Just last week I had an online client who posed this question to me: “I am 55 years old and I have competed in bodybuilding a few times as a younger man, but now, some twenty years later, I want to compete again as an “over-50” competitor.” “My main problem is my limited equipment and getting the most out of it.” “I train in my basement with a free-weight Olympic Set, a homemade squat rack, a flat bench and a few dumbbells.” “I have a hard time getting full-leg results from squats; and, even though doing Bench presses and dumbbell fly’s for my chest seem to be good exercises, I am not sure that I am doing them properly because I see no results in my pectorals after five years of resent training this way. Can you help me put something together with the equipment that I have?”
This is how I replied;
“I know how hard it can be to train alone, in your basement gym—but it can be done successfully with knowledge and guts. I won my first contest that way, so there is surely a way to win, and ways to do many exercises, even with limited equipment.
First, with squats, I would do the following. Let’s say that you are training every other day and taking Sunday’s off. That would mean that you would do your legs once a week. Let’s call one day a “heavy day,” and the second day, a “specialized day.” On the first leg day, equip your self with as much support as possible so that you can squat as heavy as possible, but for at least 8 reps or more. What I mean by equipping yourself is to wear high-top shoes, boots, or weight-lifting shoes that support your ankles. Secondly, wear a double-thick power-belt. (If you need it; wear a second (“regular”) belt above the power-belt. The power-belt will allow your stomach muscles to push against something tight so as to keep your spine (and back muscles) in place as you drop down and then lift the heavy weight of max-squats. The second belt, if you chose to wear one, will help keep your body from bending forward. (This is best suited for guys who are tall and have a long torso–I consider 6′ and up tall). You may also want to use knee-wraps, but only on your heaviest set. Do one warm up set and one set of 15 reps with a weight that is comfortable. Now, pick a weight that you can do twelve times with relative ease, but only do 8 reps. For the heaviest set, shoot for a weight that you can imagine yourself doing six reps and do everything with your arsenal of support to do eight to ten reps. Now do 3 sets of stiff-legged dead-lifts while standing on your bench—using the pressing rack to put the bar when finished. Try to keep your legs straight, feet together, and keep your lower back flat. Do those three sets with a weight that you can handle for at least 12 reps. Now do lunges. First, make a wooden block for yourself that measures approximately 12 inches high and 10 inches wide. Place the block just inside the area where you usually squat. Put a good amount of weight on your bar and step over the block and put your left foot straight-forward on the block, while your left leg is a good stretch behind you with your foot facing to the side 90 Degrees to your other foot–the one that on the block. Do 12-15 lunges without moving your back foot—only using one thigh to do a set of continuous repetitions. and never locking your knee of the lunging thigh. Just lunge forward and back with your right leg until it burns—now reverse feet and go again. Do three sets of these for each leg.
On your other squat day: Warm up with a light weight and work your way up to something that you can do easily 12-15 times. Now, because this is a day to go for reps instead of weight, go all out and see how many that you can do; however, put your feet together and keep them like that through the entire torturous set—push off with your toes and not your heels. My guess is that you will reach 16-18 reps before tiring–but don’t stop until you have absolutely used every ouce of fiber in those thighs.
Every other week, when you do this one set with your feet together; add five pounds and either do at least one more rep than the one done the prior “specialized” leg day. This tends to build the outer and medial heads of the thigh. The other exercises should be done in the fashion of the first workout.
Upper Body Training
Let’s go to upper-body. Chest: You have a bench, so if you are a good bench-presser, that is your main multi-joint exercise. I would do the same type of routine with the bench as I explained for your legs—only doing less reps in general and changing the hand spacing from semi-wide to semi-close (on the higher-rep day—you don’t want your hands too close—your wrists will give in too soon). On heavy day, it is 6-8 reps with maximum weight, your hands fairly wide on the bar. On the light day, hands should be fairly-close-grip (about shoulder-width–most people put their hands out too far when it calls for “shoulder-width) and do high-reps; however, you should use weight that prohibits you from going past 25 reps. Again, adding five pound every other week. (This should be done only twice a month).
You said that you have trouble with fly’s. There can be many reasons for this and they are a very difficult exercise to master. With that in mind, and the fact that after decades of failing to get any stimulation in the direct chest area from them, I would suggest that you begin to change the focus away from the “stretch and hug paradigm,” to one concentrating on what part of your hand pushes the dumbbells upward (or in an arching motion). I used to have trouble with doing fly’s myself. For decades, no matter the weight, I would do them as I had seen so many great bodybuilders before me (such as Arnold and Franco, etc); but, I could not replicate their form—my shoulders, hands, forearms and triceps made the dumbbells slant towards my neck area, with much more emphasis and strain put on my frontal deltoids and triceps than on my pectorals. This maybe what you are referring to. To get back to these former greats whom I speak of; they all had great pectoral development; and more importantly, their fly-motion was perfect. I used to wonder if it was a “chicken-or-an-egg problem.” Did they build those huge pectorals because they did (heavy, perfect) fly’s? Or, were they born with the perfect pectorals for doing fly’s with a perfect motion (which then added to their ever-growing mass)? When I usually did them, no matter how hard I tried to stretch out and slightly back; while pulling up with my pectorals—they generally made my frontal deltoid do the majority of the work, as my forearms automatically cocked the dumbbells so that it was easier for my body to handle the weight. I noticed that whenever I would do them, the dumbbells ended up over my neck; and, they were not parallel and even—they where pointed toward my neck and had a much larger gap at the back than in the front of the pair (of dumbbells in my hands). I decided to start pulling up from the bottom of the movement with the palm of my hand, albeit, the majority of pulling was done beneath my ring and baby finger. I was amazed at what happened. My chest blew up and it was extremely sore the next day. What had been happening all those trial years was that my grip-strength forced the dumbbells up with the strongest areas—my thumb, forefinger, and forearm—(that which an arm-wrestler has most strength in); and this then forced my deltoids to do the lifting. So, as with your feet when doing various multi-jointed exercises, you can adjust your focus to the part of the hand that is doing the “flying” and get different results than if you allow your body to do as it pleases—despite making the arching motion that everyone knows as a “fly-motion.” (I have seen many people do very heavy fly’s, with 100 pound dumbbells or more; but, they were merely doing presses with their hands in a neutral position)—this is not what you want. Perfection of not only objective form; (that which looks right to others); but, so too must it be subjectively felt (or that which you feel in that perfect spot). This way of making subtle changes in the workout is not like most people infer—they tell you to change your entire routine each time that you train. That is not what I am talking of here. I am saying stay with the exercises that you do well and can master; and, make very small adjustments with feet and hands, while making relatively larger changes with repetitions and increased weight on alternate days that you train each particular body part.
Another instance may be for back. If you have, or can buy a pull-up apparatus, then do so and utilize the various hand-spacing that it will allow. Also, when doing wide-grip chins, make sure that you are arching your back and really squeezing all the back muscles at the top of each rep and perhaps coming almost all the way down but just shy of a total stretch—going right back up again so that a type of constant-tension is the focus. To make the routines even more diverse and intense, you might want to do one back day with straight sets and the next back day with reps until failure and while finishing with as many X-Reps (from the bottom) as possible—without ever letting your hands go. This would mean that each time that you complete as many full pull-ups as possible, while your hands are still grasping the pull-up bar (this is a time that you could use straps to help with your grip), and do half-reps, then quarter-reps and finally, try keeping your arms perfectly straight and extended totally while hanging there at the bottom of the end of that set and pulling with just your lats, teres minor and serratus muscles—your arms stay perfectly still and stiff as you pull your chest (thorax, and legs) up as high as you can without moving your arms at all. You do this until you literally cannot move.
For biceps: You may want to try using only a straight bar for curling. Why? Put your right hand on your left biceps (with you left arm bent at the elbow 90 degrees). Now turn your left wrist back and forth. Feel your biceps going up as the wrist is supinated and down when it is pronated? What is happening here is your brain is telling your biceps to move your wrist. That is a secondary function of the biceps. This should indicate to you that when curling; the more you move your wrists into a supinated position; the more your biceps will peak. The opposite is true when using a “curl” bar. I use a curl bar for lying (triceps-extensions) “French presses” (or more commonly known as lying triceps extensions). You also will want to include a type of single arm concentration curl with the thought that the more you can supinate your wrist upon contraction—the higher the biceps will grow. Also, with this exercise, you will want to keep your arm away from your body (while bent over, non-exercised hand on your thigh) and your elbow held in front of your shoulder (when looking downward upon your hand and the dumbbell making its way upward).
As you can see, with just the few pieces of equipment that you have; the entire body can be built and to a great degree! Sure, it may be easier to go to a gym or health club and use a different machine for each exercise; however, where there is will and knowledge, there are ways to build a complete body, ready to take on any foe onstage.
Remember, most of training is experientially driven, with knowledge steering. Your guts get you to the place where no one else wants to go. With those three acumens and a few pieces of equipment; you will win your first Over-50 contest. If you can see it, then you have only to put this knowledge into experience and off to the title you shall be.
Train hard. That is what luck is; preparation, discipline and gutsy action all meeting together in concert. Make sweet music fellow iron-pumpers.
Contact Paul Burke via email at www.paulburkefitness.com .
About the Author
Burke has a Master’s Degree in Integrated Studies from Cambridge College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is presently in a Doctorate Degree Program at A. T. Still University, and will be a Doctor of Health Education upon completion. Paul has been a champion bodybuilder and arm-wrestler; and, he is considered a leader in the field of Over-40 fitness training. You can purchase his book, “Burke’s Law,” A New Fitness Paradigm for the Mature Male, from any online or Barnes & Noble Bookstore. ** His second book: “The Neo-Dieter’s Handbook,” How We Lost Our Nutritional Roots and How to Find Them Today, will be out in March, 2009 and his third book, “Burke’s Law II,” Quantified Bodybuilding; Finding Your Greatest Muscular Potential through Musculoskeletal Designation (Book Surge/Amazon Publishing, 2009) will be available soon.