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I get asked about my training pretty often, maybe because I’ve been doing it for so long that people think that I must know what I’m doing. It wasn’t until a recent photo shoot with the brilliant photographer Per Bernal, however, that I finally decided to log all my workouts, along with my overarching training philosophy, to provide a template and a few hard-learned lessons that you can apply as you sculpt your own physique.
I hope this helps you.
I’ve been working out for about three-fourths of my 48 years, and to be honest, my main regret is that I didn’t hit the gym regularly during the first 12. I love training—I mean really love it. I could count the number of things I’d rather do than pump iron on one hand, and if we’re talking a full-on, take-no-prisoners workout at a real iron dungeon, I may not be able to count on that hand at all.
I discovered bodybuilding when I first came upon the book Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding when I was 10 and saw photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, and Lou Ferrigno. My mind was blown. These were men who looked like the characters in my comic books! Improbable as it seemed, I wanted to look like them when I grew up.
A year or two later I saw the film version of the book on PBS and immediately I had a hero: Arnold Schwarzenegger. I talked about him all the time, boring anyone within earshot about his Mr. Olympia wins, his 22-inch biceps, his grueling squat workouts. Then one day when I was 13 my dad came home from the local library with a book for me: Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder. I don’t think I’ve ever read faster in my life. I tore through the book like a bear through a beehive, and when I got to the end I started over. I read it every day until the loan period expired, and then I took it out again. Finally, my parents gave me my own copy for Christmas 1979, with the inscription, “Now you don’t have to keep borrowing this book from the library. Enjoy!”
I logged my first real workouts in the basement of my childhood home on Long Island, on equipment my dad built out of two-by-fours. He constructed a bench with upright supports and a combo squat rack/dip bars/weight rack apparatus. Along with some mismatched dumbbells, a chinning bar, a spring-loaded chest developer, and some hand grips, I had enough to get started.
The first workout I can remember following was written for me by my uncle Joe, who was an accomplished athlete in his youth and an avid lifter himself. It was a total-body pyramid routine—one that I followed religiously for several months. Then came the workouts in Arnold’s Education of a Bodybuilder.
In the summer of ’79, my dad bought me a copy of the September 1979 issue of Muscle Builder/Power, which, a year later, Joe Weider renamed Muscle & Fitness. From that one issue alone I was able to follow Schwarzenegger’s back routine, Tom Platz’s leg routine, and learn the training and nutrition principles of all the bodybuilding greats of the day, including Ferrigno, Mike Mentzer, and Danny Padilla. I used them all.
In September of 1982 I shook Steve Michalik’s hand and signed on the dotted line, proudly becoming a member of Mr. America’s.
My mom joined that day as well: At 16, I was too young to drive, and my dad, while supportive of my interest, didn’t share in it. But my mom, who had been an instructor at a health spa in the late ’70s, took to lifting like a fish to water. In fact, within a year, she competed in her first bodybuilding competition, the 1983 Ms. Long Island, which she won.
Yet while gains came quickly for my mom, they were far slower for me. I desperately wanted to become a competitive bodybuilder, like Arnold and Steve, and did all that was humanly possible to grow (except steroids, which ran afoul of my obsessive desire not just to look good, but to be as healthy as I could be on top of that). Still, despite my steadfast dedication to training, proper nutritional habits, and sleep, I never felt I’d developed enough muscle to justify standing onstage. I was, in fact, a “hardgainer,” meaning that while some guys could practically look at a weight and grow, for me gains would have to be measured in years rather than weeks or months.
One blessing I could count was that while my muscles grew at a snail’s pace, my strength increased dramatically. In time I was lifting the kind of weight suited to much larger guys—weights I couldn’t imagine touching today. (I will leave out numbers to forestall the attendant cries of “Bullshit!” “Steroids!” and “Lies!”) So, some of the disappointment I had about my slow progress in terms of muscle growth was offset by my ability to lift heavy.
Still, by the time I was in my early 20s I realized that I was never going to possess enough size to be able to stand on a bodybuilding stage like my heroes, and it was disappointing. But I loved to train as much as ever and remained steadfast in my dedication to the gym. Without the self-imposed pressure of having to get to a certain size, I began enjoying my workouts even more, experimenting and improvising as I got to know my body better. And the experimentation continues today, as I constantly refine my workouts to better suit my personal needs and set of tolerances, both physical and mental.
Today, having recently turned 48 and standing 5’9″, I tip the scales at about 165 pounds. On the day the accompanying photos were shot I weighed 161, after about a week and a half of dieting. So, I’m not a big guy and never will be, but rather than continue chasing an unrealistic childhood dream of walking around at more than 200 pounds, I’ve learned to embrace my natural attributes and focus on things like symmetry, proportion, and definition rather than mass. Instead of defying my gene set, I’m rolling with it.
Plus, I believe that staying a bit lighter and leaner is a better formula for longevity. Joint damage I incurred during my heavy-lifting days notwithstanding, I feel as I did in my 20s. My muscles are just as strong, my endurance hasn’t waned, and I think I actually look better now than I did then. A clean, healthy diet has a lot to do with it, but so does training smart— knowing when to push and when to back off, and even when to take rest days, despite wanting nothing more than to get in a good workout.
So, that’s my story, which hopefully provides some insight into how I developed this program, which, I should add, is still a work in progress. Then again, it’s all about progress, isn’t it?
Over the years since my days at Mr. America’s, my training has evolved many times, to accommodate new goals, circumstances, and injuries. Yet at its core, my training is still based on the principles followed by Arnold and Steve Michalik and Joe Weider. It’s volume-based progressive resistance training, which is what pretty much every great bodybuilder has ever followed. While exercises, pacing, and integration of intensity principles have varied, what’s remained consistent all these years is a general formula of five days per week for 75 minutes per workout (although back in my Mr. A days, workouts usually lasted between two and 2 1⁄2 hours—too long!). My favorite body part split is back/biceps, chest/ triceps, and legs/shoulders, with calves and abs trained pretty much every workout.
I realize that this may not sound innovative, but it works, because it’s grounded in time-tested principles. That being said, it’s what you do within the bounds of those principles that makes all the difference, kind of like with jazz. Jazz musicians are trained in music theory and song structure, but what makes their music interesting is not their ability to play songs note for note, but the way they improvise around chord shifts.
And so it is with training. My workouts are often very improvisational. I may switch up exercises here, or throw in a descending set there, but the workouts themselves are foundationally sound. Of course, you can’t start out improvising. Like those jazz musicians, you must become grounded in the basics before you can start improvising.