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There’s something about coming within a hair’s breadth of death that makes one appreciate life that much more, even if one’s life at the time revolves around lifting weights and eating chicken breasts. Roelly Winklaar’s motorcycle accident in February 2014—just one week before the Arnold Classic—forced Winklaar out of that contest, which he was a favorite to win.
Winklaar had a phenomenal 2013, both personally and professionally. He moved back to his birthplace, the tropical paradise of Curaçao to live closer to his family. He won the IFBB Wings of Strength 2013 Chicago Pro. He starred in Generation Iron, attended the red carpet premier in Los Angeles, and shortly thereafter placed seventh at the 2013 Mr. Olympia, his best showing there to date. However, all those accomplishments couldn’t quickly repair the torn hole behind his meniscus or heal the burned flesh from his accident. For that he needed to revamp his training quickly in order to compete at the 2014 Wings of Strength Chicago Pro.
If you’ve watched Winklaar’s training videos on FLEXonline.com you’ll notice that he remains fairly impassive no matter what the workout. His mind is clearly one of his strongest assets in the gym. That mindset came in handy during his recovery, which was done in tandem with his dieting for the Chicago Pro show. One of his recovery secrets is that he walked daily into the ocean, using the saltwater to heal his wounds and clean his back. Winklaar nonchalantly tells me, “Yeah, it hurt pretty bad, but that’s what you have to do to if you want to be the best.”
Winklaar often trains with his younger brother, IFBB pro bodybuilder Quincy. Winklaar decided to do his own training and nutrition in 2013. “It’s hard to do it all yourself,” he said. “I know how my body responds, and I know how to train, but I don’t always follow my own advice. I think it’s better to have someone show you these things.” Whereas his training sessions previously might have lasted anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours, he’s trimmed them down to a mere 30–45 minutes per workout. The trick is that he now does the whole workout with very little rest between sets, somewhere on the order of 30–60 seconds. “It’s really hard. You breathe hard, you can’t talk. As soon as one of us is done with a set, the other one goes right away,” Winklaar says. Not only were his old workouts long, he also hit the gym twice a day. On back day he used to train upper back in the morning and lower back later in the day. Those splits are a thing of the past. He goes in with a routine on paper and knocks it out in less than an hour. And the results speak for themselves.
“In reality, I was wasting a lot of time in the gym,” Winklaar admits. “I am just as strong now, just as big, and I have a lot more time to enjoy life with my family and kids.” He usually alternates between doing a back routine twice a week: one for width, and one for thickness. When I caught up with him after he won the Wings of Strength Chicago Pro, he had been doing back once a week since his accident. He walked me through the workout.
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Winklaar almost always starts with these. He varies his grip by choosing different attachments depending on whether his focus is width or thickness. “I pull and squeeze into my lats and hold the contraction for a second while I arch my back just slightly. I see people using their biceps on this in order to move more weight, but that defeats the purpose,” he says. “I also see people rounding the back, which is wrong.” He advises people to keep as straight a back as possible at the full stretch. For thickness, he uses the V-bar attachment and for width he uses either a straight bar or a straight bar with handles on the ends. If he uses a straight bar attachment, Winklaar will also alternate between shoulder-width overhand and an underhand grip on the bar. Grabbing it with an underhand grip works the biceps more, but it also allows one to do more reps because the biceps are assisting in the lift.
This is one exercise Winklaar can do no matter what gym he visits when he travels to shows for guest posings. “This is one of my favorite exercises. It’s an old-school thickness creator, and you can’t beat it.” He hates the T-bar machines, ranting that they take the abs, hips, and stabilizers out of the movement by forcing you to lie on a pad. Winklaar goes old school and uses a bar in a corner with a weight holding down one end.
He warms up with only two plates but quickly moves to add several more. However, he cautions people to worry less about the weight and more about the form of the movement. “You need to get your body right over the plate itself if you want to pull using the lats and back more than the biceps. You also need to keep the chest down and slightly arch the back. I see guys come up and do what looks like a deadlift or something with hardly any range of motion just so they can say they did five plates or whatever,” Winklaar says. He keeps his elbows pulled in close to his sides and keeps his head neutral as he squeezes his lats on the way up.
Supersets are something the old Winklaar would never have done in the gym. But he’s been converted into a fan of supersets for burning out his lats by alternating two types of pulldowns, one for width, one for thickness. First come a set of 10 wide-grip pulldowns, which can be done with a plain straight bar or one with handles on the ends.
“When I pull down, I bow my elbows a little bit to the front so I can feel the connection in my upper lats better, but everyone is built slightly differently so you have to see what angle feels best for you,” he says. He immediately follows with a set of pulldowns using the V-bar handle, targeting his lower lats. I ask him how far one should lean back, since it seems to vary widely. “I lean back about 30 degrees on this. If you stay upright, you’ll end up working biceps and shoulders, not lats. But if you lean back too far, you can’t even feel your lats working.” Winklaar is convinced the wide-grip pulldowns have been key in giving him a wide V taper onstage.
Not all gyms are stocked well enough to have a machine pullover, so using dumbbells is an alternative to a machine. Winklaar does 15–20 reps of this isolation machine (coincidentally, a favorite of Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of his heroes) last in his workout. “This exercise I do because I love to go all the way back and feel the stretch that I get in my lats at the end of a workout,” he says. He cautions that it’s really easy to make one of three mistakes: power through the movement by using the biceps to pull the handle down, hurt your shoulder by extending the machine beyond your range of mobility, or use it as a chest exercise by employing the pecs to move the weight, not the lats.
Winklaar does all that work in less than an hour. And he now drives a sensible Hyundai instead of a motorcycle. Hopefully, we won’t need to wait for more death-defying incidents to see what training changes he has in store for building an even bigger back in 2015. FLEX