Today’s 100% natty guest post comes from Henry Croft, of Gym Talk.
Take it away good Sir …
The bodybuilders of the pre-steroid era left behind a legacy of natural training principles which they learnt not from the latest scientific literature, social media gurus and supplement companies, but from years of graft, experience and trial and error.
Yet walk into any gym around the world and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone following this advice.
Instead, you’re more likely to find guys working through a “brutal arm blitz”, part of a training split they’ve picked up from Phi Heath’s latest YouTube video, or some clown performing cable crossovers while standing one legged on a bosu ball with one eye closed, all part of a “functional training” routine which is being overseen by a personal trainer who couldn’t spell “muscle”, let alone build it.
Now, although these old-school training principles may not be trendy or marketable like most of what makes up today’s fitness industry (If I see one more advert for a skinny detox tea or a “Butt Blaster 5000” I’m going to commit a hate crime), I guarantee that, when followed, they’ll yield far better results than any functional training routine, bro split or “short cut to abs” plan.
The following five principles were tried-and-tested training staples of some of the greatest natural physiques the sport of bodybuilding has ever seen, including Peary Rader, Steve Reeves, Reg Park, John Grimek and Leroy Colbert, and are easily implemented into any fitness plan to optimise results.
Virtually every bodybuilder in the pre-steroid era built their physiques using full-body training.
This would entail training every body part three times per week (on non-consecutive days), with each session comprising lots of compound movements (emphasising heavy back and leg work) and lasting several hours.
This was the approach which years of trial and error proved to be most effective for building size and strength – like many other old-school principles, the old-timers might not have known why this approach was effective, but they sure as hell knew it worked.
Then with the advent of steroids, a new era of “split training” was ushered in, as not only was this method of training well-suited to steroid use, but it was, alongside all the latest isolation machines, a lot more marketable – the new “revolutionary way” to build muscle, as the bodybuilding rags of the time put it.
Subsequently, full-body training fell out of vogue, and has been, for the most part, an unpopular notion ever since, despite being a far more effective vehicle for building muscle naturally.
Compared to split training, full-body training is more effective at boosting muscular strength, hormone production, bone and joint strength, stability and functionality, and it also allows your body more time to rest and recover between workouts (one of the real keys to muscle growth, as we’ll come on to later).
Indeed, the pre-steroid bodybuilders continue to advocate this approach, with, for example, Steve Reeves using it as the basis for his book “Building the Classic Physique the Natural Way”, Reg Park prescribing his own 5×5 routine (the basis of the Stronglifts and Madcow variations popular today) and even Arnold Schwarzenegger citing his own full body routine, “The Golden Six”, which he performed in his pre-steroid days, as his choice for natural trainees.
In today’s fitness industry, we live in an era of “paralysis by analysis”.
How many times have you heard advice along the lines of “you shouldn’t train for more than 45 minutes at a time” or that “three sets of eight to twelve reps is optimal for building muscle”?
If you repeated this to any of the old-timers they would have laughed in your face.
Legendary bodybuilder Leroy Colbert, the first person, to build 21 inch biceps, drug-free, has commented in various interviews that his arm growth really started to skyrocket when he started pushing the boundaries in terms of volume, performing upwards of 10 sets per exercise.
Similarly, many old-school full body routines, especially the abbreviated programmes with 4-5 multi-joint exercises, call for the lifter to gradually increase the sets performed from 3 to 6-8.
What’s more, the ruthlessly effective German Volume Training (GVT) principle calls for 10 sets of 10 reps per exercise, and perhaps most infamous of all is the 20 Rep Squat routine (often referred to as “Squats and Milk” or “Breathing Squats”), which, through high-rep heavy squats, has you really pushing the boundaries of what your body can achieve – and reaping the benefits.
The old-timers trained like athletes – not puffed-up bodybuilders – and they knew that consistently increasing work capacity over time was the key to progression.
Honestly, you tell me what you think’s going to be more effective – three sets of cosmetic-orientated lateral raises or 10 sets of heavy overhead presses?
The old-school routines which were performed on non-consecutive days (usually Monday/Wednesday/Friday) left plenty of time for recovery, as the pre-steroid bodybuilders recognised that resting the muscles as much as possible was vital to muscular growth.
With this in mind, many old-school routines published in magazines during the 1940s and 50s, particularly those from eminent bodybuilders of the day such as Alan Stephan, call for a complete elimination of physical activity on rest-days and upwards of 10 hours uninterrupted sleep every night.
While this might be pushing things a little far, the point stands that muscle growth is truly maximised through adequate rest, in addition to fuelling the body with the right nutrition.
You can be eating well and lifting as hard and as heavy as you please, but if you’re starving your body of the rest it needs and sleeping erratically, then you’re going to be depriving yourself of the physique you’re working for.
With all the drugs, dodgy meal-replacement supplements and “ripped” cadaver-like physiques, it rarely feels that general health and wellness is a priority in today’s fitness industry.
However, for the pre-steroid lifters, health and wellbeing was one of the main goals, synonymous with muscle and strength.
John Grimek, for instance, was nicknamed “The Glow” because of his obvious good health, and the great Marvin Eder once declared that “health was never divorced from my training… above all, have the goal of good health”.
In his book, “Building the Classic Physique the Natural Way”, Steve Reeves places equal priority on training for good health in addition to training for muscle and strength, and, as “Rules to Live By”, he posits, among other staples, cold showers, 8-12 glasses of water per day, lots of sleep and plenty of exposure to sunlight (with sunblock of course).
He was also, until his death, a vocal critic of steroid use in sport, and once said: “I don’t believe in bodybuilders using steroids. If a man doesn’t have enough male hormones in his system to create, a nice hard, muscular body, he should take up ping pong.”
For the old-timers, strength, muscles and health were not mutually exclusive, they were all one and the same.
This may seem simple to many readers, but enjoyment is the real key when it comes to fitness.
The vast majority of people throw in the towel simply because they don’t enjoy what they’re doing.
Often, they try to do too much too soon, desperate for results overnight, and end up hating their workouts rather than enjoying them.
The old-timers understood the importance of enjoyment, and prescribed a gradual long-term approach to training rather than the “crash course” and “shortcut” mentality we often see today.
Reg Park, for example, advocated not always training to failure, as he believed frequently failing on reps was a sure-fire way to breed despondency and a lack of enjoyment in your training.
Every now and then, Reg also encouraged breaks from training altogether, advising immersion in other activities for a while, as he believed this approach was more effective in the long run, as it bread renewed enthusiasm in the trainee.
So, there we have it, five old-school bodybuilding principles from the pre-steroid era.
If you are just getting started with bodybuilding – or even if you’ve been at it a long time – I implore you to take a leaf out of the old-school book of lifting and to not fall for all the rubbish which the fitness industry of today shoves in your face.
Stick with what works – and what has worked for hundreds of years – and you’ll see much better results and probably enjoy the whole journey much more as well!
After all, sometimes looking backwards is the best way to move forwards.
Henry is the editor of www.gym-talk.com, a bodybuilding blog which features training advice, supplement and workout reviews, irreverent articles about the fitness industry, as well as the latest deals and offers.
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