Sunday, November 27, 2011

Intermittent Thoughts on Intermittent Fasting - Programing Success: Accept Your Weaknesses, Learn From Your Mistakes, Identify Your Strengths and Build a Better Body!

Image 1: You may call it "toning" or "shaping", but in the end it's bodybuilding in the literal sense.
Assuming that you are all "lean and mean" by now and thus ready to build some serious muscle (for those who missed it, read last week's installment on "Why you better lean out before bulking"), we can finally delve into your first steps on your way to ... wait. I hope you did not forget your "motivational elevator pitch" from the first part of this part of the Intermittent Thoughts, where I asked you to come to terms with what it actually is that you want to achieve. Now, the good news is that regardless of whether you are just sick of that lose skin on your upper arms or want to compete against Phil Heath at the 2012 Mr. Olympia, there are a few fundamental principles that apply regardless of whether you are striving for "toned" 11 inch arms or Coleman-esque 22 inch guns.

Gaining weight? Yes! Getting fat? No!

With that we have actually arrived at the very first of three key points, I promised to address in this issue (cf. end of last installment): effective ways to measure your progress. In the "weight loss installment" of this series you have already learned that other than the morbidly obese "King Size Homer", physical culturists and athletes who do not compete in weight-classes are ill-advised to step onto the scale too often.
Figure 1: Lee Priest's transformation is certainly amazing, but let's be honest, do you really want to run around like Michelin man in the off-season and then have to resort to extreme measures to get back in shape for a few days, only? (comparison posted by "Tibo" at the SRTrading Forum)
While dieters (here indicating people who want to lose fat), may get discouraged, because their weight-loss stalls, when they are actually just beginning to finally add some muscle to their increasingly lean physique, many self-proclaimed (hobby-)bodybuilders think that "gaining muscle" is all about increasing their off-season weight (interestingly, many of those people do not even compete and define their off-season as the time when they do not go to the beach to impress the ladies). What could make sense for a professional bodybuilder like Lee Priest (cf. figure 1) certainly is not an appropriate approach for the average gym-rat, whose "weight loss arsenal" is less well-stocked than the ones of a high level pro-bodybuilder ;-) Or put more simply, when former chubby, like Peter Griffin (cf. "Healthy Weight Loss") bulks up the way, Lee did, he will not (and I guarantee that) be able to drop that fat again and achieve the grainy look from figure 1 (right) within a few weeks time before a contest, by diet and exercise (and OTC fatburners), alone...
Figure 2: Other than for the "pros" with their versatile arsenal of "weight loss tools", the journey of the dirtily bulking average self-proclaimed hardgainer is a one-way street.
And even for the self-proclaimed "ectomorph" there is nothing worse than a dirty bulk, where the number on the scale serves as his / her yardstick of success. This is especially true, because many self-proclaimed "hard gainers" are lean mostly because they are still eating like a bird (or missing even the most fundamental basics like a sufficient protein intake of at least 1g/kg per day), even when they claim that would eat until they puke. If those people start forcing down tons of calories in form of sugary weight gainers, most of their weight gain will come from fat. Their initially low fat cell count will soon have to increase to provide enough storage capacity for the "valuable" energy, so that, rather sooner than later, the former "ekto" finds himself in a similar situation as Peter Griffin, who, no matter what he will do, will always have a harder time leaning out than his friends who have never gotten chubby in the first place.

Bottom line: Do not rely on the scale too much. Yes, you want it to go up steadily, but faster weight gain does not automatically equate greater muscle gain. Keep a close eye on your waist circumference and decide a priori when (no matter how close you may be to your superordinate goal, e.g. "achieving 20" arms") you need to cut back on calories to avoid "adipolateral damage" ;-)

Taking stock also implies coming to terms with yourself

Image 2: Just as when you are "dieting", the scale is not the best meter for your progress. A measuring tape, a notebook and a digital camera should be your tools of choice.
Assuming that you have decided that you could use some additional muscle on your scrawny frame, another often overlooked thing you will have to do even before you start "bulking" is to take stock of how "scrawny" you actually are - not by stepping on the scale, but by taking, or rather have someone take measures of your waist, your arms, your chest, your shoulder and thigh cicircumferences. Just like any good custom tailor would do. You will then take a camera and shoot photos, from the front, from the side and (don't neglect that!) from the back. Depending on how much progress you have already made, this may seem ridiculous or even embarrassing at first. After all, you probably do not look any of the cover models you are looking up to... but remember: You take these photos as a yardstick - your yardstick. It won't help you if you keep admiring the girls and guys from the magazine-covers and shy away from your own mirror image.

In order to make a change you must initially objectively assess and accept where exactly you are standing in order to decide what you want to change and by which means you can achieve that. As long as you keep thinking of you and your body as disconnected units, you will never achieve whatever physique it may be that you are dreaming of. So, this kind of  initial stock taking is way more than just setting the baseline reference. It is (at least for many trainees) also a matter of coming to terms with theirselves.

Bottom Line: You are your own yardstick. The figures on your measuring tape and your weekly progress pics are objective measures of your progress, which is defined against where you are coming from. 10" arms are an awesome achievement, if 8" where you are coming from!

Build on your strengths while working on your weaknesses

Start out with your strengths! What is that you like about your physique? What is your most developed muscle part? And if you are already training... ask yourself what it may have been that you have done right, here. I remember that I have always been pissed off that my legs appeared to grow like crazy, while my arms and "most importantly" (my perception at that time) my chest "just wouldn't grow". I looked at the figures and pictures and then peeked at my routine. "How on earth can my legs grow like that if I only train them once a week and do nothing like some warm ups on the leg extensions and some squats?" It was back then, when I eventually realized two things:
    Image 3: Do you really think anyone would know Tom Platz, today, if he had decided to neglect his strength (obviously his legs)?
  1. Everybody has certain strong and certain weak body parts. Part of this is genetics. Especially if you have not reached your "full genetic potential", an even more important factor is however what you do in the gym, at work or in your free time. If you are carrying beverage crates all day, chances are that your "strong" body parts are your neck and your back, no matter if those are the muscle groups with the greatest genetic potential. If, on the other hand, you are like I once was and have a reasonable training plan for your legs (because people say that you have to train legs ;-), but are so eager to grow your chest and arms that you totally overtrain them, you must not wonder if you grow tree-trunk legs, whie your arms and chest shrivel away.

  2. Success comes from building on your strengths, and working on your weaknesses. It does not make sense to stop training legs, to "save the energy" for whatever other bodypart you feel is lagging behind. Not only will you run the risk that your former strength becomes your future weakness. You could also end up with two not one weaknesses by overtraining your weak and detraining your strong body parts.
For me that meant that I had to maintain my leg regimen and adapt my chest and arms routine by cutting out a lot of high volume auxiliary movements and focusing on improving my strength and technique on those movements of which I felt that they worked - and YES! This meant that the classic bench press was no longer a part of my routine!

Bottom line: Cherish your strengths and stop lamenting about your weaknesses. Analyze and build on what worked for you and acknowledge and learn from your own mistakes.

Hearing and listening to what your body is telling you

Image 4: Cable crosses certainly cannot replace the bench or dips, but they allow you to practice to flex your chest against resistance.
I see, that was a shocker. Dr. Andro does not do bench presses!? Well, not exactly, I have reincorporated them into my routine months later only to rotate them out again with the next change in my regimen. While the bench may have built massive chests like the ones of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Franco Culambo, but it just did not build mine.  

Sticking to what does not work, because people keep telling you that it does work is probably the most stupid and yet most common mistake I see in the gym.

If you read all the information in the "SuppVersity EMG Series", then you will be aware which exercises work best for the average trainee in the Boeckh-Behrens and Buskies study. You do not even know if these are also those exercises that work best for "the average trainee in general", but you can easily find out if these are the exercises that work best for you - and more importantly, if they are not, you should give a damn about how they rank in anyone's "Top List" (mine included!).

Bottom line: Never, I repeat, never(!) assume that what worked for someone else, or even the majority of the participants in a scientific study must also work for you. Listen to advice, build new routines based on scientific studies, experiment, but do not stick to a routine / exercise if, after 2 weeks, your body still keeps telling your that it ain't right for you.

Weight is important in weight lifting, posing is key in body+building

Image 5: If you want to maximize muscle gains, posing - or rather learning to flex your muscles against resistance is obligatory (img Johnny Jackson)
In case you are now wondering how on earth you can find out if the bench press or the dip (which is my favorite for chest) is right for you, when you do not have access to the complex measuring apparatus Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies used in their studies, I assume that you have never been posing or deliberately practiced the so-called "mind-muscle-connection" - have you? What? "Posing is ridiculous?" Well, that was what I thought as well, when I began training. I mean, I never even remotely thought about competing, so why on earth would I practice posing? The reason is simple and has little to do with the ability to showcase your muscles, but all with your brains ability to address the motor neurons on your muscle fibers.

If there is one thing I want you take away about goal setting for muscle building from this installment of the Intermittent Thoughts then it is that your primary goal in the gym must always be to work the muscle against resistance and not to break personal records. Here lies a fundamental difference between weight lifting (as in O-lifting or powerlifting) and bodybuilding. As someone whose primary goal is to improve his physique, the lifting weights is only a means to a completely different ends.

If all you want  is to build a bigger bench, fine! But don't expect to make similar gains as someone who understands that he is at the gym to work his muscles, not his ego. By practicing posing and doing what I like to call 1-2 "acclimatization sets" with ~50% of the weight you would use for 6-8 reps before every exercise, not as a warm-up but to memorize the movement pattern, to feel and flex the target muscle and to be able to transfer this pattern to your working sets, you will soon be able to decide which exercises are working for you, and which aren't.

Bottom line: You are not in the gym to move maximal amounts of weight, but to induce maximal muscular stimulation. This requires that you train your mind-muscle-connection and accept that the weights you are using are just a means to another end - the physique of your dreams. Remember: You increase your weights to keep challenging your muscle, and thusly to be able to record a new personal best in the notebook with your body measures, not the one where you keep track of your weights.

Preliminary conclusion(s)

Although, I did not get totally side-tracked this time, I still have to postpone the scientifically based considerations of the implications of the biological underpinnings of skeletal muscle "hypertrophy" (and maybe hyperplasia), at which I have been hinting in yesterday's blogpost, to another installment of the Intermittent Thoughts.
Note, in view of the pictures I have been using in this part of the series, I may have evoked the false impression that these rules apply exclusively to "bodybuilders". This is however not the case. There is no fundamental difference between training "to look good naked" and training for the "Mr. Olympia", as far as the take-home messages from this installment of the Intermittent Thoughts are concerned. Flexing your muscles, "posing" and practicing the mind-muscle-connection for example could be even more important for the ladies who want to "tone" their physiques than for the skinny ectomorph whose primary goal is to "get big".
For the time being, you would be well-advised to get yourself a measuring tape and a camera to take stock of where you are, physique-wise, to (re-)evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, to identify what worked for you and to get to know and learn to flex all the muscles in your body - and yes, there are more than biceps and chest, or chest and biceps ;-)