybuilder Meals at the end of this article)

Rest and recover if you want to grow

Just as nutrition is often overlooked by would-be bodybuilders, so is recovery.  Intense weight training causes damage to the muscle tissue at the cellular level. It is when this damage is repaired, and with the right circumstances rebuilt slightly larger (known as hypertrophy) that the bodybuilder begins to achieve his goal of increased muscular size and enhanced shape. This process can be sabotaged if intense training is performed again prior to its completion.  Additionally, the process can be thwarted if sleep is inadequate, or the body is subjected to excessive mental or physical stressors which flood the system with catabolic hormones like cortisol.  Many new bodybuilders, in their zeal to build a great physique, overtrain by subjecting the muscles and nervous system to more exercise than they can recover from.

Earlier in this article I referenced the folly of copying the training routines of the pros relative to their choices of exercises and specific goals.  Overtraining is another reason not to train like them.  The volume and frequency of training programs followed by most professional bodybuilders would simply bury the novice.  This is due to a hereditary advantage many of them have in terms of recovery ability and the rarely discussed factor of tissue building drugs.  As a drug free bodybuilder, as I feel all beginners should be, you simply won’t have the recovery advantage the drugs impart as part of your arsenal.

You must have ‘off days’ when you don’t train. You can’t do endless sets and exercises, and you NEED your rest. Don’t stay out all night drinking with your buddies or give up hours of sleep to watch TV or play video games. Don’t run around playing other sports for fun if making gains as a bodybuilder is your primary goal. Always keep in mind that you stimulate growth by training, but actual growth happens outside the gym. Doing too much training, or not providing your body with enough rest will prevent results from materializing. So, unless you don’t mind putting out all that effort in the gym for nothing, you must pay heed to your body’s recovery requirements.

Ron Harris – Shoulder press

A word on patience and consistency

Building a physique is a very gradual process. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is any exceptional body. Most beginners hate to hear this, but it will be several months before you start to see significant improvements, and at least a year or two in most cases before you obtain what most consider the ‘bodybuilder look’.  This should not discourage, on the contrary, things which are too easily achieved impart little satisfaction.  If it were quick and easy there would be nothing special about it.  Every guy would be walking around with bulging muscles and granite-hard definition.

It’s really all about consistency. Every good workout, every good meal, and every good night’s sleep should be considered one step closer to your goal.  Every day of addressing all three sides of that triangle to the best of your abilities keeps you moving in the right direction.  Ignoring any of them will mire your progress, or worse, cause regression. How does that saying go?  The tortoise wins the race?  Progress is never at lightning speed, there will inevitably be some times when you don’t seem to be making any at all despite your best efforts.  It’s useful to take photos of yourself in the exact same lighting conditions at regular intervals (every two or three months).  Your physical progress is akin to the growth of your lawn.  It’s impossible to see grass growing on your lawn if you stare at it every day.  With a regularly taken series of photos you will definitely see and appreciate the progress you are making. This will serve to heighten and sustain your motivation and confirm that your efforts are indeed paying off!

Let the gains begin!

Welcome to what I feel is one of the most positive, life-affirming activities a person can partake in – bodybuilding. It’s a journey you can remain on for the rest of your life. As a bodybuilder, you will be more in control of your health, strength, appearance, and vitality – qualities that most others around you simply surrender to fate and bad habits they feel powerless to act against. The ability to master your own body and recreate it into an image you desire is empowering. Others may envy or jeer you, mocking you for being so ‘obsessed’ with working out and eating right. Just remember, obsessed is just a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated… Dedicate yourself to bodybuilding, and the rewards will be innumerable. Take it from someone who began this journey a quarter-century ago and is still going strong. There is nothing like being a bodybuilder.

Beginner Workout

(Note: always warm up properly before attempting heavy weight)

Day one

  • Barbell bench press  4 x 8-12
  • Deadlift   4 x 8-12
  • Seated military press  4 x 8-12
  • Barbell curl   4 x 8-12
  • Weighted dip   4 x 8-12

Day two: OFF

Day three

  • Squat    6 x 8-20 (pyramid up in weight, down in reps)
  • Stiff-legged deadlift  4 x 10
  • Leg press   3 x 10-15
  • Lying leg curl   4 x 10
  • Standing calf raise  3 x 10

Day four

  • Chin-up   4 x 8-12
  • Incline dumbbell press 4 x 8-12
  • Barbell row   4 x 8-12
  • Seated dumbbell press  4 x 8-12
  • Alternate dumbbell curl 4 x 8-12
  • Skullcrushers   4 x 10-12

Day five: OFF, repeat cycle

Perfect Bodybuilder Meals: A + B

A. Protein (40-60 grams)

  • Chicken breast
  • White tuna
  • Turkey breast
  • Egg whites

B. Carbohydrate (50-200 grams)

  • Rice
  • Potato
  • Yam
  • Oatmeal

Written by Ron Harris

Baby Got Back

This was article was inspired from a conversation I had with Erik Ledin, CSCS, CISSN (Lean Bodies Consulting) a while back.

A massive back is a beautiful thing. Like Michelangelo’s statue of David, it is a work of art. Some of the greatest bodybuilders – Ronnie Coleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dorian Yates – all possessed well developed backs. Their backs were both wide and thick, giving a depth to their physiques that many pros lack nowadays.

A well developed back leaves a lasting impression. A lot of people look good from the front, but from the back can be a disaster: sunken shoulder blades and a narrow frame can leave a person looking like they’ve been starving their posterior chain.

Not only does a well-developed back look impressive from all angles, taking a balanced approach to back development can ward off injuries and promote good posture. And let’s face it, nobody EVER says, “That guy’s back is just TOO big”!

Building the Ultimate Back

The back can be thought of as being divided into vertical and horizontal planes. So, back training should really be split into two workouts – one devoted to horizontal pulling (thickness based workout / rowing movements) and one devoted to vertical pulling (width based workout / pull ups). As for heavy Deadlifts, they will round out your back workout.

I have divided some exercises into the two planes of motion you will be working in.

Horizontal Pulling

  • Barbell Rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • T-Bar Rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • Rack Pulls (vary the pin height, usually set them set below the knee/mid shin area)
  • Seated Cable Rows

Vertical Pulling

  • Lat Pulldowns (various grips and widths)
  • Pull Ups
  • Chin Ups
  • Pull-Overs (Nautilus, cable, bar)

Picking a Grip

Choose one and stick with it throughout the course of the program – then switch when you want to change exercises. This will help with maintaining consistency and you’ll be able to tell whether you’re progressing or not.

For example, if you perform the Bent Barbell Row – you’ll find that you can probably lift more weight with a supinated grip because the biceps are assisting the movement.

So if you’re switching back and forth between grips during each workout, or every other workout, then it may be difficult to gauge progress.

So choose one and stick with it.

There are three main grips that can be utilized when lifting:

  1. Supinated grip means palms facing your body.
  2. Pronated means palms facing away from your body.
  3. Semi-supinated (neutral grip) means palms facing each other.

Examples of each grip used in an exercise would be: pull-up uses a pronated grip, palms facing away from your body while chin-ups use the other two grips.

Dealing with Deadlifts

Straight Legged Deadlifts/Regular Deadlifts

Straight Legged Deadlifts/Regular Deadlifts are decent for the hip extension function, and therefore the lower back, but not so much for great upper back development, at least comparatively speaking.

Regular Deadlifts

Regular deadlifts are a ‘hip dominant’ exercise. They hit the whole posterior chain – from hamstrings up to traps. They are the King of back development. Deadlifts should be performed first in your back workout, as they require appropriate motor control of multiple muscles. In other words, if you choose to do them down the line in your list of exercises, the chances of injury will increase.

You can be pretty sure you’re doing it right if you’re getting war-wounds on your shins. It’s basically a sign that the bar is staying really close to your body.

Try to keep your sets short for two reasons:

  1. It is a complex movement and form tends to break down with higher reps.
  2. It is a strength movement. Your goal is to get strong on this exercise.

Keep the reps under 5 with regular deadlifts. You can go higher with SLDLs/RDLs as the weight you will be using is not as heavy and as taxing as a regular deadlift is on the body.

Rack Pulls

A rack pull is performed like a regular deadlift, except off pins. Click here for a graphical example of rack pulls

Pulling from the floor presents a greater challenge. The weight travels a greater distance, and the glutes and hams are targeted to a greater degree. If you choose to pull from pins, focus on your back. This is essentially what’s working on the upper portion of a deadlift. Also, because the range of motion is shorter you should be able to lift a bit heavier.

You can vary the pin height, but try not to do it set-to-set or workout-to-workout. This has to do with being able to accurately gauge progress. Changing things too frequently will make tracking progress from a strength standpoint more difficult. Stick with something for four weeks, and then switch it up a bit.

Building This into a Workout

Try pairing a horizontal pulling workout with horizontal pushing (chest) and the vertical pulling with vertical pushing (shoulders) to ensure that the volume around the joints is kept constant. This is assuming that muscle groups are being trained once per week.

An upper/lower split or an undulating split (with increased frequency, where everything basically gets hit twice per week) is better for hypertrophy. The one thing you have to consider when doing this is that the volume per body part per workout is lowered, but the weekly volume stills allows for an adequate growth stimulus to occur.

MariAnne got Back!

The 4 day split workout

Day 1 – Horizontal Push Pull

Horizontal plane back (pull)

Select from:

  • Bent barbell rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • T-Bar Rows (vary the grip between pronated and supinated)
  • Rack Pulls (vary the pin height, usually set them set below the knee/mid shin area)
  • Seated Cable Rows
  • Dumbbell row
  • Hammer Strength row

Horizontal plane chest (push)

Select from:

  • Flat barbell press
  • Dumbbell press
  • Low incline press.
  • Flat or incline flies

(Standing calves, short, heavy sets)

Day 2 – Quad Dominant Legs

Go short and heavy on two quad dominant exercises and lighter with higher reps for one ham dominant exercise. (Here, hams are accessory, so they go lighter, with higher reps)

(Biceps)

Day 3 – Vertical Push/Pull

Vertical plane back (pull)

Select from:

  • Lat Pulldowns (various grips and widths)
  • Pull Ups
  • Chin Ups
  • Pull-Overs (Nautilus, cable, bar)
  • Any of the Hammer high rows

Vertical plane shoulders (push)

Select from:

  • Standing barbell press
  • Dumbbell press
  • Arnold press
  • Laterals, etc

(Seated calves, long sets)

Day 4 – Hip/Hamstring Dominant Legs

This is the opposite of day 2. Go short and heavy on 2 hip/ham dominant exercises and light with higher reps for one quad dominant exercise. Here, quads are accessory, so they go lighter, with higher reps.

(Tricep work)

BGB Programme Notes

It’s a four-day workout.

Day one is an upper body day: horizontal push-pull. This means back and chest are paired together so they don’t tire each other out.

Back will hit back hard, biceps light. Chest will hit chest hard, triceps light. Chest work also hits front delts a bit.

Since there’s no legwork on this day, toss in some calf work. You can throw in an ab exercise as well.

If you do seated calves on this one, do standing calves on the next upper-body day.

Day two is lower body: quad-dominant, hamstring accessory.

This means you’re hitting quads heavy and hard, hams lightly. Add in an arm exercise to round this out. Either biceps or triceps – if you do triceps on this day then do biceps on the other leg day. Pick two different arm exercises – one heavy and hard, one a little lighter, slightly longer reps.

Day three is upper again: vertical push-pull. This means more back (but mostly lats), and shoulders. Biceps get another small hit here with lat work, triceps a small hit with some of the shoulder work and possibly some of the lat work.

Since there’s no legwork on this day, toss in a calf exercise, and add in an ab exercise as well, just like horizontal push-pull day. Pick a different calf exercise, and a different ab exercise than you did on horizontal push-pull.

Day four is lower: hamstring dominant, quad accessory.

This workout hits the hamstrings hard and heavy while going a little lighter and longer with the quad work. You’re still working all muscles hard, but with different rep ranges.

Because the arms aren’t overly fatigued on hamstring-dominant day, add in two arm exercises – if you did biceps on quad-dominant day, do triceps on hamstring-dominant day.

Sample Workout

Day 1: Horizontal push pull, calves, and abs

Thickness-Back:

  • Rack pulls 5×5 (direct, hard, strength range)
  • Bent-over rows 3×8 (hypertrophy range)
    (If you do a third, Hammer Rows 3×10-12)

Chest:

  • Flat bench 5×5
  • Incline dumbbell press 3×8
    (if you do a third, Incline cable flyes 3×10-12)

Calves: (soleus) 3×12-20 seated calf raises. Pause at the bottom

Abs: 3 sets of 8-12, weighted

Day 2: Quad dominant, hamstring accessory. Biceps.

Quads:

  • Full squats 5×5
  • Leg press 3×8

Hamstrings:

  • Leg curls or high foot placement leg press 3-4 sets of 12-20

Biceps:

  • Seated alternating bicep curls 5×5
  • Hammer curls 3×8-12

Day 3: Vertical push-pull, calves, abs

Width-Back:

  • Chins 5×5
  • Hammer high rows 3×8
    (if you do a third, Hammer Behind the Neck rows or lying pullovers 3×12)

Shoulders: (I like to warm up with bent over side laterals, which work the often-neglected rear delts anyway – 3×10)

  • Arnold Press or Military Press 5×5
  • Standing side laterals 3×8

Calves: (gastrocs) standing or donkey calf raises, 3×8-10

Abs: 3 sets of 8-12, weighted

Day 4: Hamstring dominant, quad accessory. Triceps.

Hamstrings/glutes:

  • Romanian Deadlifts 5×5
  • Good mornings or high foot placement leg press 3×8

Quads:

  • Walking lunges or seated leg extensions 3×12-20

Triceps:

  • Skullcrushers, Dips, or between bench dips 5×5
  • Cable pressdowns 3×8-12

Kickbacks (I’m kidding! 🙂 )

Summing It Up

So there it is, everything you need to build a wide, meaty back that will leave you walking sideways to get through the doorway.

Written by MariAnne Anderson, BSc, MSc (B)

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Back Got Back discussion thread.