Thursday, November 11, 2010

Young Guns Working on the Guns

      Certain things are gym lore, these are almost universal truths. For example, Monday is international chest and bench day, 9 out of 10 women will start their workout on a cross trainer, most endurance athletes would rather squirt energy gel into their eyeballs than do any strength training, 50% of guys are unable to do any leg training because they already play football (that's soccer if you are an Americano) and they have a mysterious knee injury which will result in their legs exploding if they do a squat or deadlift; and most young guys want to work on their chest and arms.

Some young guns make it and some end up getting arrested in hotel rooms free-basing with a hooker

Now, making the decision to come to the gym or starting weight training is a laudable decision, especially for a young guy with so many distractions, and some come along to improve for a sport but most just want to get big. Same as it ever was. It seems in recent years more and more young guys (and by this I mean 14 -18 year olds) have been subjected to peer pressure and media pressure to have a certain body shape (i.e. get muscles, get hooge, get buff) whereas most girls want to lose weight regardless of how much they weigh (but that's a whole other story).

The initial conversation between the instructor and the young gun normally goes something like this:

World Weary Fitness Instructor: So, what would you like to achieve?
Young Gun: Improve my fitness and work on my chest and biceps
WWFI: Ok, have you done any weight training before?
YG: I've got some weights at home, I do some bicep curls & chest work
WWFI: Do you do any leg work, do you want to work on any other body parts?
YG: I play football so I don't really need to do any leg work and/or I have this knee injury which means I can't really do any weights for my legs. Mainly want to work on getting my upper body bigger and do some running for my fitness.
WWFI: I see, exercises like squats and deadlifts are really total body exercises that are going to help your whole body bigger & stronger....
YG: (Blank look)
WWFI: Ok, lets have a look at your nutrition, what would you normally eat throughout the day
YG: Cheerios for breakfast, then maybe a Dr.Pepper and a bag of quavers mid morning, a sandwich if I remember, whatever my mum makes for dinner and a bottle of lucozade during football training.
WWFI: If you want to put on muscle you really need to eat more, like double the amount of calories your eating now. Try and eat protein and vegetables at every meal.
YG: I don't want to get fat though, I want to keep my six pack
WWFI: With your body shape and type it's going to be pretty difficult to put on muscle without going into calorie surplus and maybe putting on some fat, I mean currently your bodyfat is like 8% and with all that football training and running you want to do it's going to be hard without eating a lot more.
YG: Hmm, I see, so what you're saying is I need to take creatine and buy a protein supplement
WWFI: No. you need to eat more and eat better first, and maybe focus on one goal at a time. If you get stronger you're probably going to be increasing muscle mass at the same time, but you need the nutrients for your muscles to grow.........(pause/silence). So how many times a week do you want to come to the gym
YG: Maybe 2 times week, maybe 3 times, I was thinking everyday to begin with.
WWFI: Ok, well if we aim for weight training 3 times a week that's a good place to start. We can go for a total body routine, using mainly compound movements, all the research and years of experience from old time lifters show that you should hit a muscle twice a week for optimal results. So we might hit chest on Monday with some flat bench press and low reps and then maybe hit again on Friday with some incline dumbbell presses with the classic 3 x 8-12. Same with back and shoulders and legs.
YG: Hmm, but I read in Muscular Numbnut magazine that I need to split my routine up and do chest one day, and back another day and biceps and triceps.
WWFI: Yeah you can do split routines but then you are only hitting your chest once a week. All the research shows you can hit it twice, and you maybe only need 1 or 2 exercises per body part per session. There are loads of ways of splitting your routine, total body, upper/lower body split, push/pull etc. And yeah, maybe if you want you can throw in a few sets of bicep curls at the end of your session, but I really wouldn't bother with much more than that for biceps to begin with. Focus on the basic, big compound lifts and get good at them. And most of those 6 day split routines are done by genetically gifted guys on anabolic steroids, they can practically do anything and get results. Anyway, we better hit the gym floor and do some exercise.

etc etc and so it goes.

Now at this point we get round to the routine. Now I know that there are quite a few basic routines that are going to work, the basic strength routine outlined by Rippetoe consisting of basically squats, bench press, press and deadlifts, any 5 x 5 variation, all the things outlined by Brooks Kubik in Dinosaur Training, some of the deceptively simple training routines outlined by Marty Gallagher in The Purposeful Primitive - some of which were used by the best of the best in the pre-steroid era, and some of the ideas outlined by Stuart McRobert in Beyond Brawn for the ectomorph hardgainer.

And I also know what the research shows. (If you haven't got a couple of years spare to read Supertraining or trawl pub med  I would recommend reading Lyle McDonalds series on weight training which encapsulates it nicely or get Matt Perrymans ebook - which is free if you don't feel like donating to him you cheap skates).

And I also know that if you are young and untrained, pretty much anything will work if you train with the right intensity, progressively overload and eat enough. 

BUT, I'm also not naive and I'm realistic. Doing only deadlifts, squats and presses can be boring when you've got a gym full of equipment around you. And nearly everyone is going to throw in some bicep curls and tricep isolation work whether it's on their program or not. And to be honest, anyone I ever met with decent biceps did some isolation work at some point (Hey, we all like to do a few bicep curls on a Sunday, it's beach muscle day, okay 4 different exercises for biceps using the cable, dumbbells, barbells and preacher bench, oh lord I want 20 inch guns, the preacher curl bench is a cruel mistress, it promises so much and delivers so little!).

The preacher curl - a cruel mistress

And the other factors to consider are the lack of strength and mobility I encounter with this population. These are not necessarily overweight kids, but your typical skinny ectomorph, its surprising how many of these can't do a decent press up or bodyweight squat, and most can't do a bodyweight pull up or chin up. I think some of the awkwardness displayed with the squat might be because they are still growing, the 14-15 year old can look like they have legs or a torso that is too long for the rest of their body, because they haven't finished growing yet. And many have hyper-kyphotic postures (I was that kid, so I know what it's like). This all informs the exercises I prescribe.

Listen carefully young padawan (warning: star wars reference)

So this might be heresy to some strength coaches, but I normally end up using a combination of machines, bodyweight and freeweight exercises. If I'm feeling really optimistic I might even do some mobility work like scapula wall slides and prisoner squats and hip bridges and hip flexor stretches - though mostly I'm wasting my time here because I know the young padawan is not going to do any of this when they train by themselves. Then I might do some goblet squats for to groove that technique in and work on their squat pattern before going near a barbell or I might even do some lunges or step ups. Then there will be some basics, if they can't deadlift from the floor without rounding the back, I might start with rack deadlifts, and there will be the bench press or dumbbell press in there somewhere. And for back there might be some assisted chins and pull ups on one day, and the latpulldown on another and then either the machine row or dumbbell row on another day, and maybe some cable face pulls for posture. And even one bicep exercise to keep them happy and some dips or assisted dips. And one day might be a strength day, down at 5 reps and another a classic 3 x 10 with some different exercises and another maybe some bodyweight press ups, lunges, and some plank to press ups to strengthen the core etc. Not normally anymore than 4 to 6 exercises in a workout.

And then I tell them to go and train hard and stick to the basics and progress on the compound lifts, and don't be drawn into doing loads of pointless isolation work and not to be swayed by their friends and get sucked into endless bicep curls and partial movements.

And two weeks pass and it's welcome to the gun show.

At this point collective teenage wisdom and group think have kicked in. And now there are group of them doing synchronised bicep curls (or more like synchronised partial rep, disc herniation, erector spinae curls). The rationale being: If I haven't seen results in two weeks then there must be something wrong with the routine and I need to do more. The weekly training split now looks like this

Monday: Chest & Triceps (except the bench is really busy, so throw in some bicep curls while waiting
Tuesday: Back & Biceps, must use lifting straps in the latpulldown
Wednesday: Leg day (which means football training), before football training go to the gym and do traps, (because can't quite decide whether it should be done on back or shoulder day), throw in some wrist curls for forearms as well
Thursday: Shoulders, man alive shoulders are complicated, need to do side, front, rear raises, as well as dumbbell press, Arnie press, machine press and as many redundant exercises as I can think of. Biceps are looking small do some more curls
Friday: Pre night out pump, curl and bench press high reps to get pumped up for night out
Saturday: Man, I drunk too much last night and eat that kebab, looking fat, need to go to gym to sweat toxins out and burn off those calories, 30 min treadmill run and 1000 crunches should do it
Sunday: Play football, this counts as a leg workout
when in doubt, load up the weight and go partial (image staged for dramatic purposes)

And then at some point it becomes about how much weight you can lift with terrible form. Hmm, just can't seem to lift anymore on the flat bench press... hang on why not do a decline smith machine partial rep partner assisted press? Bingo! I just increased my one rep max, my chest is bound to get bigger now. (It's a well known fact that both Arnie & Ed Coan used the decline partial rep smith machine press - that's a joke by the way).

Decline smith machine partial rep partner assisted press. Partner shouting 'It's all you' is optional. Recreated here purely for dramatic purposes, don't try this at home kids!

Then they come and say something like this to you. "I don't think I'm doing enough for my chest, I read on that to really shape my lower outer pec I need to do cable flyes angled at 37 degrees" And you say "Kid, you ain't got no pecs yet, you're shaping bone, go and do some full range presses and drink some chocolate milk."

At this point you know they've been lost to the cause. Maybe they'll see the error of their ways in a few years time, maybe they'll get chatting to a guy in the gym who's been training the right way and looks the part, maybe they'll see something on the Internet or maybe they'll be watching Anchorman and something in their brain will click.

Ron Burgundy training: Much like Sex Panther, the concentration curl is actually illegal in 9 countries

Or they'll stop playing football because their knees hurt, and realise their legs look like a couple of pipe cleaners and then maybe they'll think about doing some squatting

It seems hard to believe in this day and age that people can't access the right information on training. When I was younger all there was was Muscle and Fitness and Flex magazine and Joe Weider, all you read about were split routines and bodybuilders. The information about how old time strongmen and athletes trained just wasn't available, those books weren't in the shops, there was no internet to find them on, to research anything you had to have access to an academic library. Now, all that information is readily available but still in gym culture young guys gravitate to the bodybuilder split routines, one body part per week. And there is a time and a place for these routines, but as outline there are other ways and roads, some quicker and more direct for the non drug using trainee. But sometimes the right path is the hardest. Is there too much information available now, too much info, not enough knowledge, it's difficult to know who to believe if you're new to the whole thing.

But I see glimmers of hope, guys using the power rack more, women lifting weights, Olympic lifting rising from the underground and instructors who want to coach rather than press quickstart. Time will tell. One things for sure though, the bicep curl is here to stay!

Now, go and watch this clip of the film Network, just because

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