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Visions of Training
September 22, 2003

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It was early, the town asleep and I was alone. I sat on the wooden bench, leaned against the loaded bar upheld by uncertain supports and clasped my chalk-caked hands as if in prayer. My breathing leveled, the pain subsided and the calm of endorphins trickled through my body. I was a dozen sets into my workout, curiously alive and my eyes beheld the riches of the setting around me.

Busted-out plaster, exposed wiring and pipes highlighted by rust-red water stains and muted shadows of deserted spider webs composed primitive art of time-gone-by; these unframed murals of truth, pain, loveliness, brokenness, toil and joy hung everywhere on the walls of the subterranean Muscle Beach Gym. The place was falling apart, disintegrating, yet the sublime essence of the random display of old classics by Father Time spoke to the spirit of the visitor, the muscleman clad in shredded sweatshirt and pants to match. “You want it bad enough, you pay the price,” it echoed in the vast space. “Bulging biceps and a strong back and the look of a mountain are yours, if you endure the test of time, don’t collapse or abandon the good fight.”

The silence in the early morning, interrupted by deep breathing, lone scuffling and thuds, and the speech of grunting men’s voices and the mad clang of metal by night, told the black n’ white story of faith, hope and desire: Push and pull with all your might, this way and that, and, hey, have you tried it seated, standing or with the weight tied ‘round your waist? What a stretch, what a pump, what a burn! Unspoken, the priceless information was passed from one guy to another.

We shared what we experienced, not as secrets of training wisdom, but as bits of molded clay and chiseled stone fragments at a sunken archeological site, piecing them together to discover the unknown, the whole. Build a body of splendor and power with the semi-precious elements at hand.

Some things never change, thank heaven. Look into your past and recall our ancient conversation of last week about muscle-making, where we spoke of the “same old” training with a twist of lemon. The beginnings of an exercise routine were charted and I suggested simplicity in course, yet intensity in pursuit: less brain and more back, order and focus. Let’s get back to work.

From your stage-setting aerobic routine, move to an efficient and emphatic, yet unhurried 10-minute midsection workout, which could include variations of hyperextensions, crunches, hanging and incline leg raises and rope tucks. Tightly combine the exercises according to your level of condition by eliminating pauses between sets, supersetting and performing high reps with intense contractions. The incentive for these exercises, which most lifters consider a nuisance, is realized in their value for extending the aerobic affect, loosening and warming up the body and building attractive muscle.

If that’s not enough to impress you, there’s much, much more: The big benefit of midsection training is the strengthening of that slouchy region upon which our health, independence and longevity depend. Our abdominal and lower back muscles hold us together, protect our vital organs and maintain our balance. They keep us erect and moving forward with the ability to lift heavier weights for more years and with less limitation and less pain, spelled PAIN.

Gyms are full of 40-something folks who can’t bend over to pick up a nickel, a dime or a quarter. For a dollar they’ll fall on top of the thing, stash it in their shirt and wait for someone to pick them up. Then there are those who exercise regularly, but shy away from lifts that put a load on the lower back. “Hurt it once. Don’t want to hurt it again.” Listen. Be aware, be cautious, but don’t be foolish. Think twice; work the abdominals and the hip and lower back areas. I encourage you to consider light and thoughtful deadlifts and squats as a regular part of your workout to strengthen your core structure. These, like water and air, are necessary, safe and delicious when used correctly and not tampered with or overdone. If the region is weak, it needs therapy and repair and continual building, slow and sure, as only weight training can provide.

The solid ground work has been established, the site is clear and now you’re ready for the timber and I-beams. No doubt you’ll choose several pressing movements in your heavy construction, the building of your body’s muscle mass and power. What about pressing? Some lifters have better pressing and pushing strength than others, while some shine when it comes to curling and pulling. Generally speaking, pressing involves shoulder, triceps and minor pectoral muscles and pulling requires biceps and back engagement. The potential abilities and limitations in each area depend on genes and muscle mass, of course, but largely on the mechanics of the muscles, tendon insertions and bone lengths. You go with what you have and strive to achieve your maximum potential. Done.

The bench press is the best known, most popular and, thus, most performed exercise in the weightlifting repertoire, and as an exercise it’s not half bad. It builds muscle in the anterior deltoid, across the chest and in the triceps. The bench press commonly presents a problem to the bodybuilder and powerlifter, especially when they seek to achieve extreme power and mass through its engagement. The shoulder’s rotator cuff was not designed for repeated heavy overload and soon the mechanism submits to the pain of damage, inflammation and eventual deterioration. Something to consider, big guy. Warm up, don’t go foolishly heavy (you da judge), no less than six reps a set and keep the form perfect -- no radical arching, thrusting, bouncing and no left arm followed by right arm, as the body contorts like an electrically-charged lizard.

You want to benefit from the bench, treat it as an exercise for four sets of 15, 12, 10, 8 focused reps and improve your strength and muscle mass by utilizing a simple rep or poundage increment plan, workout to workout, over the next month. Go for a one-rep max when you feel good and get the urge once every three to four weeks. Warm up, stay cool and you’ll be hot.

The most excellent presses by men and women are performed with dumbbells and on an incline: big shoulders, powerful chest and triceps built like steel jacks, healthy and pain-free. The carrying of the metal from rack to bench and bench to rack accounts for some heavy work, my hard-hitting, high-flying friends. Cleaning the dumbbells into position and returning them to your uprighted sides is no worthless requirement of muscle and motion. (I hate it when personal trainers hand their clients the weights and retrieve them from them like they were the trainer’s private property or nasty devices not to be handled excessively.) Grasp the dumbbells with intimacy and affection. Get to know the steely knurl, the hardness and the heft, and consider the affect they have on your structure. They’re for your benefit, for you to control and for your pleasure. They’re in your hands by your choice and for your touch. Go up the rack, 4 x 12, 10, 8, 6.

The incline dumbbell press can be low, a bench on a 4x4 or a crate, with just enough rise to make it entirely different from a flat press, a minor modification, but very effective. The steeper the incline, the more you will notice that the front deltoid and, eventually, the lateral deltoid comes into action, and the demand on the pectoral muscles moves upward similarly. The resistance within the muscle increases as less muscle volume is bearing the load. Steep dumbbell inclines are the shoulder’s best friends. Coconut makers.

The Smith Press is a popular exercise unit on every commercial gym floor. It’s the piece that has the bar gliding up and down on a pair of vertical rods fitted with manual stops every 6 to 8 inches, floor to average head level. Put an adjustable bench under the bar and you’re in business. The unit is perfect for the trainee who prefers a guided action for safety as a beginner or assistance when limited by injury. It serves the needs of those who are working within a limited range of motion or customizing exercises to suit specific needs. I count on the Smith Press for incline presses and the press-behind-neck exercise (PBN) to maintain stability lost to the malfunction of several rotator cuff supportive muscles. Paradoxically, the bar’s strictness -- for up and down action only --allows versatility in exercise creation in that the user can apply force against the bar, forward or backward, for unique muscle recruitment or damage and pain protection. Will the real Mr. Smith please stand up and take a bow?

Before going onto pulling and curls, may I remind you that freehand dips with weight are possibly the next best upper body muscle builder next to gorilla style tire-stretching? Machine dips have great versatility in that you can control the position of your body to isolate specific muscles: lean back with a close grip to hit the triceps, lean forward to pump the chest and round your back to engage the upper back. And for the tough and adventurous type, cleans and presses work the whole system from head to toe. Bar from floor to shoulders, pause and press overhead and return to floor and repeat. Oh, boy. Takes technique, practice and energy and produces muscle mass, power and coordination.

Pulling exercises, as in curling or rowing or overhead lat pulldowns, are predominately initiated by the biceps and upper back muscles. I always say, if you want big biceps, do standing bent-bar curls and, once conditioned, don’t be afraid to add the weight and use some healthy body thrust with biting contractions and screaming extensions. Four or five sets of six to eight reps are not bad for starters.

Seated dumbbell alternate curls are my next choice, again clean, yet fighting reps for big biceps-building and interior muscle-building evident in a full torso. I’m not an advocate of isolated muscle-making -- one-arm concentration curls, stiff-body triceps pushdowns, rigid knee-up-on-bench bent-over dumbbell rows. I prefer to work the body like an animal in the wild, a racehorse crossing the finish line or an ox at the front of a plow. Full range of motion, stretching and tugging and total muscle action is more involving and fulfilling, and more logical for growth and health.

Curls: There are incline curls, from almost flat for lower biceps and biceps peak action; there are inclines of any degree for other points of development, comfort and advantage and there are reverse curls, thumbs-up curls, Zottmans and wrist curls, all for forearm focus and grip.

Don’t forget supersetting bis with tris when you get the urge to exceed. And if you want to set your pants on fire, start curling at the top of the rack for eight reps (your max) and work your way down -- six to eight sets -- till you can no longer open your hands. We have ways to make you talk.

Seeking lat width? Go with wide-grip pulldowns, both before and behind the neck. Wide-grip chins can’t be beat, if you’re able to do them, but they can be a beast. Seated lat rows give length to the lats and thickness to the back and begin a welcome conditioning of the lower back, especially when performed with full range of motion, an arch of contraction at the peak of the movement and working your way up to some meaningful poundage, one of the best exercises on the shelf. Remember, biceps are always enjoying some extra duty when you’re working the back.

Bombers, you’ve been most attentive and I’m recommending you for the Iron and Steel Cross of Concentration. The runway must be cleared for incoming craft and it’s time for us to apply today’s fundamentals. It’s in the work, not in the study, not in the notes, not in the planning and discussing.

We’ll pick up were we left off, next week. Till then don’t let her idle… push her to the max.

DD, The Bomber

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