MuscleMag - June 2001 / Issue 228

Poppa's Principles
Part One: Training
By: Mark "Poppa" Lewis

Bodybuilding principles. You've heard of them.  Joe Weider, co-founder of the Weider Empire and "trainer of champions since 1936," was perhaps the first to organize weight training into a coherent set of rules.  These principles are categorized into beginning, intermediate and advanced training. The last I knew there were just over 30 of them.

Note that I said Mr. Weider "organized" this material. His Progressive
Overload Training Principle, for example, which states a trainee must progressively overload the muscles to causean adaptive response, is a statement of physical law, not a concept Mr. Weider conjured up in his head.

"Well," I thought, "if Joe can take pre-existing maxims and organize them into helpful hints for bodybuilders the world over, why can't I?"  And so this is the first installment of what I call Poppa's Principles.

I divided my principles into three categories just as Joe Weider did. (Hey, it worked for him!) My subdivisions are training, nutrition and motivation. Some of these principles you've heard many times over the years. Some you will have no doubt forgotten. Others will be new to you.

Before we get started on the training principles, I'd like to state that 99.9 percent of what you are about to read, I did not originate. I just organized it for your convenience. I won't list any credits simply because I don't know where most of these little ditties came from. I will say, however, that if NPC president Jim Manion or Heavy Duty author Mike Mentzer read this series of articles, he'll probably smile. (Thanks, guys!)

Also, many of these maxims can be applied to more than just one of the three categories as well as to life in general.  My intention is to address one category in each article.  I will be repeating some of the principles by relating them to each applicacable category. The more you read, the more you will realize all of these principles intertwine to weave a strong platform of training success.


Define your purpose and set your goals. This is grassroots stuff here! Did you ever ask yourself why you train with weights? Are you looking to be competitive as a body­builder, or are you just trying to shape up a bit for the beach? Maybe working out is more of a health issue with you. Whatever the reason, you must have a clear vision in your mind as to what you want to accomplish. That way you can set some realistic training goals. You need to set both long­and short-term goals. Winning the NPC Nationals is a great goal, but you must start small and work up. Winning the Smallsville, YMCA Championship would be a step in the right direction, but even the Smallsville competition must be preceded by a whole series of smaller goals, the ones you concentrate on day to day such as reduced body fat, larger arms, and more outer sweep on your thighs. Each of these goal an be broken down still further into objectives like doing two extra reps on a set of curls, or extending your aerobics by five minutes per session. You will find the smaller the goal, the easier it is to achieve. When your goals are easily achieved, you'll be racking up success after success and getting closer and closer to those bigger goals.

If you ever took the time to watch most people train, you would swear their purpose in the gym is to demonstrate their strength. What they should go to the gym for is to increase their strength. That is working toward a goal. You can demonstrate your strength every day if you like, but that type of training will not foster much in the way of strength gains. You need a training strategy, and you need to review it often.

Don't lose sight of your goals . . . or your abs. Many people still train with the "bulk up - trim down" philosophy in mind. Be very careful of that mindset, as you may look in the mirror one day and suddenly realize . . . "Damn,I'm fat!" Bulking up is actually counterproductive, since when the time to diet off the fat rolls around, you are going to lose an appreciable amount of muscle with it.

To get ahead, plan ahead. I just can't stress enough the importance of having some type of training strategy. Nobody - I repeat, nobody ever built a great physique by accident! Why do you think there are so many articles in the magazines about a particular champion's training philosophy? That is his training strategy, his long-range, goal-oriented plan, and you need one, too.

You haven't done enough if you don't know what too much is. You shouldn't push the enve­lope too much in your workouts. That would be flirting with injuries. You don't have to take risks to train hard. What needs to be emphasized here is the absolute necessity for smaller training goals. You don't want any big jumps in weight at the expense of form, but you must be willing to push yourself. Remember, the bottom line of the Weider Overload Principle is to strive to handle heavier weights in good form. Too bad most manufacturers of Olympia weights make plates only as small as 2­1/2 pounds. Here at The Dungeon we have l-l/4-pound plates made by Ivanko, plus 1-pound, 1/2-pound, and 1/4-pound plates that we had specially made. These little guys have proven to be invaluable. (We may be marketing these smaller sizes soon. If you are interested, drop me a line.)

You do have to find your outer limits in training, but then avoid crossing it, as that would be counterproductive. Staying within your limit does not mean easy workouts by any stretch of the imagination, but by necessity it does mean a possible reduction in training volume and/or frequency.

If you can do more, you have to. This rule is tied pretty closely to the previous principle, although it seems to contradict the last   statement in that principle. It doesn't. Trust me. It simply means you have to push yourself in the gym. I have observed a large percentage of trainees do not train as hard as they think they do. But here again, don't go crazy and wind up with an injury.

Don't let your ego write checks your body can't cash. For building a great physique, I don't believe there is any need to ever do a l-rep max on any exercise. Keep your head screwed on straight and never attempt anything in the gym that you feel is beyond your limits. That is a clear invitation to an injury. You need to push yourself in the gym, sure, but not over the edge.

What works in theory does not always work in practice. Everyone is different. That's why they call us "individuals." Get it? This individuality comes out in training. Your training partner may get complete chest development from doing flat bench presses and nothing else for chest. You could work this exercise into the ground for five years and have little development to show for it. You need to try different movements to find out exactly what works for you. If gym lore dictates a certain exercise for complete triceps development, that may be true for the masses, but not necessarily for you. I find what works for me without respect for gym lore or physiological laws, and that is what you should do.

What does not work in theory may work in practice. Bumblebees fly. That's nothing new. According to the laws of aerodynamics, however, a bumblebee cannot generate enough power with those little wings to get off the ground. (Good thing nobody told the bees that!) So don't be afraid to try some movements in your training that are a bit, shall we say, unconventional. Some of the most productive exercises my clients do are ones you've probably never even heard of. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. If you think about it, you'll realize that's how all exercises came into being.

K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid. Don't let your exercise routine get too fancy. If muscle growth is your main goal, nothing works like the basic heavy exercises. Rows, various pressing movements, squats, deadlifts, dips and curls are your best bet. The same holds true for building strength and power. All too many bodybuilders do cable work and fancy exercises in an effort to get big when in reality these supplemental movements should come later. Nobody ever built outstanding pecs doing cable crossovers! Even when the time comes to broaden your exercise repertoire, complex routines are a fast track to over training, so keep it simple.

Make your workout simple, but not easy. Some people tend to get a little fuzzy on this principle. If the workout itself is simple by design, you can generate more intensity while doing it. You can't work as hard in a two-hour session featuring 20 different exercises as you can in a one-hour slugfest with a handful of the basic mass builders.

Never make an exercise easier. Always make it harder. Have you ever seen someone do an incline bench press and push so hard on the floor with his feet that his butt comes off the bench? Sure you have. Heck, you've probably done it yourself! Pressing motions from various angles have different degrees of difficulty. The decline press is the easiest, as that is the strongest pressing angle. The flat bench press is next, with the incline press being tougher than flat pressing. As you increase the angle of the press, the degree of difficulty is greater. When you do a pressing motion for the shoulders, it gets harder yet. A seated or standing front press is easier than the press behind the neck. So when you pick your butt up during the flat bench press, you are turning the exercise into a decline bench press and thus making it easier as well as shifting the emphasis to an area of the chest other than what you wanted to work. Your body will cheat on an exercise without even asking your permission, so concentrate on keeping strict form and always make the exercise as hard as possible. This stuff is supposed to be hard. That's why they call it a workout!

You can work out long, or you can work out hard, but you can't do both. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has told me, "I train heavy and do a lot of reps." Aren't these actions mutually elusive? If you can do a lot of reps, the weight obviously is not very heavy for you. Similarly I'd like to have a nickel for every time I've heard people say they train very hard for two to four hours a session. Again we have two mutually exclusive factors. You cannot train intensely for an extended period of time. Can you sprint a mile? I don't think so!

Intensity of effort, not duration of effort, is what causes a muscle to grow. That's a physiological fact. If you go into the gym and really hit the weights hard, there is no way you can maintain a high level of effort for very long. I've always been a proponent of short, intense training. In fact, I'd like to have a nickel for every time someone has commented that a 45-minute workout with me is worse (in terms of pain and fatigue) than the two-hour-plus type of training they did before coming to The Dungeon.

A doctor I trained for over seven years used to keep track during a one-hour session of how much time he spent actually lifting the iron. All the sets put together in that one-hour totaled under nine minutes! And it was a good, hard workout!

Quality is the object of gym time. Quantity is the object of rest time. Not only should your workouts be short, sweet and to the point, but they should also be infrequent. If they are short and intense as suggested above, you will require more recovery time before your next bout with the weights. When you design your workout/rest schedule, keep in mind that your central nervous system needs to recuperate as well as the worked muscles. The CNS takes a beating with each workout, as with everything else that happens in your life. When the CNS is pooped out (I call it TBF . . . total body fatigue), you won't be able to do justice to your workouts. If you can't train with proper intensity, you won't get the gains you desire. So don't underestimate the importance of recovery time.

Use visualization.   You've heard this idea before in relation to your long-term bodybuilding goals, but did you ever try using visualization before each of your workouts? Try it. Envision yourself easily handling heavier weights in good form. Mentally rehearsing your workout can make a big difference in your performance.

If you can conceive it and believe it, you can achieve it. Everyone has heard this maxim.  Unfortunately not too many folks take it to heart. Inmost cases the mind will give out before the muscles during a workout. You have to remember there are physical limitations in the gym. But are you truly working to failure? Have you picked a realistic goal for each exercise, each set, as far as weight and repetitions are concerned? The trick here is to choose (i.e. conceive) the proper amount of resistance, and then believe for a certain number of reps that will truly tax the muscles. Keep in mind that to really tax your muscles, you have to test your "mind. You need to train your mind right along with your muscles. Teach your mind to work harder, "and your muscles will receive more growth stimulation.

To gain something, you have to risk something. Take calculated chances. I suppose there is a chance of injury every time you enter the gym, but you can keep those chances to a minimum by training smart. Never just load a bar and try to heave the weight up. Always pay attention to your surroundings.

Think it heavy. Focus, feel and form are heavier than iron. I am a firm believer in extreme concentration in the gym. (This goes back to training the mind.) You could do an entire workout using a broomstick instead of a barbell if your powers of concentration were good enough. The amount of weight on the bar doesn't really matter-only what you do with it.

Concentrate on how the muscles feel as they stretch and contract. You can't do that with a weight so heavy your mind can't get past thinking about what could happen if the bar got away from you. You should squeeze each repetition out with mental conviction while maintaining good exercise form. Then just sit back and wait for the resulting growth.

Stimulate . . . Don't annihilate. Do you do forced reps? Negatives? Cheat reps? Fine. These are all good methods of getting more growth stimulation out of a set. But how often do you use these types of training? If you use them more than occasionally you most certainly will over train before long. I believe in going to positive muscular failure on most sets. If you are truly working that hard, I don't think you will often be able to go any further. Most go to failure only in their minds, not with their muscles. I see this situation constantly.

Not long ago a young bodybuilder came to me asking for secrets to get more growth out of his thighs. I asked him what he was currently squatting. He replied that he had been stuck at 240 pounds for 10 reps for some time. "I just can't get any more growth or strength out of them!" he declared. I had him load up the bar to 240 and told him to do 20 strict reps. In as respectful a way as he could, he asked if I had been listening to him. "Just do it," I insisted. Well, the set took a lot of effort on his part and a good bit of screaming on my part, but he got all 20 reps. After several minutes of panting from a supine position on the floor, he sheepishly admitted, "I honestly thought I was going to failure." Man, he wasn't even close! To make a long story short, 240 is a toy weight for him now, and his thighs are at least 2 inches bigger.

That which does not kill you makes you stronger. This proverb really relates well to the above story. Of course, that set of squats would not have killed the kid, even though he acted as if he was gonna die! In essence this saying means you will benefit from gruelingly hard work only to the point of not overdoing it.

Another translation of this principle is that if you don't get stronger from your training, you are killing your progress.

Listen to your body. It will tell you everything you need to know. Does this exercise deliver a good pump? Does that exercise give you a deep ache? Did yesterday's routine make you too tired to perform your regular daily activities today? All of these questions cannot only be easily answered by your own body, but the answers will provide valuable information and feedback that can greatly aid you in reaching your training goals. For example, my best triceps workouts have always been followed by cramping in my triceps when I tense the muscles. Some people work for a pump when training the triceps. I work for cramps. Then I know. I've stimulated growth!

Look for feelings, findings and failings. These are the three ways you will be warned of an injury. Something will not feel right. Muscle fatigue and muscle soreness are part and parcel of the sport. Here at The Dungeon we like to say, "It hurts so good," but if you feel a pain that just doesn't seem right, it probably isn't. That good hurt is in reference to the pump and the ache from a good set, as well as the resulting muscle soreness, but hurt-type pain is another story. An unusual condition, like a bruise on your body, is another warning sign. Lastly, if you try to lift your arm and find it will not move above a certain point that is within its normal range of motion, you may have a real problem. So listen to your body. It will always tell you what you need to know. (Does that sound familiar?)

Upon entering the gym, check your femininity/macho attitude at the door. You women shouldn't be afraid to spit and sputter if that is what you have to do to get those last few reps out. In a real workout you will break a sweat. I see some ladies in the gym doing little more than going through the motions and trying to look good doing it.  Hey, get serious or get out!

Way too many of you guys think every eye is on you when you are lifting, so you've gotta make it look good.  Well, guess what! We don't really care, so save the theatrics for the softball field or the neighborhood basketball court.  The gym is no place for a hot dog!

Upon entering the gym, check your ego at the door. No, this is not the same as the last principle. This point relates more closely to that one about thinking the weight heavy. You can entertain your ego Without trying to show off by using weights that are too heavy, and giving up good exercise form in order to feel you are progressing. You'd just be kidding yourself by doing this, and also begging for a progress-halting injury. Progress and big ego just don't mix!

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If you are making progress with a certain exercise or on a certain routine, keep plugging away on that exercise or routine. I realize a lot of trainers recommend changing your training from every workout to every few weeks, but also many bodybuilders built great physiques by following the same routines for years with no changes. I know that approach wouldn't work for most people, but the point is, it can be done. Coca-Cola had a very popular product that made lots of money, and for some silly reason they decided to change it. That decision was one of the dumbest in marketing history. As you well know, good ol' Coca­Cola is now known as Classic Coke because they had to bring it back to stay in business. But why did they change it in the first place? Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

If it's not working, change it. This principle is just as logical as not changing what works, but we should ask ourselves, "What constitutes not working?" The obvious answer is if you are not getting closer to your training goals, your training is ineffective i.e., not working. But the problem can go deeper than that.

What if you go mentally stale on a certain exercise or routine? Even if you still see progress, can you honestly put 100 percent effort into your training? If you can, you're better than I, and I like to put as close to 100 percent into every workout as humanly possible. I have often changed effective training because of the mental blahs. Likewise, many of my clients request a change before they are scheduled for one for the same reason. So, if it doesn't trip your trigger, as they say, maybe a change, however subtle, is in order.

Experiment to learn. To learn what type of routines and what exercises work best for you, you need to experiment. I think I've tried every variation of every routine ever thought of as well as every weight exercise invented. I've even invented a few of my own! If you read an idea in one of the magazines that makes sense to you, try it. But don't spin your wheels with it for too long. Once you realize you are not making adequate progress, you're ready for a change.

Rule of experimentation: All things being equal. If you do a certain three movements for triceps that don't seem to work for you, and you change to three completely different exercises, how can you tell if one, two or all three of the exercises are effective? Make your changes slowly. This rule is especially important in relation to exercise selection. Maybe changing just one exercise would've kicked in new growth. The only way to tell what effect any change has is to change only one factor at a time and evaluate that change with everything else remaining the same.

No pain, no gain. No strain, remain the same. No brains, no gains. All three of these clichés have some truth. The fashion these days is to say pain is not necessary for an effective workout. I'm sorry, but I can't quite buy that. Even a good aerobic workout will cause some discomfort, such as breathlessness. A good weight workout win create burning and aching in the muscles. Of course extreme pain is not desirable, and you have to be able to tell the difference between a well-worked muscle and an injured muscle. Remember, it hurts so good. As far as the strain is concerned, you have to tax your muscles just as the Weider Progressive Overload Principle states. Doesn't that call for a bit of straining? And doesn't everything you do in the gym take some thought to accomplish? Don't you have to decide what to do once you're in the gym? Reading articles such as this one is part of the mental preparation you do for your training. The more information you have about bodybuilding, the better you will be able to experiment to see what works best for you. The smarter you train, the better you gain.

Train for shape, and size will follow. The classic example of this principle is the difference between the physique of a bodybuilder and that of a powerlifter. A few powerlifters have really good builds, but I think you'd find they do some bodybuilding-type training. When you train for bodybuilding, you have to look at your body as a sculpture, a work of art to be created the way you see the finished product. Gear your training toward details like upper pecs, outer pecs, side delts, thigh sweep and the long head of the triceps. These areas, coupled with some basic mass builders, are some of the elements that will ensure pleasing proportions as well as what is called critic mass.

Your favorite body part is the one you are training now. It's also your most important body part! We all tend to have a certain muscle group or two that we really love to train. Con­versely we all have one or two muscles or muscle groups we dread training. Unfortunately these feelings tend to show up just when we need them least. If you dread working legs, there's a very good chance your leg training suffers from a lack of intensity.  Therefore, I'd be willing to bet your leg development is lacking. Try to translate the same enthusiasm into your leg­ training that you have for, say, arm work. If you can do that, you'll improve your legs by leaps and bounds. (No pun intended.)

Always use the one-set/one­rep approach to training. When you undertake to do a set of any exercise-let's say curls­ imagine it is the only set you will ever get to perform for your biceps. The total development of your biceps depends on how well you do this one - and only this one - set of curls. Now take this principle a bit further and use the same idea on your first rep of the set. Imagine your biceps development depends completely on the performance of one perfectly executed repetition. The concentration and effort of this one rep would be phenomenal. Once that first rep is completed, forget it. It never happened. You again face one and only rep for complete development. Do it as you did the first one. Then, when the second reps finished, the third rep becomes the key to realizing your full growth potential. Do you get the idea? Use this approach for every rep of every set of every exercise in every workout, and your training will take on a new life as well as deliver better results.

This workout will take you one step closer to your training goals. It is an opportunity you can't afford to miss. If you do, it's gone forever. You can't make it up. Consistency is the name of the game in weight training. Regardless of your goals, you have to keep plugging away if you ever want to meet those goals. Too many people miss workouts and then wonder why they aren't making progress. I fail to see the big mystery here. Muscular size, muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness and flexibility all have one feature in common: If you quit training for them, they all go bye-bye!

The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary. This is undoubtedly one of the cornier-sounding principles, but if you think about it, you'll realize it's probably the most important. If you don't work as hard as possible, above and beyond what I the average trainee does, you can only expect to look like the average trainee. Next time you are in the gym, look around. Don't you want to be bigger than and/or look better than all these people? Then you'd better get to work!

That covers the training principles -at least the ones I have at present. Next time we'll consider nutrition. Until then put these principles to work for you. Oh gosh, there's that word work again!

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