Monday, September 10, 2001


I'm going to let you in on a little secret: a large percentage of professional bodybuilders are about as weak as a one-armed, octogenarian stamp collector with severe arthritis. If some of these pro bodybuilders had a bench-press contest with supermodel Kate Moss, Kate would win, emaciated chest and all. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but over the last few years, I've had the opportunity to train arms with a whole slew of pros, and it never fails to chop their immense egos down a few notches. Why? Because simply, I can generally handle more weight than they can, using stricter form, even though they're usually up to 70 or 80 pounds heavier than I am.

Why am I so much stronger? The secret to my superior relative strength comes from the regular use of maximal weights.

Most bodybuilders stick religiously to a 6 to 12 rep range when training arms. In most cases, 6 to 12 reps is the best range for building up the arms, but like anything else, it only works for a while. I'm utterly convinced that one of the reasons bodybuilders fail to achieve their growth potential is that they're simply too weak for their cross-sectional muscle area.

When you look at a hypertrophied thigh of a weight lifter or power lifter, it's most often a case of "what you see is what you get." Yet, in many bodybuilders—particularly in those that use massive doses of anabolics and growth hormone—their size rarely reflects their strength.

Believe it or not, I've seen at least three Mr. Olympia contestants that couldn't even bench press 315 pounds for six reps, and that was in the off-season, when they're supposed to be their biggest and strongest. One of them even asked me to open up a peanut-butter jar for him. Okay, I'm kidding again about the peanut-butter jar, but my point is, there are plenty of strongman contest competitors with massive arms who are every bit as strong as they look.

What's the difference? Drugs, you may ask? No. Many strength athletes also use anabolics, but the main difference is in their choice of training methods. As a general rule, strongman competitors train using few exercises, done for multiple sets of low reps with long rest intervals between sets.

I recently used one of these IFBB pros as a guinea pig to test my theory. Milos Sarcev, a very popular and widely known professional bodybuilder was in the midst of serious muscle plateau. When I convinced him to start using heavier loads in his workouts, his physique skyrocketed. As a result, being narrowly edged out of first place, he almost won the prestigious Night of the Champions competition. Maybe he took solace in the fact that he knew he could easily beat the winner in an arm-wrestling contest.

Why Use Maximal Weights?

As I've said time and time again, the nervous system is the forgotten component of bodybuilding, and training with maximal weights targets this area by improving the link between the central nervous system and the muscular system. This is what German exercise physiologists refer to as intra-muscular training. By using this method, the trainee will learn to access a greater percentage of motor units in a given cross-section of muscle tissue.

General Tips for Training With Maximal Weights

Although training with maximal weights is fairly straightforward, there are various things to keep in mind so that you can make the most of this 12-week period:

1) If possible, train in groups of two or three athletes. This will make it easier to load and unload plates, as well as serve as a natural "clock." In other words, when lifter B and lifter C finish their sets, it's time for you to do your next set. Training partners also serve to motivate you and help cut down the risk of injury.

2) Increase the weight or load by 1-3% when you achieve your rep goals. Most gyms don't carry a lot of small disks, but you can buy Eleiko Olympic disks of 0.5 kilograms and 0.25 kilograms from Sports Strength (1-800-285-9634). Another alternative is to buy PlateMates. They're magnetized weights that fit on the end of a bar. They sell both 1 1/4 pound weights and 5/8 pound weights. They're a great thing to have anyhow, as they also attach to dumbbells for making intermediate jumps in weight. I recommend you buy the donut-shaped ones, as they also fit on hexagon dumbbells. Their number is 1-800-877-3322.

3) Record all sets, reps, and rest intervals for purposes of motivation, monitoring, and program evaluation. Invest a few bucks in a training diary and keep meticulous records. The more high-tech approach is to use an Apple Newton, of course, like one of my clients. Unfortunately, this method has inherent disadvantages. For some reason, training partners "inadvertently" drop weights on them to see how far the computer chips fly.

4) Try to pair agonists and antagonists together. This helps with muscle recovery. The ability of a muscle to produce full motor-unit activation may be enhanced when preceded immediately by a contraction of the muscle's antagonist. It's also effective to alternate agonist/antagonist exercises to increase motor unit activation, as long as you allow for enough rest in-between sets.

5) Don't overdo it. Keep the workouts under 1 hour, as working out longer will deplete androgen levels.

6) Make sure that you're motivated before you begin to work out.

7) Keep in mind that, contrary to popular bodybuilding methodology, maximal weight training imposes lower energy requirements per time unit. To put it simply, you won't burn as many calories and your caloric requirements will be less during this training period.

In closing, let me say that maximal weight training isn't for everyone. People who are only interested in having arms that aren't the least bit functional should avoid them like the plague and work out with Kate Moss.