Wednesday, March 01, 2006

DF Tip #9: The Wisdom of Günter

Last week I was off on a tirade about some fitness topic or other -- I can't remember what, since once they're written I feel instantly better and go to my quiet place -- and I mentioned in passing that there is one thing I can be sure to hear at some point from everyone kind enough to hit me up for personal training. Male or female, young or old, they all say:

builder"I don't want to get too big!"

They gesture distastefully towards one of the mammoths that work out at my gym and grimace in fear, as if tentatively hoisting a single dumbbell will endow them with Jurassic proportions.

Here's the final word on that: It's not going to happen.

All respect to the big guys. I know I give them a hard time, probably because no self-respecting, 20-inch-neck bodybuilder would be caught dead reading the fitness wisdom of a 179-pound wastrel like me, so they'll never read my derisive words. But the fact is that most of them are good guys -- albeit with a curious obsession--and the vast majority are drug-free. But ALL of them, yes, even the 'roid-heads, have paid for every muscle cut and striation in blood, sweat, toil and tears. The big guys work hard.

I know because back in my fledgling days, I wanted to be one of them: I wanted to get big and bulky and never have to take no guff from NO ONE, man! (I was young.) But, as I found out, getting big is tough going.

Personally, the biggest I ever got, at 6 feet with relatively low bodyfat, was 192 pounds -- a Lilliputian compared to the 5'9" guys you see at any Gold's who tip the scales at 230 or so. And that was lifting as heavy as I could handle, 5 days a week, eating gluttonously 6 times a day. Mind you, I was only able to sustain that weight for about a week and a half before I had to ease off on the gluttony and the continuous onslaught of heavy iron. In short order, I dropped 10 pounds of beef and I've stayed right around there ever since. Upkeep on that relatively paltry amount of extra bulk was just too much for me, and nowadays I file "muscle-bulk-building" right alongside "memorizing the phone book" in Heffernan's Guide to Worthwhile Ways to Spend Time.

Now there are certainly people -- men, almost exclusively -- whose bodies are, genetically, muscle-building machines. They stay on a fairly sane exercise program and develop huge arms, chests and legs the likes of which I could never compete with on my best day. But these people are in the minority.

Point is that declaring on your first day in the gym that "No matter what, I don't want to look like a bodybuilder!" is a little like telling the coach, on your first day of ski camp, that you don't want to make the Olympic team. Or telling Mr. Jenkins the band teacher that you want to be a pretty good violin player but you don't under any circumstances want to get good enough to play with the London Symphony Orchestra. People with insatiable drive, ambition, and focus spend decades trying to accomplish these things, and even they sometimes fall heartbreakingly short, so it's unlikely -- I won’t say impossible -- that you'll turn your body into a Michelangelo by anything like an accident.

leeI wouldn't get so worked up over this seemingly-minor misconception except that it has unfortunate consequences in the way people approach weight training. Gym newbies and veterans alike assume that because Günter the Megalithic lifts big weights, they shouldn't go near anything over about 12 pounds lest they find themselves, suddenly, looking like Günter. Which, again, is like refusing to practice your karate kicks lest you transmogrify into Bruce Lee by accident.

The weights that the people with this syndrome lift are light. Helium balloon light. It's almost harder to put the weights down than to pick them up, they're so light. And guess what happens to their bodies when they lift those little weights?

Nothing. The fear of "bulking up" has resulted in more ineffective workouts than Richard Simmons has done in his entire life of Sweatin’ to the Oldies. That muscles get stronger and fitter when you overload them with heavier weights that you are used to is one of the surest things in exercise physiology. No overload? No growth.

Here's the deal: whether you're using "light" or "heavy" weight does not change the fact that you should always be working to overload the body. Meaning that if you're shooting for 15 reps, the weight you choose should be all you can handle for those 15 reps. It should not feel like raising a martini glass. You should not be able to tell your trainer an amusing anecdote about your night clubbing with Gore Vidal on Key West while you're lifting it. A good half of my clients balk when I hand them a heavier weight than they're used to, then surprise themselves by pounding out the required 15 reps anyway. Yes, they're grunting and straining around rep 10, but I'll be jiggered if they don't get all 15, and a little healthy glow of accomplishment in the process.

lungeIt's tough, working with high reps in the right way. Back in my bulkier days I always looked forward to heavy days of 8-rep sets because they weren't as painful as long, hard sets with lighter weights that required more endurance and tolerance for pain. But whether you're working "light" or "heavy" (I put that in quotes because my heavy might be your light or vice versa), all sets after your warm-up should be tough. You should work for an overload.

Working like this, you'll certainly get leaner, stronger, more cut and muscular, but unless you lift as heavy as you can 4-6 times a week and scarf down more chicken than John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, you're not going to get too big.

The difference in the way you train and the way Günter trains should really be a difference in degree rather than kind. After all, Günter has good definition, muscle strength and size, all of which you want -- just not to the same extent as Günter. And you never see Günter put down his weights till he's spent, whether he's lifting 50 pounds 20 times or 500 pounds 2 times.

Guess what? Günter's on to something.

Good luck, everyone!


PS: Please pass these tips along to interested friends, and/or forward me their email so I can send them directly along! And feel free to shoot me your fitness questions any time.

Thanks -- A

1 comment:

Rose DesRochers said...

That big guy looks like a puffed up no brainer on steroids. LOl With all do respect, I'm sure he's a nice guy, but ewww.