Date: 2006-May-31
Author: Mike Orr <sluggoster@gmail.com>

[This page is a little disorganized, sorry. I'll get it better structured soon.]

This page covers bodybuilding routines. Since there are dozens of books and magazine articles showing the basic exercises, I'm going to concentrate on background information and lesser-known exercises I think are cool.

According to Swat Fitness (Brzycki/Meyers), muscles work like oars in a boat. The myosin filaments in the fibers attach to the actin filaments like the oars touch the sea, then they pivot, detach (so the oars are in the air), and pivot back. Or at least this is the most widely accepted theory, the Sliding Filament Theory. Each filament "rows" this hundreds of times during a single weightlifting rep, so there's a lot of stuff going on inside.

During a light contraction, only the most eager fibers are activated. During a heavy contraction, more fibers are activated. During a prolonged heavy contraction, the first fibers fatigue and the most reluctant ones are recruited -- that's why it's ever harder to reach 100% activation.

Strength and ability depend on the number of fibers and their arrangement. I'm not sure if large muscles mean more fibers, bigger fibers, or just more space between fibers. Dense muscles mean more fibers per area, and they are more likely crosshatched -- which is stronger like a woven cheesecloth is stronger than the same threads parallel.

Mass means the muscle's atomic weight, which can come from size or density, but informally people often use it to mean size. Definition refers to sharp lines and curves along the muscles' edge. This can come from losing fat, which reveals the space between the muscles (e.g., washboard abs), or from precise sculpting through targeted exercises, like a bicep with a peak. Tone means the residual hardness that remains when a muscle is relaxed. That's a factor of density. Many people mistakenly think "toning" means definition or a wimpy workout. But in reality, if you want hard tone, do strength exercises.

There's a never-ending debate over whether low reps (1-7), medium reps (8-12), or high reps (15-20) are best. I alternate every couple months between low reps for strength/mass and high reps for density/hardness. Many high-level wrestlers lift only light. Lighter weights are good for the for the first set of the day to get the blood flowing, and to keep your form good and your range of motion complete: they remind the muscles what they should be doing during the heavier sets. Or if I finished my heavy sets but aren't quite satisfied, I do a light set or negative set to max out. (Negative means going up quickly using a spotter or cheating; then going down a slowly as you can.)

I generally do 2-3 sets of each exercise. Every first set I try to beat my record slightly. And if the first set goes badly, go lighter for the second. I don't get down on myself if I can only do 2 reps the first set or if I'm weaker than the last session. I just rest a few minutes and come back, and usually I do immensely better. It's like, if you show the muscles what to do and then give them a few minutes to get ready, they respond much better. The only time that doesn't work is when I'm maxed out.

I spend a couple months doing mainly heavy sets and then sometimes switch to "drop sets": 8 reps followed immediately by 20, dropping the weight 30-40 pounds in between. (That counts as one set, not two!) There's also the reverse drop set, where you do one set of 8, then a set of 20 at the same weight. This is another way to trick yourself into doing more. My notes say I found reverse drop sets remarkably good, although I haven't done them for a few years. There's also the serial drop set; e.g., dumbbell shoulder shrug at 200 lb, then 180, then 160, then 140. All these add a greater variety while still providing some low-rep work.

Exercises with very light weights are really aerobic and are covered in the Calisthenics section.

The higher percentage of muscle fibers you recruit now, the stronger you will be now, and the more strength potential you'll have in two days. But it's bloody painful to recruit so many fibers, which is why heavy lifting is such hard work. You pays your money and takes your choice. But if you apply increasing pressure gradually, the muscles really get into it and keep contracting more and more, as if they really enjoy it. I find that especially with triceps; they can't get enough. And tightening one muscle helps encourage others to tighten too, kind of pack mentality. I find that squeezing my hands around the bar tightly at the start of a pullup makes my back perform better. It's as if they're "keeping up with the Joneses" -- the back doesn't want to be wimpy when the hands are strong. Plus, the intentional burn in your hands keeps your mind off the burn in your back and biceps, which may trick you into pulling heavier and longer.

My first serious routine was a 5-day split: chest, arms, shoulders, back, and legs. (Abs are every day, so not mentioned.) Given 18 sets per day, this gives space to work several angles for a more thorough workout. For example, the 4-way chest: bench press (middle part), incline press (upper), decline press (lower), fly (sides). Shoulders have three heads, so front/side/rear raises work each, then add shrugs. Biceps respond best to both regular curl and hammer curl. I won't describe the specific moves because there are innumerable books and magazines with step-by-step guides, and tons of trainers and buddies that can show you in person.

The disadvantage of a 5-day split is each bodypart gets it only once a week. There's disagreement over how important this is, but some people advocate a shorter split or a full-body workout every session. The disadvantage of this is there's no time to do the "several angles". I sometimes do a 2-day split but inevitably switch back to 5. This is, when I'm doing a heavy-weight program. When I'm emphasizing calisthenics, I do a few heavy-weight exercises on the side but not with a mapped-out schedule.

There's also the "dedicate one month to a bodypart" approach. I've tried that with chest and it does work, if you don't mind keeping everything else on hold and possibly regressing.

Recovery time: muscles actually build while you sleep. Exercise rips them down and convinces them to build up better, like a flood to a house builder. So breaking them down again when they're half built is pointless. Muscles take 48-72 hours to rebuild, so exhausting the same bodypart every day is not recommended, except abs which have quick-recovery fibers. Of course the military workout violates this rule (pushups every day), but pushups are relatively low impact compared to a 250-pound, 6-reps-and-you're-out bench press. Of course, some jobs are essentially hauling iron all day every day.

A few cool techniques:

Speed: A normal rate is two seconds up, two seconds down. A faster rate adds an aerobic element, and some say gives a good variety, but others disagree. Raise and lower the weight smoothly, not throwing it up, and resisting all the way down. Otherwise you lose half the benefit or more. Resist all the way down, and you'll get at least twice the benefit. Some people do the down part slower; e.g., one second up, three seconds down. Some do negative reps, where a buddy raises a weight heavier than you can lift, and you bring it down as slowly as you can. You can also do negative reps after a regular set by raising the weight yourself, then lowering it as slowly as you can 1-3 times, with a micro rest at the bottom. Thee "super slow" method codifies this: 30 seconds up, 30 seconds down. It's excellent for strength building, but I find it too difficult. But I told my friend John about it and he says it's the best for him.

My biggest mistake was reading the "Why not Aerobics?" article on the SuperSlow site. It says that stronger muscles provide every benefit aerobics do and then some, so aerobics is a waste of time and dangerous, because most sports and repetitive-strain injuries occur when doing activities with vigorous motion. I find muscle building easier than aerobics, so this just reinforced my prejudices. All the people I'd seen who did aerobics or yoga didn't have any muscle ("Where's the beef?"). I'd never done active sports and never intended to, so I didn't see why aerobic capacity mattered. Later I started wrestling and found out that aerobic capacity and flexibility make the difference between lasting a 3-minute round and getting your ass kicked in the first minute. Again, the male body is made for hand-to-hand combat, and that's an aerobic activity. But I had lost two years of practice due to SuperSlow propaganda. Fuck SuperSlow.

Another strategy often recommended is to start with the largest muscles and end with the smallest.

I originally wrote down every set I did. Then I started writing down just the maximums to cut down on paperwork. But somehow I've started writing them all again, which lets me see my little advances and retreats over the past few weeks. I also used to chart my progress every six months, but that became unworkable since my exercises kept changing and didn't really correspond with earlier ones. A chest press on a machine is easier than a bench press even though they're the "same" motion, different machine brands provide different resistance, and calesthenics don't really fit into a weight grid.

If you're working for size and don't see any gains, check the hardness and the back. Hardness often seems to come before size. And many people don't realize how impressive their shoulder muscles are from the back because they never see them.

I should say some more about specific exercises but I can't think of anything at the moment....