Regimens: Building Your Muscles by Surprise

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1995

Regimens: Building Your Muscles by Surprise
By Ken McAlpine

With a nod to Nietzsche, that which wastes you makes you stronger. And the best way to thoroughly exhaust your muscles isn't to do the same regimen over and over, but to constantly yet subtly change the routine. "Doing two slightly different exercises back to back is better than doing the same exercise three or four times with rest," says Ellington Darden, author of 14 books on weight training, among them the influential Living Longer Stronger (Perigee). "It forces your muscles to an incredibly deep level of fatigue, and that means they'll come back stronger." Darden warns that your should adopt the following three-day-a-week regimen only after you've spent a couple of months doing consistent weight work. Such exercises aren't for uninitiated muscles.

Start with a set of eight to 12 biceps curls, using only as much weight as you can handle comfortably. While standing, slowly bring the weight toward you, concentrating the effort on your biceps. Once that's done, and with no more than three seconds' rest (any more, says Darden, and the muscles can recover), do as many pull-ups as you can. Use an underhand grip (palms toward you) and keep your hands shoulder-width apart. If you can't do any--Darden says that's realistic when you're just starting out--get a lift from a partner or stand on a chair so that you're in a position to lower yourself from the bar. These are "negative" pull-ups; try to come down very slowly, over eight to ten seconds, and do as many repeats as you can.

Begin with a seated triceps extension: With a dumbbell in each hand, bend your arms and bring the dumbbells snug behind your head so that your elbows are as close to your ears as possible (photo 1). Now slowly lift the dumbbells straight up--keeping elbows near ears--and do eight to 12 reps. Again, with no more than three seconds' rest, switch to dips and do as many as possible. If you can't do full dips, try negative ones: Step up on a stool, grab the handles on the dip bar, and lower yourself slowly (photo 2). Repeat to exhaustion.

Open with eight to 12 standing lateral raises: With a dumbbell in each hand, and with palms down, arms straight, and elbows locked, slowly raise the dumbbells out from your sides until they're slightly above shoulder height (photo 3). As soon as you're done, grab a barbell and move into a set of eight to 12 overhead presses: While standing or seated, bring the barbell behind your neck and, with hands slightly more than shoulder width apart, lift from shoulders to near full extension (photo 4).

To cover your abs, you need three back-to-back exercises. First, trunk curls: Lying on your back with your hands behind your head, your feet off the floor, and your knees bent 90 degrees, take two seconds to bring your elbows to your knees, hold them there for one second, and come down over one second (photo 5); do five to 15 reps. Then immediately go to hip rolls: With your head, shoulders, and feet flat on the floor and your knees bent, slowly lift your feet and hips off the floor, curling them toward your head (photo 6). Again, it's two seconds up, hold the contracted position for one second, and then one second down. Take a deep breath and move right into a set of push-pulls: Lying on the floor in the hip-roll position, with your hands behind your head, slowly lift your right knee and your left elbow until they meet; go down just as slowly. Do the same with left knee and right elbow (photo 7). Work for 60 seconds on each side, trying to do 15 reps within the minute.

There's only one exercise here--the traditional squat--but it's done with a twist. By emphasizing the eccentric part of the motion, when you're lowering your body and the weight, you may be promoting slightly larger increases in strength and muscle mass than if you were to perform the entire exercise with an even effort. With a barbell resting on your shoulders and your feet shoulder width apart, stride forward until the thigh of the leg you're leading with is nearly parallel to the floor. To emphasize the eccentric motion, take four seconds to go forward and down and two to return. Do one set of eight to 12 reps, once a week.

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