In the past 3 days I’ve done 23 video recordings for a new fitness course I’m working on. Some of them have to do with intensity techniques to use when trying to bring up a lagging body part. It’s funny how so much of what I do triggers memories from the past that work as motivation for me now. One of the principles I covered was forced reps. I remember how Joe Weider had categorized virtually every training principle known to man and made it a part of “The Weider System”. Joe on more than one occasion admitted that he had invented only some but not all of these training approaches. He used his system to explain and endorse what the top guys did, all the guys that he showcased in his magazines. He made hard work sound glamorous and dream-come-true results seem reasonable, if of course you followed his system!
Being able to pick and choose from technique that sounded promising and field-test them in our own training took very little encouragement when associated with the genetically gifted and tremendously developed Weider Bodybuilding Stars. If growing bigger was a goal, nothing sounded more promising than finding ways to train harder. Thus, forced reps became one of our favorite principles. So I was more than happy my first year in college when my brand new issue of Muscle Builder/Power (the predicesor of Muscle & Fitness) arrived in the mail and there was a feature article on forced reps written by none other than rising star bodybuilder Mike Mentzer. Mentzer at the time was thought to be the heir apparent to the great Arnold. He was one of the first to promote science and logic as an approach to training. He challenged bodybuilders to think differently. He advocated intensity over duration, later coming out with his industry effecting Heavy Duty Training System book. The 20-25 sets a bodypart approach that had led to Arnold’s six straight Olympia’s titles was way too much according to Mentzer. “If everyone is training like Arnold, how come nobody else looks like Arnold?” he would ask.
The pictures of Mike doing forced reps on the preacher curl bench as the sun gleamed through the window of Gold’s Gym in Santa Monica sent us scrambling to the gym to duplicate the scene. Eight months later he would add the Mr. Universe title to his Mr. America crown. Three months before that, I had the pleasure of meeting my first high-level bodybuilder who had come to guest pose at our local show, Mike Mentzer. Standing there in loose street clothes he looked more like a college professor than a top bodybuilder. The thick, dark glasses he wore were similar to my own and we probably looked like two nerds talking physics more than anything else. As I got his autograph, I told him that I really liked reading his articles in the magazine.
“Which one?” he asked.
“The one of forced reps.” I replied. He smiled, nodded, and handed me a flyer with his picture.
“To Kevin, Train Hard! – Michael J. Mentzer,” he’d written.
I wouldn’t have to be told twice.
All those things came flooding back to my mind as I recorded the video. I explained that forced reps are best used at the end of a set for 2-3 extra reps on just 1-2 sets per bodypart. It’s a way of going beyond failure and adding extra intensity to really shock the muscles. But it can easily be overused and, if done too often or too much, can lead to overtraining, hurting more than helping.
I have done my share of overtraining, taking principles like forced reps, negative reps, and super sets to the extreme, and had learned the hard way that more isn’t always better. I have seen many versions of guys and girls going too far over the years. I recall a gym buddy named Erik. He would ask for a spot on squats because he wanted to do some forced reps. The problem was he would pick a weight where he could barley do one, then shout out to you, “Seven More!” By the time his set was done you’d worked so hard helping him that you were too exhausted to do your own set! Guys would literally hide in the locker room when they saw that Erik was training legs.
I still carry those images with me as I stroll through the gym today. Everything I see and do connects me to something I’ve seen, done, or learned before. That’s on purpose. I want to be able to tap into those memories, to call upon the energy from the past to fuel the workouts of the present. I want the things I write to resonate with someone and help them stay on track to reach their goals. Two years after meeting Mike Mentzer, I wrote a poem called The Olympia Crown. It was a speculation on who might win the upcoming 1980 Mr. Olympia contest in which Mentzer was a favorite. The poem was given a full page layout in Muscle & Fitness. Ironically, that would also be Mentzer’s last competition as he felt cheated and disrespected by his final placing. That’s the show in which a less than 100% Arnold came out of retirement and won again.
The next time you don’t feel like going to the gym, try to remember all the people who came before you who showed up, put in the work, and achieved the same type of goals that you are striving towards. The gyms and equipment they had to work with were a lot more modest than what we take for granted now. What they had was drive, and heart, and passion. They created and invented things that we may be seeing for the first time but trust me, are not new. What’s new each time is another chance to get just a little bit better than we were the day before. A little bit bigger or stronger or leaner or faster. A little bit closer to where we want to be. A little bit happier and a little bit more alive.
To You. Train Hard!