You don’t have to do anything. The goons in the gym say you have to train balls-to-the-wall heavy on squats, bench presses and other "compound classics" if you want to be a hardcore bodybuilder. That’s a load of B.S. You don’t have to do anything except what works best for you, and the surprising truth is many free-weight basics are not the safest or most efficient lifts for building muscle mass.
Because I’ve been training for 25 years, people assume I work out old-school style with mostly barbells and compound lifts. It’s true that I trained that way for many years. However, I’ve also learned a few things over the past quarter century, and I’ve readily adapted to the advantages of modern bodybuilding. Most important, I’ve figured out what works, what doesn’t and what can be improved. If you think weight training has sacred cows that are exempt from criticism, stop reading now, because some of them are about to become hamburger.
Let’s start at the top, with the so-called "King of All Exercises." For advanced bodybuilders, this is more like the "King of All Back Breakers and Butt Builders." Like most trainers, I did squats for years, and I’m of two minds regarding their effectiveness. It’s a good fundamental exercise for some, if kept in check. The problem is that too few people keep them in check, and many people just aren’t built for them.
Along with the bench press and the deadlift, the squat is one lift in which guys really pile on the plates for low reps. The bottom line is if you’re always going heavy, eventually there will be a straw that breaks the camel’s or, in this case, the bodybuilder’s back. It happened to me. Heavy squatting was the primary reason I had lower back surgery in 1998.
Consider what you’re doing when squatting. You have a heavy weight on your traps, sometimes more than 500 pounds, pressing down on your spine. Then you bend down, putting your lumbar region in a vulnerable position, not to mention the strain on your knees and even your shoulders, from holding the bar. All of this is compounded if you’re my height or taller. If you’re Lee Priest or Dexter Jackson, you can do squats all day with good form and little discomfort, but if you’re over 5’10", it’s tough to do them without bending forward too far.
Gym rats blindly worship at the squat racks because that’s how it’s always been. The funny thing is I know guys who’ve been training more than 10 years who still squat because they say they need the legs. They haven’t figured out that if it hasn’t worked by now, it ain’t gonna work. The longer you’ve been training, the less you should squat. In addition to the injury factor, once you have a foundation of mass, the squat can harm your appearance. It expands your hip flexors, glutes and upper thighs, which aren’t typically areas in which experienced trainers need more size. Over time, I think squats outlive their usefulness.
Instead of traditional squats, I do hack squats and leg presses. They’re better than squats for muscling up the quads and targeting different areas, and they’re safer, too. I believe in full ranges of motion, all the way down and all the way up for these movements, and for leg presses, I take a relatively wide stance. The taller you are, the wider your stance should be.
PRESSES BEHIND THE NECK
Unlike squats, I have absolutely nothing positive to say about presses behind the neck. No one should ever do them. They combine my two least-favorite factors: a straight bar and a behind-the-neck motion. Anything behind the neck is the worst: presses, chins and pulldowns. It’s an unnatural and unsafe position. You may be able to get away with these as a beginner. Kids tell me "I do presses behind the neck, and my shoulders don’t bother me," and I always say "Talk to me in five years if you’re still doing them."
Instead of these, I recommend military (front) presses or dumbbell presses, both of which work front delts much more safely. I never lower the weight below chin level. You’ll notice this is about as far as you can go without your shoulders dropping. All that’s happening between your chin and your chest is an upper-pec movement and a whole lot of potential damage. I usually perform military presses on a Smith machine, which lets me roll my palms back and find a more natural position. Dumbbells allow for greater freedom of motion, and I typically do partial Arnold presses, starting with my palms facing each other and twisting my wrists on the way up so my palms face forward.
I can’t think of a good reason to do bent barbell rows. Again, you’re using a straight bar, which forces your hands and, consequently, your arms into a somewhat unnatural position, and again your lower back is vulnerable. T-bar rows are better because you stand more upright, putting less strain on your lumbar region, and you can usually take an angled or parallel grip. One-arm rows are also good, as long as you don’t go too heavy. The best thing for those of us who’ve had back problems is a rowing machine with a chest pad. That will take virtually all the lower-back action out of the movement.
I won’t condemn deads and say you should never do them, but too many people end up gaining little muscle for all the straining they do and the injury risks they take. Supposed bodybuilders load up a bar just to see how much they can lift. That’s not bodybuilding and, as with squats, many guys just aren’t built for deadlifts (the ideal shape is short with relatively long arms), so this becomes a strength exercise that hits the glutes and legs as much as the back.
Instead of traditional deadlifts, I prefer top deadlifts. You can do these on a Smith machine or a power rack. Set the safety catch or support bar so the bar can’t go below knee-level. That way you focus mostly on your back instead of legs, hips and glutes, and you reduce the risk of injury.
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For some odd reason, people take it personally if I say the bench press sucks. They consider it blasphemy. "You’ve got to bench to be hardcore," they say. I hate to break it to them, but most pro bodybuilders haven’t done free-weight bench presses in years. Are you going to tell Tom Prince or Jay Cutler they’re not hardcore because they don’t bench?
The problem is that unless you keep your shoulders down and back and maintain the precise groove for every rep, free-weight bench presses place too much pressure on shoulders. Again, the taller you are, the more this is amplified. There’s also the possibility that you’ll suffer a pec tear by doing bench presses. Think of how often you hear about guys popping pecs while benching and how rarely pecs are torn doing anything else. I need two hands to count the number of top bodybuilders whose careers have been shortened by bench- press injuries.
People bench primarily to answer the question, "What do you bench?" That’s not enough of a reason for me. I’d much rather do what’s best for building pec mass, and there are at least 10 exercises superior to free-weight benches, starting with incline presses, machine bench presses and dumbbell flyes. As with shoulder presses, I avoid the lowest position in any chest press.
Here’s another exercise I never do, and it’s all because of that devil’s tool – the straight bar. Straight bars put too much pressure on inner elbows. If you have elbow pain, chances are it’s from a straight bar. Using a straight bar to perform curls forces you into an unnatural position. If you stand talking to someone, your knuckles or palms aren’t facing forward unless you’re planning to clock him or beg for money. The natural position for hands at your sides is with your palms facing each other, and the natural position for a curl is for the thumbs to come up higher than the pinkies, which a cambered bar approximates.
Instead of barbell curls, I do cambered-bar curls in most biceps workouts. There are many other curling lifts that I like, and I’m a big advocate of workout variety, but I’ll single out dumbbell preacher curls as an excellent exercise. Dumbbell preachers both restrict your movement (by bracing your arms against a bench) and provide for more freedom, as you can rotate your wrists.
LYING TRICEPS EXTENSIONS
Here’s a lift you should avoid just based on its nickname: skull crushers. That’s taking "no pain, no gain" way too far. Again, lying triceps extensions are typically done with the dreaded straight bar. Worst of all, each rep starts and stops with your head as the base. That’s not good, at least not for those of us who like our heads. If you want to do a two-hand free-weight extension, do French presses (while seated, lower the bar behind your head), which at least won’t bounce off your forehead, and always use a cambered bar. While we’re on the subject of triceps, don’t use a straight bar for pushdowns, either; use an angled bar or rope instead. Have I gotten across the message to avoid straight bars?
The common link among all the classic movements I dislike is that they were invented a hundred years ago before anyone had much knowledge of training, and they were just making it up as they went along. You don’t see anyone doing one-arm kettledrum presses anymore. Other ancient exercises should be obsolete as well. I suppose we could still crank-start our cars, but I prefer to just slip my key in the ignition and turn it on. Trainers need to take advantage of the many modern tools they have at their disposal and not be too concerned about what others think is "hardcore."
You can be hardcore with Nautilus, Hammer Strength, Strive or whatever the latest computer-designed contraption is. Why not incorporate as many tools as you can? Too many guys get this ridiculous "hardcore" mentality, which ends up limiting their muscle gains. There is no rule that the more noise you make or the faster you drop the weight the quicker you’ll grow, and there’s no rule that you have to do certain exercises just because they’ve been around since the Sig Klein era. It’s a new millennium. Training hardcore today doesn’t mean limiting ourselves to the same movements our great-grandfathers performed. It means having the stones to say there are no sacred cows in bodybuilding, and it means doing only what works best for you to build maximum muscle.